Monday, May 31, 2010

Unveiling the Obscure


Some time ago, in my entry entitled The Hundredth Book about Caesar? I talked about a member of our writers' group whose book is set during the reign of Emperor Maximian and how he was told by an agent that people would rather read the hundredth book about a well-known historical personage than about an obscure emperor no one knew anything about.

A book I finished recently has helped, in my mind, to combat the narrow view outlined above. In my last entry I mentioned that I was about to start the historical novel Family Favourites by Alfred Duggan. Having finished said book in a short period of time I can say that Duggan sets up a sturdy shield wall in the face of the ‘hundredth book about Caesar’ theory.

Family Favourites, written by Duggan in 1963, takes a close look at the reign of the teenage Emperor Elagabalus, a descendant of the Severan dynasty and the Syrian priests of the sun god at Emesa. The story is told from the point of view of a Gaul who ended up serving in the Legions during the civil war at the end of the second century A.D., a war in which Septimius Severus was the victor. Family Favourites throws the reader headlong into the third century Roman Empire and gives an intimate, human, amazing and sometimes distasteful view of Imperial politics in which every action, decision, had to be weighed in order for a foreign ruler to maintain the loyalty of the Praetorians, the regular Legions and the people of Rome, the mob. The fact that Elagabalus was only thirteen when he came to the purple adds a palpable uncertainty. His family included Julia Maesa (sister to Julia Domna, Severus’s brilliant Empress) and her daughters Julia Mamaea (mother of future Alexander Severus) and Julia Soaemias (mother of Elagabalus); these ‘Syrian women’ were some of the most powerful women in history to that point, intelligent, strategic, caring and sometimes ruthless. And sadly, they are little-known to most of today’s readers.

I won’t summarize the story because only the book can do itself justice. It does strike me however that even though most readers would be unaware of these historical personages or this period of Roman history, they would still thrill to this novel that puts the inner imperial workings under the lens. Good historical fiction can and should transport the reader so that they can experience time and place unlike our own, no matter the ruler at the time. I think (and this is just my opinion as a reader, writer and former bookseller) that most people read historical fiction not only to learn about people of the past, but also to feel, experience, the past. When I read, or write for that matter, a bit of good historical fiction I want to hear the roar of a crowd at the amphitheatre or hippodrome, feel the rumble of their feet pounding in unison. I want to smell the incense that might be burning in a corner brazier of a room used by an Emperor or the aroma of a stew a poor Suburan family might be eating at meal time.

Many great writers have taken on Caesar, but they have also tackled more obscure characters. The strength of the tales is in how they are told, I think, more than what exactly is told. That’s the beauty of historical fiction, that it can pump new life into old tales, give new perspective and almost reincarnate heroes, villains and villagers.
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