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Vengeance – Chapter One

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Good morning from Casa Turney on this fine isolated locked-down day. As you may (or may not) know, during this troubled time, a bunch of authors (see the above banner and Twitter #AuthorsWithoutBorders) have been writing brand new serialised stories daily on our Facebook pages. Well, we’ve reached the end of week one, and many of us are now pulling together an omnibus of the week’s storytelling. Here, then, is my own Roman tale, week 1. If you want to continue reading, the next section will be up here on Monday and they will continue again until Friday, when I shall post week 2 here on the blog.

So without further ado…

Vengeance

The icy wind whipped across the pass like Hekate’s breath, ripping the air from the lungs with its chilly blast and carrying flakes of the day’s snowfall, which had not so much stopped for the night as paused to regroup. The grey peak of Mons Mortus hung over the fort like a pre-payday bar bill, glowering and bringing unhappiness to all who saw it. And seeing it was hard not to do, the way it loomed so against a sky so grey that, were it not for the snow, it would be hard to tell where rock stopped and heavens begun.

The middle-aged, po-faced shape of Optio Aelius Valens paused at the rampart’s southeast corner to pull his blade from its sheath, grunting with difficulty as it stuck momentarily. It was not that he needed it now, mind, but in weather of this temperature you had to keep easing the blade out every now and then, else when you did need it it would undoubtedly be stuck fast. The wind howled mercilessly across the wall top, making him shiver uncontrollably. It never ceased to amaze him that no matter how many winters you passed up here, you never got used to that wind.

‘Any activity?’ he hissed, then clamped his mouth shut, toothache already threatening.

Rubellius, his enormous muscular arms nearer blue than pink, turned a face mostly covered with frost-rimed beard to his officer, and clenched his teeth for a moment to stop them chattering before he spoke.

‘Not much. The blacksmith’s been out gathering fuel for his fire, but no one else. No movement. No one would be stupid enough to be out in this, unless it was for the senate and the people of Rome, I suppose, sir.’

Valens snorted. He’d never seen Rome, any more than anyone else in the Fourth Cohort of Dalmatians. In fact, since he’d signed up at Salona he’d seen nothing but the empire’s very periphery. And it didn’t get much more peripheral than Mediobogdum.

The fort sat on a spur of land, overlooking a deep green valley that marched off down to the sea at the edge of the world, and under a peak that towered over a pass connecting the coast to the lead mining region between here and Galava. Twenty years ago, when the fort had been built it had been important, a full garrison post that had supported a growing civilian settlement. Five hundred soldiers, with half as many hangers-on clustered outside the walls. Then the new emperor, Antoninus, had moved the border of Britannia north, and any hint of importance had been torn from Mediobogdum, all the province’s military focus shifted to this new wall of the emperor’s.

The installation on the spur had become little more than a ghost fortress. Most of the cohort had been transferred back across the sea, just one century left for a year or two as a skeleton garrison, half the men up here under Valens, half down at Glannoventa down on the coast under the centurion. The remit: look after the pass. Nothing more.

Valens looked up at the snow-clogged nightmare crossing. As if any arsehole was going to try that in winter…

The optio sighed as he leaned on the wall top beside the big soldier, the futility of it all weighing down on him almost as heavily as the mountain above. ‘It’s ridiculous… garrisoning a fort like this, I mean. As if there are likely to be any lead convoys to protect these days. And half a dozen misfit civilians languishing in that shit-hole of a rundown vicus outside too, while everyone else has left.’ He turned to the soldier, lines of irritation carved deep in his veteran features. ‘And it’s especially pointless in weather like this. We’ve got so much barrack space going spare you could quarter the whole valley inside the walls and there are thirty four of us. I’ve half a mind to invite the civilians into the fort.’

Rubellius snorted. ‘Living up here you’ll be lucky to hold on to even half a mind for long.’

‘Less of that lip, soldier,’ Valens responded, though with no real conviction. The man was right, after all. It would be easy to go crazy wintering here in near isolation. ‘Tomorrow morning, I’m going to bring them inside.’

‘The centurion’ll tear you a second arsehole if you do, sir.’

‘The centurion’s ten miles away and thirty shits that he doesn’t give away from here, and he doesn’t give a rat’s arse what we do. If he cared, he’d have checked on us at least  once since the snowfalls started.’

Slapping a hand on the big man’s shoulder, the optio turned away from the view over the silent vicus and the snow-clogged road up to the pass. Wandering back along the wall walk, he passed the east gate and made for the northern corner of the fort, where a turret stood on a rocky hump, the highest point around the entire circuit. As he walked, Valens cursed, his foot coming down badly on a patch of ice that sent him skittering in an ungainly manner until he thumped into the parapet, winding himself and bruising his arm.

