Thursday, 21 March 2019

HNSA Conference 2019 - making a noise about historical fiction

Back in 2017, Gillian Polack interviewed me about my role as program director of the 2017 Historical Novel Society Australasia conference in Melbourne. Hard to believe that 2 years has passed. I'm excited to say we've now launched the program for our 3rd biennial conference in Sydney on 25-27 October, 2019  in partnership with Western Sydney University. Writing historical fiction is my passion, and making a noise about the genre through programming  is a very rewarding labour of love.

As Chair and program director of HNSA, here’s an overview of what's on offer at the conference instead of my regular monthly history post. Forgive me, I've been a little preoccupied of late:) And if you're keen to learn more about Australian historical fiction in general, you can read my state of play for the Historical Novel Review: Indigenous Origins, Colonialism and Diaspora.

What’s on offer at HNSA 2019
The HNSA committee  never thought we’d get this far - our 3rd biennial conference. We hope fans of the genre, both readers and writers alike, will gather as a community again –this time at historic Parramatta (the second oldest town in Australasia). There is a lot to celebrate at HNSA 2019!

Guest of Honour, Jackie French
HNSA 2019 Guest of Honour and Keynote Speaker
Jackie French is our Guest of Honour. Historian, ecologist, literacy advocate, and author of over 140 books for all age groups, she holds more than 60 awards in Australia and overseas. Our keynote speaker, New Zealand author and academic, Dr Paula Morris, will address our theme of History Repeats to explore whether historical fiction can engage readers who might not see the parallels between past and present. Our HNSA patron, Kate Forsyth will warmly open the conference.  Our theme will be explored further in a panel that ponders subtexts in historical novels with Winton Higgins, Michelle Aung Thin and Lucy Treloar (Learning from History). We also look forward to Marie Munkara talking about recovering the 'erased' history of First Nations people (Dispossession & Betrayal) due to shameful government policies and law that saw Indigenous children stolen from their parents. 

A treat for readers and writers
Our general stream is aimed at both readers and writers. We have over 60 esteemed authors discussing their books, inspiration, favourite history, personal journeys and thorny topics. On Saturday 26 October enjoy the insights of adaptable writers, Sophie Masson and Kelly Gardiner (The Versatile Writer); hear why Jane Caro and Ali Alizadeh are drawn to write about famous characters like Elizabeth I and Joan D'Arc (We Need to Talk about Bette and Joan); and explore the innocence, guilt and psychopathy of criminal protagonists with Janet Lee, Pip Smith and Catherine Jinks (The Criminal Mind).

On Sunday 27, October Nicole Alexander and Ella Carey explain the attraction of drawing on family legends (Personal Histories); and Kate Forsyth and Nastasha Lester travel back into France’s history (A French Affair). Alison Goodman, Anne Gracie and Anna Campbell will inspire us with Regency madness (George & Georgette) while Jock Serong, Rachel Leary and Stephanie Parkyn take us into the mind of characters who battle both internal fears and their environment (Survival of the Fittest). Meg Keneally and Gay Hendriksen will discuss the benefits of historical novelists and historians actively collaborating together (Walking Side by Side.) 

Kate Forsyth & Paula Morris
Honing your craft
Running parallel with our general stream is our second dealing with the craft and business of writing. On Saturday 26 October we kick off by delving into how to keep the sizzle factor in your historical romance series (Stoking the Flame) with Lizzi Tremayne, Renee Dahlia and Elizabeth Ellen Carter; and discover the hard work required to market your novel after your ‘book baby’ is born with author Lucinda Brant, publicist Debbie McInnes, and Berkelouws Books' Melanie Prosser (Connecting with Readers). Paula Morris, Isobel Blackthorn and Greg Johnston explain the challenges of imagining a dead person’s life (Respectful Research); while Jesse Blackadder, Rachel le Rossignol and Majella Cullinane discuss the value of writing degrees (It’s Academic).

On Sunday 27 October, Robert Gott returns with Katherine Kovacic and Tessa Lunney to divulge how to weave a web of truth and lies in detective fiction (History & Mystery); Gillian Polack, Ilke Tampke and Pamela Hart ponder the individual challenges of researching different eras (The Things We Don’t Know); Belinda Castles, Robyn Cadwallader and Julian Leatherdale explore the nuances of point of view (I am a Camera); and  Tea Cooper, Emily Madden and Carla Caruso describe the mystery element in parallel narratives (Intertwining Lives Revealed). The skills required to create a strong and plausible female protagonist is revealed by Lauren Chater, Kirsty Murray and Elizabeth Jane Corbett (The Feminine Mystique); while Jesse Blackadder and Mira Robertson discuss the secret to scriptwriting (The Silver Screen). 

