Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Gift of Arms and Creativity

Christmas is just one more sleep away. How exciting, for the kid in all of us who celebrate it. The last couple of weeks I have been up late fashioning shields and swords (the safe kind) for my own little ones. It’s amazing what you can do with a bit of fabric, empty wine boxes from the liquor store, wrapping paper rolls and a bit of creativity. When my little imps showed an interest in swords and shields my ears perked up and I got to work. Evenings, I’m a bleary-eyed elf working away as I watch historical movies.

Now, working with cardboard, fabric and loads of white glue is nowhere near the real deal, heating and pounding out some iron like Hephaestus gone mad. Not at all. But, one can tap into the sense of accomplishment of having created something closely resembling a sword and shield. I’ve gone medieval with rampant unicorns on the small triangular shields. Swords are of course, cruciform and short. You could however, just as easily make an oval Roman cavalry shield and spatha. The trick once these babies are opened up on Christmas morning will be to have my little ones battle a common enemy and not each other. I’m thinking they could fight back to back against a dragon of some sort, namely moi.

All right, that’s enough of the crazy history dad. For myself, I’m always happy to receive arms and armour for Christmas or any other occasion. The writer who endeavours to take on a battle scene needs to practice some moves – common now, that’s really fun! Seriously, you need to find out if your moves are realistic, unless you are writing historical fantasy, in which case you can crack the boundaries of realism.

But where does one buy arms and armour? There are loads of places on-line in Canada, the UK and the US. Another cornucopia of chivalric art is the re-enactor's fair. When I was living in Somerset, England, we went out to the Oxford Re-enactors Fair at Blackbird Leys which was an amazing event held bi-annually, deadly to our pocket books. If you are in the market for anything from period fabrics and broaches, to broadswords or full suits of gothic armour, this is definitely the place. I even purchased a wax tablet and bronze stylus which I used to get the feel of writing on one for the characters in my books. The possibilities are endless and you are supporting independent artists at the same time. It is a win/win situation.

Anyhow, whatever the Christmas wishes for your family or yourself, I wish everyone a fantastic holiday and a happy, healthy and of course, creative New Year in 2012. Cheers!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Historicals at the Holidays

I can’t believe that the holidays are here and Winter, officially around the corner. Where did the autumn go? Renaissance Fairs and Harvest time festivities have faded into Fall memory and now the malls and high street shops are choked with mad shoppers attempting to spread holiday cheer in an orgy of buying and selling. The sales are on!

It feels good to get home after a rush hour packed with bag-wielding commuters who squeezed in a few errands on their all-too-fleeting lunch breaks. At home, the tree is lit and twinkling softly in the middle of the room, a little winter oasis. One of my favourite things to do if I have the chance at this pre-Christmas anticipatory time is to sit down with a good historical movie to wrap presents, write cards and enjoy a good glog of boozed up egg nog. It’s great with a splash of Metaxa!
I tend to gravitate toward the middle ages at Yuletide, though we shouldn’t forget Saturnalia. This past weekend whilst putting up some cedar garland (indoors, of course!) I enjoyed watching the old Ivanhoe version with Robert Taylor and then sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Taylor. I had forgotten how great that movie is, especially the battle at the end between Ivanhoe and Bois Guilbert. Or how about Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood? Sure, he wears weird green tights but, having watched it as a kid, I still chuckle when he swings in with his “Welcome to Sherwhood Forest!” line.

If you like Robert Taylor classics, don’t forget The Knights of the Round Table which also features Ava Gardner; another great flick that overcomes the cheesiness with some great chivalric ideals. Anything Arthurian is fine by me! If the 12th century is your thing, you won’t want to miss out on the film version of The Lion in Winter with Peter O’Toole as Henry II and Catherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine. There is phenomenal acting to be seen! Also, for a tale about a young Henry II, do see Becket, with Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton in the title role.

Now, if the middle ages are not quite your thing, then the classical period has loads of silver screen tributes to choose from such as Quo Vadis (Robert Taylor and Peter Ustinov), The Robe (Richard Burton), Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and of course Spartacus (Kirk Douglas); classics all and very atmospheric for some holiday quiet time. For the very patient among us, The Fall of the Roman Empire with Alec Guinness, Christopher Plummer and Sofia Loren is a fantastic look at the reign of Commodus and forerunner to Gladiator, which is always great.

I could go on and on and on with all my historical movie recommendations so, I’ll stop myself here. There are so many to choose from! I certainly don’t have enough time to view them all at the moment so I must be very selective. For those of you receiving Christmas cards from me, please excuse any lapses in thought, for, if I write ‘I am Spartacus!’ or ‘Long life to the Table Round!’, you will know where that is coming from.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Roman Dead Under Foot

Artist Re-Creation of Roman Corinium
Archaeology got the better of me for this short but, in my opinion, exciting post about a recent archaeological discovery on the outskirts of Cirencester or, Roman Corinium in the Cotswolds. Corinium was the second largest town in Roman Britain with a population of between ten and twenty thousand. Modern Cirencester has a population of around eighteen thousand.

Basically, a dig at a former garage in Cirencester has uncovered forty Roman burials and four cremations all of which date from the period between A.D. 70 and A.D. 120. Ok, I’m being a bit of a history geek here but what is exciting about this is that previously, it was thought that inhumation (burial of the corpse) was not really widely performed in Britain until the later Roman period on the island. The concentration of so many burials from what is really the early period of Roman occupation in Britain changes things. Among the grave good discovered were bracelets made of green glass beads, jet beads, shale and copper alloy. A child’s grave on the site contained a ceramic flagon, also from the early period. Archaeologists are being cautious in the dating but seem pretty certain at this point. The artefacts will likely be displayed in the Corinium museum (www.cirencester.co.uk/coriniummuseum).
2nd Century Amphitheatre of Corinium

What is interesting about this from the historical fiction writer’s perspective is that it opens the door a bit more and gives us some leeway around Romano-British burial practices. Burial scenes can be extremely moving and now, if you are writing about the early Roman period in Britain, you can choose more easily between cremation and inhumation. Personally, I find fire a bit more dramatic, with its links to more ancient traditions and the heroic age. But, let’s face it. Times were changing and inhumation was fast becoming a trendier way to see folks into the afterlife or whichever paradise folks aspired to. The Egyptians certainly would have understood.