A quick glance ahead as he righted himself revealed the figure of the soldier on guard up there – a short, narrow man who oozed slyness and dishonesty like a rat in an oiled snakeskin. Pollio. The optio wasn’t sure he was ready for a conversation with the rodent-like soldier right now and, shrugging off the pain in his arm from the wall, he turned instead to the stairs down to the fort interior. It was only as he placed his first foot on the top step and realised he was going to have to negotiate this carefully that he became aware of a distant voice. Glancing this way and that to identify its source, he spotted Pollio waving at him, calling him over.

It looked as though the optio was not to be spared the little man’s rabid wit after all. Stepping back onto the wall walk, Valens hurried along, climbing towards that turret at the north corner and gripping the parapet for stability on the icy surface. With some difficulty he reached the doorway and stepped inside the tower, making the most of the temporary shelter from the wind, then climbed the stairs to the turret top.

The rat-like soldier was almost vibrating with urgency as Valens stepped out into a fresh blast of bitter cold. The optio frowned. Few things got the man so excitable, except perhaps when the dice came up well and he managed to fleece his tent mates out of their silver. Valens hurried over.

‘What’s got into you? Hole in your crotch letting in draft in?’

‘You won’t piggin’ believe this, boss,’ the little man said, and thrust out a calloused finger to the north.

Valens followed the gesture, his gaze crossing the parapet, the steep hillside that fell away into the deep valley and then back up the stark, white-clad hillside beyond. It took him moments to see the small but distinct shapes of three figures half-walking, half-tumbling down the slope in the direction of the fort.

‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,’ Valens said, staring out into the bleakness.

Hurrying along the wall, Valens kept his gaze locked on the figures across the valley. Throwing a finger back up at the tower, he bellowed into the wind.

‘Pollio, sound the alarm.’

By the time he’d reached the northwest gate, the diminutive soldier back up on the tower was doing a passable impression of a musician by honking tunelessly into a horn with a result that sounded like a cow being slowly crushed to death. A bell, Valens thought irritably, we need a bell that he can’t ruin.

At the gate, the soldier on guard was no more welcome a sight than Pollio had been. Vibius Cestius was unsettling to say the least. He been a new recruit last year, one of a swathe that had somewhat bucked the age requirements. Probably fifteen summers old, and looking it, he had the style and mode of speech of a middle-aged world-weary orator, and hair as white as the snow in spite of his black eyebrows. He always seemed to be looking through Valens as if seeing something important behind him,but it was his eyes that really creeped the optio out. Like mismatched gems, glittering in dark caverns.

‘Cestius,’ he called, ‘get that gate open, just one door. We’ve got visitors.’

At the alarm, men were now falling out of barrack doorways, mostly complaining about the din, but all strapping on sword belts, tying helmet straps or shouldering shields. Valens stood atop the gate on the wall walk, and peered out into the white. Almost as if on cue, a flake of snow large enough that it ought to have its own name settled on his nose. Damn it, but the next deluge was coming any moment.

It was impossible to tell anything about the three figures he could see across the valley. It looked like either one man running from two more, or three men competing to get to the gate first, but whatever the case there was a distinct urgency to it. Valens watched them slide down a steep section and then begin to pound as swiftly as they could through the knee deep snow. They were still little more than black shapes against the white.

Friend or foe? A question as old as time, and one upon which safety and peril danced together. Should he let them it and then interrogate them, or hold them at the gate? There were only three of them, and the weather was worsening. Still, the centurion would keep the gate closed until he knew everything. That decided Valens more than anything. He was going to let them in.

Behind him, soldiers were falling into line across the road close to the gate, chain shirts still rumpled and out of shape, shields disordered, some with helmets and some just in felt hats, only half of them with scarves and maybe a third with cloaks. They were a fucking shambles and he loved them for it, because no matter what they looked like, they were mad and dangerous bastards to a man.

‘Three men incoming. They all come in through the gate, but no one gets any further without getting punctured, got me?’

‘They run for it, we stick ‘em. Got it boss,’ one of the lads grunted.

‘Looks like one native, two soldiers,’ Cestius murmured.

Valens peered out into the white. They still looked like three black stickmen to him. ‘How in Hades can you tell?’

‘Man out front is wearing furs and running. Other two gleam. Bronze helmets and chain shirts.’

‘You heard the freak,’ Valens shouted. ‘Brace yourself for a panicky native and two soldiers.’

Valens stood in the gate and watched the three approaching figures, aware of the shuffling of people behind him as the men of his half century prepared themselves for the unknown. He squinted out into the white as the moments passed, making out what he could of the three figures as they reached the bottom of the valley.

Though there was no real reason for it, what he really wanted was to be able to prove Cestius the weird bastard wrong, but as they approached, it became clearer and clearer that the lead figure was dressed more or less like a native hunter, while the men following on were dressed very much like the soldiers of the fort’s garrison.

‘Trouble comes in threes,’ Cestius murmured, glaring into the white.

‘What?’ Valens was becoming irritated with the young soldier now.

‘Trust me. Give them bread and cheese and send them on down to Glannoventa, sir.’

‘Let’s just see what they have to say, soldier.’

