Vikings and Buddhas

Viking-era trade created a network across and beyond Europe.

In Empire’s Reckoning, my newest book, the protagonist Sorley has returned home after an absence of a couple of years. His brother’s family has come out to greet him, but one member is missing.

I looked around, not seeing my half-brother. “Where’s Nyle?”

“Gone trading,” Roghan said. “He’s nineteen now, and there’s little for him here. So he took a place on a ship heading east to trade furs and amber.”

“East?” I said. “Down the Ubë?”

Sorley’s home is in the very north of his land, an area which I envision as equivalent to the Norse areas of early-medieval Scotland. And, as the Netflix series Vikings – if nothing else – has brought to more common knowledge, the Scandinavian people did explore, and trade, eastward.

Scandinavians, in fact, are often credited with creating a trading network in Europe, but that may be because the archaeological record is more perceptible for the Viking era than any other. Much of that network, in truth, already existed in the Baltic and the coastal areas of the North Sea. The Frisians dominated this trade, using early forms of the cog (a flat-bottomed, rowed boat) to transport goods along the coastlines and into river systems.

Viking keeled boats, however, allowed for open ocean travel, and while initially the Vikings came to raid, increasingly, they stayed to trade. The trading city of Dublin arose in this manner, and all around Northern Europe, Scandinavians took over or replaced existing trading sites such as Hedeby in Jutland and Eoforwic (York) in England.

 Further east in Europe, commercial trade along water-based routes created new economic centres in Eastern Europe, which trace their beginnings to the appearance of the people we call Vikings (or Varangians). Sorley’s half-brother and the ship he’s on are playing an important role  in the creation of the early framework of my pseudo-Europe’s economy.

Scandinavian traders travelled the river systems as far as Byzantium and even into the Arab world to obtain goods. They brought those goods back, both to emporia along the route, and directly to Scandinavia. Viking-era trade created a network across and beyond Europe, bringing items as rare as an Indian Buddha figurine, a north African bronze ladle, and Arabic coins back to their homelands.

Can you blame Sorley’s half-brother for wanting to be part of this?

The circa 6th C bronze Helgo Buddha, found on the Swedish island of Helgo, an important trading centre from the 6th – 11th C. The Buddha probably arrived in Helgo via Swedish merchants who traded east, along Russian rivers such as the Volga. © Swedish History Museum

For more information on the Helgo treasure:

http://irisharchaeology.ie/2013/12/the-helgo-treasure-a-viking-age-buddha/

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Featured image: https://about-history.com/knarr-the-oldest-norse-merchant-ship/

The Procurator & The Governor

How does an Empire, sure of its institutions and its laws and traditions, integrate its practices with those of another country?

Two new characters are introduced into my ‘Empire on the edge of history’ in the novella Oraiáphon and the novel Empire’s Reckoning:  Decanius, the Procurator from Casil, and Livius, the Governor. Who are these characters, and what exactly do they do?

A Procurator in the Roman Empire was the man in charge of the finances of a Roman province. He worked beside the Governor but was not subordinate to him, and his responsibilities included tax collection, rents on land belonging to imperial estates, pay to the military and other public servants, and the management of mines. You can see how this might be a position that allowed for enriching yourself, and your friends, and also could make the office-holder extremely unpopular among the residents of the province. Are tax-collectors ever admired?

Decanius arrives first, because the army must be paid, and tariffs and taxes are going to be collected as soon as possible. He’s an accountant through and through, counting and measuring everything, and he has no interest in the people of Lena’s land, or their laws and traditions. His name derives from Cato (or Catus) Decianus, the Procurator of Britannia at the time of Boudicca’s fight for freedom from Roman rule. Dio, writing a hundred years and more later, suggests that heavy taxation was behind the rebellion, and it would have been Decianus who was responsible for that. So with a little tweaking, the historic, hated Decianus becomes the fictional, hated Decanius.

File:Boudicca Statue.png
Statue of Boudicca at Westminster

Livius is the new Governor. (I just liked the name, in his case.) A Roman governor was responsible for the civil administration of the province; he was also the judge in capital crimes (smaller crimes often being left in the hands of the people he was governing) and was the commander-in-chief of all military units deployed in the province. Unlike the Procurator, who was a civilian, the Governor was a military officer. So almost the first thing Livius asks to do when he arrives from Casil is inspect the troops. An experienced official, Livius governs with affability, but he’s also adamant about what has to happen. “There’s iron behind his smile,” Sorley says of him.

