Monday, May 31, 2010


It has been a while since I posted the first excerpt of CHILDREN OF APOLLO and so, as a few folks have asked for more, I am posting another little bit. This does not come immediately after the first excerpt but rather a few chapters into the book.

The main story begins in A.D. 202 and after a lengthy, dangerous patrol from Aegyptus to Numidia our hero, Tribune Lucius Metellus Anguis, is on furlough with his men for games at the amphitheatre of Thysdrus (modern El Jem in Tunisia - this photo). This is a magnificent site in the middle of plains of olive groves and the structure itself is better preserved the the Colisseum in Rome. While exploring this site, you can certainly hear the crowds, see the skilled displays of the fighters, hear the pain of their defeat or the roar of their victories. The following is one of the fights witnessed by Lucius and his cohort of men.

(from Chapter VIII - Iugula!)

The tribune stood there, lost in thought until he was brought to by the clanging of swords and the renewed roar of the crowd. The final combat had begun, the previous one all but forgotten. Lucius decided not to go back into the theatre but rather to watch from one of the empty corridors that led to the arena floor.
He could see the two heavily armed gladiators moving about the sand in their dance of death. A murmillo and a thraex or Thracian fighter. Lucius watched as the two heavy-helmed gladiators pummeled each other relentlessly to the droning of drums and the cries of bloodthirsty spectators. Lucius wondered what drove these men and where they found their strength. Was it made easier by the fact that each was fighting a faceless foe? They dazzled the audience with an incredible array of slashes and parries, displaying their skills with incredible determination to win and live. Both were bleeding profusely, the murmillo from a cut to the right leg and the thraex from a gash across his muscular chest.
The sand went red about their shuffling feet and in a barely perceptible instant the murmillo’s shield flew from his sweaty hand allowing the thraex to parry a desperate sword thrust and land a heavy kick to the vulnerable man’s chest with the bronze greave covering his leg. The murmillo tumbled onto the ground, winded. He moved to get up but the thraex was upon him, knocked his sword from his bloodied hand. He made to get up yet again but the thraex smashed him in the centre of his face with the boss of his small shield, ripping his helmet from his head.
He groaned as he lay there on the clotted sand and raised his right hand in a sign for mercy and surrender. Lucius’ heart began to pound, the blood flowing to his head and ears, as if he could feel the adrenaline from every person there present. Inwardly, he hoped to hear the word that would save his life, missum, missum, enough death for today. The thraex stood above the fallen murmillo, flipped him over onto his stomach and grabbed him by his bloody hair. He glanced up and around at the standing crowd. They cheered. Then, almost in total concert, they began to chant aloud, “Iugula! Iugula! Iugula!”, Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!
The thraex looked to the editor who nodded gravely. The victor pulled the murmillo’s head back to expose his neck and pulsing veins. Lucius could hear the shouts of his troops as the lethal blade was drawn slowly and cleanly across the fallen man’s neck. His blood spilled out to soak the sand of the arena one last time before his head was released and he fell to the ground. The thraex made his way to the editor’s platform to receive his prize, the palm branch for victory. Upon his head was also placed the valued corona, a laurel wreath for outstanding achievement; he had won ten consecutive fights and for the day he was the people’s hero.
Dressed as the thraex, this man had appeared invincible and imposing, but with his head bared and his weapons shed, he was no longer a gladiator but a young man, no older than Lucius. The youthful innocence of his face and curly black hair betrayed the sight that all had just witnessed, adding to what Lucius thought to be the incredible juxtaposition of the Roman arena. Lucius turned to go out and wait for his men in the open air, away from the amphitheatre.

Unveiling the Obscure

Some time ago, in my entry entitled The Hundredth Book about Caesar? I talked about a member of our writers' group whose book is set during the reign of Emperor Maximian and how he was told by an agent that people would rather read the hundredth book about a well-known historical personage than about an obscure emperor no one knew anything about.

A book I finished recently has helped, in my mind, to combat the narrow view outlined above. In my last entry I mentioned that I was about to start the historical novel Family Favourites by Alfred Duggan. Having finished said book in a short period of time I can say that Duggan sets up a sturdy shield wall in the face of the ‘hundredth book about Caesar’ theory.

Family Favourites, written by Duggan in 1963, takes a close look at the reign of the teenage Emperor Elagabalus, a descendant of the Severan dynasty and the Syrian priests of the sun god at Emesa. The story is told from the point of view of a Gaul who ended up serving in the Legions during the civil war at the end of the second century A.D., a war in which Septimius Severus was the victor. Family Favourites throws the reader headlong into the third century Roman Empire and gives an intimate, human, amazing and sometimes distasteful view of Imperial politics in which every action, decision, had to be weighed in order for a foreign ruler to maintain the loyalty of the Praetorians, the regular Legions and the people of Rome, the mob. The fact that Elagabalus was only thirteen when he came to the purple adds a palpable uncertainty. His family included Julia Maesa (sister to Julia Domna, Severus’s brilliant Empress) and her daughters Julia Mamaea (mother of future Alexander Severus) and Julia Soaemias (mother of Elagabalus); these ‘Syrian women’ were some of the most powerful women in history to that point, intelligent, strategic, caring and sometimes ruthless. And sadly, they are little-known to most of today’s readers.

I won’t summarize the story because only the book can do itself justice. It does strike me however that even though most readers would be unaware of these historical personages or this period of Roman history, they would still thrill to this novel that puts the inner imperial workings under the lens. Good historical fiction can and should transport the reader so that they can experience time and place unlike our own, no matter the ruler at the time. I think (and this is just my opinion as a reader, writer and former bookseller) that most people read historical fiction not only to learn about people of the past, but also to feel, experience, the past. When I read, or write for that matter, a bit of good historical fiction I want to hear the roar of a crowd at the amphitheatre or hippodrome, feel the rumble of their feet pounding in unison. I want to smell the incense that might be burning in a corner brazier of a room used by an Emperor or the aroma of a stew a poor Suburan family might be eating at meal time.

Many great writers have taken on Caesar, but they have also tackled more obscure characters. The strength of the tales is in how they are told, I think, more than what exactly is told. That’s the beauty of historical fiction, that it can pump new life into old tales, give new perspective and almost reincarnate heroes, villains and villagers.