They waited. As the three figures staggered and scrambled up the steep slope towards them, snowflakes increasing in number with every heartbeat and all driven at gale force, horizontally, Valens watched them and made out more and more detail.

The lead character could easily be a native, but for one thing: as they came closer, Valens became increasingly convinced that the man was wearing a good old-fashioned soldier’s tunic. That made it all the more curious that he appeared to be either being chased or escorted by two men wearing auxiliary uniforms. The optio chewed his lip. In truth, it might be prudent just to send them on down to the centurion ten miles down the valley. Gah, but he wanted to know what was behind this too much, though.

The figures hurried up the slope and Valens, a moment of unaccustomed common sense creeping in, gestured for Cestius and another soldier to close in with pila levelled. No point in taking chances, after all.

The lead runner struggled up into the gateway, coming to a halt in front of the two pila points.

‘In the name of the army of the emperor Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Pius, I seek shelter here from the men chasing me.’

Valens narrowed his eyes at the man. The runner had a short, military haircut, gone wild like most soldiers of a Britannic winter, and a beard that could just as easily be Roman as Briton these days. Blood soaked several areas of his furs and tunic, though he exhibited no other sign of injury. The optio was trying to decide what to say as the two soldiers behind the man slid to a halt. Ignoring the danger of facing the pila of Valens’ men, one of the pair immediately threw himself at the first runner, sword out, tip touching jugular as the man grimaced. The other spread his hands, addressing Valens.

‘This man is a deserter from the Second Raetorum at Alauna Brigantium.’ Even as he spoke, his friend produced a noose of rope as if from nowhere and slipped it around the lead man’s arms, pulling it tight and dragging his wrists together, drawing a grunt of pain.

Valens frowned at the man. ‘You don’t seem to be resisting them. Is this true?’

The deserter shrugged. ‘Depends on your definitions I suppose.’

He snorted in distress as his captor kicked him in the back of the knee, dropping him to the ground, where he looked up at the optio. ‘Give me the nod and I’ll send these fuckers to Hades and be out of your hair.’

Valens sighed. Yup. He should have turned them away even before they spoke.

‘You,’ Valens said, pointing at the man kneeling in the snow and glowering at his captors, ‘stand up.’ He turned to the men of his unit. ‘Get him to the capsarius for a check over. Don’t loose his bonds, though.’

As his men hurried forward to take the deserter, the two men who had chased him in lurched forward, ready to grab him, but Valens stepped forward, growling like a feral dog. ‘You two, hands off. You touch him before I get to the bottom of this and you’ll be leaving here a few teeth short.’

The pair looked at one another, and the men at the rear stepped forward. ‘Mind your tongue, soldier, when you speak to a superior.’

‘My arse.’

The man snarled. ‘Optio Secundus, Third Century, Second Raetian Cohort.’

Valens gave the man his most infuriating grin. ‘Piss off, Secundus. Optio Aelius Valens, Third Century, Fourth Dalmatian Cohort.’

The man’s eyes narrowed. ‘You’ve no optio’s crest or staff.’

‘Neither have you, knobhead.’

‘How long in service?’

‘Doesn’t matter,’ Valens smiled. ‘I’m not acknowledging any seniority from you for a sake of months in. This is my fort, not yours, so you follow my orders. Got it?’

Secundus glowered but, seeing the bristling anger among the men in the street and knowing he’d lost, gave a single nod.

‘Good,’ Valens snapped. ‘Now you and your donkey here follow me.’

As the two new arrivals stomped after him through the snow, Vibius Cestius closed the gate behind them. The lines of men separated for Valens to pass through, and then closed just enough to make it uncomfortable for the two new arrivals to squeeze past. Valens led them between the barrack blocks to the building used as a hospital by the unit’s medic. As they opened the door, a waft of warm stench rolled out over them. A combination of garlic, old socks and some kind of unguent that curled the nose hairs, Valens was used to it, though the look on the faces behind him was priceless.

Inside, Fulvius, the medic, was looking the blood-soaked fugitive over, lifting furs gingerly and examining the tunic and then the flesh beneath. ‘None of this is yours,’ he pronounced irritably in the end, stepping back.

‘No.’

‘Then whose is it?’ Valens asked, approaching.

‘A combination of a few locals and my men,’ snapped Secundus behind him.

‘Oh?’ Valens turned. ‘He killed soldiers?’

‘That’s why he’s out here. He killed our centurion and ran from Alauna. The bastard needed taking down so much that I was sent out with a contubernium into the blizzard to bring him in. We’ve been tracking him since yesterday morning.’

‘And the blood?’

‘We found him hiding in a native settlement.’

‘And?’ Valens was starting to get annoyed now.

‘And the bastard took down six of my men before he escaped again.’

‘Lies,’ the fugitive said. ‘The villagers killed four of them. I only killed two.’

Valens turned to the man, an eyebrow raised. ‘You don’t deny that? Or the centurion I take it?’

‘Centurion deserved it. Any right-thinker would have put a blade in him. The other two were regrettable, but if it’s me or them, then it’s them.’

