Wednesday, 31 July 2013

A new addition to the family

And then there were six ...

First copies of my new Valerius adventure Sword of Rome arrived today and I think it looks fantastic.

'The story I now commence is rich in vicissitudes, grim with warfare, torn by civil strife, a tale of horror even during times of peace.' Tacitus, The Histories

The year is AD 68. Emperor Nero's erratic and bloody reign is in its death throes when Gaius Valerius Verrens is dispatched to Rome on a mission that will bring it to a close. With Nero dead, the city holds its breath and awaits the arrival his successor, Servius Sulpicius Galba, governor of Hispania. The Empire prays for peace, but it prays in vain. Galba promises stability and prosperity, but his rule begins with a massacre and ends only months later in chaos and carnage. This will become known as the Year of the Four Emperors, a time of civil war which will tear Rome apart and test Valerius's skills and loyalties to their very limit. Fortunate to survive Galba's fall, Valerius is sent on a mission by Rome's new Emperor, Otho, to his old friend Vitellius, commander of the armies of the north. Vitellius's legions are on the march, and only Valerius can persuade him to halt them before the inevitable confrontation. In an epic adventure that will take him the length and breadth of a divided land, the one-armed Roman fights to stay alive and stave off a bloodbath as he is stalked by the most implacable enemy he has ever faced.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Was Caligula as mad and bad as he's portrayed? The jury's still out.

The excellent and entertaining historian Mary Beard's BBC 2 documentary on the bad (possibly), but not necessarily mad Roman Emperor Caligula was great TV, despite the paucity of evidence available to her (or anyone else). Ms Beard brought all her academic learning, mild eccentricity and jaunty presenting skills to bear as she sought to rehabilitate the Emperor with the worst reputation of any of the Julio-Claudians, and in a list that includes Nero that's not bad going.

But did she bring us anything new? Unfortunately, I think not. Basically all that impressive insight and interpretation is speculative theory and almost all of it has been said before.

Of course Caligula's reputation suffered at the hands of the ancient historians, and the modern entertainment industry has capitalised on it. Any contemporary sources have been lost and the histories were written by men with their own political axes to grind sixty, eighty and a hundred and fifty years after the event. Tacitus is the Daily Mail of Roman historians, always interesting, but the hidden, and often not quite so hidden agenda, is always there. Suetonius obviously has his own sources, but he also picks and chooses from Tacitus, sometimes adds in an extra detail, a claim or an allegation, and lays it out like an old-fashioned Times, the newspaper of record, though the record is infuriatingly devoid of a timeline. Dio Cassius (think the late News of the World), cherrypicks from both, embellishes with a twist of spice (A squadron of war elephants invading Britain with Claudius? Please!) and a little outrageous, usually unattributed, speculation. It's only by reading between the lines and comparing them that you have a chance of getting anything like a balanced portrait, and even that's skewed by other factors.

My take on Little Boots?

Did Caligula make his horse Incitatus a consul? Of course not. He's not on the list for a start, but equally, Caligula as Emperor had an enormous respect for the institutions of Rome. He may have said it as a joke or a threat, but I'm certain it didn't happen. Mad or not, he may have had a sense of humour.

Did he spend countless millions to build a bridge of boats from Baiae to Puetoli in the Bay of Naples to outdo Poseidon? Probably. Who could make up something as daft as that and there's enough detail about the ships and the scale of the event to believe it's true.

Did he sleep with his sister? I think the jury's out. They lived in a different sexual world and Caligula had been brought up on Capri in the court of Tiberius where the Emperor seems to have gone to any lengths in an attempt to rekindle his waning sexual prowess. His social norms are unlikely to have been the same as ours.

Did he have thousands of people, mostly innocent, killed in horrible ways? The numbers are up for debate, but there's plenty of individual detail in all the histories that has the ring of truth. Why would Suetonius devote so many lines to the horrific, but undoubtedly fascinating death of a lowly animal dealer with his hand in the till (it's all in my scintillating debut novel) unless it happened? The other side of the coin is that Suetonius tells us that Caligula's kindly uncle Claudius had just as many executed or assassinated, at the instigation of his greedy and manipulative band of freedmen.

It's an undoubted cliche that history is written by the victors, but after researching six Emperors for seven Roman novels I find the view difficult to argue with. Historians can only take the evidence, both physical and written, and use a mixture of learning, common sense and, ideally, a healthy dose of scepticism, to interpret them. Anything else is dangerously close to rewriting history. Fortunately, Mary Beard managed to stay on the right side of the line.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Eat your heart out McGonagall

I was down in Jedburgh a couple of days ago for the sad, but rather uplifting occasion of my much loved Aunt Ina's funeral. She was laid to rest at the town cemetery, a beautiful spot, just behind the castle and overlooking the River Jed. She lies within a few feet of my dad and about half a dozen relatives and close to many of her friends.

When I visited my dad's grave I was reminded yet again how much he loved this Border countryside and particularly the beautiful Jed valley, where he liked to walk and where he taught me how to cast a fly and helped me catch my first trout.

Just before he was taken ill I was overtaken by a sudden and totally illogical urge to record the land around the town in verse. Illogical because I'd never written poetry before and had no idea whether I could. By the time I finished the first, he'd already passed away and I've always regretted not having the  opportunity to read it to him. I think he would have liked it, because every name would have held memories for him, but he'd probably have laughed and said it was rubbish.

Much of it is in local Borders dialect you may find indecipherable, and some of it doesn't rhyme, but I think it captures the essence of the place and it's probably the only poem I'll ever write; so here it is.


Fair Jed your sylvan water flows,
o’er peat and stone
from whence you rose.
Neath Millmoor Rig and Weasel Hill,
 where roe deer stoop
 to drink their fill,
past Soothdean’s fort 
and Soothdean’s mill,
a bubbling, tumbling Border rill.
A flash of blue,
nae, turquoise, bright,
shy kingfisher is caught in flight;
in shallow pools,
the salmon writhe,
a frantic prelude
to new life.
Through forest glades,
past peel and tower,
in valley broad you
feel your power,
storm fed by every
spring and burn, 
men fear the day
your mood will turn.
By sheep filled pastures
lords hold dear
 that once played host
 to sword and spear,
where reivers camped
and warden trod,
 fore bluid was shed 
on Redeswire’s sod.
Camptoon awaits,
and Mossburnford, 
close by once rode
that fatal lord
o’ Linthaughlee
whae, faithful to 
his king’s last plea, 
took heart and soul
and set baith free.
Grey Ferniehurst
hame o’ the Kerrs,
the crumbling rocks 
of mighty scaurs
Tree shrouded pools
where otters play, 
and fairy bowers
where lovers lay;
 you hae them a’.
At Tammy White’s,
 the bairns still swim
and leap frae Fourth Brig at a whim.
Then on to Jethart’s
noble lie, 
whence oft was cast an errant fly. 
Three caulds you’ll cross,
when you reach there - 
Allars, Glebe and 
Anna fair.
And David’s Abbey’s
muckle wa’s,
where black clad monks
once walked the ha’s, 
til Henry’s knights in a’
their splendour left 
their mark in flame and horror.
Past Mary’s Hoose 
and mills now lost
to Riverside
and Jammie Scott’s.
Neath Shoogly Brig
your waters flow,
through gentle glides
they now will go 
until they reach that sacred spot, 
where fair Jed ends,
two rivers marry
and on its way
the Teviot carries
your essence to the sea.

Doug Jackson 2010

The Abbey at Jedburgh, with the river in the foreground