Monday, 29 July 2013

Does the Historical Novel Really Need Rescuing?

I recently saw an article on the "Public Books" website which sets out to ask why it is that the historical novel needs to be "rescued" (, and identifies Hilary Mantel as the rescuer. The article is by an American academic, Rachel Teukolsky, and takes as its starting point a number of reviews of Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. Such reviews insist on "the embarrassing reputation of historical novels," before praising these specific books as the sole exceptions that redeem an entire genre (in fact Teukolsky cites only one such review - that by James Wood, which I commented on in my blog-post of 6/5/2012 - and recognises that its claims are overstated).

I certainly share Teukolsky's admiration for Mantel's writing, and much of her article is taken up with a detailed analysis of Mantel's "close third person" narrative technique. This analysis is packed with insight, making it a text that I would recommend to every writer, as well as every student, of historical fiction.

I have a problem, however, with her conceptualisation of "the historical novel" more generally. She catalogues many of the characteristics of badly written historical fiction (the tendency of authors to "show off" their research in unnecessary detail; "static formulae;" "over-familiar character types;" the twin dangers of romanticising a past that never was and creating historical characters with modern, "politically-correct" opinions). This should be helpful, and indeed is helpful (I shall certainly have it to hand when reviewing my own early drafts), but is Teukolsky really justified in tarring the whole of historical fiction with this broadest of brushes?

I had to ask myself how it was that she had never read William Golding's The Inheritors, The Spire or Rites of Passage; or Akira Yoshimura's Shipwrecks; or Sarah Dunant's Sacred Hearts? Then I re-read her article and realised, with some surprise, that she almost certainly has read them: she just does not consider them to be "historical novels."

"Not every novel set in the past counts as a 'historical novel,' she tells us. "To do so, a work must also depict world-changing public events like wars, natural disasters or political struggles." This, I must confess, is a "defining feature" that is quite new to me. I could still ask whether she has read Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian or The Abyss, which do meet this criterion. I don't doubt for a moment that she has, but she probably considers them, like the works listed above, to be "literary novels," and therein lies the real basis of my disagreement with her. It is why she can, without embarrassment, include Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter as a historical novel, whilst excluding Shipwrecks; and it is why I can, without embarrassment, identify myself as a historical novelist.

For commentators such as Rachel Teukolsky and James Wood, "historical fiction" and "literary fiction" are, or ought to be, mutually exclusive categories. For Hilary Mantel to have succeeded in writing novels that inhabit both categories simultaneously is, for them, little short of miraculous. For me, Mantel's writing is remarkable, inspiring, but not uniquely so. It stands in a tradition that also includes Yourcenar and Yoshimura, Golding and Graves, and other writers of their time and of ours. It is a tradition that can and should inspire those writers who have not yet published.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from and

Friday, 26 July 2013

Historical Fiction and Archaeology: Characters from Dust

In 1996, archaeologists excavating in a gravel quarry at Stanway, near Colchester, discovered a series of burials with rich grave-goods, dating between 40 and 60 AD. They were named after the objects found with them: "The Warrior;" "The Inkwell Burial;" "The Brooches Burial;" "The Mirror Burial;" The Doctor's Grave."

The burial rite (interment of cremated remains with grave-goods in wooden burial chambers placed within ditched enclosures) is British rather than Roman, but most of these people were buried at a time when Camulodunum (Colchester) was already the capital of the Roman province of Britannia, and the objects buried with them include Roman pottery, glass and wine amphorae. Prior to the Roman invasion of 43 AD, Camulodunum had been the capital of the Catuvellauni tribe, and these graves are rich enough to suggest that their occupants may have been close associates, or even relatives, of the local king, Cunobelinus.

The "Doctor's Grave" is so-called because of the surgical instruments found with the remains, but the burial also included a board-game; a set of bronze and iron rods which may have been used for divination; a jet bead; a wine amphora; and a cup with traces of the herb, mugwort, possibly a herbal remedy. In his report of the excavation, the archaeologist, Philip Crummy, suggested that the individual may have been a druid:

The "Doctor's Grave" under excavation (Photo: Colchester Archaeological Trust).

"The so-called druid may have been a doctor. The tea-strainer contains Artemisia pollen, which is commonly associated with herbal remedies. Healing is an attribute given to druids. We don't know what the metal rods are for, but we think they could have been used for divining. The question is whether all that stacks up to him being a druid. It could be - it was certainly somebody special."

          The surgical instruments (photo: Colchester Archaeological Trust).

In my novel, An Accidental King, the character of the druid, Adiantos, is directly based on this discovery:

"Adiantos touched my arm... 'Come, I need to talk to you.' Together we slipped out of the song-house. We sat down together on the grass, Adiantos fingering the jet bead he wore on a thong around his neck. By this time the stars were emerging in a darkening indigo sky. He took a copper rod from the bag and handed it to me... 'The question is, does this omen...presage bloodshed in our land?' I threw the rod into the air, and watched as it landed in front of us...It was pointing south-east. He pointed up at the sky. There, shimmering red, directly in the line of the copper rod, was Mars. Not much doubt about that."

