How Accurate is that Historical Drama?

The Lost Prince
2003
BBC/WGBH biopic of Prince John.

Even for those people with an interest in the British royal family, Prince John is a shadowy figure. Not the ‘evil’ brother of Richard the Lionheart, whose barons made him sign the Magna Carta in 1215, but the youngest child of King George V and Queen Mary.

John was born in 1905 at York Cottage on the royal family’s private Sandringham estate, in west Norfolk, and here too he spent much of his early childhood, until his father succeeded to the throne in 1910. His early childhood was uneventful, but by age four he was described as ‘painfully slow’ by Queen Mary’s biographer Anne Edwards. Later, Queen Mary would write to a friend, saying John ‘a great anxiety to us for many years, ever since he was four years old.’

A seizure some point in his fifth year led to a diagnosis of epilepsy, but other behaviours, especially a repetition of actions and an inability to learn from consequences have led to a posthumous diagnosis of autism. As a result, and typical of the times and social class, John was removed from the public eye, to live quietly with his governess Lalla at Wood Farm (then Marsh Farm), one of the farms on the Sandringham estate.

Wood Farm (the red arrow in the map below) is isolated, even by Norfolk standards. At the end of a long private track which itself runs off the public lane that circles the hamlet of Wolferton, it is five kilometers away from Sandringham House itself. Overlooking flat farmland out to The Wash, and on private land without footpaths, it would have been indeed a quiet, private life. Although, in the years John lived there, the train from King’s Lynn to Hunstanton ran very close to Wood Farm, with a station at Wolferton for the royal family. Perhaps it provided some excitement.

But quiet and private did not mean neglected or forgotten, even as his seizures worsened. Along with his nanny, local children were chosen to play with John, and among those children was my father’s first cousin Mary. Her father was an estate employee, as was his father (my great-grandfather). Two years younger than John, she remembered this vividly in the last years of her life; it was one of the stories she loved to tell us when we visited her in the 1990s. I spoke to the last surviving member of that generation of cousins, Anne, last week; she’s in her 101st year, with a memory clearer than mine. I had been under the impression that the estate children were taken out to Wood Farm for their ‘playdates’ with the prince, but that wasn’t the whole story. John was also brought to the village, and Anne told me of her grandmother’s exasperation after Mary and the prince had made themselves horribly muddy jumping in the stream of water that ran down the side of the lane my great-grandparents’ house stands on.

John died in 1919 at Wood Farm. My cousin Mary died in 2001, before The Lost Prince was made. I would have loved to have known her reaction to it. Like me, she would have to have first get past the landscape: it was filmed in Buckinghamshire, which does NOT look like the flat coastal landscape of west Norfolk; nor did the house they used bear much resemblance to Wood Farm. But those details aside, and allowing for dramatic flourishes and emphases, my overall reaction was one of a reasonably fair portrayal of a child whose neurology did not allow him to adapt to the demands and changes of the early twentieth century, ones that also nearly destroyed the royal family. An allegory as much as a biography, perhaps.

Empire’s Heir by Marian L. Thorpe – a young woman must make decisions that will affect an Empire on the edge of history.

A beautiful review from Northern Reader.

Northern Reader

Empire's Heir (Empire's Legacy Book 6) by [Marian L Thorpe]

Empire’s Heir by Marian L Thorpe

Intense, moving and deeply personal, this novel set on the edge of history is a picture of an unconventional family under various threats is an engaging read. A political thriller of sorts, this is a novel which features a subtle and intelligent story of a group of people who are playing for high stakes – their lives and the survival of their country in the face of a powerful ruling Empire. The talented author continues a saga in a created world which draws inspiration and historical veracity from Roman history with other elements added. This book is the second in a second trilogy of an Empire where women are frequently warriors, politicians and in the case of one of the main characters here, diplomats. Gwenna is a young woman who is the acknowledged heir to the land of Esperias, and it is largely her…

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Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome, by L J Trafford: A Review

Many long years ago, I took courses from a Scottish Studies professor who, hands down, was the most entertaining lecturer I ever had. He combined serious scholarship with stories – sometimes scurrilous – that made us howl with laughter. L J Trafford’s Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome fits that model: solid research told in an accessible manner, and it too had me howling with laughter in places.