Mosaic and Hypocaust Remains
Chedworth Roman Villa
I’ve been through Cirencester, which was along the route of the Fosse Way, the main Roman road north. If you happen to be in the area, be sure to check out the Roman amphitheatre in town as well as nearby Chedworth Roman Villa. The latter is a fantastic site which feels rather isolated but was quite a luxurious Roman villa in its day. It has well intact buildings, mosaics and a bath house and the grounds are phenomenal. The remains of Chedworth Roman Villa actually inspired the site of the Metellus villa in my first book, Children of Apollo (to be released early in 2012). If you are interested in seeing a bit of Chedworth, here is the link: www.chedworthromanvilla.com.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Study History!


Manuscript Detail
The other day, during a particularly long car ride, I was talking with my wife about some of her students. She is a tutor and covers a wide range of subjects from basic reading and shapes to advanced math and biology. I don’t know how she does it, jumping from one subject to the other with different students for hours on end. Frankly, I find these cerebral acrobatics mind-blowing.

However, she rarely is called upon to tutor someone in history. Sad, isn’t it? History tends to be one of those subjects relegated to the realm of the less important, forever doomed to be in the shadow of arithmetic, science and English. Why is that? I know that for most of you reading this, I am preaching to the choir.

Imagine my shock when history entered the discussion on her work with one student. Let me clarify, the student was writing an essay for English class on an historical topic. I am an historical fiction writer and therefore, a fan of both history and English. Anyhow, this student’s assignment was to write a monologue for a character (a Jewish barber), whose customer of the moment is a former Nazi officer. I don’t know about you, but as a writer that is a very loaded, conflict-rich scene to write out. I was never assigned anything like that in my grade ten class.

What struck us was that the student had no idea what to write. Not a clue! As soon as I heard this, the ideas started blasting through my mind: huge internal and external conflict, ripe for the picking. What kind of person is the barber? Was the Nazi sorry for what he had done or been part of? What if they just talked about it, like one of those human book things? Should the barber just slit the Nazi’s throat as he shaved him? Would the barber then be a hero or would he degenerate into the sort of person he had just killed if he did indeed kill him? Would the barber cry? Would the barber remain silent and allow the Nazi to walk away ignorant of the fact that he has just been shaved by a Jew? Etc…etc…etc.
Book of Kells Detail

There were so many possibilities with this student’s writing assignment and yet…nothing. Not an inkling. I don’t think that this is entirely the fault of the student who simply follows the curriculum. History classes have never been up to snuff and English class covers a whole other world of things. As a writer, I know how much I owe to my years of studying history and the importance that study plays in my writing and the development of my characters. History is not just about dates and battles and lost civilizations. More importantly, it is about human nature and human conflict.

Whether you are writing historical fiction or not, the study of history, I believe, is key to writing and creating real, in-depth characters that move the reader. Whether in the past or present, the study of history is important in everyday life because it helps us to understand the human conflicts that have resulted from human nature.

It holds true that by learning about the past we are better able to understand the present and see the future. If people paid more attention to history, the world might not be as mad a place as it is, more often than not. Granted, bad history is responsible for much of the conflict going on today; a discussion of looking at and letting go of the past in order to better the future will have to be left for another time.

'Plato's Academy' - Michelangelo
My point here is that history is an invaluable tool for any writer, of any genre, because it sheds light on all aspects of human nature and gives precious insight into the human condition which is, for the most part, what almost all novels are about.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Powys' Porius - A Big Read

Just a quick post today about a new, old book that I’ve just cracked open. I’m talking about John Cowper Powys’ Porius, a novel set during what is commonly referred to as the Arthurian period or ‘Dark Ages’.

For some time I’ve been debating starting this unabridged pack of seven hundred and fifty one small print pages but after reading a couple of sample paragraphs, I find that I have been drawn in by Powys’ language.

The scene is north Wales in the year A.D. 499 and Porius, a Briton descended from Cunneda, is facing attack from invading Saxons and their Pictish and Scots allies. To aid Porius, the ‘Emperor’ Arthur sends his advisor Merlin as well as Nineue and Medrawd. I don’t know what will happen but I am looking forward to this, admittedly long, journey. But, isn’t that the great thing about sweeping historical novels? Getting swept up in events that could shatter the world of the characters about whom one is reading is fantastic. Historically, we know that eventually the Saxons overwhelm the beleaguered Britons who, for however brief a time, hold out against the invaders. However clichéd it may be to say it, the journey is what matters, or rather we should say that the journey is the adventure.

With an author such as Powys at the helm of this tale, it promises to be a formidable read in an land that is truly as beautiful as the words he uses to describe it. After the first few pages, one can see that Powys held Wales dear. I’ve been all over Wales and can honestly say it contains some of the most dramatic, romantic landscapes in Britain, from the mountains of Snowdonia, to the Legionary base at Caerleon, to the druid stronghold of Anglesey. If I can dig up and scan some of my photos from past travels, I’ll endeavour to share them here as they are definitely worth a glance.

For now, on into Porius as I lug this massive thing into packed morning subway cars where people have already shot me odd ‘What the hell is he reading?’ looks. That’s ok. I’m in my own world when reading. My only regret is that I don’t have this thing on an e-reader.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

On the Altar of the Gods

Temple of Capitoline Triad
Jupiter, Juno and Minerva
Thugga, Tunisia
One of the most fascinating aspects of ancient history for me is religion. I’m particularly interested in the smaller day-to-day religious practices of people. Ancient warfare holds the most interest for me and so, naturally, the beliefs and superstitions of soldiers are some things that I can’t read enough about.
Soldiers in the ancient world often dealt with and faced death on a daily basis. How did they find the strength and courage to get up in the morning for another march to another battle? The horrors witnessed, and committed by, soldiers of every rank must have been terrible, even to men who (let’s face it) were of much sterner stuff than we are today.

Mithras Slaying the Bull
Louvre Museum Collection
Soldiers were notoriously superstitious, as were most people in the ancient world. I say ‘superstitious’ but really, I suppose that is just another way of saying that people’s faith in the ancient world was worn more on their sleeve, so to speak, than beneath their shirts. Devotion to certain gods was lauded openly from small household shrines and larger-than-life statuary to magnificent temples that make up some of the wonders of the ancient world. Today, most people are more embarrassed than proud of their religious or spiritual beliefs, whatever they might be.