Finally, to round off the conference we decided to leave the bedroom door closed and summon some black magic. I'm looking forward to joining  Kate Forsyth and Kim Wilkins to conjure weird and wonderful superstitions and concoctions to keep readers spellbound in Love Potions and Witchcraft.

A fresh approach – Friday Craft & Publishing Program
At HNSA 2017, we held short workshops concurrently with the main program. Attendees were frustrated they were missing out on panels on the main program to attend these - spoiled for choice! As a result, the committee has decided to take a fresh approach in 2019. Instead of holding a round table at a Friday Opening Reception, we're conducting a Craft & Publishing program on Friday 25 October with practical workshops for writers, masterclasses, and manuscript assessments.

There’ll be a suite of 9 two hour workshops by top rate tutors offering insights and practical tips on various aspects of the writing craft, research, and sub-genres. Our wonderful team includes Kate Forsyth (Spice & Swashbuckle – Writing Romantic Historical Fiction), Sophie Masson (Writing Historical Fiction for Children and Young Adults), Alison Goodman (Writing Historical Fantasy), Robert Gott (Writing Crime Fiction), Pamela Hart (Making Research Work for You), Kelly Gardiner (Scrivener for Beginners), Rachel Franks (Trove for the Historical Novelist ), Paula Morris (Writing Family History) and Evan Shapiro (Self-Publishing Essentials).

Our popular 1:1 manuscripts assessments will also happen on the Friday – this year with Scholastic publisher Clare Hallifax, and agent Irina Dunn. And Gillian Polack is offering 1:1 masterclasses on writing and research instead of teaching small groups. 

Munkara, Masson, Serong, Alexander, Gott & Jinks
And the winner is….
Our signature First Pages Pitch Contest will be held on Saturday 26 October. This year we’re offering $200 in prize money.  So polish up your pitch and the first few paragraphs of your work-in-progress. Rachel Nightingale returns as our narrator with Clare Hallifax (Scholastic Australia), agent Margaret Connolly, and Michelle Lovi (Odyssey Press), acting as our judges. Every writer in the audience can benefit from hearing the critiques of experts on which words first attract a publisher’s attention. It’s entertaining for everyone else too. 

The ARA HNSA Short Story Contest also returns thanks to our generous sponsor, ARA, which  is donating $500 prize money. Our HNSA Conference patron, Sophie Masson, is our judge. 

An evening by the river
Our conference dinner on 26 October will be held at Sahra by the River, a restaurant nestled on the banks of the Parramatta River. Historical Romance author, Anna Campbell, will regale us with stories after Sophie Masson announces the winner of the ARA HNSA Short Story Contest.

En garde!
Fancy some sword play? Or curious to know how to wear armour or hold a longbow? Richard Halcomb from the Medieval Archery Society is joining us this year to provide hands-on advice on Medieval Arms and Armouring while Richard Cullinan from Stoccata School of Defence will give an Introduction to Historical Fencing. So indulge your inner Robin Hood or Arya Stark at our Historical Reenactments and Weapons demonstrations.

Challenging the genre
In our extended Academic stream on Sunday 27 October, we’ll bring together postgraduates, academics, and other interested scholars to consider the complexities of the genre of historical fiction and its readership. This will also be open to general admission for conference delegates. A Call for Papers is currently been made. 

Say hello
Thanks for letting me share my news. I know many of you live in the northern hemisphere, but I hope you might travel Downunder later this year. If you do, please say hello!

For more information about HNSA 2019, you can visit our 2019 Conference page and go from there. And if you're keen, you can buy tickets here.

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the Tales of Ancient Rome, and co-founder of HNS Australasia. Learn more at her website.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Inspirational homes (1) by Carolyn Hughes

“Inspirational homes” might put you in mind of a strapline blazoned across the front of a glossy interior décor magazine, but that’s not the sort of inspiration I’m going to talk about. In this post, and my next two, I thought I’d reveal a little about the real-life buildings that “inspire” me as I write about the homes in which my characters spend their lives.

In my novels, set in 14th century southern England, my characters are peasants, artisans of various sorts, and the gentry. The peasants might be poor or wealthy, and free or unfree, so some are on the lowest rung of village society, whereas others, even if they owe service to their lord, are well off enough to be the equivalent of a middle class.

Depending on their station in life, these people would have lived in:
  • One-roomed cottages, barely better than hovels, in which every part of life for a family was spent in the same space;
  • Bigger two- or three-roomed cottages, perhaps with a platform for sleeping and possibly small storage spaces;
  • Houses with two storeys, a hall downstairs, and a solar upstairs for sleeping accessed by a narrow staircase;
  • Large manor houses with several rooms, but still centred on a main great hall, and with a solar perhaps divided into chambers. Some manor houses might be fortified. 

Above and beyond the manor houses there were of course great castles, but I have none of those kind of aristocratic folk in my novels, so I need no castles to inspire me!

