Saturday, March 31, 2012

The World of Children of Apollo - Part II - Roman North Africa

In this second instalment of The World of Children of Apollo, we are going to take a brief tour of some of the settlements of Roman North Africa.

When I say ‘Roman’ I mean located within the Roman Empire, such as it was at the beginning of the 3rd century A.D., when Children of Apollo takes place. In actuality, most of the ‘Roman’ settlements in North Africa were either of Phoenician or Greek origin, with the exception perhaps of the legionary base at Lambaesis and the nearby colonia of Thamugadi, the latter established for veterans of the III Augustan Legion.

Severan Basilica
Leptis Magna
The southern Mediterranean coast was dotted with rich trading cities, settlements such as Apollonia, Cyrene, Leptis Magna, Sabratha and the once proud Punic capital of Carthage. Then there were the inland settlements of Thysdrus, Thugga, Thurburbo Maius and others. Where Egypt had long been the grain basket of Rome, the rise and wealth of these other settlements made them the new cornucopia of Empire. They were the leading producers of grain, oil, olives and garum (a highly popular fish sauce). The fact that Septimius Severus and his kinsman, the Praetorian Prefect Gaius Fulvius Plautianus, were from Leptis Magna ensured that the city and the region received imperial favour and capital investment.

The Forum in Sabratha
Children of Apollo begins in the desert of Cyrenaica province, near settlements of Apollonia and the splendid city of Cyrene, both across the water from Crete. I was not able to travel to these two sites in modern Libya but from my research, they seem splendidly sited in the fertile lands near the Mediterranean. Apollonia served as a port for Cyrene which was surrounded by olive groves and fields of wheat and barley. Cyrene itself rivalled Carthage in size and prosperity.

Arch of Trajan
Colonia of Thamugadi, Numidia
Moving west, one comes to the great city of Leptis Magna, the home town of Emperor Septimius Severus. Lucius does not visit this city in Children of Apollo, but rather in the next book, Killing the Hydra (out in the coming months!). Leptis Magna garnered much wealth from its fertile lands with cereal crops and olives. Emperors Trajan and Hadrian had building projects there but with Severus, the city received much favour with a large new forum, a colonnaded street, a unique four-sided triumphal arch, a basilica, added warehouses and a lighthouse. Our main character, Lucius Metellus Anguis, gets his first real taste of politics in the town of Sabratha where he must make a very difficult decision that impacts later perceptions of himself.

Amphitheater of Thysdrus
When it comes to Tunisia, there are several Roman settlements. Lucius and his men end up attached to the III Augustan Legion at Lambaesis, on the rocky, Numidian plain of what is now Algeria. A unique feature of the base was its massive, enclosed parade ground which featured a viewing platform with an equestrian statue of Emperor Hadrian in the centre, a commemoration of that emperor’s visit to the base. Lucius meets up with some old friends at the colonia of Thamugadi which was founded by Trajan and featured high walls, a library and fourteen public baths.

Cells beneath the Amphitheater floor
Thysdrus ('El Jem')
In northern Tunisia, we traded our 4x4 for an aged Toyota minibus driven by a silent but mad driver we affectionately dubbed ‘Sebulba’. His driving was like pod racing in Star Wars and our ‘Sebulba’ seemed just as reckless, his chosen vehicle eating up the road with a very loud chug-chugging sound. We passed through many different villages along the way, the most disturbing one being the ‘village of butchers’, so called by us for all the cow and goat heads that hung bleeding along the very side of the road, glossy eyed and lifeless.

One of the most interesting sites I visited during our Tunisian safari was Roman Thysdrus (modern El Jem). This settlement today is pretty unassuming except for the massive, extremely well-preserved amphitheatre in the centre. It was a real treat to sit in the seats of the amphitheatre, looking down on the scene of an imagined combat. I could not visit this site and not include a tense scene of gladiatorial combat, as seen by the legionaries on leave. Walking beneath the floor, along the cells where the animals and gladiators were kept, the sounds of those bygone days of barbarism and brutality echoed in my ears. The place definitely has memory. If you ever get the chance to visit El Jem, I would highly recommend it. It must have held some spectacular games in its day.

