World-building through Historical Characters: Gnaius and Galen

“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?