To get some idea of what 14th century homes might look – and indeed feel – like, I am very fortunate to have quite close by, in West Sussex, the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, a living museum, whose mission is to rescue and conserve historic buildings from across the south of England. Buildings are saved from being demolished, or from simply falling down, by being carefully dismantled and rebuilt on the museum’s site. The museum has more than fifty buildings, spanning nine centuries. Most are open for you to go inside, so that you can get a real feel for what it was like to live and work in them. The museum is a wonderful resource.

As also is English Heritage, which manages over 400 historic monuments, buildings and other places of historical interest, including both some modest homes and wonderful castles.

The buildings I am going to discuss in these posts can be visited either at the Weald and Downland Museum or at an English Heritage site.

Today I am going to discuss the homes at the bottom end of the scale, peasants’ cottages. Because they were the homes of the poor, and were often built of materials that were given to decay – timber, wattle and daub, thatch – few such buildings survive to the present day. Of course some houses with origins in the Middle Ages are still standing, but they were likely to have been constructed of stone, and presumably will have been maintained and refurbished over the centuries to keep them structurally sound.

Two of the five mediaeval houses re-erected at the Weald and Downland Museum are the 13th century cottage from Hangleton in Sussex and a house from Boarhunt in Hampshire that dates from the 14th century. These are both small peasant houses.

Some peasant houses might have been designed to accommodate animals in one end of the building, but that is not the case with either of these. It must be presumed that animals would have been kept in a separate byre or barn.

The two-room cottage from Hangleton is a flint cottage reconstructed using archaeological evidence from excavation of the mediaeval village. The cottage was probably built in the 13th century and abandoned in the 14th. Hangleton itself, which is about 4 miles (6.5 km) north-west of Brighton, seems to have been already in decline by the middle of the 14th century as a result of the climatic and economic upheavals of the early part of the century. The arrival of what we call the Black Death in 1348-1350 might have been the last straw.

Oast House Archive/Mediaeval Cottage at Weald & Downland Museum,
Singleton, West Sussex/
CC BY-SA 2.0

Although this is an entirely flint-built cottage, other cottages from the area were built with a framework of wooden posts, and the spaces between filled with wattle and daub, though later this was replaced with flint. The walls of this cottage are about three or four feet (one to one and a half metres) high. Above the eaves is the timber framework of the roof, which is covered in thick straw thatch, although apparently the roof could have been wooden shingles or turf, some other type of thatch, or possibly even clay tiles.

The cottage has two rooms. The main room is where the family – on average five people – would have lived their entire lives: cooking their food, eating it, sleeping and carrying out all the essential tasks of everyday life. It must have been very cramped! I don’t have the exact dimensions, but I don’t think it can be much more than 15 feet (3 metres) square.

The second room has an oven, which is not usual for an ordinary cottage at a time when villagers were expected to have their bread baked in the lord’s oven, but perhaps the occupier of this house was a baker...

Most of the homes at this time (even relatively wealthy ones) would have had a hearth in the middle of the floor of the main (or only) room, and this is true of the main room here. A circular stone hearth has been laid on the floor, not quite in the middle but somewhat to one side. The room is open to the rafters, and the smoke from the fire would have risen and found its way out through the thatch. Most people assume that there would have been a hole of some sort in the roof’s ridge through which the smoke escaped, but I have read that the gaps in the thatch would have provided sufficient egress. It is also said that the smoke was good for keeping the thatch insect free, though I daresay creepy-crawlies were pretty abundant in mediaeval cottages.

The museum has dressed the room with a couple of small tables, a bench and a few stools, a fairly strong-looking chest, perhaps for storing linen, clothes and any valuables, and an array of baskets, tubs and cooking and eating utensils. Tools and other items are shown hanging from the rafters, or stored on the top of the wall, but there is clearly little space for much in the way of furniture or possessions. No bed is shown here, so we must assume that the family would lay down their pallets when they were ready for bed, at a suitable distance from the open hearth.

There is just one small window and, of course, it is not glazed. It has vertical struts offering a measure of security, and a sort of blind – oiled cloth perhaps – has been installed to keep out the weather. I suppose that a shutter might have been added for greater protection, but one isn’t shown here. It must have been very dark indoors, even with the blind open, and exceedingly gloomy with it closed. Given that these poor folk’s only source of light after sundown was the fire and smelly tallow candles or feeble rushlights, one presumes that, as soon as evening came there was no point trying do anything other than rolling out their straw pallets and seeking sleep!

I have spent a day (well, more like a few hours) in this little cottage, dressed in medieval clothes, learning how to spin, crouching round that central hearth, making soup (“sowpys dorry”) and cheese pottage. I discovered how very hot and smoky it was inside, and thought that maybe I wouldn’t have much enjoyed being a 14th century peasant...