Roman Thugga
Another settlement that bears mentioning here, though it figures more largely in book II of the Eagles and Dragons series, is Thugga. This is a sprawling settlement surrounded by olive groves and green plains. It featured a large theatre, a massive capitol, public baths, a hippodrome and a network of paved streets that you can still walk today. This was a place where I could see my characters walking, interacting with others. It was helped by the fact that we were the only group there the entire time. It was deserted, a Roman ghost town. The mosaics that decorated homes, baths, taverns and brothels are still there, intact and open to the sky. The public latrine is there too, where men and women feeling nature’s call would sit cheek to cheek, literally. I wonder what odd bits of conversation happened there? Would Romans sit there and chat away while they did their business or would they stare at the ground and try not to make eye contact as they made  offerings to the Roman infrastructure. Maybe the public latrine was just a place to be avoided, a place where one entered at one’s own risk for fear of robbery or worse. It was just down the street from the brothel (named 'The House of the Cyclops'), so perhaps those patrons were regular users. The imagination ran wild in Thugga!

Public Latrine
The final city we visited was Tunis, the ancient city of Carthage. Sadly, there was no sign of Dido, Aeneas, Hamilcar or Hannibal. When Rome razed Carthage to the ground after the Punic wars and salted its once-fertile earth, they built anew. And today, much of Tunis covers what the Romans built. There are however, some bits that are well worth the visit. One particular spot is the massive Antonine Bath complex which overlooks the sea. This was a quiet, sad site, surrounded by city but, it was still possible to glimpse the grandeur that it once exposited. Sadly, I was not able to see the great double harbour of ancient Carthage. If you happen to be in Tunis, a must see is the Bardo Museum which contains much of the mosaics and statuary from all of the settlements of that part of the Roman Empire. This is a world class collection with some of the finest mosaics I have ever seen. It was there that the faces of Septimius Severus, Plautianus, Julia Domna and others stared back at me.

Antonine Baths
Leaving Tunisia behind was bitter sweet for I knew that it may be a long while before I would be able to visit such ancient sites on a truly intimate basis again. Haggling in French in the bazaars was fun, as was the experience of seeing camel traders dressed in cloaks that looked a lot like Jawa outfits. I could have done without the bout of fever brought on by my poor choice of soup in Douz, but eating dates from a branch right off the tree was great. Such are the contrasts of travelling but it all adds to the experiences required by writing.

In the next part of The World of Children of Apollo, we will meet the imperial family of the time, the Severans.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The World of Children of Apollo - Part I - The Desert

For this series of posts that I am calling The World of Children of Apollo, we’ll be taking a brief look at the Roman Empire at the beginning of the 3rd century A.D., focussing on the areas, the period, through which the characters of Children of Apollo move. Not to worry, this will not be an exhaustive history lesson but rather an historical and modern tour, guided by fiction. I’ll post photos and little anecdotes related to my travels and research over the course of writing Children of Apollo.

In this first entry, I’m going to look at the desert. From my very first glimpse, first smell and touch, of the North African Sahara, I knew that the desert itself would be a character. I had always wondered how something so plain could be such a draw but I fell in love with the landscape. It is unlike any other place, a sand sea of undulating dunes and scattered oases. In some areas, the sand is literally as soft as sifted flour.
Sahara near Tozeur

Children of Apollo begins with a Roman cohort marching through the desert in the provinces of Cyrenaica and Africa Proconsularis, which included modern Libya and Tunisia. I was not able to visit Libya but, when I was in the Tunisian Sahara, the image of a marching Roman column in the heat of the bleak but mysterious landscape was something that stayed with me. This was the southern frontier of the Roman Empire, from Egypt to the Atlas Mountains of Mauretania province. The II Traiana garrisoned Alexandria and small auxiliary detachments were stationed at settlements along the coast. The only other full legion in North Africa at the time was the III Augustan stationed at Lambaesis, to the west, in Numidia.

