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.