The author, enjoying being "mediaeval" for the day

The “hall house” from Boarhunt, 7 miles (11 km) north of Portsmouth, in Hampshire, dates from the late 14th century (1355–1390). It is a bit larger than the Hangleton cottage, having three bays, and is built with a cruck frame over the middle of the central hall. In the museum’s view, this building was particularly well constructed for its size.

Keith Edkins / Boarhunt Hall / CC BY-SA 2.0

The central bay is the main living room – the “hall” – again with the hearth in the middle of the floor. The hearth is shown as a rectangle, taking up a surprisingly large portion of the space available. The roof timbers in this central hall show the blackening effects of smoke from the open fire. Although this is a somewhat larger house than Hangleton, the main living area is still quite small, say 20 feet (just over 6 metres) square. The furniture used to dress the hall is much the same as for Hangleton, and again there is no sign of a bed.

It is thought that the bay to the right of the main entrance was probably a service or storage room, while the third room accessed by a door to the left of the hall is thought to be a “solar”, a private room. This inner room has no windows, so perhaps it was simply used for sleeping. It was also completely sealed off from the smoke-filled hall, whereas the service room was only separated from the hall by a screen below cross-beam level.

I have spent time in both these buildings so, when I am writing about peasant cottages in my novels, I can recall what it felt like to be inside them and I try to replicate that feeling in my descriptions of domestic life. Some of my peasant characters do live in one- or two-room cottages, while others' houses might be a little larger. I have seen it conjectured that some people might have constructed sleeping platforms under the rafters and, liking that idea, I have given one or two of my families that arrangement. It would seem to me to be a safer place to sleep than clustered around the hearth, though it would presumably be quite unpleasantly smoky up there!

I think it would be true to say that, for mediaeval peasants, their homes would mostly be cramped from lack of space, dark from a lack of windows, smoky from the central hearth and, in bad weather, cold, draughty and damp. But I suppose that, if you know no different, you would accept that level of discomfort as simply normal, and be grateful that at least you had a place of your own in which to eat and sleep and spend time with your family.

Next time, I will discuss homes of a somewhat higher standing: one belonging to a wealthy farmer and another built by a Souhampton wine merchant.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

The Terminators Part Two By L.J. Trafford

Last month I looked at the assassinations of three Romans: Julius Caesar, Caligula and Domitian. I examined the How, the Who and the Why of those murders and in doing so uncovered high principles, self preservation and wholesale revenge.
This month I'm examining three more assassinations and seeing if there are any linking themes.

1) Commodus 
© José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0
Prior to Commodus there had been a run of, what Edward Gibbon in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire likes to call, The Five Good Emperors. These were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius. This is what Gibbon sees as the height of Roman power and good governance. Commodus succeeded his father Marcus Aurelius in the year 180 AD at the age of 18 to a system that had been run extremely well for over 70 years.

The big question here, and I know you’re all thinking it: how did he cock it all up?
We shall see.... but before that let’s skip ahead for a look at Commodus’ final moment.

The How
If you’ve seen Gladiator and are now yelling “I know this! In the arena by that Australian dude!”, you are in for a rude awakening. For history has a very different tale.
Firstly Commodus’ wife Marcia served him up a dish of poisoned beef. However, the Emperor vomited the beef and the poison up. As Commodus recuperated in a nice restorative hot bath, a wrestler named Narcissus was sent into the bathroom. Narcissus proceeded to strangle the Emperor.

The Who
Well two are named above. His wife and the wonderfully named wrestler Narcissus. But there were more involved. Cassius Dio names Laetus and Eclectus. Laetus was the Praetorian Prefect. Which is interesting given Laetus had a whole guard at his command to undertake the assassination, which he didn’t use.

The Why
Commodus had reigned 12 years when he was assassinated. We are extremely lucky in that we have an actual eye witness, in the shape of Cassius Dio, as to what living under Commodus was actually like. I make no apologies for posting this long extract. Because it is so worth it and gives you an insight into what those 12 years of Commodus' rule had been like:

And here is another thing that he did to us senators which gave us every reason to look for our death. Having killed an ostrich and cut off his head, he came up to where we were sitting, holding the head in his left hand and in   his right hand raising aloft his bloody sword; and though he spoke not a word, yet he wagged his head with a grin, indicating that he would treat us in the same way. And many would indeed have perished by the sword on the spot, for laughing at him (for it was laughter rather than indignation that overcame us), if I had not chewed some laurel leaves, which I got from my garland, myself, and persuaded the others who were sitting near me to do the same, so that in the steady movement of our armies we might conceal the fact that we were laughing. 