Divided into sixteen chapters covering everything from ideals of beauty, the sex lives of Emperors, and what constitutes good sex (from the point of view of a Roman male), this is all presented in a fairly light-handed manner. While Trafford does acknowledge that Roman morals and behaviour cannot always be judged by 21st century standards, she also does not shy away from pointing out the inequalities and lack of choice for many Romans, especially those who were enslaved.

I was pleased to see that women’s sexuality was not ignored, as it often is in books on this subject. The information (opinion) still comes from men, who were doing most of the writing at the time, and much of it is as eyebrow-raising as men’s thoughts on women’s sexuality often are…but then we have Ovid, who wrote that mutual pleasure was the goal of sex, and that women’s orgasms were important and desirable. I learned more about women’s sexuality in ancient Rome than any other topic, and for that alone the book was worth reading.

Trafford also shows how some things never change. The sex lives of prominent people, including (maybe particularly) the emperors and their wives, were topics of discussion, and the reputation of many an emperor was dragged in the dirt by the poets, satirists and orators of the day. What we would now view as homophobic slurs were common insults, but this isn’t how the Romans saw it. The gender of your sexual partner was (almost) irrelevant; what position you took – the active or passive partner – was. The passive role was unmanly, and Roman men could not be unmanly. Some of the insults remain the same to this day.

I read Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome as a novelist, judging it for its usefulness in world-building. It is full of tidbits that, judiciously adapted, would certainly add to the verisimilitude of historical fiction set in ancient Rome. That along the way I was entertained, educated, but also made to think reflects Trafford’s grasp of her subject as well as her skill as a writer. Highly recommended.

Striking Fear

A Random Research Note

File:Slingers on Trajan's Column.JPG
Slingers portrayed on Trajan’s Column.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Smooth stones shot with a sling…are more dangerous than any arrows, since while leaving the limb intact they inflict a wound that is still lethal, and the enemy dies from the blow of the stone without loss of blood…This weapon should be learned by all recruits with frequent exercise, because it is no effort to carry a sling. It often happens too that warfare is carried on in stony places, that some mountain or hill has to be defended…

Vegetius: De Re Militari

Druisius, one of the main characters in my work-in-progress, Empress & Soldier, is a new recruit facing his first battle, defending a mountain pass. In the vanguard of the troops facing the enemy are the slingers. (No, this isn’t historically correct: what I write isn’t. It’s a created world that looks a lot like ours, but I’m not bound by absolute accuracy.)

Slings are an ancient weapon, most likely in use long before any written record. The first written record in the western world is the story of David and Goliath in the Old Testament of the Bible (1st Samuel), thought to have been written about the 6th century BCE. Used across the world, the oldest-known slings are from coastal Peru, radio-carbon dated to c. 2500 BCE.

Roman slingers, which I am using as my model, used lead sling-bullets: the density of lead means that the mass of a sling-bullet made from the metal is much greater than one of stone. Lead sling-bullets could therefore be small, able to travel further than a stone of the same mass due to less resistance in the air, and difficult to see in flight. A painful projectile, with larger ones capable of speeds up to 160 kph.  As archaeologist John Reid of the Trimontium Trust told Scientific American, it could take the top of a head off. Romans (and Greeks) literally added insult to injury: bullets were sometimes inscribed with images of snakes or scorpions, or inscriptions such as ‘catch!’.

File:Romans used also small sling bullets of lead.jpg
Peter van der Sluijs, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most interesting of all the sling bullets found from the Roman period are those from Burnswark, or Birrenswark, Hill in southwestern Scotland. In the second century CE, troops under the command of Quintus Lollius Urbicus, the Roman governor of Britannia (himself following orders from Antonius Pius, the Roman Emperor) attacked the hillfort of the Caledonian people here. Archaeological investigations at the site discovered about twenty percent of the sling bullets were smaller than average, and had holes drilled into them. These bullets whistle as they fly. Their assumed purpose is to terrify the enemy: small, stinging, whistling projectiles, almost like a swarm of biting insects.