Domitius Corbulo, the Roman governor of Germania Inferior

There were differences in how Imperial provinces (under the control of the Emperor) and Senatorial provinces (under the control of the Senate) were governed, but to say more about that might reveal too much of what happens in Oraiáphon. The roles and responsibilities changed over the years Rome had an Empire, and I chose the pieces that work. I’m not tied to a specific timeline: I borrow concepts, not exact history, in creating my alternate world. What I was interested in was how an Empire, sure of its institutions and its laws and traditions, integrates its practices with those of another country; not a conquered one, but one that has agreed to become a client province. Do they integrate, or do they impose? “We might have been a province of the Eastern Empire once before,” Lena says, “but we kept almost none of its laws and traditions, except in the army.” Peace has a price.

Oraiáphon Amazon

Empires’s Reckoning Amazon

E-pub

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Statue of Domitius Corbulo: photo by Carole Raddato, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Statue of Boudicca:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boudicca.jpg Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Statue of Julius Caesar (Featured Image): By Skitterphoto –  Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

World-building through Historical Characters: Gnaius and Galen

My goal throughout the series has been to create a world that feels familiar to a reader brought up on the history of Britain and northern Europe, but has enough dissonance to make readers think about the questions raised by the conflicts with which the characters must deal, both personal and political.

“Exactly so,” Gnaius agreed. “May I say more? I have lived in many of Casil’s provinces over the years. A physician travels with the army, if he wishes to become a skilled surgeon.”

– from Oraiáphon: A Novella of the Empire, 2020.

In my Empire’s Legacy series and its sequels (both completed and planned), the supporting character Gnaius plays, and will play, an important role. Gnaius is a physician, erudite and highly skilled, who has held many positions with both the army and to the Empress of Casil. He is a product of my imagination, of course, but he is based on the historical physician Claudius Galenus, best known to the modern West as Galen.

Galen (public domain)

I want to talk about Galen not so much in terms of the historical person, but as an example of how, in my alternate-world historical fiction, I use history to inform my world without being bound by it. The city in my world, Casil, is physically based on 4th century Rome, but politically it’s a blend of Rome and Byzantium. However, many of the conflicts that occur are from later in Europe’s history, between about 600 and 1000.

Galen lived in the 2nd century of the common era, at the same time as the emperor Marcus Aurelius, who appears as a figure from the past in my series (under a different name, of course). But this doesn’t matter: I’m not writing history. What matters is that Galen did almost everything I wanted Gnaius to have done: travelled extensively, learned about surgery and wound treatment in the field, practiced medicine in the capital city and became the personal physician to Emperors. So I have, effectively, lifted Galen out of the 2nd century and inserted him into my world at a later date.

There are both pros and cons to doing this. Readers will fall roughly into three categories: those who know nothing about early-medieval medicine, and will assume I’ve made Gnaius up entirely; those who have some knowledge of Galen, may well recognize consciously or unconsciously that Gnaius seems familiar, or right for the times; and those who know a fair bit about the subject, and may object to him being dragged forward several centuries.

My goal throughout the series has been to create a world that feels familiar to a reader brought up on the history of Britain and northern Europe, but has enough dissonance to make readers think about the questions raised by the conflicts with which the characters must deal, both personal and political. The real-life Galen fits neatly into the world, he’s just in the wrong century. (Certain readers may throw the book across the room in disgust at recognizing Gnaius as more-or-less Galen, although if they are that wedded to historical accuracy, they’ve probably given up on the series long before Gnaius makes his appearance 2/3 of the way through the third book.)

By some combination of serendipity and synchronicity, I learned in my research trip to Rome last week that Galen had lectured extensively at The Temple of Peace in the Forum, and indeed had stored his writings there for safekeeping. This plays right into the plot outline for the book (#5) I was there to research…and then I learned a fire at the Temple destroyed a fair number of those works. I’d already considered a fire in that general location as a plot device; now I have a historical occurrence to build around. The fire is not just plausible, it happened, and the destruction of some of Galen/Gnaius’s writings may well feed part of the plot of book #6, which is now little more than a concept.

The Temple of Peace in 1749 (public domain)

Gnaius is a minor character, although an important one. But by using Galen’s life as the basis for his, the verisimilitude of setting, character and plot is strengthened. Reviewers frequently comment on the depth and quality of world-building in my books: this is one way I do it. What are your methods for creating believable worlds?