Commodus was very fond of playing in the arena, as again Cassius Dio, who was actually there informs us:
On the first day, then, the events that I have described took place. On the other days he descended to the arena from his place above and cut down all the domestic animals that approached him and some also that were led up to him or were brought before him in nets. He also killed a tiger, a hippopotamus, and an elephant. Having performed these exploits, he would retire, but later, after luncheon, would fight as a gladiator. 

Obviously performing as a Gladiator and as a wild beast hunter is very un-emperory. Even when you are extremely good at it: 

Such was his prowess in the slaying of wild beasts, that he once transfixed an elephant with a pole, pierced a gazelle's horn with a spear, and on a thousand occasions dispatched a mighty beast with a single blow 
Historia Augusta 
A young Commodus

And forcing the Senate and the people to watch it is a bit annoying, especially if they had a much better event to go to. But is it justification for murder? Probably not. However, we do have a long list of Commodus' other offences:

  • Letting unpopular favourites such as Praetorian Prefect, Cleander run Rome whilst he ran around shooting ostriches and head waggling intimidation of Senators.
  • Full scale eye popping debauchery. Which included collecting 300 beautiful concubines for his pleasure from across the Empire, whether they wanted to be collected or not.
  • Megalomania on an epic scale. Which involved renaming Rome, Commodiana after himself. He also renamed the months of the year to  Amazonius, Invictus, Felix, Pius,Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, Exsuperatorius. And he even renamed himself to this far from catchy title: The Emperor Caesar Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus Augustus Pius Felix Sarmaticus Germanicus Maximus Britannicus, Pacifier of the Whole Earth, Invincible, the Roman Hercules, Pontifex Maximus, Holder of the Tribunician Authority for the eighteenth time, Imperator for the eighth time, Consul for the seventh time, Father of his Country.
  • Horrific cruelty, including: "One corpulent person he cut open down the middle of his belly, so that his intestines gushed forth.  Other men he dubbed one-eyed or one-footed, after he himself had plucked out one of their eyes or cut off one of their feet." Historia Augusta. 
  • And err this: "It is claimed that he often mixed human excrement with the most expensive foods, and he did not refrain from tasting them, mocking the rest of the company, as he thought." Historia Augustua
All in all I think the question we need to ask regarding the assassination of Commodus is not Why? But rather, why not?

The Aftermath
Our friend Cassius Dio sums the aftermath up nicely “After this there occurred most violent wars and civil strife.”
Indeed there was. The year following Commodus’ assassination is known as the year of the 5 emperors. So you can imagine what a bloody mess that was.

Was it a success?
As with last month’s look we have to look at the key aims before we can evaluate the success rate. Despite our eye witness of the times, Cassius, the detailed motives of Laetus and Eclectus are kind of vague. Which actually makes sense, there was no cataclysmic one thing that pushed them over the edge rather 12 whole, long years of Commodus’ erratic and strange behaviour.
It was successful therefore in the fact that the Senators who’d been worn down from this behaviour were freed from the tiring, depravity of it all.
So yes. We’ll call it a success despite a civil war later breaking out.

Aurelian. Originally produced
in the Nordisk familjebok.
2) Aurelian

Aurelian ruled for only 5 years from 270-275 AD. Which might not sound like much but it’s worth bearing in mind this was during the 3rd Century Crisis. A hundred years of turmoil that saw Emperors come and Emperors before they had a chance to get the posh purple clothing on. A century in which you had a whopping 82% chance of an unnatural death as Emperor. The average reign was only 3.6 years. So Aurelian was punching well above his weight to rule a whole 5 years and he packed a surprising amount into that half decade:

  • He expelled the Vandals, the Juthungi and the Sarmatians from Roman territory. 
  • He defeated the Goths. 
  • He defeated the Palmyrene Empire. 
  • He defeated the Gallic Empire.
  • He had a bit of a breather. Then reformed the monetary system, built some massive walls and generally made things better.

For this he declared himself Restorer of the World. Then somebody assassinated him.

The How
In 275AD Aurelian had decided that he just didn’t have enough victories to his name and started eyeing up the Persians. It was whilst he was in Thrace preparing for this campaign that it happened.
Compared to other assassinations the description we have is disappointingly brief.

Observing Aurelian to go out of the city with a small retinue, they ran out upon him and murdered him. 
OK. That’s the how dealt with. Given this is an era without firearms we’ll assume swords were involved. Perhaps daggers. Maybe a spoon.
Let us move on.

The Who
The Who in this case were his own Guards. But they had been egged on by a man named Eros or alternatively Mnestheus. Whatever his name was, he worked for Aurelian. Zosimus says he carried messages for the Emperor.