Druisius isn’t a slinger; he’s infantry, a foot soldier using shield and sword. But he sees the value of the sling in his first battle.  Will he ever use it?  You may have to read Empress & Soldier to find out!

References:

Translated Texts for Historians Volume 16: Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science. N.P. Milner, Translator. Liverpool University Press, 1996. pp 16-17  

Whistling Sling Bullets Were Roman Troops’ Secret Weapon. Tom Metcalfe, LiveScience on June 14, 2016: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/whistling-sling-bullets-were-roman-troops-secret-weapon/

Burnswark Hill: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burnswark_Hill#Battle_details

You Scratch My Back, I’ll Scratch Yours.

A Random Research Note

“We ourselves have seen Manius Manilius walking across the forum; a signal that he who did so, gave all the citizens liberty to consult him upon any subject; and to such persons, when thus walking or sitting at home upon their seats of ceremony, all people had free access, not only to consult them upon points of civil law, but even upon the settlement of a daughter in marriage, the purchase of an estate, or the cultivation of a farm, and indeed upon any employment or business whatsoever.” Cicero, De Oratores, Book III:XXXIII 

https://pages.pomona.edu/~cmc24747/sources/cic_web/de_or_3.htm
aeneid
DEA / G. Dagli Orti / De Agostini / Getty

Manius Manilius, whoever he was*, is represented in this passage by Cicero as a patron: an important position and concept in the hierarchical structure of the Roman social contract.

In the Roman world, a patron-client relationship was a form of noblesse oblige, although with the loyalty and support of the client expected. Based on the Roman ideal of ‘fides’, loyalty, the patron – (the word derives from ‘father’) – the head of a high-status family, dispensed advice, loans, and influence to his clients – men of lower status, in exchange for political support, respect, and sometimes the physical presence of their clients for protection.

In Empress & Soldier, we see this in action when Salvius, Druisius’s father, goes to ask his patron for help in acquiring certain licenses he needs as a merchant. He takes his oldest son (Druisius) with him, as part of his education. They go early in the morning, are admitted to a waiting room, where they and the others waiting are seen in order of their social status. I based this on the salutatio, the morning greeting of clients to their patrons, and also the opportunity to ask the patron for a favour.

By the late Roman Empire, the patron-client relationship had changed quite a bit, to a more self-serving relationship between the two. But one of the advantages of writing a fictional world is I can pick and choose what aspects of history I want to use and adapt – and so I’ve kept patronage in my city of Casil to reflect patronage in the Roman Republic.

(The identity of Druisius’s father’s patron is important to the story, by the way, but I’m not about to reveal that yet!)

* an orator and jurist of the Roman Republic, c 150 BCE, actually.

Lucius Primus’s Unauthorized War

A Random Research Note

Look back over the past, at the empires that rose and fell, and predict the future.  Marcus Aurelius (or Catilius, in my fictional semi-parallel world.)

There are – as there are in almost all multigenerational sagas – two areas of focus in my books: the personal arcs of my characters, and the political/social background against which those character arcs unfold, and by which they are challenged and tested and developed. In Empress & Soldier, the work-in-progress, the political plot will (perhaps) be foremost, and, as I currently envision the book, it will take place over about a 15-year period. A different challenge for me, the writer, in part because my knowledge of Roman political history outside the major events in Roman Britain and a few highlights elsewhere is fairly limited.

This entails a lot of research…which I’ll be sharing in random bits as I learn something that will feed the plot of the book. I’m doing this as much for me as anyone – this way it’s written down somewhere I can find it again 😊 – but perhaps it will entertain or enlighten someone, or provide me with feedback that will be useful! 

