Monday, October 19, 2009

Hollywood Historicals

This is a frequent topic of conversation among historians and writers alike. The question is (in a very simplified form), is it good for Hollywood to be making historical films and are those that have been made any good?

This may turn out to be more of an opinion as I stand on my virtual soap box. I have a confession to make...wait for it...

...I am addicted to historical films. Yes, yes. I know. A good historian owning up to this is, well, death. However, I am a writer and storyteller before historian and I state it proudly (it used to be the other way around!). That is not to say that I do not want historical accuracy but it does mean that in fiction or movies, story must come first, then the other bits and pieces. I've already jumped into the topic, I suppose. There are constant complaints from some folks, mainly historians, that movies are horribly innacurate when it comes to the histories they are portraying. There are far too many historical films for me to look at all of them here but there are a few I would like to mention.

If you have seen them, who could forget the films that were made in the heyday of monumental production; films like Ben Hur and Cleopatra, 300 Spartans and Alexander the Great, or Quo Vadis and The Fall of the Roman Empire. Or other films like Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) and Ivanhoe.

The above films were widely popular in their day and most remain so, remain 'Classics'. When I began to really get in to history I was reading everything I could get my hands on but also watching every old film I could find - anything to immerse myself in the past. Now, the thing about the older films to a young viewer is that the film quality might not be that great or the costumes and fight scenes a little cheezy. Indeed they also contained many historical innacuracies, be they with regards to the clothing or armour or historical personages themselves. However, they still manage to draw us in because they have good, human stories, powerful stories that we can relate to, even now, built on themes of love, revenge, triumph in the face of incredible odds etc. Many was the history professor who looked on the older films with great fondness. Who can blame them?

However, some folks who claim to be great fans of the older films look with disdain on today's flashy renditions of these ancient tales. I'll never forget one professor who, upon hearing the excited talk of his students about Braveheart, sneared and said it was complete rubbish and totally inaccurate. Inaccurate it may be in some ways but it got most of the students excited and pumped about history. The medieval setting and the story of love and vengeance and a fight for freedom all resonated with the students and I found that to be quite a triumph on the part of the film makers. The same goes for the much-criticized Robin Hood Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner. However bad some things might have been (including the accent) that movie sparked something in many young people and prompted them to go into medieval studies, to read more about the 12th century and the crusades (a topic we could still learn a lot from in today's world).

One of the most recent, successful examples of a Hollywood historical making a huge mark is Gladiator. This film resonated with folks across the world and sparked mass interest in ancient history and ancient Rome and was followed by masses of new documentaries. Most importantly, in my opinion, is that it made such an impact that enrollment in university classics programs more than doubled at some institutions. That certainly can't be a bad thing. One fellow said to me after the movie, "Ach, it was ok. The Romans didn't really fight like that though." Fair enough I suppose, but really, who cares? It was a fantastic visual and emotional journey that grabbed most viewers by the throat. Even the film's music (by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard) has provoked a new style of vocalization in movie music.

This is, of course, my opinion but as a historian, if it hooks people and gets them interested in history, it's great! As a writer, I am happy to be immersed in ancient and medieval settings, to be inspired by a good yarn and to enter a world that is now out of reach. I wish they would make more films like Gladiator, 300, King Arthur, Alexander and Tristan and Isolde.

After all, art truly inspires art and in this intensely visual and modern age that we live in, it is more important than ever to maintain an excited interest in the past in order that we may continue to learn from it.

Photo: Interior shot of the North African amphitheatre at Thugga (Tunisia) which inspired the African segment of Gladiator.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


All right, I admit it. I have neglected my blog of late but I have a good reason in that I was writing away on my third book in the Eagles and Dragons series. And so, I am reminded of how many sources I have relied on in my research for this series. Just as in writing an historical paper, writing historical fiction also involves a good deal of research and every writer has his or her favourite sources. So, I thought I would go over just a few of the very many books that I have made use of over the last few years in researching the Imperial Roman Army, Roman life and the Severan period in general.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot in the way of primary sources when it comes to the Severan period (roughly A.D. 193 onward to the late 3rd century). This is sad because at this time, especially the reign of Septimius Severus himself (A.D. 193-211), the Empire was at its greatest extent ever and the Parthian Empire had finally been defeated after failed attempts by both Crassus and Mark Antony. In addition, some of the most powerful women in the history of the Roman Empire lived at this time and had gathered learned men from around the world (the Syrian woman, including Empress Julia Domna) to come to the imperial court, there were great changes made to the army and the Praetorian Guard and an all out invasion of Caledonia (Scotland) was undertaken by Severus.

As I said, there are not many primary sources available but the most obvious one is Cassius Dio. Although much of what Dio writes must be taken with the proverbial grain of salt, he does provide good fodder for the historical novelist.

As far as secondary sources, there are many on the Roman army and some of those that have proved useful are: Adrian Goldsworthy's The Complete Roman Army; Yann Le Bohec's The Imperial Roman Army; and Lawrence Keppie's The Making of the Roman Army. A series that is also extremely useful is the Osprey Military series of books which give brief overviews of very specific topics with magnificent, historically accurate illustrations. These are just a few in a veritable sea of books on the Roman army and Roman warfare.