The Why
In a nut shell: Eros/Mnestheus had screwed up. We know not at what. But it was something big enough for him to fear Aurelian’s wrath. Though I guess this depends on how nervy Eros/Mnestheus was and how exacting Aurelian was. Possibly it was a slight misfiling of letters. Possibly he’d been nicking money on the side. Possibly he’d given the wrong message to the wrong person and that’s why they were going to war against the Persians. We shall never know. Which is bloody annoying.
Anyhow Eros/Mnestheus had screwed up in a way that apparently could only be resolved by killing the sole man who’d managed to restore the Empire, defeat all it’s enemies and bring stability to the region.
Rather than doing the deed himself Eros/Mnestheus went to the Guards and told them a:

Plausible story, and showed them a letter of his own writing, in the character of the emperor (which he had long before learned to counterfeit), and persuading them first that they themselves were to be put to death, which was the meaning expressed by the letter, he endeavored to prevail on them to murder the emperor. 

Firstly, being able to counterfeit the Emperor’s handwriting is quite a suspicious talent and one that makes you wonder whether that is at the bottom of Eros/Mnestheus’ screw up.
Secondly, let’s be impressed not only by Eros/Mnestheus’ counterfeiting skills but also by his ability to spin a yarn to the Guards. Because they swallowed this whole. Which suggests three possibilities:

1) The Praetorian Guard were a particularly gullible lot who unfortunately had been allocated swords.
2) Aurelian was the sort of boss that you could most easily would order your death on a whim. Or as the Historia Augusta puts it “Aurelian — it cannot be denied — was a stern, a savage, and a blood-thirsty prince.”
3) The Guard were somehow involved/implicit in Eros/Mnestheus’ screw up/possible corruption/maybe counterfeiting ring.

The speed at which the conspiracy formed and was executed suggests that it was deemed very necessary. As does the fact that the Guards had no successor in mind. Which is highly unusual in an era where rival legions propelled forward their own candidates for Emperor.

The Aftermath
It went as well as can be imagined when a hasty conspiracy murders an extremely capable emperor who had only just restored stability after decades of bloody instability.
Surprisingly as mentioned above, the Guards did not appoint a successor. They handed that honour over to the Senate. There even seems to have been a bit of regret at their hasty actions.

After he was slain and the facts became known, those very men who had killed him gave him a mighty tomb and a temple. 
Historia Augusta

The Senate gave it eight months thought and came up with Marcus Claudius Tacitus as the new emperor. He lasted 8 months.
His successor Florian didn’t even last that long.
And so the crisis of the 3rd century continued.

The big walls of Rome that Aurelian built at Porta Asinaria
Photo by MrPanyGoff

Was it a Success?
Given the original motivation was to prevent Aurelian finding out about whatever it was that Eros/Mnestheus had screwed up, well yes it was a success. Aurelian never did find out about the cock up.
But this was his fate:
Mnestheus, however, was afterward hauled away to a stake and exposed to wild beasts. 
Historia Augusta 

Eeek. One can’t help feel that Eros/Mnestheus might have been able to use those magnificent counterfeiting and smooth oratory skills on more usefully escaping Aurelian’s wrath.

3) Valentinian III

Possible diptych of Aetius. Historian Ian Hughes in his book
Aetius: Attila's Nemesis suggests that this may very well be Aetius.Photo credit Tatarrn

Valentinian III became Emperor of the Western Roman Empire at the age of only 6 after showing prodigious talent in drawing, colouring and ruining furniture by jumping on it.
Just kidding. He, of course, inherited the title. An early start meant he ruled for 30 years. Or rather other people ruled on his behalf. First up his mother Gallia Placidia, followed by the top general Aetius.

During this period the Western Empire was continually menaced by troublesome and fearsome sounding tribes like the Visigoths and the Vandals and *cue dramatic music* Attila and his horrifying Huns.

Luckily for Valentinian he had a trusty and talented general in the shape of Flavius Aetius. Aetius was happily fighting off the Franks, the Burgundians and the Bagaudae, in addition to everyone else in this fighty happy period.

The How

Valentinian decided to go riding on the Campus Martius with a few guardsmen and the followers of Optila and Thraustila (Huns loyal to Aetius). When he dismounted from his horse and was walking off to practice archery, Optilla and his followers mad for him and, drawing the swords at their sides, attacked him. Optila struck Valentinian across the side of his head and, when he turned to see who struck him, felled him with a second blow to the face 
John of Antioch.

Ouchy. And clearly unexpected:

Whether those present were stunned by the surprise of the attempt or frightened by the warlike reputation of the men, their attack brought no retaliation. 
John of Antioch

The Who
We have the two names above. Optila and Thraustila. We also have one other bit of key information “Loyal to Aetius”.
To get to the why let us us rewind 6 months to September 21st 454 AD.