Map

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The Odrysian Kingdom, which existed from the early 5th century BC at least until the mid-3rd century BC, was one of the most powerful of its time. Throughout much of its early history it remained an ally of Athens; eventually, Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father, would conquer it. But in the early part of the common era it was under Roman control, and in one jurisdiction, there was a proconsul governor named Lucius Primus.

According to Dio (54:3:2) Lucius Primus (or he might have been Marcus Primus) stood trial in 22 CE for starting a war against the Odrysae. The Odrysae were Thracian, and Thrace had been an important ally of Rome, especially in the Battle of Actium. Why Lucius Primus started this war I haven’t yet been able to find out, but apparently it was ‘unauthorized’ by Augustus. (Starting a war against allies doesn’t appear at first glance to be a good move on a governor’s part.)  He swore he had Augustus’s approval; Augustus said he didn’t…and Lucius Primus was eventually executed.

The event is mentioned by Dio because it’s important in Augustus’s gradual expansion of power: the jurisdiction Lucius Primus governed was a senatorial province, and it should have been the senate that decided the governor’s fate without Augustus’s interference. That’s not what caught my attention. In furthering the history of my fictional world, I need a reason for my antagonists (a family) to have a grievance against the Emperors. So I think this little bit of history will serve as a template. A governor who starts a war he shouldn’t have, a trial and execution….and then imagination can create a son who, exonerated because he was either too young or serving in another province (haven’t worked out the timelines yet) nurses his grievance and plans a long, multi-generational game of revenge – a game he trains his nephew in as well.

Spotlight on: The Sins of the Father, by Annie Whitehead

The Sins of the Father: Tales of the Iclingas Book 2 by [Annie Whitehead]

The Sins of the Father is out today, September 15th!                                        

Here’s the author to tell us a little about this long-awaited sequel to Cometh the Hour.

The Sins of the Father is the follow-up to my novel Cometh the Hour, about Penda, the last pagan king of Mercia, his struggles to achieve and maintain independence from the aggressive kingdom of Northumbria, and his quest to avenge his kin, especially his womenfolk.

Now, his sons have come of age, as have the children of Penda’s nemesis in Northumbria. All of them are affected by their fathers’ antipathy. The new novel tells the stories of the members of this next generation, and how they try either to emulate their fathers, or plough their own paths, and how this leads to tension and, ultimately, war.

Matters have been complicated by the fact that some of these children have married into the other family, thus blurring the lines of loyalty.

From this tangled web Ethelred, the youngest of Penda’s children, a boy when all the major battles of the first book occurred, feels he has less investment in the feud, but this leads to massive guilt on his part that he might let his kin down by his lack of ambition. He sees his warrior brother wearing their father’s mantle, feels cold in that large shadow, and all he really wants to do is live quietly with his Welsh love.

Fate intervenes when, just as in his father’s day, the womenfolk of Mercia must be avenged. Now Ethelred’s task is to end the feud, once and for all. Can he honour his father’s memory yet keep his conscience clear, and find his way back to his Welsh love?

What few have realised is that wars are not always fought by men on the battlefield, and the daughter of the Northumbrian king has been given a deadly task of her own. Will she become the murderer that her father and brother wish her to be, or can she turn away from her heritage? For all involved, the stakes are high and even victory demands a heavy price.

Available from Amazon

The Place Below: The Maer Cycle Book III, by Dan Fitzerald

In The Place Below, Dan Fitzgerald brings his Maer Cycle to a satisfying conclusion. A generation after the first two books of the series, Sasha, daughter of human and Maer, is now an adult. Empathic, sensitive to touch, her natural skill with languages and communication enhanced as needed by magic, Sasha is searching out the tombs of the Ka-lar, the ‘forever kings’ laid to rest in a form of stasis hundreds of years earlier.  Then one day, her empathetic connection to the minds of the dead encounters an awakened, living Ka-lar among a branch of the Maer who themselves are legendary: the underground-dwelling Skin Maer.