Just as there are scant primary sources about Septimius Severus and his successors, there are also few secondary sources. However, one of the few that does stand out is Michael Grant's The Severans: The Changed Roman Empire. Grant's book is a great glimpse of this crucial period in the history of the Roman Empire, a time that was truly a turning point in Rome's history and in hindsight the beginning of the end for the Empire. Pat Southern's The Roman Empire: From Severus to Constantine also provides useful information.

When it comes to every day life in ancient Rome, from religious festivals and money to amusements and pastimes, the Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome by Adkins and Adkins is a wonderful resource that every writer of fiction set in this period should have. There is also a Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece and a Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt. I should note that these books are now difficult to find so, if you see one, grab it right away. Another aspect of the every day is clothing and one book that I found particularly useful was Roman Clothing and Fashion by A.T. Croom. After all, despite later views of ancient Rome and Romans, the people of the pre-Christian empire did wear clothing most of the time.

Finally, geography and terrain are also important for historical novelists. One must have a good (or several) map of the area about which you are writing. It might seem odd but some of the best maps that I have seen and used are the historical National Geographic maps of the Roman Empire and Ancient Greece; not only are they beautiful to look at, but they are easy to read and have little snippets of history dotted about. If your story is set in Britain, your best bet would be the historical maps put out by Ordnance Survey. There are maps of Roman and Medieval Britain as well as historical maps of ancient and medieval cities like London and York etc. Very useful!

As I said at the outset, these are but a few of the helpful sources that I have come across. The task of naming all good books on this subject is far too titanic for a blog entry. Every writer has his or her own favourites which they will go back to again and again. The above are just a few of my own. Hope you enjoy. Now, back to writing!
Above photo: altar inscription at the Sanctuary of Apollo outside of Sparta.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Time Traveller

As most writers of historical fiction know, one of the great joys and adventures of writing about the past is that you get to immerse yourself in another world, a time and place not your own. The research phase is like planning a trip in a way, what is there to see, which people might you run into along the way. Once that phase done and you have a framework for your journey, you are ready to step over the threshold of time.

Much of the action in my first two novels takes place in Roman North Africa, the provinces of Africa Proconsularis and Numidia (modern day Libya, Tunisia and Algeria). When I began my research travel to Libya and Algeria seemed a little unlikely, but when the opportunity arose to go on a safari of Roman sites in Tunisia came about, this writer jumped at the chance. The emperor at the time I write about was Septimius Severus, the eventual victor in the civil war that followed after the death of Commodus. Severus was from Leptis Magna, in Africa Province, and as a result much of his attention was focussed on this southern part of the empire.

In the second and third centuries A.D. the bread basket of the empire was no longer Egypt but rather the provinces of Africa and Numidia which provided grain, oil and garum (fish sauce) to the rest of the Roman world. The III Augustan Legion was also stationed in Numidia and because of the protection this afforded the population, as well as the prosperous economy of the region, many sprawling cities grew up along the coast, the green mountains of the north and the sandy edges of the Sahara itself.

When I set out on this journey I had no idea what I would find. What I expected was to at least get a sense of the place, the light, the smells, the feel of the sand. What my eyes beheld was much more. As we sped along the Tunisian countryside in our 4x4, our driver Samy laughing it up and ululating his hi-pitched voice, every site we came to was a complete eye-opener. The ruins were some of the most intact I had ever seen with paved city streets, the walls of houses, mosaics where they had been laid, open to the sky.

The ancient cities of Thurburbo Majus, and Thugga came to life with the voices of the past and each new site gave life to my setting and my characters. The amphitheatre of Roman Thysdrus juts out of the Numidian plain like a titan, more intact than the Colosseum in Rome and surrounded by the vast olive groves that made its builder so wealthy. I could hear the roar of the crowd in the stones, see the blood in the sand and breathe in the dry, sandy air of the desert as I sat in contemplation beneath a sunlit arch, a world away.

Another character in my work is the desert itself. My work might have been very different had I not been able to spend time in the Sahara, to see the towering dunes, visit its oases or walk barefoot in the sand. Truly, out in the desert, time does not exist; it's just you, the sand, the sky and, if you are a writer, your characters coming to life breath by glorious breath. The desert can grab hold of one so completely.

It is amazing that a place seemingly void of life can fire the imagination in such a way, but it can and must have done for the people who lived there or travelled through so many ages ago. Upon returning to Tunis our small group visited the Bardo Museum which has one of the finest collections of Roman mosaics in the world. It is here that one can see how life influenced art in ages past.

There has been much discussion about whether or not it is essential for a writer to visit the places about which they are writing. Opinion seems to be divided and really, at the end of the day, every writer or other artist functions in his or her own way.

The Internet has helped immeasurably when it comes to research, especially when writing about places where it might not be safe to set foot; alas the world is a strange place these days. But, for this tale spinner, there is no substitute for a trek to some far corner of the world to see a temple, a landscape or a square of sand-covered mosaic beneath a blue sky.

Just for Fun
In the first blog entry for this site I asked if anyone could guess where the mosaic in the photograph is from. The answer is from the House of the Dolphins on the Aegean Island of Delos. So, if you guessed correctly, Hail to the Victor!