Valens huffed and turned back to the two soldiers behind him. Go outside and ask for Lancarius. He can cook passably, and even make a rat edible. You need food and warmth. I’ll be along shortly. I need to talk to your prisoner.’

‘He’ll run,’ Secundus snapped. ‘He’s dangerous.’

‘I don’t doubt it, but there’s half a century in this fort.’

‘I’ll stay.’

‘No you won’t. Go eat and warm up. That’s an order, Optio Secundus.

The man’s lip wrinkled, but with an expression of vile distaste, he turned and left. As the two men departed and the door closed, Valens fixed his gaze on the man and gestured to the medic beside him. ‘This is Fulvius. He’s a passable medic, but a damn fine butcher and he’s got things in his kit that make a gladius look like a spongia. You and I are going to have a chat, and you’re going to tell me the truth, or I let Fulvius play.’

‘I think you might want to leave chit-chat to later,’ the fugitive smiled nastily.

‘Oh? Why?’

‘Because the tidal wave of shit coming your way will drown you all if you don’t run.’

Written by SJAT

March 27, 2020 at 8:55 am

Spatha by M. C. Bishop

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I’m going to guess that anyone who knows my work or reads this blog is pretty conversant with military history, and therefore probably knows of Osprey Publishing’s renown in that field. I am the owner of scores of their books ranging from the days of ancient Greece to the Renaissance war galley, though more than half of them are on the subject of Rome and Byzantium. I love my Osprey books, and while I laud them above most military history works, even I can admit that they vary a little in quality. Some are a little assumptive and bold, others more technical and trustworthy. All are good, but from the point of view of a historical researcher one has to be aware of such things. So that’s Osprey. Leaders in their field.

Mike (M. C., which I know makes him sound like a DJ) Bishop is a name I count as a go-to for all things Roman military. Along with John Coulson, he is the preeminent authority on Roman military equipment, having studied it for decades, been involved in the archaeology that has brought some of it to light, written up the excavation reports for some of the most important of Roman military sites, and been a leading light in Roman military circles for some time. His is one of at most half a dozen names that I trust implicitly when I read their work, whether it be on military equipment or a guide to walking Hadrian’s Wall (also his excellent work.)

So when Bishop signed on to do a few ‘weapon’ books for Osprey, I knew these would be up there with the best of their titles. Pilum and Gladius I already have, and have reviewed. Now, he has turned his considerable talent to informing us about the Roman longsword, the spatha.

Spatha is a book that contains everything you need to know about the weapon. There is no need to consult another source. From the archaeological discoveries, largely based on ‘bog finds’ in Northern Europe, Bishop gives us immense detail of the form, composition, design, distribution, use and value of the weapon. Backing this up with accounts from sources such as the Historia Augusta, Arrian and Tacitus, every angle is explored. I consider myself knowledgeable about the subject from years of study, and yet I learned a number of things from reading this work, not least about the development of the ‘semispatha’ as a compromise between the long slashing weapon and the short stabbing weapon, often formed from re-pointing broken spathas.

From the development of the weapon based upon the original Spanish Sword, to the influence the blade would have on following centuries of cultures right to the late Viking era, Bishop provides a detailed narrative that attempts to fill in the gaps in the historical record with source-based logic, never even leaning towards assumptions without giving caveats and explanations, and identifies a number of unexpected aspects that cannot be denied.

Complete with wonderful illustrations from reconstructive paintings, through photographs of artefacts, to technical line drawings, this is the only book you’ll ever need on the subject and joins its peers as one of my go-to texts for research when writing Roman novels.

Written by SJAT

February 21, 2020 at 8:30 pm

Book News

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So the big book news, I think, is that the 12th installment of the Marius’ Mules series – Sands of Egypt – is released today…

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Winter, 48 BC. Caesar and his small force are trapped in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Caught up in the dynastic struggles of the House of Ptolemy, the consul has sided with the clever and ruthless Queen Cleopatra. Her brother and fellow monarch Ptolemy XIII languishes in the palace, a hostage of Caesar’s, while a huge army under the command of the Egyptian general Achillas closes on the city to free him.

With both the future of this ancient land and the safety of Caesar and his men at stake, Fronto and his friends face the terrible task of holding an unfamiliar city under siege, in the desperate hope that reinforcements will reach them before the enemy break in.

But Egyptian reinforcements gather too, and with the interference of the youngest princess, Arsinoë, the future is far from written. Trapped, besieged and outnumbered, time is running out for the Romans, as shadows loom across the sands of Egypt.

The book is available from Amazon here in paperback and kindle format, here on Google Books, here on Kobo, here on iBooks, here on Nook, and here for any other digital need.