If one thing can be said of religion in the ancient (and medieval) worlds, it is that it inspired magnificent art, much of which is the source of our historical, architectural and social knowledge. For soldiers in the Roman Empire, the religion of choice was Mithraism. Mithras was originally a middle-eastern god that was adopted by the men of Rome. Rome may have been violent but it certainly was open to, and embraced, other religions – so long as the believers of other faiths did not stir up trouble (Christians certainly had a hard time in the beginning!).

Recently Discovered altar at
Musselburgh, Scotland
The cult of Mithras is shrouded in mystery, just as the Elefsinian mystery religion of ancient Greece. Why did soldiers in particular gravitate to this eastern god? As a god of light, Mithras shone through the darkness in which they often found themselves. Mithraism was a close brotherhood as well with varying grades of initiation. Initiates shared a very close bond and one in which all arguments were to be set aside, perhaps similar to the Masonic brotherhood as it later developed. A temple to Mithras was called a Mithraeum and was usually located underground or in a cave. Ceremonies were carried out in near-darkness.

Through ancient art, two of the most well-known scenes of Mithraism are the image of Mithras slaying the bull in a cave (in darkness) and, Mithras at banquet with the god Sol. Anyone who has seen the HBO series ROME will remember the first episode when Attia, Octavian’s mother, is drenched in the blood of a bull that is sacrificed above her. In this scene, Attia is praying to Magna Mater (the Great Mother) but in reality, the practice of sacrificing a bull (called tauroctony) and letting the blood pour over oneself was a key part of Mithraism. The scene in ROME, dramatic as it was, was a bit of dramatic license on the part of the director and writer.

Relief carving of Sol with hollowed-out
eyes, mouth and sun rays
Musselburgh altar
I read an article not long ago about the discovery of two Mithraic altars found in Musselburgh, Scotland. The altars are extremely well-preserved with bits of paint yet remaining on the relief. They are the most northern discovery related to the cult of Mithras and the first Mithraic discoveries in Scotland. Side panels on the first altar depict items involved in offerings to the god such as a jug and a bowl for pouring libations. The panels also show a lyre and a griffin. On the front is a dedication to the god Mithras by a centurion. This discovery sheds light on the Roman occupation of Inveresk. The second altar stone bears a depiction of the god Sol, surrounded by female faces depicting the four seasons each wearing ornate headdresses. The fascinating thing about the depiction of Sol is that the eyes, mouth and rays of the solar crown are all hollowed out so that lamplight from behind could illuminate the face of the god. What a fantastic find!

The Four Seasons on
the Musselburgh altar
I used to despair from time to time in my studies (especially archaeology class) that there really was not any more left to discover. Happily, I was wrong. There is a lot more to discover about the ancient world.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Wassail! Wassail! Arrgh!

No, I do not have a cup of hot, mulled cider in my hand at the moment but as we get deeper into autumn that does indeed sound yummy.

Where am I going with this? A few weeks ago, my family and I were in Michigan where we were visiting relatives and also where we spent a day at the Michigan Renaissance Festival. I did indeed hear people going about shouting “Wassail”, tankard in hand, sword at their side and covered from head to foot in leather and velvet. “Wassail” was a middle English cheer for good health in the English southwest but also a sort of wake up call for the apple trees at harvest time. In truth I don’t think the folks at the Renaissance Festival were drinking mulled cider; more likely a tankard of anything from the King of Beers to Guinness. There were also pirates aplenty, whence the “Arrrrrgh” thrown in at the top.

I know, some of you are thinking, Man, this guy has lost it. Geek! To that I say, ‘Ho there! Wait!’ Before you go bashing Renaissance fairs let me just say this. As far as living history, some aspects of them are pretty neat. Ok, I know that they are not exactly accurate depictions, attendees’ costumes being a mash-up of various historical periods from the Vikings to the Tudors to the Three Musketeers. People are going about mi-lording this and mi-ladying that with really bad accents. It is more the sense of a bustling marketplace that grabs one at a Renaissance fair, of people letting go for a day and haggling their through the marketplace.

And let me say that the Michigan Renaissance Festival has everything from woollen cloaks, swords and leather armour to incense, garlands and decorative glass. You can buy a didgeridoo and fairy dust or a bit of leather gear for the more kinky-minded among you. This place is, after all, about pretending. The best thing is that all of the items are made in North America so buyers are supporting small business and local artisans – an important thing in these difficult economic times.

There is beer, and lots of it but there is also that other Renaissance fair staple, the smoked turkey leg. I may not have been dressed up for the occasion but I did sink my teeth into more meat than I could possibly eat. I did think about hitting the gyros or sushi stations but those just didn’t seem authentic enough for me. What can I say? I’m picky.

There are also many troupes of performers at the Festival – acrobats, jugglers, fire eaters, belly dancers, musicians (folk and period) and actors. For those who have a mind, you can also try a little knife and axe throwing. I myself enjoyed the archery and didn’t do too badly if I do say so myself. I even had my own little cheering section.

The jousting was fun, though it lacked a certain realism for me. I mean, come on guys, you could swing those swords a little faster! I suppose that if it was too real, someone would have lost a limb or their life. It is, after all, entertainment. The horses for the joust were provided by a woman (dressed as a lady of the court) who rescues horses from destruction. Always a good cause.

This is not just a one-off festival. There are similar festivals across North America. If you really want to get involved, you can join the Society for Creative Anachronism (www.sca.org) which has divided North America into nineteen kingdoms. There may be a local chapter near you!

But, what can the writer get out of attending a Renaissance fair besides a nice set of ceramic crockery and a full belly? Inspiration can come from many places and a busy market smelling of wood smoke and roasted meat as good a place as any. Also, if your prose includes battles scenes, in any period, you should always make sure you have a good sword to make sure the moves you are describing are feasible. Just make sure you have enough space in your living room!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Arthur's Round Table Discovered!

The Winchester 'Round Table'
What? Really? When the hell did this happen? After about fifteen-hundred years, it has finally come to light. King Arthur’s Round Table has been found…in the gardens of Stirling Castle, Scotland.

Oh, come now. Really? I’m sorry to say that I heartily disagree with the Daily Telegraph which interviewed archaeologists from Glasgow University on this discovery. Talk about the media twisting things to get sensational headlines! Glasgow University has been working in the gardens of Stirling Castle and carried out geophysics on the circular part of the gardens called the ‘King’s Knot’. What the geophysics found was a much older, circular feature beneath the visible 17th century remains.


