Thursday, 20 March 2014

The Roman Conquest of Scotland: Guest Post by Nancy Jardine

Hello, Mark, I'm delighted to visit your blog once again as part of a mini launch-tour. This time it's for the release of book three of my Celtic Fervour series, After Whorl: Donning Double Cloaks, the official launch being on 25th March 2014.

The novel continues the stories of Brennus of Garrigill, Ineda of Marske and the Roman Tribune Gaius Livanus Valerius (the protagonists who featured in the earlier books), but the action takes place over a wider geographical area. It covers a period of around a decade, beginning in 74 AD, in Brigantia. The novel ends in the territory of the Taexali, in north-east Scotland, in the footsteps of the northern campaigns of Gnaeus Julius Agricola as Roman Governor of Britannia.

Agricola, as depicted in Georgian Bath. Photo: Ostrich (image is in the public domain).

During the tenure of Agricola's predecessor, Frontinus, Roman expansion within Brigantia seems to have been slow and steady. Treaties between Rome and Brigantia may have allowed the Brigantes to lead relatively normal lives, so long as they refrained from attacking Roman installations and personnel, and paid the agreed dues to Rome.

When Agricola became Governor in 78 AD, however, he seems to have been far less willing to leave the Brigantes alone, and his campaigns in northern Britain are recorded by his son-in-law, the historian, Tacitus. I have to be totally honest, and declare that I'd been waiting for a few years to write something about Agricola's campaigns in my home area of north-east Scotland. If I was going to retain the characters from the earlier books, however, that meant that they would have to do a fair bit of travelling. Conveniently for my plot, the range of hills known as Beinn Na Ciche (Bennachie), located in what was Taexali territory, is a prime contender as the site of the Battle of Mons Graupius, described in Tacitus's biography of Agricola. It may come as no surprise to readers of the earlier books in the series that the battle between the Roman Empire and a Celtic leader named Calgach is near Durno, opposite the foothills of Beinn Na Ciche.

                         Beinn Na Ciche. Photo: Nancy Jardine.

Reading about the routes taken by Agricola's legions on his northern campaigns, and learning about the extensive Gask Ridge Forts, which were built in north-east Scotland, was totally fascinating. It made even more of an impact since I've regularly travelled on the A90, a road which overlays many parts of the original "Roman" road to the North.

Key sites in northern Britain. Image: Nancy Jardine.

During the writing process, my journeys from Aberdeen to Glasgow and Edinburgh passed close to the areas where the so-called "glen blocker" forts were built, and I found it easy to imagine Agricola's legions tramping their way northwards. I could imagine how awesome (and I use that word with its true meaning) the sight must have been for the Celtic farmers who dwelt on the relatively flat, fertile plains between the glen-mouth openings and the sea.

When I read about the Roman fortress of Inchtuthil, I knew I had to find some way of including it in the novel. Reading about the hurried withdrawal from the facility, and about the way in which the area seems to have been swiftly stripped of most of the useful items, was interesting, but I was even more impressed when I read about the quantity of iron nails that had been buried in hastily-dug pits. The hiding of three quarters of a million hand-made nails, made in specified sizes for various uses, was astounding. I found myself itching to write a scene in which the wattle from the wooden buildings in the fortress of Pinata Castra (Inchtuthil) was set ablaze, the wooden posts removed and dumped onto waiting carts, the poles intended for reuse somewhere to the south. I could envisage the last cartloads of useful goods heading out of the fortress gates to begin their journey southwards. I would have liked to have written about some of the Roman soldiers smashing pottery to smithereens, whilst others filled up the drainage gullies and sewers with gravel. Sadly, this probably happened too late for inclusion in this novel, although I don't rule out including it in book four, or even book five. What I did decide, after reading about the Roman Corstopitum (the border country between present-day Scotland and England) and Inchtuthil, was that the provision of metal to the Roman forts around Britannia would form an important element of the plot for After Whorl: Donning Double Cloaks.

Investigations of the "glen blocker" and Gask Ridge forts continue as I write this post, and every new revelation I read leaves me wanting to know more. Historical accuracy is very important to me, but I have constantly to tell myself that I'm writing a work of fiction, and that my writing cannot always include the newest interpretations of the past. I hope that my readers for book three of the series both appreciate it as my vision of what might have happened in northern Britannia in the 1st Century AD, and also enjoy it as a good adventure.