But because I’m a little bit prolific, and one book to throw your way seems too little, how’s about I draw you to this too, which is now out in kindle format, with paperback to follow:

Rubicon

You like Roman fiction? This is for you. A collection of short stories from some of the very best Roman writers, including both myself and my partner in crime Gordon Doherty. And for my part, you Praetorian fans, the story is one of our friend Rufinus, set between the last book (Lions of Rome) and the next (The Cleansing Fire)

You can buy it on Kindle at the moment right here and here’s the blurb:

“Greater than the sum of its parts… Rubicon has something for everyone: action, humour and historical insight.” Michael Arnold

Ten acclaimed authors. Ten gripping stories.

Immerse yourself in Ancient Rome through a collection of thrilling narratives, featuring soldiers, statesmen and spies. Read about some of your favourite characters from established series, or be introduced to new writers in the genre. The stories in Rubicon are, like Rome, diverse and intriguing – involving savage battles, espionage, political intrigue and the lives of ordinary – and extraordinary – Romans, such as Ovid, Marcus Agrippa and a young Julius Caesar.

This brand new collection, brought to you by the Historical Writers’ Association, also includes interviews with each author. Find out more about their writing processes and what attracts them to the Roman world. View Ancient Rome through fresh eyes. Rubicon is a feast of moreish tales and a must read for all fans of historical fiction.

Authors & Stories Featured in Rubicon:

  • Nick Brown – Maker of Gold
  • Gordon Doherty – Eagles in the Desert
  • Ruth Downie – Alter Ego
  • Richard Foreman – A Brief Affair
  • Alison Morton – Mystery of Victory
  • Anthony Riches – The Invitation
  • Antonia Senior – Exiles
  • Peter Tonkin – The Roman
  • L.J. Trafford – The Wedding
  • S.J. Turney – The Praetorian

Praise for Rubicon:

“Rubicon is a declaration of intent to intrigue, inspire and entertain. For me, this collection of stories extols the camaraderie that exists amongst the historical fiction bother and sisterhood. It perfectly encapsulates a shared passion for the subject of Rome in all its abundance and varied manifestations, taking the reader on a guided tour through the familiar and the strange. Leading us wide-eyed through a genre which has never lost its lustre. 
This is the fiction equivalent of a box of chocolates, a celebration of diverse Rome stories drawing upon all the riches of that most extraordinary and enduring of civilisations. It is a treasure trove of tales, showcasing a wealth of talent.
I have been entertained by authors whose work I know and love, and I’ve discovered new voices too, writers whom I look forward to getting to know better. Indeed, if the purpose of this collection is to delight, distract and to whet the reader’s appetite, leaving us eager for more, it is a resounding success.
Rubicon is a rare treat which I thoroughly enjoyed. I don’t know what the official collective noun for Roman short stories is, but in this case I think it’s a triumph.” Giles Kristian.

And I tell you what, folks… the news doesn’t end there! Here’s some lovely little titbits that I KNOW some of you have been waiting for:

  • I have signed the contract for the audio versions of Praetorian: Lions of Rome, as well as for book 5, as yet unwritten. Book 4 is already in production and will be out soon, so more on that in due course.
  • I’ve also signed a deal with the interactive audio guide company Bardeum, which produces immersive audio tales that guide you round historical sites. Next year you’ll be able to lose yourself in one of my tales as you walk the hill of the Palatine in Rome.
  • I’ve just completed the contract for the release of both Caligula and Commodus in the United States. Yes, the Damned Emperors will soon be available in the US too!
  • And currently, three of the four Praetorian books are available on kindle in the UK for the bargain price of 99p. That means you can own the whole set for less than £5.50. Now’s the time to get them (which you can do here)

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  • Next year you’ll be able to read my first non-fiction work, a book on the great Roman general Agricola, through Amberley publishing. The man who made Roman Britain is a figure of fascination for me. It’s also, believe it or not, the first time I’ve written a book about the Romans in my own country!

And that’s book news for today. Hope that’s enough for you, folks.

Simon.

Richard the Lionheart and Robin Hood

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So I started reading this book:

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And I started reading it, sadly, just a few short months after I finished writing my novel set in 1204, including odd events mentioned in this text. But that being said, I did confirm that what I had written conforms with Bartlett’s accounts (mainly of post-Byzantine Cyprus). So that’s my background to the book. And unusually, I’m going to review two books at once, and you’ll understand why half way through.

Why read any bio of this famous/infamous king of England? And why read this one in particular? Well, not just for the names, although Conan the Duke, Count Vulgrin and Grimaldo Grimaldi certainly draw the eye and make it sound like a work of fantasy. Why? Because Richard is probably England’s most famous king, and I reckon that if you ask the average person in the street, they wouldn’t be able to tell you why. That’s why. And why this one? well because, I reckon, it’s a great all-round and accessible work.

And this is the thing. Biographies can sometimes focus so much on the individual that it becomes meaningless, lacking context. This book does not. In fact, it is a biography of a dynasty more than a man. And even broader: of an age as much as a family. With kings being such a force at the centre of national, religious and military policy, any biography of the king should by rights include something of a general history. This book does that.