The 'King's Knot' Stirling Castle
 Yes, there has been reference in the past linking Stirling Castle with ‘King Arthur’. The same can be said of almost every other corner of Britain. Arthurian associations are everywhere; Colchester (Roman Camulodunum), South Cadbury, Winchester, Tintagel, Wroxeter (Roman Viroconium), Caerleon…the list is endless. That is not to say that none of these have any claims to linkages with the historical Arthur. On the contrary, my studies over the years (Arthurian studies was a main focus of mine) lead me to believe that a great many sites likely did have a link to Arthur, possessing archaeological, historical and toponymic evidence. This is a massive topic into which I can not delve here. This is just to say that all the claims for association with Arthur show, at the very least, what a powerful tale it is and how something that has its base in fact has been so embroidered and elaborated upon over the centuries. There is real power in the fusion of history and storytelling.

In my thesis work on theories about the location of Arthur’s ‘Camelot’, I looked at a variety of theories that placed Arthur at South Cadbury Castle in Somerset, Wroxeter in western England near the Welsh border, and Roxburgh Castle in the Scottish Borders. This was fascinating research and it showed how much archaeology contributes to such work. Pottery sherds don’t often lie. At the time, Cadbury Castle, a former Iron Age hill fort of the Durotriges, still comes closest with its finds of timber hall post holes and Mediterranean pottery. The period was right but still, one can never be certain. Wroxeter, a former Roman city with a Dark Age timber hall/villa seemed more likely to be the base of Vortigern rather than Arthur’s seat of power. The theory by a Scottish historian on Roxburgh castle, near Roman Trimontium, was also a bit of a stretch and had more Roman connections than anything. That said, Roman sites were often reused in the Dark Ages. A great deal of horse tack was found in the area of Roxburgh but other than that, the remains on the mound were of the medieval castle. Nothing is for certain, history being the most exciting kind of detective work, to my mind anyway.

South Cadbury Castle
But what about the Round Table? Well, that certainly is a catchy headline. However, a round feature could have been anything from a Roman signal tower, to an Iron Age roundhouse, to an oven of sorts. Stirling was definitely strategically positioned, being the gateway to the Highlands for centuries. Countless invading armies have marched through there in their attempts to conquer what is now Scotland. There are other round features with Arthurian associations, of what could be the correct date. In Cornwall, where there are a great many Arthurian sites, you’ve got Celliwig where, as mentioned in the Mabinogi, Arthur is said to have held court. Winchester castle contains the huge, oak Round Table that is on the wall. The painting on it is from the time of Henry VIII in order to back the Tudor claim to descent from Arthur. Though the table at Winchester is older than the paint, is it the Round Table? Doubtful but, what of it? It’s the symbol of the Round Table that was first mentioned by Robert Wace in the early 12th century that is important. Wace wrote that after twelve years of peace:

Arthur had the Round Table made, about which the British tell many a tale. There sat the vassals, all equal, all served. None of them could boast he sat higher than his peer; all were seated near the place of honour, none far away.”

Roman Amphitheatre Caerleon, Wales
A shame he does not mention where it might have been. Another candidate for the Round Table, and a very likely one for a council of equals at the time of the historical Arthur is the Roman Amphitheatre at Caerleon in southern Wales, mentioned as the site of Arthur’s court by Geoffrey of Monmouth. That is a magnificent site, as are all mentioned above. It is likely that the historical Arthur spent some time Caerleon, where the II Augustan Legion was stationed. Was that the Round Table? Who knows?

The situation that Wace describes regarding tales of Arthur fits with our current dilemma:

In this time of great peace that I speak of… the wondrous events appeared and the adventures were south out which, whether for love of his generosity, or for fear of his bravery, are so often told about Arthur that they have become the stuff of fiction: not all lies, not all truth, neither total folly not total wisdom. The raconteurs have told so many yarns, the story-tellers so many stories, to embellish their tales, that they have made it all appear fiction.”

This is where the historical novelist can let the imagination take over and fill in the gaps in the historical record. If you are going to write an Arthurian epic, there are more than enough romantic, mysterious and inspiring sites in every part of Britain. The trick would be to find the perfect blend of history and myth to make the world one creates authentic and entertaining at the same time. I’ll write more about this topic at a later date – I have loads of photos from visits to many of these sites that I can share with all of you.

For the moment I would like to say “Kudos!” to the Daily Telegraph for printing that story for in doing so, they have helped to rekindle interest in Arthurian studies (always a good thing) but have also helped to up the chances of further funding for the archaeological work going on at Stirling Castle.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Midnight in History

The other night I went to see the new Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris. Go see it. This is a great movie and, as ever, Woody Allen’s writing is simply brilliant. The story is basically this: a writer and his fiancée go on a vacation to Paris. He is working on his first book and just can’t get it right. He’s in love with 1920s Paris. When his fiancée goes off with some of her friends, he heads off on his own to walk the streets (at midnight, of course) in search of inspiration.

The writer is taken in by the beautiful scenery of the city, the Seine, the streets and the way they look when wet at night. When the bell tolls midnight an old car pulls up and some folks dressed in 1920s clothing and sipping champagne pull the writer into the car and boom, the he is instantly transported into 1920s Paris. When he catches on, he can’t believe his luck and the fact that he is mingling with some of his favourite, and some of the greatest, artists of the time; F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, Earnest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter and Salvador Dali to name a few. Every night after that he spends time with this crowd and comes to know them quite well. He even gets Gertrude Stein to review his manuscript!

There were some amazing shots of Paris (Roman Lutetia) in this film and I’m sure I spotted some Roman ruins in one of the great director’s shots. One of the ideas explored by the movie is that people always yearn for something other than what they have, usually something (or some time) in the past. GUILTY! My hand is up. I suspect that most of us who read and write historical fiction, whatever your period, feel that we were born into the wrong century. I’m not talking about medieval medicine (nope, could do without that, thank you very much!) or the sureness of getting murdered in the lawless streets of ancient Rome’s Subura after dark (I guess that one depends on where you live). What I mean is that many of us perhaps wish for times when the air and water were cleaner (imagine the Great Lakes before the Industrial Revolution), or when monuments were not ravaged by modern war and pollution – the Parthenon must have been a miracle to behold before it was used as a Turkish powder keg.