Troglodyte Dwelling
In Tunisia or, what was Africa Proconsularis, the Sahara is not only made up of soft, sandy dunes that lend themselves to a meditative, barefoot promenade. The terrain toward the coast can be quite green at times. Other areas are covered by great salt lakes where the crystalline formations reflect the sun with diamond-like fascination. There are also the rocky, desert regions, such as Matmata and Tataouine, where some people live in troglodyte dwellings. Star Wars fans will be interested to know that Owen and Beru’s farmstead was filmed in one such dwelling in the same area. Basically, these are caves below ground level where the walls are painted white so that the people can stay relatively cool even in the intensity of the summer heat. I was there in January, so I experienced no such discomfort.

Salt Lake of
Chott El Jerid
At one point, we pushed on to some of the southerly Tunisian settlements. Our 4x4 bounced along through olive groves, through rocky passes and on into the dunes as our driver, Sami, grooved and ululated to a cassette called ‘Couscous Beats’. The writer in me was absorbing all of the stimuli and one such place was the Douz Saharan market where I, were I so inclined, could have bought a camel or donkey. The market had vintage radios, tin jewellery with Berber designs, fezzes and mounds of fragrant spices. But watch out for the pickpockets! One of our group had her purse sliced with an exacto knife and she was none the wiser. Luckily, she was a birder and her binoculars blocked the thief’s hand from grabbing anything from that side of the purse.

Saharan Dunes
Watching the sun set on the Sahara was a peaceful, awe-inspiring experience that I will never forget. That is, until three Berber horsemen wielding rifles pounded up toward us. My French came in handy as I explained our presence, our admiration of the beauty of the desert. I don’t know if they actually gave a toss or not because they just circled us a couple times and galloped off.

The next day we visited the Mos Eisley set of Star Wars near Tozeur (guarded by a couple of Berber men, their camels and two really long rifles). For me this was a real thrill and though the main part of the set was blocked off, there were other, smaller set pieces that could be visited. It was a beautiful spot and difficult to imagine what it might have been like with the entire cast and crew of Star Wars there. Somewhat less peaceful, I imagine. From there we headed north along the Algerian border. We asked our guides if we could go into Algeria, which seemed much rockier, and they said that if we approached the boarder we would be shot at. I tried to imagine Lambaesis, in the distance, where an entire Roman legion was based so long ago. I knew it had to be a part of my story but at that early stage, I wasn’t sure yet how big a part it had to play.
Douz Animal Market

In the next instalment of The World of Children of Apollo, I will look briefly at some of the towns and larger settlements of Roman North Africa. Wine, olives and gladiatorial combat optional!

Oasis near Chebika
Oasis near Chebika

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Children of Apollo - now available in paperback

Greetings fellow fiction readers, writers and fans of ancient history in general. This has been a long time coming but I'm pretty pleased to be able to announce that my first novel, Children of Apollo, is now available in trade paperback from (

Children of Apollo is the first book in my Eagles and Dragons series, set in the Roman Empire during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus (reigned A.D. 193-211). Over the next few months I'll be writing some posts about the world of Children of Apollo from the towns of Roman North Africa and the Sahara to Etruria and Rome itself. I'll share some of my experiences researching and writing the book and take you on what will hopefully be some very interesting pictorial tours of a few of the sights that inspired the story.

If your curiosity is piqued, here is a brief synopsis:

Children of Apollo is the tale of Lucius Metellus Anguis, a young warrior who is inspired by the deeds of his glorious ancestors and burdened by the knowledge that he must raise his family name from the ashes of the past. Having achieved a measure of success in the Emperor’s legions in North Africa, Lucius is recalled to Rome where he finds himself surrounded by enemies, cast into the deadly arena of Roman politics. Amid growing fears of treachery, Lucius meets a young Athenian woman who fills his darkening world with new-found hope. Their love grows, as does their belief that the gods have planned their meeting but, when an ancient oracle of Apollo utters a terrifying prophecy regarding his future, Lucius’ world is once more thrown into chaos. Ultimately, he must choose sides in a war that threatens to destroy his family, his faith and all that he has worked for.