It covers every major flashpoint of which I have been aware in the history of the Angevins: the murder of Thomas Beckett, the battle of Horns of Hattin, the Jews of York, Acre, Jaffa and Chalus among others. And in doing so, it ties it all to Richard and his Angevin family, a dynasty that it turns out is as riven and troubled as any imperial Roman one.

I will state here my only two gripes. One is that the book could really have done with a family tree to which to refer, and I had to find one online to help me at times. The other was the author’s use of the phrase ‘both orders had been decimated at Hattin’, which niggles me as a Roman historian, for decimation specifically relates to the execution of one man in ten, and is frequently misused in place of obliteration.

The book is set out in a reassuringly chronological manner, covering the subject in stages: Early life, the politics of family, coronation and consolidation, the rise of the crusade, and then its fall, capture and imprisonment, John’s betrayal and release, war with France and finally demise and its impact. The treatment of John is also very fair, I think, which is unusual in a world in which he is uniformly villainised without adequate explanation. Parts of the tale, which reads often like a general history, are boosted by anecdotal asides, which is nice.

Several things occurred to me and were noted down during my read:

  • I’d never considered how much impact the death of Barbarossa had on the crusade
  • The collapse of the bridge at Gisors under Phillip mirrors the collapse of the Milvian Bridge under the emperor Maxentius, about which I’ve written. An odd symmetry.
  • The only assessment possible of Richard (like Marcus Aurelius) is only possible against a background of constant war, and we have no idea what kind of a peacetime king he would have been.
  • I’d forgotten how cool the Blondel and captivity story was.

The book ends in a summing up and what effects Richard had on history. All in all, this was a cracking read and one of the better biographies I have read. I highly recommend it. And to give you a taste, here’s a lovely quote:

“Only one son stood by his deathbed and he, ironically, was illegitimate […] Henry reportedly said of him that he was his only true son; it was the others who were bastards.”

My favourite line in the book. And during the closing parts of the book, unsurprisingly there is a short nod to the legend of Robin Hood and Richard’s part in it. And that’s the interesting thing. I’ve also just finished a ‘biography’ of Robin Hood, which I received ahead of publication and was planning to review, and this just seems to be kismet, the two being so aligned. So I now also give you:

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Now in fairness, I fully expected to hate this and to poo-poo it. I’m too rooted in historical record to give great credence to legends. That being said, there is an element of truth to all legends, and so, like King Arthur, or Achilles, or Troy, or Springheeled Jack, I occasionally indulge to see what other people think. I did so here.

It is a brave, and interesting, premise to launch your book treating Robin as a historical figure and then looking into the historiography of it, trying to ascertain how valid it is. And that warmed me to it. For Matthews is not stating that Robin was definitely real, lived in Privet Drive with his aunt Flo and worked for the water board. He presents evidence and himself treats it with suspicion as well as fascination. So my initial scepticism was gradually worn away.

The first thing the book did, and its first quarter is devoted to this, is to examine the earliest surviving ballads. Here, I encountered a tale that was at one and the same time the old, familiar Robin Hood of legend, but also a new and surprising take. I find myself even now wondering why no author or filmmaker has ever tried to turn this original medieval tale into a movie or book. It would surely be a new angle, despite being also the earliest. Robin comes across a lot more brutal and wily here.

And the thing that really struck me is that despite the traditional treatments I’ve seen and read, the Robin of earliest legend may not have been born during the time of Richard the Lion heart and King John. In fact, in the quoted text, there is reference to King Edward, making it likely Edward I or II, at the end of the 13th century, not the 12th! I was astounded. For this alone, the book was worthwhile.

Another interesting assertion is that Robbinhood might be a now-lost medieval term for an outlaw. That would make tracking the legend down nigh-on impossible, of course, so Matthews continues to examine any historical Robins. What he presents, based on the works of medieval tale-tellers, is more than one plausible historical Robin Hood, or the basis for them. This fascinated me.

The book then moves into investigations into possible pre-Medieval origins for the Robin legend, connecting ancient mythology, Saxon legend and more with the tale. For me, the book got a little bogged down at this point. The depth of the mythological work was impressive and probably deserves a book in its own right, but at times it seemed to me somewhat peripheral or tangential to the purpose of the book. I may be being unfair here, and will leave that to other readers to decide for themselves.

We then go on to examine the potential historical background of the other characters in the tale, being Marian and the ‘Merry Men’. This, again, fascinated me, and made it worthwhile.

What did surprise me was that half the book turned out to be recounted ballads of Robin Hood, the last 120 pages given over to these appendices. I felt that this was somewhat unnecessary and lacked the focus on the subject that I saw in the early chapters, since without Matthews’ commentary on it, it became little more than source material.

The upshot? A brave attacking of a tricky subject. Despite a couple of negatives, one of which being the brevity of the actual work, it threw my preconceived notions aside and provided me with fascinating new nuggets of information that I treasure.

I enjoyed it. If you have an interest in the subject, you probably will, too.

So there you go. Two books in one post, the first out now the second in May. Fascinating reading, for sure.