The Why
Attila the Hun, one of Rome's many enemies at the time.
Illustrations from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514)

As we’ve seen above Flavius Aetius was the Western Empire’s greatest general at a time when they really needed great generals.
In 454 Aetius was at the height of his fighty-ness and success. His son was even betrothed to the Emperor’s daughter. He was basking in Imperial favour and general respect by all.
Then on the 21st September 454 Aetius was invited to a planning meeting with the Emperor. As Aetius went through the boring details of tax revenues and finances and budgets, the emperor suddenly jumped up from his throne and started yelling accusations at him.
The key accusation being that Aetius was a treacherous so and so (insert your own favourite term of abuse here) and was plotting to replace him as Emperor.
The historian Priscus picks up the story:

While Aetius was stunned by this unexpected rage and was attempting to calm his irrational outburst, Valentinian drew his sword from his scabbard, and together with Heraclius, who was carrying a cleaver under his cloak…for he was head chamberlain, fell upon him. They both rained down blows on his head and killed him, a man who had performed so many brave actions against enemies both internal and external. 

Yes, really. Valentinian jumped up and stabbed to death his employee during a particularly dull meeting. I mean clearly we’ve all been in meetings like that and possibly we’ve all imagined killing our colleagues just to end those types of meetings. But it’s still quite shocking is it not? The Emperor of the West jumping up and stabbing to death his most favoured general to death during a meeting on tax revenues, of all things.
So why did he do it? Was Aetius really plotting to take over? He had the popularity, the army, the capability to do so. But then his son had just got betrothed to Valentinian’s daughter. His grandchildren would be of Imperial birth. He had no need to push Valentinian out the way.

Valentinian clearly believed Aetius was planning to usurp him and we are told why:

Maximus, a powerful noble, who had been twice consul, was hostile to Aetius, the general of the forces of Italy. Since he knew that Heraclius, a eunuch who carried very great weight with the Emperor (Valentinian III), was extremely hostile against Aetius for the same reason….since they both wished to replace his sway with their own. The made an arrangement and they persuaded the emperor that if he did not act first and kill Aetius, Aetius would kill him.

John of Antioch

Back to Valentinian's murderers, Optila and Thraustila. Post bloody emperor murdering, we are told this:

Both of them took of the Emperor’s diadem and horse and rode off to Maximus. 


Yes the exact same Maximus who had persuaded Valentinian to murder Aetius. Funny that. Even funnier, guess who succeeded Valentinian as Emperor?

The Aftermath
What a magnificent piece of treachery that was!  We are expecting high things of Maximus as Emperor now, aren’t we? After all he successfully played on the paranoia of Valentinian to remove the top general in all of the West, and then plied up feelings of revenge in the breasts of assassins Optila and Thraustila to remove Valentinian.
He probably ruled for decades playing off everyone against each other in a thoroughly schemey reign.
Err no.

His reign lasted only two months. Mostly because one of his earliest actions was to cancel the intended marriage of Valentinian’s daughter to the son of the Vandal King, Geiseric.
Geiseric did not take this well and launched an invasion into Italy. Given there was no highly successful Vandal repelling Aetius to sort out Geiseric, the civilians of Italy hit panic mode. As did Maximus, who sensing his scheming powers were of little use against the invading Vandals, legged it. Whilst fleeing he was set upon by an angry mob and killed. Meanwhile the thwarted Geiseric took out his frustrations on Rome, spending two weeks sacking the city.

Was it Successful?
By the Gods above it was. Maximus successfully murdered his way to becoming Emperor without getting his own hands bloody. It was inspired. It was just unfortunate that he wasn’t actually much good at being Emperor and had orchestrated the murder of the only man who could have saved his reign.

Having examined the assassinations of six ancient Romans can we find any common themes/links/similarities?

They all involved conspiracies of more than one person. Whether it be Brutus and his high minded gang, Caligula's staff turning their heads as Cassius plotted, or Laetus and Eclectus frantically improvising when their original plan to kill Commodus failed.
We also have some criminal masterminds who managed not to get their own hands bloody in the shape of Domitian's chamberlain Parthienus, Aurelian's nervy assistant Eros and of course the mega scheming Maximus.
Motivations wise we've had revenge (Caligula). We've had self preservation (Domitian, Aurelian and probably Commodus). We've had ambition (Valentinian). And we've had high minded principles (Julius Caesar).

All in all the key thing we've learnt is most definitely: Watch those closest to you.
Whether they be your own Guards (Aurelian, Caligula, Commodus), your wife (Commodus), your secretaries (Aurelian, Domitian) or your friends (Julius Caesar, Valentinian).

L.J. Trafford is the author of The Four Emperors Series of Books, which cover a whole series of bloody Emperor deaths that all took place in a single year. And available on Amazon

Monday, 18 March 2019

When History meet Hollywood by Sarah Gristwood

There’s been a bit of a boom in historical films recently - and I was lucky enough to get a preview of several at a film festival. Not, however, the one that’s attracted all the controversy: the new Mary Queen of Scots film which has been criticised so freely – it shows a meeting between Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor which absolutely never happened. Though actually, every single drama about them has imagined that meeting, from Schiller back in 1800 to the old Vanessa Redgrave/Glenda Jackson movie. 