Objects from the "Doctor's Grave," including the gaming board and possible divination rods. Photo: Colchester Museum,

In the novel, Adiantos is married to Cunobelinus's sister, Resilla, who surrenders Camulodunum to the Romans following the defeat of her nephews, Caratacos and Togodumnus, at the crossing points of the Medway and Thames. Adiantos goes on to cooperate  with the Roman surgeons in treating the wounded on both sides, and desperately wishes to prevent further bloodshed.

We will never know the real name of the Colchester "doctor" (the remains are so fragmentary that even the gender of the individual cannot be determined) but s/he clearly belonged to a Catuvellaunian aristocracy who were already significantly "Romanised" before the invasion of 43 AD, and who probably went on to benefit from new status of Camulodunum as the capital of the Roman province.

Mark Patton's novel, An Accidental King, is published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from and

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The Catuarus Ring: Royal Names in the 1st Century AD

In 2009, when I first began the research for An Accidental King, I visited Fishbourne Roman Palace for the first time in more than twenty years. It was a logical starting point, given that I was writing a book on Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus and believed (though this cannot be stated with certainty) that the palace had been his home. Much of it was as I remembered it from my childhood, but one object in the museum stood out, which had not been there when I last visited. It is a simple gold signet ring with the name "Tiberius Claudius Catuarus," and it had been found in 1995, 200 metres to the east of the palace.

We don't know who this "Catuarus" was. He is not named in any of the historical sources, or on any known inscription. The tantalising possibility for me was that he might well have been Cogidubnus's son. If this is the case, then his father was not following conventional Roman naming customs, but then there is nothing "conventional" about Cogidubnus's own name either.

Noble Roman names have three elements, a praenomen, nomen and cognomen, as in "Gaius Julius Caesar." The first of these is a "given" name (although in practice a boy often inherited even this part from his father - the Gaius Julius Caesar who conquered Gaul was the fourth man in his family to bear this name), the second two are family names. If Cogidubnus was a prince of the royal line of the Regnenses, his father might have been Verica, Tincomarus or Eppillus. An alternative suggestion is that he was the same man as the "Togodumnus" mentioned as the son of the Catuvellaunian king, Cunobelinus.

Cogidubnus's name, however, does not help us in identifying his father. "Cogidubnus" is a British given name, whilst "Tiberius" and "Claudius" are taken from the name of the emperor who conquered Britain (Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, known to us as the Emperor Claudius). It can hardly be believed that Cogidubnus was a blood relative of Claudius and, in any case, the taking of a patron's praenomen and nomen is a  common convention for freed slaves (the same emperor had a favoured slave named Narcissus who, on being freed, became "Tiberius Claudius Narcissus"). Cogidubnus may have adopted his name without fully understanding its significance. It would not have been lost on anyone in Rome. In naming his own son, Cogidubnus might well have given him a name in the usual British way ("Catuarus" is a British, not a Roman name), adding his own praenomen and nomen.

One question that has often vexed writers of historical fiction set in Roman times is that of how people would have addressed one another. How widely used was the praenomen? Was it used only within the family (as Christian names generally were in Victorian times, at least in "polite" society), or among a wider circle of friends, as we use first names today? A clue comes in a recently translated document, The Colloquia of the Hermeneumata Pseudodositheana (trans. E. Dickey, Cambridge University Press, 2012). Essentially a phrasebook for teaching Greek to Latin speakers and Latin to Greek speakers, it includes a dialogue between two friends who meet in the street and discuss a law-suit:

"...the master of the house, going forth, met his friend, and said 'Hello Gaius!' and he kissed him, and Gaius returned the greeting, saying 'May you be well, Lucius, do I really see you?"

It seems that, to his friends, Cogidubnus would probably have been "Tiberius."

A replica of the Catuarus ring is on display at Fishbourne Roman Palace, where I shall be giving a reading on the afternoon of Saturday 10th August (4.00 PM).

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from and

Sunday, 14 July 2013

The Winchester Hoard: "Crown Jewels" of a Pre-Roman Kingdom?

In a field near Winchester in 2000, an amateur metal-detectorist, Kevan Egan, made what has been described as "the most important discovery of Iron Age gold objects" in Britain for fifty years.

There are two distinct, but clearly matching, sets of jewellery in the hoard, each comprising a "necklace torc;" a pair of gold brooches, in one case still linked by the original gold chain; and a bracelet. One torc is larger than the other, so it has often been assumed that the two sets of jewellery were intended to be worn by a man and a woman.

The brooches are of a type that is recognisably north European, and which can be dated between 80 and 30 BC. The necklace torcs, on the other hand, show an unusual blend of north European "Celtic" taste and Graeco-Roman technology. The "loop-in-loop" chain construction of the torcs, and the soldering that has been used for some of the detail, are techniques that were commonplace in Greek and Roman workshops of the period, but unknown amongst craftsmen working north of the Alps.