Written by SJAT

April 23, 2019 at 9:00 am

Competition Time

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Do you want to win a collection of Roman goodies?

Do you?

Well here’s your chance. One lucky winner can get their hands on this amazing prize:

Prize

And all you have to do to win this prize is to upload to my Facebook Page a photo of you with a copy of Caligula somewhere interesting. That’s right. Just post your pic here, and you’re in with a chance to win. It can be a hardback, paperback or ebook with the cover showing, I don’t care. Here’s my feeble effort, but I have to try, coz if I won, the postage would be REALLY cheap…

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I know. The expression. I look like an axe murderer. But that’s just the terrifying thought of having to let this lot go: Here’s what’s in the prize:

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Signed copies of the first three Praetorian novels

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Roman ‘as’ coin of Caligula, obverse Caligula with head bare, reverse Vesta seated.

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CD of the album ‘Bloom’ by the excellent band ‘Caligula’s Horse’ AND the DVD of the classic BBC series ‘I Claudius’. Note that the DVD is region 2…

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A bottle of excellent red wine made from the same Aglianico grape and in the same locale as the ancient Falernian wine, the slopes of Mount Falernus in Campania.

AND… Caligula himself as used in my various promotional photos over the year

That’s the prize. I hope I win it! But it’ll probably go to one of you lucky people. The winner (the most interesting pic) will be chosen by an independent celebrity, and not myself, to avoid any preferential treatment. The winner will be drawn on Friday 21st of December, so get thinking and photographing. And, of course, if you haven’t bought and read Caligula yet, now is the best time ever.

Good luck everyone.

Written by SJAT

November 30, 2018 at 11:53 am

Caligula – from the horse’s mouth

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Mad, bad and dangerous to know. Well, actually, that was Lady Caroline Lamb describing Lord Byron. But it got your attention…

So I don’t often blather about my own books on this blog, but today is release day for the paperback of Caligula. And while like every author I love books to sell for obvious reasons, this is the first book I’ve sold that you can readily buy in bricks-and-mortar bookshops. And the success of Caligula will determine how many sequels I get to write. Caligula is out there, and Commodus is coming in spring, but there could be two more. If you lovely people buy Caligula, that is.

Caligula. A new telling of an old, old story.

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Rome 37AD. The emperor is dying. No-one knows how long he has left. The power struggle has begun.

When the ailing Tiberius thrusts Caligula’s family into the imperial succession in a bid to restore order, he will change the fate of the empire and create one of history’s most infamous tyrants, Caligula.

But was Caligula really a monster?

Forget everything you think you know. Let Livilla, Caligula’s youngest sister and confidante, tell you what really happened. How her quiet, caring brother became the most powerful man on earth.

And how, with lies, murder and betrayal, Rome was changed for ever . . .

So now is the time. If you like your Roman history, try Caligula. And watch out on my social media for the next week for one heck of a competition to win some AMAZING goodies. Wander in to your local book store and order it. Or go online and buy it. Christmas is coming up. I bet your dad would love to read a juicy tale about Rome’s most infamous emperor. Heh heh heh.

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Caligula is available in paperback (or hardback) with free worldwide delivery from Book Depository here.

The kindle edition is available here (UK and Commonwealth only, sadly not in the US)

Also available as an Audible audio book here. And really, it doesn’t get better than in the lovely tones of Laura Kirman.

That’s it, lovely people. All I have. Now off to potentially plot two more damned emperors.

🙂

Vale

Written by SJAT

November 15, 2018 at 10:13 pm

My Dear Hamilton

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Two years ago I had the delight of reading America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie. It was one of my top reads of the year, despite being on a subject about which I knew virtually nothing and had never previously considered. It’s taken the intervening time for the same pair to produce their next book, and I have been eagerly awaiting it. The problem with these two authors is that I tend to run out of superlatives while describing them.

My Dear Hamilton is a grand, sweeping tale of love and betrayal, of war and political wiles, of the birth of a nation and the changing of the world, spread over some fifty years of the life of Eliza Hamilton, wife of the founding father Alexander Hamilton. It begins during the worst times of the War of Independence and follows the life of Eliza as she becomes involved in the war on a personal level and lives through the aftermath, her relationship with her husband and dealing with the scandalous fallout of his affair, follows through to the death of her husband (no spoilers here, but this took me by surprise) and on for some two decades following as Eliza continues to be a strong woman with a destiny and a purpose far beyond being Hamilton’s wife.

Firstly, I knew NOTHING about Alexander Hamilton, let alone Eliza. I have a passing knowledge of the War of Independence and the founding fathers, probably in line with most British readers, who focus largely on the famous names (Washington, Franklin, Arnold etc). To learn about him through Eliza’s eyes, as well as about the impressive woman herself and several other cast members, was superb. A particular highlight for me was their portrayal of the French general Lafayette, who I knew very little about, but who is something of a scene stealer. It was interesting to learn part of American history about which I was completely oblivious. The characterisation of each and every character is beautifully developed from what must have been dry letters from which they worked, and the scene setting of a troubled, changing world is masterfully done.