There is no such thing as a fully historically accurate movie – hasn’t been, since The Birth of a Nation in 1915 painted the Ku Klux Klan so favourably. How could there be, when there is no one single fully authentic version of history? But each generation (maybe even each person) makes their own demands as to the kind of accuracies they do and do not need- what Simon Schama called selective fastidiousness -  and that can change quite dramatically.

Each generation giving a take on history reflects its own preoccupations; so that Laurence Olivier’s Henry V tells us first about the England of World War 2 - then, about Shakespeare’s England – and by the time we get round to its version of Agincourt, we’re hardly talking history.

So, what is a historical film? The great ancient world epics beloved of old Hollywood? The heroics of Errol Flynn? Or the kind of costume dramas once made by our own Gainsborough Studios – what one film historian called ‘trash history’?. Arthur Schlesinger reckoned that to count as a historical film, a picture has to turn on public events as well as private ones, and I think that’s fair. 

War and Peace film 1956
So you’ve got all war films – and some, but not all Westerns – and War and Peace but not Anna Karenina; and Gone With the Wind is certainly a history movie. Spartacus, and Lawrence of Arabia, Gandhi and Gallipoli, and Charlie Chaplin’s Gold Rush, actually. We like to pride ourselves today on having got past the cliched kind of movie history, and certainly it’s easy to sneer now at the obvious falsity of the old`costume dramas. A Margaret Lockwood lookalike making riding motions, while the scenery scrolled along behind her . . . But there is nothing new under the sun. We today don’t have the franchise on attempted accuracy. Yes, a charioteer in Ben Hur was wearing a wristwatch; and no, that probably wouldn’t happen today. But the costumes for Gone With the Wind were made from fabrics specially woven from museum samples, and on Errol Flynn’s Charge of the Light Brigade, replica Victorian stamps were used on inter-office correspondence to set up an on-set mood of authenticity.

But all that attention to that kind of detail takes us so far and no further. There are some territories on which history and Hollywood must always disagree. I once attended a talk where one of the panellists was a playwright commissioned to write a biopic of Bonnie Prince Charlie and not finding it easy. The problem was all those drunken years in foreign courts with which the real Charles Stuart’s life petered out, ineffectually and inconveniently. A film story needs a definite ark. If only the Prince had the decency to die at Culloden, then they might have had a movie . . .

At that same talk, I heard the man who wrote the film Elizabeth praise the importance of research. You read it all, he said, then you write it all down. He recommended a roll of wallpaper lining, to fit in the exact chronology. And then – he said -  you take all that research, and you throw it away. Because film has its own agenda. The language of film is emotion, as I once heard Harrison Ford say. Or to quote an earlier producer: if you can cheer the hero and boo the villain, if the action is also fast and plentiful, then go into production straight away.

 Action isn’t necessarily a problem with historical subjects – but heroes and villains? Real, past people are never going to slot themselves easily into those categories. Take one of those two films I saw just recently, the wonderful The Favourite with Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill, Emma Stone as Abigail Masham and a colourful line in dialogue. Him: ‘I should have you stripped and whipped.’ Her: ‘I’m waiting.’ Think Fifty Shades of Eighteenth Century - but, the emotional dynamics of the tale reflect a real truth, while making a cracker of a movie. Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, on the other hand - the important story of the 1819 cavalry charge that slayed British citizens on British soil -  suffers from treating the historical facts a bit too respectfully. Know what? I can forgive Mary Queen of Scots, and that ahistorical meeting. And I say that as a historian of the sixteenth century.

That said, historical movies matter. The sequence of events shown in the groundbreaking Soviet film Battleship Potemkin has, in the 80 years since, been co-opted as the official version of the story; nor does it matter (said one of the director, Eisenstein’s, colleagues) since ‘the film is more historical than history’. Gore Vidal suggested we all`accept movies as the only source from which people will soon take their history.

I worry that the makers of historical films have a responsibility they don’t – or can’t afford to – acknowledge . . That each age get the historical films it deserves; and our school report would be ‘tries hard, could do better’, basically. Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor featured hugely in each other’s lives and each other’s imaginations. The movie meeting, in a sense, only dramatises one, emotional, kind of reality.

But I do believe that if film makers are going to blend fiction and fact, they have a responsibility at least to aim for the best version they can, of the great movements of the past, as their own age most carefully understands them. Not just to grab a convincing splash of historical colour for another kiss kiss bang bang story.

(Celia Rees is laid low with the flu and will be back next month. We are grateful to Sarah Gristwood for filling in for her)