Alexander the Great
Acropolis Museum

Midnight in Paris also made me think of what people of the past I would like to meet and interact with for a time. Who would I populate my screenplay with? The old Who would you invite to dinner? question. I think it would be nearly impossible for me to narrow it down to one person in particular. But, I have thought of a few I would like to meet.
I would definitely like to meet a couple of generals; I like military history after all. Alexander the Great would be up there. I would like to talk world travel with him and get his take on all the wonders of the world that he beheld on his travels. I’d also like to know what exactly he did ask the Oracle at Siwah. I don’t feel a need to speak with Julius Caesar – I’ve read his memoirs of the campaign in Gaul and read so much historical fiction about him that I feel I know the man pretty well by now. We’ve got to be selective in this exercise. Maybe I would speak with Gnaeus Julius Agricola, Governor of Britain (A.D. 78-84) and ask him what exactly happened in Caledonia and where is Legio IX Hispana?
Gnaeus
Julius Agricola
Bath, UK


Eleanor of Aquitaine
There are a few women I would like to meet too. Stop that sniggering! You know what I mean. Eleanor of Aquitaine would be up there, a true force of nature by all accounts. As someone who focussed on Arthurian studies, how could I not want to speak to the host of the Courts of Love in southern France? Marie de France too; together, Marie, Eleanor and I could have quite the literary discourse, jongleurs, wine and all. Perhaps William Marshall, the Flower of Chivalry, could add to the discourse? Another woman I would like to meet is Empress Julia Domna, wife of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus and by all accounts a brilliant, widely respected patron of learning. Perhaps I could ask her to read my horoscope (something she did with utmost regularity for herself) and ask her what exactly went wrong with Caracalla.


William Marshall in Combat
from a manuscript of Matthew Paris

Empress Julia Domna
Pythagoras and I could talk about reincarnation. I would also like to hear what inspired Phideas and Praxiteles to create masterpieces that were wonders of the ancient world. I would not leave out any mythological figures either. Remember, every legend has its base if fact. Hector, Odysseus and I could sit around a fire on a beach beneath sacred Ilium, sharing meat and wine and talking about our wives and children and what it means to be away from them. I would also speak with Herakles and get him to tell me a good few tales about his labours – there’s got to be some great storytelling there!

The Death of King Arthur
by John Mulcaster Carrick

A couple more. I would certainly like to spend a fair bit of time with Arthur, the Pendragon or Dux Britannorum, the Romano-British warlord that kept the Saxons at bay for a short time. Taliesin could play the harp in the background. I would like to know the whole story from Arthur himself, leaving nothing out. What happened? Did your friend really betray you? What did Merlin teach you? Where was Camelot? Are you going to come back?

Homer
Finally, I would speak with Homer himself, the father of western literature. I would sit on the ground with all the people mentioned above who would have been familiar with his work (Herakles, Hector and Odysseus could fill in any possible gaps) and listen to him. We would likely be sitting on the shore of the island of Chios, the sea at our backs. Looking up at the wrinkled pockets where his eyes had once been I imagine that he would still convey the emotions of his tale perfectly: the anger of Achilles, the courage of Hector, the fall of high-walled Troy, the wanderings of long-suffering Odysseus. It might take days to hear the tales in full but how it would be worth it. Perhaps I could relate to him my own first novel, Children of Apollo, and get his take on it. Of course, a tale about Romans might seem distant and strange to Homer but with the Poet himself there, I would have to try. 
Odysseus and the Sirens


It’s fun to think about this and it is no easy task to pick a few. I could go on and on and on. That’s the nice thing about historical fiction, you can spend time in the lives of the people you admire, love, even fear or hate. At the end of the day, or the story, we do have to go home but that doesn’t mean we can’t take something of what we have learned with us.

 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Boudicca and the Iceni

Statue of Boudicca
Westminster Bridge, London
When it comes to the history of Iron Age and Roman Britain, there are few historical personages that have fired the imagination so much as Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni. She was a strong leader and fierce warrior, whose popular image is both tragic and romantic. If you have ever been to London, near the Houses of Parliament, you will have seen the beautiful bronze statue of Boudicca by Thomas Thornycroft, erected near Westminster Bridge in 1902.

Last week, BBC on-line posted an article about a recent find. It seems that a causeway built around 75 B.C. by the Iceni tribe, who lived in what is now Norfolk and Suffolk in eastern England, was found by archaeologists in and around the area of Geldeston. Exact dating has yet to be carried out but the preliminary results date it to about 100 years prior to the Roman invasion of Britain against which Boudicca was a key force. The causeway was, of course, built before Boudicca lived but it is an exciting find. As it was a major route of her kingdom, she may well have travelled it. Apparently, the actual wooden posts are so well preserved by the peat that they look modern and all of the tool marks are still visible.

The road that ran through the wetlands was 4 meters wide and ran for 500 meters across the marshes. Archaeologists believe that the route was likely used for trade, boundaries and to allow the Iceni access to sacred places – swords and other weapons are often found in water where the Celts would have made offerings to the gods.

Roman Legionaries
The main source for the period is Tacitus whose father-in-law was Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who campaigned into northern Scotland and was a tribune under the command of Suetonius Paulinus, Governor of Britain, circa A.D. 60. When Boudicca’s husband, King Prasutagus, a nominal ally of Rome, died he left his kingdom to his two daughters and the Emperor of Rome to rule jointly. Rome did not honour the king’s will. Roman financiers took over everything, Boudicca was flogged and her daughters raped. Definitely the makings of a rebellion.

The uprising began while Governor Paulinus was in Mona (Anglesey) to crush the druid stronghold. Boudicca’s forces subsequently defeated Rome in several engagements and sacked the cities of Camulodunum, Londinium and Verulamium. In the end, Roman forces prevailed and at the final battle, according to Tacitus, over 80,000 Britons died with Roman casualties under 1000. Hard numbers to swallow and which should be taken with a grain of salt as history, as we know, is written by the victors. Would Rome want to give much sway to a female opponent who delivered some heavy hits to its ego? Probably not.

There is of course no shortage of historical fiction when it comes to Queen Boudicca. She is the stuff of legend. Books and series from such writers as Manda Scott, Simon Scarrow, Rosemary Sutcliff and Pauline Gedge are but a few of the good ones. There are others.