The book alternates between the viewpoints of Sasha and Kuun, the awakened Ka-lar, and they serve as counterbalances to each other: Kuun, who at first presents as confident and powerful, slowly reveals motives and doubts; Sasha, who presents as unsure and solitary by nature, grows into her own competence and agency. Familiar characters—Sinnie, Finn, Tcheen—are reintroduced, but as characters to support Sasha in her quest, not to direct and overshadow her.

Kuun, the scholar-scientist Forever King, choosing stasis in the face of unfinished research in a time of plague, is a nuanced and ambiguous character, his motives slowly revealed over the course of his narrative. Again, Fitzgerald’s themes of communication and understanding play into the development of his character and his actions.

Like Fitzgerald’s first two books, this is fantasy with few battles and heroics of a martial sort, but with questions asked and answered about the power of language; about acceptance of differences that are superficial; about what we might sacrifice for the good of the whole. Commonalities that connect, not contrasts that divide. Sasha, neither human nor Maer, embodies both the possibility and the questions that arise about differences between Maer and human, a question that will be, finally, answered through Kuun’s determination. Recommended (as is the whole series) for readers wanting character-centred fantasy that makes them think.

Find The Maer Cycle, including an omnibus edition with bonus features here.

Dan Fitzgerald

Dan Fitzgerald is the fantasy author of the Maer Cycle trilogy (character-driven low-magic fantasy) and the upcoming Weirdwater Confluence duology (sword-free fantasy with unusual love stories). The Living Waters comes out October 15, 2021 and The Isle of a Thousand Worlds arrives January 15, 2022, both from Shadow Spark Publishing.

He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, twin boys, and two cats. When not writing he might be found doing yoga, gardening, cooking, or listening to French music.

He can be found on Twitter or Instagram as danfitzwrites, or on his website, www.danfitzwrites.com



Bjørn Larssen’s Storytellers in Audiobook Format

From Tantor Media September 7th.

If you don’t know this marvellous book, here’s my review from its release day in 2019.

Storytellers-cover

Set against Iceland’s harsh but beautiful landscape in the late 19th and  early 20th century, Bjørn Larssen’s debut novel Storytellers explores the multi-generational effect of the evasions, embellishments and outright lies told in a small village. The book begins slowly, almost lyrically, pulling the reader into what seems like situation borrowed from folktale: a reclusive blacksmith, Gunnar, rescues an injured stranger, Sigurd. In exchange for his care, Sigurd offers Gunnar a lot of money, and a story.

But as Sigurd’s story progresses, and the book moves between the past and the present, darker elements begin to appear. Gunnar’s reclusiveness hides his own secrets, and the unresolved stories of his past. As other characters are introduced and their lives interweave, it becomes clear that at the heart of this small village there are things untold, things left out of the stories, purposely re-imagined. Both individual and collective histories – and memories – cannot be trusted.

The book was reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, in both theme and mood. Both books deal with the unreliability of memory; both are largely melancholy books. And perhaps there is allegory in them both, too. Storytellers is a book to be read when there is time for contemplation, maybe of an evening with a glass of wine. It isn’t always the easiest read, but it’s not a book I’m going to forget easily, either.

The Dogs of Empire’s Legacy

“Shugo,” I called, recognizing him.

“Lord Sorley,” he said, coming over to me. The puppy squirmed in his grasp.

“What is that?” I asked. Shugo was one of the shepherds, and his sheepdogs were the best around. We bought young dogs from him, rather than breed our own. But the puppy he was holding was no sheepdog, although its black and white colouring suggested one of its parents was.

He spat. “Hagen came through with his hound just when Meg was in heat,” he grumbled. “This is the result. I drowned the others at birth — what good would they be? Left her this one to raise so the bitch wouldn’t pine, but I need her back with the sheep. So it’s drowning for this one, too.”

“How old is he?” I could see from how he held the pup it was male.

“Six weeks.”

“Don’t drown it,” I said. “I’ll buy it from you.”

“Buy it? What do you want it for?”

“The Comiádh’s son is ten. Just the right age for a puppy. Will you send it? I’ll write a note, if you’ll wait a few minutes.”

“Aye,” he said. “It’ll make a boy’s dog, I warrant.”