So, that is the story in a nutshell. If you do pick up a copy, I sincerely hope you enjoy it! I look forward to any questions or comments people might have and any reviews you care to post. I will make further announcements as Children of Apollo becomes available in other countries, on other websites and through other outlets. And for those of you with e-readers, fear not, as the e-book will be out in the coming weeks.

Cheers and happy reading!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Repatriation of Beauty

Someone recently forwarded me images from a new campaign out of Greece to return precious antiquities to the place of their creation, the place of their birth so to speak. The images below are, in my opinion, quite beautiful and represent what truly was a Golden Age.
Now, I know that this is an extremely touchy subject and many doubt that the Greeks are responsible enough, or financially stable enough, to care for these masterpieces. Even I, several years ago, believed that many of these treasures would be better cared for in the British Museum or the Louvre. If you haven't been to either of the latter places, you should go. Each gallery is like entering a different world.

However, a few years ago, the new Acropolis Museum opened in Athens ( I had my doubts, like many others. But, when I walked across the glass floor of the courtyard, ancient ruins far underfoot, and through those doors, I realized that I had been mistaken and had much underestimated the project. The new Acropolis Museum is simply stunning. Inside, you can interact with the artefacts on a very personal level, are able to circle them fully and up close. It was packed when we went but all sound seemed to leach out of the place when you were face to face with marble creations that most only see in books. Even my kids were gob smacked!

The new museum is not some modern monstrosity or an old structure with a new barnacle attached such as we have (I'm sorry to say it) in Toronto. The walls and girders of the Acropolis Museum seem almost not to be there at all. The eye is drawn to the artefacts, so much so that one can almost hear whispers across the ages. The best part for me was when we reached the upper level where the few Parthenon marbles that remain in Greece are laid out in a gallery that reflects the exact footprint of the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Parthenos. Artefacts are placed in the same position they would have occupied on the Parthenon itself, which looms quietly above the museum. However, there were far too many empty spaces awaiting the return of the marbles, the galloping horsemen of the frieze and statuary from the pediments among them.

I had held my breath when I saw the giant crane lowering the artefacts from the top of the Acropolis down, through the air to the new museum. I suspect many Athenians and lovers of antiquity did likewise. However, the move was a success and the new museum a triumph. So, now that the Parthenon marbles have a secure home to return to, why not return them? The same with artefacts in the Louvre, Berlin or other museums around the world. There have been several acts of repatriation of late, so it is being done. The Getty Museum in L.A. recently returned priceless reliefs to the Archaeological Museum of Athens and so too have other U.S. museums returned items to Italy. Egypt has long been waiting for several precious artefacts to be returned by the British and Berlin museums, among others.

Of course I understand why these countries would like to keep these artefacts but at the end of the day, they were taken. Napoleon took what he wanted from Egypt and Lord Elgin hacked the ancient images from the side of the Parthenon because he had 'permission' from the occupying Ottoman forces in Greece at the time. That was how history played out but perhaps now is the time to make right past wrongs. Scholars from around the world will be welcome to study the Parthenon marbles in Athens with ease, will likely be welcomed with open arms by the Greek Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

Not only do the ads pictured here remind us of where these antiquities truly belong but they also evoke something more, some pathos, a connection with the life of these images of a Golden Age long passed but still felt.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Historical Novels Review

I’ve just finished reading through the February issue of the Historical Novels Review which is a publication of the Historical Novel Society. I may have mentioned this in a previous post some time ago but I thought I would reiterate something. Anyone who reads or writes historical fiction, or has a passing interest in history, this is a membership that is well worth the money (about $60 US annually).

Every issue of the Historical Novels Review contains market news about the latest deals and releases of historical fiction/fantasy, something on history and film (love it!) and a spotlight for new voices in the genre (good for you, HNS!). There are also loads of reviews at the back of the publication.