No Greek or Roman, however, would have worn objects such as these: they are too large, ostentatious and (in our terms) "blingy" for classical tastes. This has led J.D.Hill and other experts to suggest ( that the torcs must have been made specially as some form of "diplomatic" gift. The diplomacy involved must surely have been that between Julius Caesar and his entourage, on the one hand, and the princes of the Atrebates and Belgae (some of whom later seem to have been absorbed into the British Regnenses) on the other.

The jewellery was not found in the context of a settlement or shrine. They may have been buried as some form of offering at a significant location in the landscape (on top of a small hill). The torcs show evidence of extensive wear, so they may have remained in use for a considerable period of time. No evidence was found in association with them that would indicate the date of burial. We have the names of some high status individuals of the time who might have worn this jewellery (Commius, Tincomarus, Epillos, Verica, even Cogidubnus himself) but, as J.D.Hill and his colleagues have said, " is just as likely that other, totally unknown individuals buried the hoard." What can hardly be doubted, however, is that the objects were worn by people who were their contemporaries, and who moved within the same social and cultural milieu.

The most tantalising clue is a coin of Verica, stamped "CF" (usually interpreted as "son of Commius"), showing an object which could well be one of these torcs.

This was certainly what I had in mind when, in writing An Accidental King, I had Cogidubnus wearing "the royal torc of the Regnenses" as he rode to meet Caratacos. Given the uncertainties, I did not describe it in any detail, but it was one of the objects that I pointed out in the British Museum last Friday, as I gave a brief tour as part of the London launch of the novel.

Mark Patton's novel, An Accidental King, is published by Crooked Cat Publishing, and can be purchased from and

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Classicianus: the man who saved Britain for Rome?

In 1885, workmen on London's District Line close to Tower Hill unearthed a block of stone with a Latin inscription. It appeared to be part of a funerary monument that had been reused in the construction of London's defensive wall in the 4th Century AD. It matched a fragment that had been discovered more than thirty years earlier. A further fragment of the same tombstone came to light in 1935. Placing the fragments together brings us face-to-face with one of the largest Roman funerary monuments ever found in Britain. Who could have merited commemoration on this scale?

The inscription can be translated as follows:

"To the spirits of the departed, (and) of Gaius Julius Alpinus Classicianus, son of Gaius, of the Fabian Voting Tribe...Procurator of the Province of Britain. Julia Pacata I[ndiana], daughter of Indus, his wife had this built."

Museums in the UK have many Roman tombstones with similar inscriptions, but it is very rare that they can be matched up with individuals known to us from the historical record. This one can.

The procurator was, in effect, the finance minister of a Roman province. Like the military governor, he reported directly to the emperor, in this case Nero. This particular procurator arrived in Britain in 61 AD, in the aftermath of Boudicca's revolt. His predecessor, Catus Decianus, had deserted his post and fled to Gaul. Classicianus would have arrived to find London, Colchester and St Albans razed to the ground, and tensions still running high. The governor, Suetonius Paulinus, was engaged in punitive actions against the British tribes, determined to take revenge for the destruction of the Roman cities.

Classicianus seems to have believed that diplomacy, rather than revenge, was the best policy, and he made his views known to the emperor. The historian, Tacitus, writes scathingly of his intervention:

"Julius Classicianus, who had been sent as successor to Catus, and was at variance with Suetonius, let private animosities interfere with the public interest, and had spread an idea that [the Britons] ought to wait for a new governor who, having neither the anger of an enemy nor the pride of a conqueror, would deal mercifully with those who surrendered."

Nero sent his freedman, Polyclitus, to hold an enquiry into the circumstances surrounding the revolt. Shortly afterwards, Suetonius Paulinus was recalled to Rome, not in disgrace exactly, but neither did he receive the Triumphal Ornaments he might have expected. The new governor, Publius Petronius Turpilianus, seems to have agreed with Classicianus's policy of quiet pacification. Britain's place within the empire was secured. The outcome could have been very different.

Classicianus was, by origin, a Gaul from the Moselle Valley. The culture of his parents and grandparents might not have been so very different from that of the native Britons, and he may even have been able to converse with them in something approximating to their own language. Perhaps this was what gave him the empathy that allowed him to build bridges with the native population, where his predecessors had stirred up so much resentment?

A procurator would normally have served for four or five years before returning to Rome. Classicianus, however, must have died in office. Did he fall victim to an infectious disease, was his death an accident, or was he murdered? We will probably never know.

He features as a character in my novel, An Accidental King, and, as one of the launch events for the book, I will point out his monument, and a number of other objects that feature in it, at the British Museum on 12th July. We will meet in the Great Court at 6.15 PM, beside the naked equestrian statue in the south-east corner. Afterwards we will adjourn to Truckles in Pied Bull Yard (directions at, where I will give a reading. Admission to the British Museum is free. Welcome drinks on arrival at Truckles, cash bar thereafter.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.