Ardoch Roman Fort on the Gask Ridge. Photo: Dr Richard Murray (licensed under CCA).

Remains of a Roman watch-tower at Kirkhill on the Gask Ridge. Photo: Jackie Proven (licensed under CCA).

After Whorl: Donning Double Cloaks is published by Crooked Cat Publications, and is available for pre-order from Amazon.

Nancy Jardine's novels can be found in paperback and e-book formats from Amazon UK, Amazon USA, Crooked Cat Bookstore, Waterstones, Barnes & Noble, W.H. Smith and other book retailers.

Nancy can be found at the following places: Blog Website Facebook Goodreads About Me LinkedIn Twitter: @nansjar.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Voice in Historical Fiction: The Limits of Realism

Some months ago, my novel, An Accidental King, was nominated for the Folio Prize. It was not included on the final shortlist of eight books, from which the winner will be announced later today: a list that includes no works of historical fiction, and only one novel by a British author (Jane Gardam's Last Friends). I did, however, get to attend the festival organised in association with the prize this past weekend, to hear the judges, members of the Folio Prize Academy and shortlisted authors talking about the art of writing, and how great writing is achieved.

The opening session was on "Voice," and the panellists included Lavinia Greenlaw, George Saunders, Erica Wagner and Ali Smith. There can be no story without voice, Smith insisted, and we discussed the "voice" of the book as well as those of individual characters.

George Saunders identified realism as a "default option" for our times, and several of the speakers at the festival cited George Eliot's realist masterpiece, Middlemarch, as an inspiration for their own work. Saunders, however, frequently finds himself "pushing against" realism, discovering, as he writes, that "realism isn't real." He, and other speakers, also talked about "constraint" as a valuable discipline in writing. At one end of the scale, this "constraint" may simply involve seeing the world exclusively through the eyes of one character; whilst at the other end it can involve a variety of "Oulipian" experiments.

Within historical fiction, few writers have attempted to push at the limits of realism quite so forcefully as Marguerite Yourcenar, whose work I discussed in an earlier blog-post. Her pursuit of realism involved a real constraining discipline, as outlined in her essay, "Tone and Language in the Historical Novel," reproduced in the volume, That Mighty Sculptor, Time.

This discipline led her, in her novel, Memoirs of Hadrian, to avoid dialogue altogether (since we cannot know what the speech patterns at Hadrian's court would have sounded like) and, in The Abyss (set in 16th Century Brussels), to model the dialogue closely on that provided by the historical sources.

When I came to write An Accidental King, I made the conscious decision to allow myself liberties that Yourcenar denied herself. Judging that the Latin spoken at Cogidubnus's British court is unlikely to have been as formal as that of the Roman court, that it was probably influenced by the Roman military presence in Britain, and by the speech of the mariners who sailed in and out of Chichester Harbour, I took my models for dialogue from sources that Yourcenar explicitly rejected: Petronius's novel, The Satyricon, for example, and the comedies of Plautus and Terence. It is realism of a sort, at least in its aspirations, but, as Saunders says, it must always be remembered that "realism is not real."

Some authors respond to this epiphany by abandoning the pursuit of realism altogether. Bernardine Evaristo, for example, in The Emperor's Babe, freely makes use of modern idiom in imagining life in London in the 3rd Century AD, but she also works Latin terms into her poetic text:

"To form an attachment is to risk its loss,
Is it not? I have been looking for a nice,
Simplex, quiet, fidelis girl, a girl
Who will not betray me with affairs,
Who will not wear me out with horrid fights,
Unlike my pater's subsequent three wives,
Who made my life hell, and his,
Who were of the hedonistic breed
Of aristocratic matronae, determined to compete
With the husband in all spheres,
Ever boastful of their sexual shenanigans,
Humiliating the dear, gentle man in public ..."

As a poet, writing a novel in verse, Evaristo works under her own constraints, which are different from Yourcenar's or mine. The result is a very different novel, echoing very different voices (both Evaristo's own, and that of her protagonist, Zuleika).

Several of the writers at the festival also spoke about the "contract" that exists between each individual writer and his or her readers, and one of the challenges for any writer is to develop a voice that is open to new ideas and influences, at the same time as remaining true to its essence, which lies at the heart of that relationship.