This last issue was particularly relevant to some of the topics, issues, that I have been batting about with other folks on-line and in person of late. In the article, Violence, American Style, Ken Kreckel interviews Donald Ray Pollock. Now, I have not read Mr. Pollock’s work but the interview did ask some relevant questions: How much violence is appropriate in a work? and, How graphically should it be portrayed? Mr. Pollock had quite a rough upbringing and addiction-ridden lifestyle previously, so, when asked why the sex and violence in his work is so graphic, he says that “America has always been a violent place and many , many people are fascinated by criminal behaviour and mayhem as long as it doesn’t strike too close to home.”

That says something about the popularity of graphic violence in writing and other media today. I’m of the opinion that if it furthers the story and is consistent with the particular character, it works. Mr. Pollock says he writes about those darker aspects of life “because it’s what I know best.” Writing what you know is always a good rule! From the historical fiction context, if you are writing about gladiators, then violence and lots of blood is a given reality. On the other hand, gratuitous violence and degradation of women for the sole purpose of titillating the minority of my readers is not what I write for. You may think differently, but for me it seems that writers (and other artists) have a certain responsibility. We can’t complain about how society is going downhill and then encourage the very things that many believe are causing the fall of that society. The HNS article added an interesting dimension to the discussion.

The Historical Novels Review also features report backs on events and conferences. This particular issue looks at the Institute for Historical Research’s conference held in London last November. At the conference, academics and historical novelists discussed how the two come together and the priorities of the historical novelist. Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall and a person who had helped the genre gain more credibility of late, was part of the panel. I won’t reiterate the entire article here but the question that was on everyone’s mind throughout the conference was “How important is historical accuracy in making historical fiction worth reading?”

As I’ve said before, that question is something that I have tried to come to terms with over the years in reconciling the historian and the novelist within. When I first started writing historical fiction I went in for the details and accuracy to the hilt but, when I stepped back from the writing, it seemed to the detriment of the story. Too much detail and not enough plot. One of the panellists said that what makes great historical fiction is getting into the minute details and feelings of life in the past, basic fears, loves and hates. The little things, the “minutiae of existence”, are what have disappeared from the record and “these truths about being there are what the novelist tries to convey.” As Hilary Mantel said, “historical fiction is about filling in the gaps” and conveying what was never recorded. That definitely makes for an adventure for both writer and reader.

For all you indie authors out there who feel that the Historical Novels Review is not for you, think again. The HNS Review On-line does look at self-published works as well so there is something in it for the do-it-yourselfers too!

I’ve been a member of the Historical Novel Society for a few years now and I have to say that both the novelist and the historian in me are quite pleased.


Monday, March 5, 2012

There is a Story There!

I read and article the other day about a recent discovery at the bottom of Haifa Bay, along the Israeli coast. During commercial dredging operations in the harbour, workers accidentally discovered a 2,600 year old Corinthian helmet. Archaeologists were at first baffled by this because there were no known Greek colonies along the Israeli coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The helmet is a beautiful specimen, dated to circa 600 B.C.

The helmet itself is bronze, covered in gold leaf and decorated with snakes, lions and peacock’s tails (or palmettes). The article notes that researchers now believe it likely belonged to a wealthy Greek mercenary in the employ of the Egyptian pharaoh, Necho II, who waged war for about ten years, conquering Syria in the first campaign. But in the second campaign Necho II waged a losing war against the rising tide of Babylon led by King Nebuchadnezzar II. These wars are written about by Herodotus and figure largely in the Torah / Old Testament. To read the rest of this article click here:

This is why I so love history and archaeology, the stories that can arise out a single find and the subsequent questions around it. Whose helmet was this? Did he lose it or was it some sort of offering? Was his ship wrecked? Where was he from? and Who had he left behind? What were his experiences as part of the Egyptian army?

 History and archaeology are fertile ground for writers. Next time you have writer’s block or want to start something new, just flip through a book of archaeology or news on the most recent finds around the world. There is still a lot of uncharted, unwritten territory.