Cover of George Shipway's
Imperial Governor
A book with a difference which I read a couple of years ago and which I would highly recommend is George Shipway’s Imperial Governor. Shipway was a British writer of historical fiction who had also served in the British military in the Indian Cavalry until 1946. He combined his love of history with his military experience to create a novel with a difference. The insights are unique (the book is in Governor Paulinus’ voice) and his battle scenes, particularly those involving cavalry, very real. Shipway also wrote several novels set in the middle ages and one set in the Bronze Age the subject of which is none other than Agamemnon. I have only read Imperial Governor at this point but if that book is any indication of the quality of the others, they too will be added to my reading list.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

History in Music

Frank Turner
England Keep My Bones
Album Cover
I wanted to write about something a bit different this posting. Now obviously, historical fiction feeds itself on, well, history. Ok, that’s trite. Everyone is inspired by history in one form or another, be it something personal that happened ten years ago or something affecting nations or peoples thousands of years ago. Experiences help artists to create and enrich their creations, be it a novel, a sculpture or painting, a film or a piece of music.

For the past year now I’ve been listening to the music of a particular artist that I wanted to bring to your attention. His name is Frank Turner and he is a folk/punk musician from Winchester, England. He is also a history nut which, on these pages at least, counts for a lot. I spoke with Frank at his last show in Toronto, at the El Mocambo, and he was very gracious and polite despite being mobbed by fans of all ages. He was there at the t-shirt table, talking with folks, taking photos and shaking hands even though he was about to hit the stage in a few minutes. No pretence or arrogance to be found.

Frank Turner’s music is pretty wide ranging, from rebellious punk lyrics and rhythms to nostalgic reminiscences of his beloved England. His love of history creeps into his songs and lyrics on a regular basis. The title tune of his 2008 album, Love, Ire and Song, has references to the 1905 Russian Revolution as well as the Life Brigade search and rescue organization founded in Tynemouth in the 1860s. On his album, Poetry of the Deed, the song Journey of the Magi is a wonderful tune with lyrics referring to Moses, Odysseus and Balthazar. Fantastic songs as well as all the other offerings on the albums.

At the beginning of June, Frank released his latest studio album, England Keep My Bones, the title of which is a quote from Shakespeare’s King John. On this album Frank explores the land he loves and no doubt misses very much while on tour – something he is constantly doing. One particularly gutsy song on the album is English Curse. This is a pro-Saxon, a capella number about the assassination of William Rufus in the New Forest. When I saw Frank perform this tune live back in May, he sang this song and, despite the head-scratching “What the hell is this?” looks on some of the younger faces in the crowd, it sounded brilliant. He had people cheering, if not for the story, then for the fact that he did without his guitar.

So, if you like history (which I assume you do if you are reading this blog) and music, check out a great, hard-working, independent artist and modern-day troubadour. Frank Turner’s website is: http://www.frank-turner.com/

He’s on tour again so, if you have the chance, go. You won’t be disappointed.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Blood and History

Interior of the Colosseum in Rome
It is a comforting thing to stroll down the streets of my urban environment, past cafés and open air restaurants, boutiques, health food shops and books stores. People are enjoying being outside again, eating ice cream and walking en famille. Modern advertisement provides something of a clash of titans in the form of large UFC posters outside various pubs and a soon-to-be-open sports bar fronted by Corinthian columns. Pictures of these modern arena champions provide a backdrop to girls in pigtails and boys in baseball caps.

I am surprised to a point by the prominence of these posters and the large following that UFC has developed. Many people I know block off UFC nights on their calendars so that no other event can displace it. It seems that modern bloodsport is alive and well in our society, be it bull fighting in Spain or UFC in America. “Bread and circuses” as the saying went. Gone are the theatrical, chair-smashing displays of the WWF – what folks want is the real deal, a good punch to the head and some blood on the floor.

Spartacus: Blood and Sand
Actor Andy Whitfield as Spartacus
I recently borrowed season one of the show Spartacus: Blood and Sand from the library and the popularity of that show is understandable. Last time I looked there were 259 holds on 15 copies in the world’s busiest library system here in Toronto. There is a lot of blood, à la 300, and loads of sex. And as we all know, that stuff sells! Death, or otherwise, by the sword is a show-stopper and has been for thousands of years. Wrap the sensationalism in a historic package and most of the time you’ll have even the most conservative historian’s interest piqued, though they might not admit it.

I do the show an injustice however, by suggesting that it is popular purely for its sensational gore and sexual play. Beyond that is some solid research into the function of a ludus (gladiatorial school), the role and popularity of the gladiatorial games and the gladiators themselves, both gods and slaves at the same time. One will meet the ‘editor’ of the games, the ‘lanista’ too, and see how gladiatorial contests, after their original role as funerary rituals, were one of the most effective political weapons to be wielded in efforts to win the favour of the Roman mob. These are not however, the gladiators of Stanley Kubric’s epic Spartacus, as wonderful as that movie is.

Kirk Douglas as Spartacus
 The real draw, though many may not realize it, behind the Murmillo and Thraex’s iron visors is the solid storyline and cast of conflicted, imperfect characters, including Spartacus himself, played by Welsh actor Andy Whitfield. We all know when we are gripped so by a story that we can’t get enough, that we have to push on, be it a TV series or a book of historical fiction. If you’ve got a solid story with well developed characters, you’ve got a mighty hook that few will be able to rip free of. There is loads of tension interspersed with tender, hypnotic moments of memory. To me, the sex and gore, fun as they are, take a back seat to the well-written, well-thought-out story.

Jean Leon Gerome's famous painting
 At a writer’s conference some years ago, there was a literary agent there who believed that only books with tension on “every page” were going to be successful. He gave courses about this, sold books and I think, videos too. I’m not sure how most of you might feel about that but as for myself, I tend to disagree. I do agree that tension is a powerful tool that will keep you turning pages. However, in my opinion that is also a little exhausting. If I read a novel that is fast paced, action-packed and tense all the way through, I find it hard to pick out any one scene that has really made a mark on my memory.

Would it not be better to intersperse tension with calm, with peace? As a writer I prefer to lull my audience a bit before hitting them over the head, the impact being much more memorable. Conversely, following a tense moment with calm can provide some needed relief and reflection. Spartacus: Blood and Sand balances tension and calm beautifully, all wrapped in a great story and though it is made in a visual medium, the same can, depending on your personal tastes, be done effectively in writing.