Italo Calvino, in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, goes even further:

"Think what it would be like to have a work conceived from outside the self, a work that would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own, but to give speech to that which has no language, to the bird perching on the edge of the gutter, to the tree in spring and the tree in fall, to stone, to cement, to plastic ... Was this not, perhaps, what Ovid was aiming at, when he wrote about the continuity of forms?"

Margaret Atwood, similarly, leaves the last words of her book on writing, Negotiating with the Dead, to Ovid:

"... who has the Sibyl of Cumae speak not only for herself, but also, we suspect, for him, and for the hopes of all writers - 'But still the fates will leave me my voice, and by my voice I shall be known' (Metamorphoses 307.40)."

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

Saturday, 1 March 2014

British "Hostages" and "Supplicants" at Rome in the Age of Augustus

When, in 14 AD, the Emperor Augustus died, two bronze pillars were placed in front of his mausoleum, giving details of his political career, public benefactions and military accomplishments. Written in the first person, this Res Gestae Divi Augusti (Deeds of the Divine Augustus) declared that he had taken power in a Rome built of clay, and left a city built in marble.

The Emperor Augustus, who reigned from 27 BC to 14 AD. Photo: Till Niermann (licensed under GNU).

The Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome. Photo: Ryarwood (licensed under CCA).

The bronze pillars do not survive, but several marble copies of the inscription were made, including one which has survived from the Temple of Augustus at Roma at Ankyra (Ankara, Turkey).

Copy of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti from Ankara. Photo: Berolini, Weidmann & Mommsen (image is in the Public Domain).

It lists a number of foreign rulers to whom he had granted refuge as "supplicants" (supplices), including two British kings, one named Dubnovellaunus, whose coins are found in Kent; and another whose name is incomplete, but who has often been identified with Tincomarus, a son of Commius whose coins are found in Hampshire and West Sussex.

British coin of Tincomarus. Photo: PHGCOM (image is in the Public Domain).

These rulers had been defeated by British rivals, and had been granted refuge in Rome. Others who followed the same path at a later stage included Adminius, one of the sons of Cunobelinus (Shakespeare's "Cymbeline," and quite possibly the man who had displaced Dubnovellaunus), and Verica (possibly the brother of Tincomarus). Much like the Soviet defectors in Cold War Britain and America, they are likely to have provided both intelligence and propaganda value. Verica seems even to have provided the Emperor Claudius with a pretext for invasion.

There had almost certainly been Britons resident in Rome since the time of Julius Caesar. His accounts of his military expeditions to Britain in 55 BC and 54 BC state that he took "many hostages" (obsides). We don't know the names of any of these, but they are likely to have been aristocratic men and women with close links to the royal lineages of Britain. Although technically "hostages," held against tribute to be paid, there is no record of any such individuals being harmed as a result of their relatives' failure to pay.

Prominent "hostages" from other territories in Augustan Rome included Cleopatra Selene II, the daughter of Cleopatra & Mark Antony, and Juba II, the son of the deposed king of Mauretania. Augustus eventually gave Selene in marriage to Juba, and set him up as client king to rule his father's territory. Young enough to be impressed by the grandeur that was Rome, yet old enough to provide useful intelligence, and perhaps to teach others the languages and customs of their people, these "hostages" were conspicuously well-treated, fostered into the homes of senior Roman senators or even (as with Selene and Juba) into the imperial household itself.

Lygia, the fictional heroine of Henryk Sienkiewicz's Nobel Prize-winning novel, Quo Vadis, is just such a hostage, raised in the household of Aulus Plautius, the Roman conqueror of Britain.

Illustration of Lygia leaving the house of Plautius. Picture: Alfred Noyer Studio (image is in the Public Domain).

Three or four generations separate the hostages taken by Julius Caesar and the royal dynasties which held power in Britain immediately prior to the Claudian invasion of 43 AD. It is fascinating to speculate on the intercourse that might have taken place between Britain and Rome during the intervening period. Did Cunobelinus's father or grandfather return from Rome to claim his kingdom, bringing with him a taste for Roman wine? Might other sons and grandsons of Caesar's hostages have spent time at Cunobelinus's court as ambassadors or merchants, perhaps returning to Rome with Catuvellaunian or Trinovantian brides? How much information might have been gathered from these various obsides and supplices, and presented to Aulus Plautius before he embarked for Britain?

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