The best thing about these two authors, though, even with vivid characters, beautifully-crafted scenes, and depth of historical detail, is the writing itself. They manage to tell the story in an eminently readable way, with a flow and an ease of prose that is utterly impressive given that they also manage to keep the language entirely in keeping for the era, without resort to modern idioms and colloquialisms. Reading every page is a pleasure for the writing alone.

So there you have it. A worthy successor to America’s First Daughter. In fact, My Dear Hamilton might even be better.

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And there’s more. I also had the opportunity to ask the authors a few questions, so here we go:

How difficult was it to put across such a complex relationship and the equally complex world in which they lived and yet not lose sight of either in the process?

Eliza’s relationship with Alexander was one of the great joys in writing My Dear Hamilton–and one of the biggest challenges. There were a number of times in writing this book that we felt like we were drowning in the research–but we also know that’s part of the process, especially when you’re writing about a couple who seemed to know everyone in early America, and about a woman who lived to be 97! And we were in good company in being sometimes overwhelmed by the Hamiltons, because Lin-Manuel Miranda felt the same way working on Hamilton: An American Musical and the advice he got was to cut out anything that wasn’t directly relevant to the story he was trying to tell in the musical. We tried to do the same. Cut out anything that didn’t have a direct bearing on their relationship or Eliza’s experience. That’s why we have so many deleted scenes!

Was it difficult to deal with the aftermath of a sex scandal without imposing on it modern morals and experience?

It surprised us that modern moralists are probably both more forgiving in some ways and less forgiving in others regarding this sex scandal. Hamilton’s contemporaries condemned him for the Reynolds affair mostly out of religious sentiment; the idea that a man might stray even if he loved his wife was more common at the time. So it’s possible that we condemn him more for betraying his wife than any sense of sexual morality. Our approach to the founders has always been to take into consideration a reader’s contemporary moral point of view, but also respect that these were men and women of their times, looking for ways they differed from their contemporaries in ways good and bad.

Elizabeth Schuyler had such a far-reaching and varied life, was it difficult to stay on point in the Hamilton tale and not get lost in the wealth of angles?

Yes! Fortunately, we had each other to help keep the other on track. But since she lives to be 97 and did so many interesting things in the fifty years after her husband died, we definitely felt pulled to want to tell all the parts of her story. That was especially true because no other book in fiction or nonfiction has much treated Eliza’s life after her husband’s death, so we wanted to share as much as we could about those decades. As a result, it was hard to rule scenes out, but we did–to the tune of about 60,000 words of deleted scenes!

In your use of letters and documents, did you ever need to, or were you tempted to, skip ones that did not easily fit the tale you were telling?

When writing historical fiction, you always have to leave things out. Usually the reason is that it isn’t germane, it’s too detailed, it starts a whole new kind of story, or it’s boring. When dealing with Founding Fathers though, we tend to err on the side of caution in including things that are important to a fair treatment. But in writing this book there was one letter in particular that we debated for a long time, ultimately deciding to leave it out. It was a letter between Alexander Hamilton and his very close friend and brother-in-arms, John Laurens, that included some bawdy joking about Hamilton’s wedding night. We don’t entirely let Alexander off the hook in that moment, but in the end, we decided that it might too greatly stretch readers’ willingness to sympathize with Hamilton and Eliza’s thinking about him.

How much did you have to ‘fill in the gaps’ in the historical record, and were there any times/angles that were not covered adequately in the letters?

As we mention in our Note from the Authors at the back of the book in far more detail, most of what we know about Eliza must be extrapolated from the evidence left behind by her husband, her father, and her family members. The  internal struggles she must have faced in the aftermath of betrayal and tragedy remain frustratingly out of reach for historians. But, thankfully, fiction can go where historians rightly fear to tread. And as novelists we were honored to look at the historical pieces of the puzzle and imagine the rich inner life that the historical fragments leave unspoken. We attempted to craft plausible answers to questions about Eliza’s reaction to her husband’s adultery. How she balanced her deep religious faith with disillusionment and worldly practicality. And how she might’ve come to terms with both the man—and the country—that she sacrificed for and which sometimes disappointed her.

Having brought Eliza to the reading world, and before that Martha Jefferson, what’s next?

We’re working on a project on women of the French Revolution together, and Stephanie is embarking on her next solo project featuring the Marquis de Lafayette! So please sign up to receive alerts about our next releases at DrayKamoie.com!

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So that’s it, folks. The book is out and highly recommended. Go get it HERE

And don’t miss out on other fascinating blogs involved in My Dear Hamilton’s blog tour so far:

and more tomorrow:

Hearts & Scribbles – Excerpt
Literature Goals – Excerpt
Reviews by Tammy and Kim (Rachel & Jay) – Review & Excerpt
What Is That Book About – Excerpt

MDH Tour Banner