If Gladiators are your thing, an excellent reference book that looks at the history of gladiatorial combat and the various styles of gladiators is Gladiators and Caesars: The Power of Spectacle in Ancient Rome, edited by Eckart Kohne and Cornelia Ewigleben. It’s a very accessible look into the lives and myth of gladiators and the power they held over the people of ancient Rome, as they do over us today.

Amphitheatre of Thysdrus (El Jem)
Tunisia, North Africa


Thursday, June 2, 2011

An Eagle in the Snow

Greetings everyone! Well, finally the warmer weather is upon us in Toronto. This felt like one of the longest winters ever but the snow and cold that we experienced over recent months did not deter me from getting out to some great bookstores to find some hidden gems. And did I find one!

Many of you who are die-hard historical fiction seekers may already have read Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem but for me, it was one of those books that I spotted once in a while but never actually put down the cash to buy it. There was always something else that grabbed my interest first. This time however, I thought “Ok. This is the umpteenth time this book has popped up. I’d better get it.”


The Drusus Monument
Moguntiacum (Mainz)

Eagle in the Snow is one of those books that has a perfect balance of fact, fiction, character development and action. Not once is storyline sacrificed on the altar of historical accuracy as is so often the case…and vice versa.

Wallace Breem, who was a British librarian, wrote Eagle in the Snow in 1970. The main character, Paulinus Gaius Maximus, is pulled from his command on Hadrian’s Wall at the end of the 4th century by General Stilicho to hold the Rhine defences at all costs against the increasing pressures of the Vandals, Alemanni, Marcomanni, Alans and the Quadi who are in turn being pushed west by the Huns. His base of operations is Moguntiacum, modern Mainz, Germany where you can still see remnants of the Roman presence in the area. Maximus, who is a follower of Mithras, faces not only his enemy in war but also Christians, both barbarian and Roman, adding a whole other dimension to the story. As a nearly flawless general he is loved by his troops who want to raise him to the purple but at the same time, he is a man with his own painful past, making him wonderfully vulnerable.


Roman Aqueduct
Moguntiacum (Mainz)
  For the Romanophiles out there this is a particularly poignant story and time in which it becomes obvious that the Roman Empire, along with its ageing generals and Legions, its very traditions, is teetering on the verge of utter collapse. This is also an important period for followers of the Arthurian tradition in that this is the time when, because of the very pressures being experienced along the Rhine and other frontiers, the Legions are withdrawn from Britannia and the Britons are told to look to their own defences.

Breem’s battle scenes are brilliantly laid out and easy to follow but he never underestimates his reader. If anyone out there wants an example of tight, informative and entertaining historical fiction this is a good read to go for. There is another book by Breem set in the Roman world entitled The Legate’s Daughter but I have not managed to find a copy yet. If I read the latter I will let you know what I think but for now, Eagle in the Snow is time well-spent and will leave you just a bit haunted by ghosts of the Roman past.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Self-Publish or Perish?

Now, there’s a question. An intense conversation took place in my revived writers’ group last week – I say revived because we had not met since last fall with a hiatus for the busy period of holiday indulgence and then winter hibernation in which a great deal of actual writing took place.

Conversation seems so intense around this topic because there are still two strongly fortified camps when it comes to this. On the one hand we have the traditionalists that view self-publishing as something of a cop out, something not to be taken seriously because the author is doing it à la DIY. In this camp are those that believe the publishing houses and agents are totally the way to go, the only way to go as they are willing to spend the money, to take the chances, to put their names and reputations behind your work not to mention the time of all the behind-the-scenes staff in finance, marketing, production and design, etc. etc.

Admittedly, I am part of this traditionalist school of thought when it comes to books and publishing. Behind this thinking are a couple of points. Firstly, how could self-publishing possibly feel better than having someone commit to your work, back it up with cash and time. Secondly, if you go through an agent and on to a publishing house, they have all the expertise in place from contract negotiation to final product and promotion, AND a big name to go along with it. The writer can focus on the writing. I think a great many of us are thinking along these lines.

On the other side of the battlefield is the take-the-bull-by-the-horns, self-publishing camp. At first, this was a definite underdog area filled with less than mediocre fiction from vanity presses who totally took advantage of the hopefuls who went that path. People were getting screwed out of loads of cash and didn’t get anything near a dream-come-true scenario.

BUT – yes, there is a definite ‘but’ here. Times have changed. Technology and tactics have indeed changed, at an alarming rate. The economic recession that has been experienced by most of the western world has taken a bloody toll on the publishing industry and as a result, publishers and agents have had to cut their losses and shore up the defences. A few months ago a read an article about the demand by most publishers and agents for ‘marquee characters’ only because the view is that this guarantees sales and readership. This is something that we have heard quite a lot about and, as stated in the article, there is a danger in this reluctance to take on anything less than marquee names. The marketplace could become over saturated with books on a very few subjects. The result is the neglect of some potentially fantastic fiction about everyday characters that truly resonate with readers, no matter the historical setting. Smaller, Indy publishing houses tend to be gutsier with their lists and are well worth a look if your work is a good fit. However, most small presses publish very few titles every year.

So where does all this leave the writer, particularly the writer of historical fiction?

The more I read about the marketplace and the impact of the economy, the more it seems to me that writers are being left in the wings, waiting for times to change back again. They’re waiting for a throwback to the good old days of high advances and posh lunches with agents and editors whose budgets knew no bounds. However, the more I read about this, the more discussions I have with agents, writers and others, the more definite it seems that these times are not coming back. So what can we, as writers and creative types, do? Waiting around for things to happen doesn’t seem very proactive. In fact it seems to be positively fatal to one’s hopes and dreams.

Standing outside the walls of both camps now, hopefully not on the killing fields, I’m wondering if it might be a good idea to build a new camp, one that embraces the best of both worlds, one that has more of a chance of empowering authors. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still for the traditional route to publishing but I now also see the merit in the self-publishing, DIYmethod. The latter at least provides writers with another strategy to try out while the publishing world gets its guts back and becomes willing once more to take chances. Of course they have been scared; there have been countless casualties in their camp in the last decade, big and small.

Here is a good example of self-publishing success. A friend of mine sent me an article about a girl who had written a whack of YA novels in the fantasy genre. She was rejected by numerous agents and publishers. Finally, she decided to try out self-publishing through Create Space (https://www.createspace.com/Author.jsp), a company of Amazon.com. To make a long story short, she sold her books for .99 cents each and at the end of the day, she made close to $2 Million for her efforts. Yes, she had to do it all herself, creation, formatting and loads of promotion but using this alternative route and a whole lot of dedication, she was able to get her name out there, develop a following and a demand for her work and now has nailed a seven figure deal with a major publisher (on top of her self-publishing which she is going to continue doing). Readers were stepping up to pay their money for her work which is available in print and e-format. I’d say that that girl is a writer, sans cop outs! This is, of course, the Harry Potter example of self-publishing but it is very telling.