One of the advantages of writing what I write – historical fiction of another world – is that I don’t have to stay true to historical fact. I do, a lot, but in the case of Colm’s puppy (and other dogs in the books), I may not have.

This isn’t to say that herding dogs and hunting dogs were unknown in the classical and early-medieval world. They were. Dogs have likely accompanied people and their herds since long before recorded history; once domesticated and relating to people as part of their pack, dogs’ protective instincts would easily extend to the animals associated with their people. Archeological excavation of sites dated to the middle of the 3rd millennium BCE has found the remains of sheep and dogs together. But the physical separation of hunting dogs and herding dogs by breed is thought by some researchers to have occurred much later – so Colm’s dog Peritas, which I envision as a cross between a border collie and a deerhound – appears anachronistic.

File:Dog-Mosaic.jpg
2nd century BC mosaic from Alexandria, Egypt of a dog and a pitcher. Public Domian, via Wikimedia Commons

Or does it?  About 200 CE, Oppian of Apamea, a Greek poet, wrote a poem on hunting, in which he observes that, for the hunter, the black and white dogs of the farmer and shepherd (the mosaic above may show one of these) are not desirable. These may have been more guardian dogs than herding dogs – a couple of centuries earlier, Marcus Varro, in his De Re Rusticae, wrote:

As there are, then, two sorts of dogs — the hunting-dog suited to chase the beasts of the forest, and the other which is procured as a watch-dog and is of importance to the shepherd… 

By Anonymous (Roman Empire) – Walters Art Museum: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18804318

In the 2nd C Roman relief of a herdsman and his dog (above), there are no features that point to this dog as a ‘black and white herding dog’ as we know them in later centuries (and as I picture the herding dogs of Linrathe) – but no evidence it isn’t, either.

File:Mosaic of Dog Chasing a Rabbit, Roman, Homs, Syria, 450-462 AD, polychrome marble tesserae - Chazen Museum of Art - DSC01916.JPG
Mosaic of Dog Chasing a Rabbit, Roman, Homs, Syria, 450-462 AD, Chazen Museum of Art
Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hunting dogs – of the sort, perhaps, that has fathered Colm’s puppy, were praised and prized, and some of the best reputed to come from Britain.  Oppian, again:

There is a strong breed of hunting dog…the wild tribes of Britons…call by the name of Agassian…. It is by virtue of its nose, however, that the Agassian is most exalted, and for tracking it is the best there is; for it is very adept at discovering the tracks of things that walk upon the ground, and skilled too at marking the airborne scent.

Later in Empire’s Reckoning, the protagonist Sorley, after a long journey south in the role of an itinerant sheep-shearer, sends the sheepdog that has accompanied him home, a long journey on its own. I took this idea from The Drove Roads of Scotland, the author commenting on this practice among the drovers of the 17th and 18th centuries. But it goes back much further than that:  Varro, again:

Publius Aufidius Pontianus, of Amiternum, had bought some herds of sheep in furthest Umbria, the purchase including the dogs but not the shepherds, but providing that the shepherds should take them to the pastures of Metapontum and to market at Heraclea.​ When the men who had taken them there had returned home, the dogs, without direction… returned to the shepherds in Umbria a few days later, though it was a journey of many days.

This is a distance of some 300 miles, about the same distance that Haldane suggested the sheepdogs of Scotland, 1700 years later, travelled alone on their return home.

Maybe Colm’s Peritas isn’t completely anachronistic, nor is the black-and-white sheepdog Sorley sends home. In my fictional but familiar world, all that really matters is that the reader can believe in these dogs and their journeys.

References:

Varro: De Res Rusticae:  translation at:  https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Varro/de_Re_Rustica

Oppian:  translation at:  https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/oppian/home.html

Haldane, A.R. B.  1960.  The Drove Roads of Scotland (2008 edition, Birlinn).

Featured Image: A child holding a dog, detail of the 6th century mosaic floor from the Palatium Magnum (Constantinople’s Great Palace), Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul . Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons