THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 761, March 9, 2014
Don't You Know There is a War On?
Special to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise
You're a historical novelist, which confuses some people when they come across it first! What does it mean, and how do you blend fact and fiction together through it?
As a specific genre, the historical novel is only about two centuries old. Historical fiction in the wider sense, though, is at least as old as the written word. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Homeric poems, the narrative books of the Old Testament, Beowulf—the earliest literature of every people is historical fiction. The past is interesting. It's glamorous and exciting. Perspective allows us to forget that the past, like the present, was mostly long patches of boredom or anxiety, mixed in with occasional moments of catastrophe or bliss. Above all, it's about us.
Have you ever stared at old family pictures, and had the feeling that you were looking into a mirror? I have a photograph of a great uncle, who was an old man before I was born. I never knew him well. But in that picture, taken when he was about fifteen, he has my ears and eyes, and he's hugging himself and looking just as complacent as I often do. I have a picture of one of my grandmothers, taken about the year 1916—she's photographed against a background of flags and Dreadnoughts. She looks astonishingly like my daughter. It's only natural that I want to know about them. I want to know what they were thinking and doing, and I want to know about their general circumstances.
For most people, even now, family history comes to a dead end about three generations back. But we are also members of nations, and what we can't know about our immediate ancestors we want to know about our ancestors in general. You can take the here and now just as it is. But the moment you start asking why things are as they are, you have to investigate the past.
Why do men wear collars and ties and jackets with buttons that often don't and can't do up? It's because our own formal clothing stands in a direct line from the English and French court dress of the late 17th century. Why do we talk of "toeing the line?" It's because in 19th century state schools, children would have to stand on a chalked line to read to the class. Why does the British fiscal year for individuals start on the 6th April? It's because, until 1752, we used the Julian Calendar, which was eleven days behind the more accurate Gregorian Calendar; and the first day of the year was the 25th March. Lord Chesterfield's Act standardised us with Scotland and much of Europe, and moved the first day of the year back to January—but the fiscal year, adjusted for the new calendar, was left unchanged.
Why was Ireland, until recently, so devoutly Catholic? Because the Catholic Church was the one great institution of Irish life that could be neither abolished nor co-opted by their British rulers. Why is the Church losing its hold? Because it is no longer needed for its old purpose. The child sex scandals are only a secondary cause. History tells us who we are. We may feel trapped by it. We may glory in it. We can't ignore it.
Now, the historical novel as we know it emerged at the end of the 18th century. The great historians of that age—Hume, Robertson, Gibbon and others—had moved far towards what may be called a scientific study of the past. They tried to base their narratives on established fact, and to connect them through a natural relationship of cause and effect. It was a mighty achievement. At the same time, it turned History from a story book of personal encounters and the occasional miracle to something more abstract. More and more, it did away with the kind of story that you find in Herodotus and Livy and Froissart. As we move into the 19th century, it couldn't satisfy a growing taste for the quaint and the romantic.
The vacuum was filled by a school of historical novelists with Sir Walter Scott at its head. Though no longer much read, he was a very good novelist. The Bride of Lammermoor is one of his best, but has been overshadowed by the Donizetti opera. I've never met anyone else who has read The Heart of Midlothian. But Ivanhoe remains popular, and is still better than any of its adaptations. Whether still read or not, he established all the essential rules of historical fiction. The facts, so far as we can know them, are not to be set aside. They are, however, to be elaborated and folded into a coherent fictional narrative. Take Ivanhoe. King Richard was detained abroad. His brother, John, was a bad regent, and may not have wanted Richard back. There were rich Jews in England, and, rather than fleecing them, as the morality of his age allowed, John tried to flay them. But Ivanhoe and Isaac of York, and the narrative thread that leads to the re-emergence of King Richard at its climax—these are fiction.
I try to respect these conventions in my six Aelric novels. Aelric of England never existed. He didn't turn up in Rome in 609AD, to uncover and foil a plot that I'd rather not discuss in detail. He didn't move to Constantinople in 610, and become one of the key players in the revolution that overthrew the tyrant Phocas. He wasn't the Emperor's Legate in Alexandria a few years later. He didn't purify the Empire's silver coinage, or conceive the land reforms and cuts in taxes and government spending that stabilised the Byzantine Empire for about 400 years. He didn't lead a pitifully small army into battle against the biggest Persian invasion of the West since Xerxes. He had nothing to do, in extreme old age, with Greek Fire. Priscus existed, and may have been a beastly as I describe him. I find it reasonable that the Emperor Heraclius was not very competent without others to advise him. But the stories are fabrications. They aren't history. They are entertainment.
Even so, they are underpinned by historical fact. The background is as nearly right as I can make it. I've read everything I could find about the age in English and French and Latin and Greek. I've read dozens of specialist works, and hundreds of scholarly articles. My Blood of Alexandria is a good introduction to the political and religious state of Egypt on the eve of the Arab invasions. My Curse of Babylon is a good introduction to the Empire as a whole in the early years of the 7th century. The only conscious inaccuracy in all six novels comes in Terror of Constantinople, where I appoint a new Patriarch of Constantinople several months after the actual event. I did this for dramatic effect—among much else, it let me parody Tony Blair's Diana Funeral reading—but I've felt rather bad about it ever since. This aside, any university student who uses me for background to the period that I cover will not be defrauded.
There's nothing special about this. If you want to know about Rome between Augustus and Nero, the best place to start is the two Claudius novels by Robert Graves. Mary Renault is often as good a Grote or Bury on Classical Greece—sometimes better in her descriptions of the moral climate. Gore Vidal's Julian is first class historical fiction, and also sound biography. Anyone who gets no further than C.S. Forrester and Patrick O'Brien will know the Royal Navy in the age of the French Wars. Mika Waltari is less reliable on the 18th Dynasty in The Egyptian. In mitigation, we know very little about the events and family relationships of the age between Amenhotep III and Horemheb. He wrote a memorable novel despite its boggy underpinning of fact.
I could move from here to talking about bad historical novels. But I won't. "Judge not, lest ye be judged" is the proper text for anyone like me to bear in mind. What I will do instead is talk about some of the technical difficulties of writing historical fiction. The first is one of balance. If you write a novel about Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great, you start with certain advantages. We all know roughly who these people were. We already have Rex Warner and Robert Graves and Mary Renault. We have all the films and television serials and documentaries. We know that Rome was a collapsing republic before it became an Empire, and that Alexander got as far as India, and died in Babylon. Everyone has heard of Cicero and Aristotle. It's the same with novels set in the Second World War, or the reign of Elizabeth I. You can give the occasional spot of background, but largely get on with the narrative.
When I chose the early 7th century, I ran straight into difficulties of balancing narrative and background. The average English-speaking reader doesn't know what happened after the "fall" of Rome in the 5th century. The general view is that the Empire was overwhelmed by a flood of barbarians, after which we jump over a "dark age" to novels about Alfred the Great. There is some awareness of a continuing Empire in the East, ruled from Constantinople. But Byzantine history has always been a minority interest. There's so much of it, and little of it connects with our own past. You simply can't expect your readers to know any of the details of the 7th century, especially as they were seen from Constantinople.
Without giving readers a great deal of the background in depth, the novels would be incomprehensible. In Conspiracies of Rome, for example, Aelric arrives in a Rome that has no Emperor, but is still part of the Empire. There are still Senators, but no Senate. The Pope is the effective power, but is formally subordinate to a Byzantine Governor in Ravenna. Much of Italy is ruled by the Lombards, but there is a long strip of Imperial territory connecting Rome to Ravenna. Though ruined and depopulated, the Rome of the Emperors maintains a ghostly existence. Add to this that Aelric blunders right into the high politics of the Empire. The average reader needs some guidance here.
On the other hand, this is a first person narrative. The pretence is that Aelric is writing in old age for an audience that may not be entirely familiar with the details of Rome when he was there, but that is also not ignorant of the basics of how to wipe your bottom, or what the Arian Heresy was about. Endless lecturing digressions would distance readers from narrator, and would clog an otherwise tight narrative structure.
I don't think I got the balance entirely right in Conspiracies. I do better in the other five novels. But the general answer is to work out the minimum needed to make sense of the story, and to give it to the reader through dialogue and action. Once you get into the right habits, you can pack a lot of information into the actual plot development. I won't make outrageous claims for my talent as a writer. I am, however, pleased with the technical solutions I found to this problem.
The second difficulty is language. Older historical novelists often had a taste for ludicrous dialogue—"'Get thee hence,' cried the King. 'Before one moon shall have passed, thou must bring me the head of the false Rutland!" etc, etc. Every age has its own tastes, but this doesn't work now. When people spoke to each other in the past, they sounded natural to each other. Making them speak Shakespearese devalues your characters. If your novel is set in the 18th century, you can try for real authenticity. But this is hard to get right, and your readers will struggle with whatever colloquial speech you reconstruct from court records and letters. The best approach—used by Patrick O'Brien, for example—is to give dialogue a faintly Augustan intonation, but otherwise to avoid obvious modernisms.
I don't have this problem in my Aelric novels. The pretence throughout is that Aelric is writing his memoirs in Greek, and these have been translated into idiomatic modern English. From about the second to the 19th centuries, Greek writers would, unless they were trying to be grand, skip between classical and demotic usages according to their need. Therefore, I do the same in English—mixing Augustanism with modern vulgarity. Take this as an example from my Curse of Babylon:
I think this does the job. It sounds natural. The incident isn't a diversion from the plot: the boy comes in handy later on. It also gives something of the social background. I'll have to let the readers decide.
What is it about the Classical Era that led you to writing your novels in that time?
Another big question. I discovered the Greeks when I was eight, and I came across a copy of Roger Lancelyn-Green's retelling of The Iliad. I was smitten at once. There was something so wonderfully grand, yet exotic, about the stories. I didn't get very far with it, but I found a copy of Teach Yourself Greek in the local library and spent weeks puzzling over it. Over the next few years, I read my way through the whole of Greek and Roman mythology, and was drawn into the history of the whole ancient world.
When I was twelve, my classical leanings took me in a new, if wholly predictable, direction. The sexual revolution of the 70s hardly touched most South London schoolboys. The one sex education lesson I had was a joke. Porn was whatever I could see without my glasses in the swimming pool. So I taught myself Latin well enough to read the untranslated naughty bits in the Loeb editions of the classics. The librarians in Lewisham were very particular in those days about what they allowed on their shelves. They never questioned the prestige of the classics, or thought about what I was getting them to order in from other libraries. With help from Martial and Suetonius and Ausonius, among others, I'd soon worked out the mechanics of all penetrative sex, and flagellation and depilation and erotic dances; and I had a large enough fund of anecdotes and whole stories to keep my imagination at full burn all though puberty.
Then, as I grew older, I realised something else about the Greeks—something I'd always known without putting it into words. There's no doubt that European civilisation, at least since the Renaissance, has outclassed every other. No one ever gathered facts like we do. No one reasoned from them more profoundly or with greater focus. No one approached us in exposing the forces of nature, and in turning them to human advantage. We are now four or five centuries into a curve of progress that keeps turning more steeply upwards. Yet our first steps were guided by others—the Greek, the Romans, the Arabs, and so forth. If we see further than they do, we stand on the backs of giants.
The Greeks had no one to guide them. Unless you want to make exaggerated claims about the Egyptians and Phoenicians, they began from nothing. Between about 600 and 300 BC, the Greeks of Athens and some of the cities of what is now the Turkish coast were easily the most remarkable people who ever lived. They gave us virtually all our philosophy, and the foundation of all our sciences. Their historians were the finest. Their poetry was second only to that of Homer—and it was they who put together all that we have of Homer. They gave us ideals of beauty, the fading of which has always been a warning sign of decadence; and they gave us the technical means of recording that beauty. Again, they had no examples to imitate. They did everything entirely by themselves. In a world that had always been at the midnight point of barbarism and superstition, they went off like a flashbulb; and everything good in our own world is part of their afterglow. Every renaissance and enlightenment we have had since then has begun with a rediscovery of the ancient Greeks. Modern chauvinists may argue whether England or France or Germany has given more to the world. In truth, none of us is fit to kiss the dust on which the ancient Greeks walked.
How can you stumble into their world, and not eventually be astonished by what the Greeks achieved? From the time I was eight, into early manhood, I felt wave after wave of adoration wash over me, each one more powerful than the last.
Even so, from my first reading of Gibbon, I was also drawn towards the very end of Antiquity—the series of crises that began in the third century, and that, by about 650, shattered the fabric of ancient civilisation. When it came to writing my first historical novel, I could easily have set it in Classical Athens, or in Rome under Tiberius or Domitian. Instead, I chose the end period. The idea first came early in 2004, when my wife took me for a long weekend in Rome. It was a bitterly cold four days in February, and we wandered round the Forum and the remains of the Imperial Palace, and the Coliseum and all the museums. But I found myself more powerfully drawn to the fourth and fifth century churches, and buildings and inscriptions from the early middle ages. These are buildings that haven't fallen down, and that give a strong sense of continuity with the past. I kept asking myself what it was like to be in Rome when these buildings were new, and the grander buildings from the Imperial age were still standing, though falling into ruin.
The result was Conspiracies of Rome, which I wrote quickly in 2005, and then put away. When it came out in 2008, it was an immediate success, and five more followed. I still worship the Classical Greeks. But my last visit to Turkey saw me among the ruins of Aphrodisias and Hierapolis almost out of duty. My biggest thrill is to walk though the bronze doors recycled from a temple in Ephesus into the Great Church in Constantinople. The Turks conquered Byzantium fair and square, and Islam is their faith. It would be a terrible thing, even so, if they turned the place back into a mosque and covered over the mosaics again. Writing the Aelric novels has turned me into something of a Byzantine patriot!
It's widely thought that sexuality in the Classical Era was much more fluid in comparison to modern Western thinking (or rather, before recent developments). Do you feel that your stories are in keeping with how society thought at the time, or do you write with a message in mind for today's society?
There are two opposed beliefs about sexuality in the ancient world. Both are false, though not equally so. The first is that the ancient world fizzled out in an orgy of bum fun, and that we need to be careful not to let this happen to us. Where do you begin with a belief so completely unfounded on the evidence? I suppose you look to the evidence. Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar both had a taste for all-male sex. So did Mark Antony. So did Hadrian. So had most of the famous Athenians—Euripides being one of its most notable enthusiasts. No signs there of moral or any other weakness. If Mark Antony came to a bad end, it was because he married an ambitious foreign woman.
A growing prejudice against all-male sex becomes visible in the fourth century, when Constantine established Christianity as the official faith. He made the first laws against it. Within a century, the Goths were across the Rhine and had sacked Rome. Oh, and one of Constantine's own sons had a taste for Gothic boys!
It's absurd to try correlating national greatness or decline with sexual customs. Ancient civilisation didn't collapse because its rulers were too worn out from buggering each other to take up swords. The ultimate cause may have been a mild global cooling, which lowered the Malthusian ceiling. There was an undoubted growth of rural impoverishment that left populations open to the pandemic diseases that swept through the Mediterranean world from late in the second century. Population decline was then worsened by various forms of misgovernment, and by the need to hold frontiers that had only made sense in an age of economic and demographic expansion. Rather than bursting through in unstoppable floods, the barbarians seem eventually to have wandered, in small bands, into a demographic vacuum.
The second false belief is that the ancient world was one big al fresco bath house. I once watched a television documentary in which it was seriously maintained that straight sex was out of fashion in Athens during the classical period. I thought of writing in to ask what books the researchers had been reading.
Because it lasted over a thousand years, and flourished on three continents, you should be careful with generalisations about ancient civilisation. But one good generalisation is that free men were expected to marry and beget children. These were societies with high death rates. They needed high birth rates not to die out. They particularly needed large numbers of young men to fight in their endemic wars of conquest or survival. Those men who wouldn't breed were sometimes punished. Those who couldn't were expected to adopt the surplus children of their poorer friends and relatives.
There were also strong prejudices against men who took the passive role in oral and anal sex. Take, for example, this epigram somewhere in Martial:
On the other hand, the ancients didn't have our concept of gay and straight. Latin has a large and precise sexual vocabulary—though you won't find meanings in the standard dictionaries. See, for example: Irrumator, one who presents his penis for sucking; Fellator, one who sucks; Pathicus, the passive partner in anal sex, Exoletus, the active partner; Cinaedus, a male prostitute; Catamitus, a boy prostitute or lover; Glabrarius, lover of smooth-skinned boys; Tribas, a woman with a clitoris large enough to serve as a penis—and so it continues. The Greek vocabulary is larger still. There is no word in either language that means "homosexual." Sodomitus is a late word, brought in by the Christians, and may not have had its present meaning until deep into the middle ages.
So long as legitimate children were somehow begotten, and so long as he didn't disgrace himself by taking the passive role, what else a free man did was legally and morally indifferent. Elsewhere in his works, Martial boasts of sleeping with boys, and scolds his wife for thinking ill of him. In Athens and some other classical city states, it was a social duty for men in the higher classes to have sexual affairs with adolescent boys. We all know about the Spartans. In Thebes, an army was formed of adult sex partners. If anyone had said that all-male sex was in itself wrong, he'd have been laughed at. The Jews, who did say this, were despised. The Christian Emperors may have made laws against it. They were mostly enforced against political enemies when no other charges were credible or convenient.
Indeed, while there was a prejudice, and sometimes laws, against sexual passivity, it's obvious that, once in private, men did as they pleased. One of the fundamental rules of the man-boy affairs in Athens was no anal penetration and no fellatio. Sex was supposed to involve mutual masturbation or intercrural friction. You can imagine how that rule was kept in private. There were problems only if the truth got out. Philip of Macedon, for example, kept a boy as his lover. One day, in public, he poked the boy in the stomach and asked why he wasn't yet pregnant. The boy was so outraged that he murdered the King.
Then we have slavery, and the total power of an owner over his slaves. A slave-owner could demand whatever he liked, and expect the world not to be told about what he liked. So long as they weren't physically injured, slaves were universally expected to do as they were told and not complain. As for prostitution, Rome and the larger cities were filled with brothels offering every sexual act imaginable. When Bible quotes failed, Christians were warned away from the brothels on the grounds that they might accidentally sleep with their own abandoned and enslaved children.
I haven't mentioned all-female sex. Nor, though, did most ancient writers. Everyone knows about Sappho. But we are more interested in her sexuality than any of the ancient critics. At best, the surviving writings about her deal with her tastes in casual asides, and only to explain the meaning of her text. This may seem curious. Women are at least as inclined to have sex with each other as men with each other—and human nature doesn't change much in its fundamentals between different times and places. And the ancients were hardly reticent about sex. The reason, I think, is that, for the ancients, sex wasn't sex unless an ejaculating penis was somewhere involved. Nothing else counted.
Let me cite another of Martial's epigrams. This one is about a woman called Philaenis. In other epigrams, she is called lusca—that is, she has only one eye. In this one, she is called tribas—again, a woman with a very large clitoris. The opening lines go:
As with the lines about Charinus, you could take this out of context as a sneer against same-sex intercourse. Martial ridicules Philaenis, though, not because she has sex with girls, but because she has abandoned the role assigned her by Nature, and is behaving like a man. Note how he begins with her apparently equal taste for sex with boys. This is not an anti-lesbian work, but an assertion of gender stereotypes. Later in the epigram, he takes issue with her taste for exercising in the gymnasium. Women were not supposed to behave like men. Whatever else they did—so long, of course, as it did not involve the wrong penis—wasn't worth discussing. It seems that husbands didn't regard lesbian affairs as adultery. It may also be that they weren't worried if their women had sex with eunuchs— who were often cut late enough to be capable of erection and orgasm, though not to be capable of disgracing a man with bastard children.
The ancients were often more liberal about sex than we are. But they were not generally more liberal. They were governed by prejudices quite as strong as our own. But they were different prejudices. If they didn't care about the gender of sexual partners, they were obsessed by many of the attendant circumstances.
The lead character to your novels is clearly bisexual. What was your reasoning behind this?
See above for a general answer. Aelric is young and beautiful, and increasingly rich and powerful. He's clever and is honest about his tastes. He despises religion, and puts up with Christianity only because nearly everyone else believes in it, and because it may be politically useful. Of course, he's bisexual. Given the continuing moral climate of his world, what else should he be? It wasn't a matter any normal man would think about. In Curse of Babylon, he's in love with Antonia. But he's also in love with two of his dancing boys—who adore him in return, and who turn into ruthless killers, reckless of their own safety, when he needs their help. Antonia doesn't object. She forms her own semi-maternal relationship with one of the boys. Why should she be jealous? She's the one who will marry Aelric and bear the children. She might think differently about a female concubine. Ancient sexuality was constrained more by considerations of status and honour than by the teachings of Levitcus and St Paul.
Tell us a bit about the latest book; what can readers expect, and how different is it from your previous works?
If you've read any of the others, Curse of Babylon gives you more of the same—though perhaps a little more of some things. According to The Morning Star, I give readers "a near-perfect blend of historical detail and atmosphere with the plot of a conspiracy thriller, vivid characters, high philosophy and vulgar comedy." I won't say if the blend is near-perfect, but that is what I try to produce. Another reviewer has called me "the Ken Russell of historical fiction." I don't think this was meant to be a compliment, but I'll take it as one. Though I try for naturalism of speech and action, I also manage a lurid, Technicolor gloss. You'll see all this in Curse. It has kidnaps and daring escapes, blood and sex everywhere, acrobatic fights that owe much to Hollywood at its best, and a gigantic battle at the climax.
Now, you do ask about politics. The trouble about political novels of any ideology is that they too often veer across the border between entertainment and propaganda. But I am an ideologue, and this shows through in my fiction. I believe that government is, in itself, a bad thing, and that most other bad things are made worse by government. The world would be a better place without all the vast structures of control that now constrain our lives. I hope you will see this belief in my fiction. I also hope it doesn't hit you over the head.
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