Something to think about, isn’t it? Both traditional and new publishing routes provide excellent opportunities so now the question for many traditionally-minded writers is whether the focus, the approach, has been far too narrow. Why was Alexander the Great such a brilliant and masterly general? It was because he had vision and an uncanny ability to assess a situation and make changes to adapt accordingly. So, perhaps the campaign to publication should be waged on several fronts – eventually, one will break through the barriers.

New times call for new and adaptive strategies. I know, I’ve bludgeoned the military metaphors to death here but hey, this is a blog about historical fiction and I like ancient warfare. Whatever the tactic we choose, it shouldn’t be forgotten that constant drilling leads to victory and so to all writers out there, WRITE, WRITE, WRITE!

Let me know your thoughts…

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Etruscans

6th Century B.C. Etruscan Tomb
Castellina in Chianti
If Indiana Jones were a hoarder, his office would probably look like mine. Actually, I don’t hoard things but my flat is not large and the historian in me has a great many books. I suffer from an ailment common to many historians and writers of historical fiction, something called "I might need it someday" syndrome, also known as "That might come in useful". This involves the need to keep close all the precious books one has accumulated over years of study, even if one never reads them all cover-to-cover.

I was undertaking my own little excavation the other day in my office when I unearthed some more photos from a vacation in Tuscany back in 2002. These photos were of an Etruscan tomb just outside Castellina in Chianti. The site was simple and unassuming but had a great impact on my imagination, so much so that I used it in some parts of Children of Apollo. On that trip, I started to learn more about the Etruscans who inhabited the Italian peninsula from roughly the Tiber to the Arno rivers and beyond to the Po valley and Bologna.

Not a great deal is known about the Etruscans and I am by no means an expert but from what I have seen and read, it is a very interesting topic. Anyone who has studied ancient Greece and Rome will have had some contact with the Etruscans; the Greeks traded with the Etruscans and were a great influence on Etruscan art and lifestyle and Rome itself was ruled by Etruscan kings who brought that little backwater village by the Tiber out of the mud with a dash of civilization. In Tuscany itself, there are many sites where one can find remains of Etruscan civilization, places such as Cerveteri, Veii, Tarquinia, Volsinii, Volterra, Vulci and Arezzo.



Etruscan Tomb Painting
Tarquinia
 Much of what is known about the Etruscans and their lifestyle comes from their tombs where elaborate paintings of banquets and sporting events such as the Olympics have been found. Many grave goods have been found in the tombs and there is an excellent collection of finds at the Archaeological Museum of Bologna (www.comune.bologna.it/bologna/Musei/Archeologico/). The Etruscans traded a great deal and so had much contact with the Greeks from other parts of Italy, Sicily and mainland Greece. The walls of the tombs depict chariot races and elaborate banqueting scenes with diners reclining on couches, drinking wine from kraters and being entertained by musicians. The scene is like many an ancient Greek depiction with one marked difference. In Etruscan art, women were shown dining right alongside the men, drinking wine and enjoying conversation. This would have been scandalous to an ancient Greek as women the other side of the Ionian sea were not permitted to be in attendance at banquets or symposia.
Chimera of Arezzo
Florence Archaeological Museum

The Etruscans had their own rich culture and this is reflected in much of their bronze artwork and pottery. While some of it resembled ancient Greek art, or indeed was Greek art acquired through trade, much of it is quite unique and an excellent example of this is the famous Chimera bronze on display at the Florence Archaeological Museum (http://www.firenzemusei.it/00_english/index.html).
There is much debate about the origin of the Etruscans in Italy with no consensus yet in sight. Some believe the Etruscans were an indigenous people, others that they came from Lydia in Asia Minor. As far as the Roman scene was concerned, the line of Etruscan kings began circa 616 B.C. with the reign of Tarquin the Elder who was a Corinthian Greek named Lucumo who lived in Tarquinia and married an Etruscan woman named Tanaquil. The two were shunned for a mixed marriage and so moved to the growing centre of Rome where Tarquin became the fifth king of Rome. The Etruscans were famous for their understanding of augury and prophecy, religious practices which would be widely used in Roman life for hundreds of years. Etruscan augurs would read portents and the will of the gods in animal entrails and organs and this skill impressed the Romans. The Etruscans not only complemented Roman religious practices but also helped to improve Roman building practices and it is to them that the Romans owe their talent for building aqueducts and sewers.

At the peak of their power and influence, the Etruscans were the dominant people of central Italy. They were however, never a truly unified nation and like the Greeks who had influenced them and traded with them, their city-states never stopped fighting amongst themselves. With the Romans growing in strength and skill to the south and the Celts expanding in the north, the Etruscans were in a superbly unenviable position and could not hold sway for long. The last Etruscan king of Rome, Tarquin the Proud, who according to Livy took the throne by force and ruled through fear, was narrowly defeated in a series of battles between Etruscan allies and the Romans, led by Lucius Iunius Brutus. Many died on both sides but Tarquin lived through the day and, though no longer King of Rome, lived out his days in exile in Tusculum. The wheels had been set in motion and Rome had become a Republic.

Of course, when I walked into the cypress-crowned tomb outside Castellina in Chianti nine years ago, I knew nothing of Etruscan history, nor how fascinating it really is. This short blurb is such a tiny scratch on the surface, a mere taste, there is so much more to learn. There are not a great many books (fiction or non-fiction) on the subject, at least not in English. As far as historical fiction/fantasy, two great reads are Steven Saylor's Roma, part of which takes place during Rome's infancy, and the other book is Ursula K. Le Guin's wonderfully woven tale, Lavinia, which looks at the early mythic establishment of Rome and the arrival of Aeneas after the Trojan War. I highly recommend the archaeological museums of Florence and Bologna where you can see Etruscan artefacts for yourselves and it goes without saying that visits to the archaeological sites mentioned are well worth the adventure. Just remember that snakes, as well as tourists, like nothing more than a dark, damp tomb in summer time.


Interior of Etruscan Tomb
Castellina in Chianti