As Luck Would Have It…

June 30, 2009

One of the most challenging facets of writing historical fiction is staying true to, well, history.

On the one hand, “connecting the dots” between recorded events and exploring the motives and interests of those involved can lead to some fascinating story developments.

But recorded history can also be a trap. It can set up an intriguing story, and then fall apart, or peter out to an unsatisfying conclusion. The latter is precisely why I decided to shelve a novel on Alaric, Visigothic king who sacked Rome in 410 A.D. His life, who he was, what he did, would all make great story material, but his life culminates in one of the most infamous tantrums in history, and then he drops dead a few months later. Talk about a bummer of an ending.

In the course of researching Belisarius’ life, I will admit I’ve been fearing the worst. When I embarked down this path, I was fairly well versed…to a point. But after Belisarius’ second recall from Italy in 548, my knowledge of the man dropped off a cliff. With every note taken, I’ve been bracing for disappointment.

But tonight, I read about “the last battle”. And it’s practically the stuff of Hollywood. Read the rest of this entry »


Good Help is So Hard to Find

June 27, 2009

In the course of researching Belisarius’ various campaigns, I can’t help but marvel at the insubordination and outright incompetence of some of the commanders he was saddled with.

While there are some hints of idiocy in the African campaign against the Vandals, the real problems start to arise in Italy. It’s a major testament to Belisarius’ leadership that he was able to corral such a collection of hotheads, thieves, and morons and actually defeat the Goths. But once he was called to the east to fight the Persians in 540…wow…it’s like the three stooges take over.

In the three years from 540-543, the generals that remained in Italy managed to basically lose most of the peninsula to an enemy that was on the verge of total extinction when Belisarius departed. The bickering, the infighting, and the total lack of cooperation are really something to behold.

And when Belisarius is sent back to Italy to clean up the mess, well, things are so far gone, and the resources at his disposal so limited, that there’s not much he’s able to do. If he’d had a solid officer corps, or if he’d been facing a daft enemy, maybe, but poor Belisarius gets stuck with guys like Isaac the Armenian, who’s ordered to guard the city of Portus while Belisarius tries a desperate resupply run to a besieged Rome. So what does Isaac do? Takes 100 guys out, loots a Gothic camp, and goes and gets himself captured.

I’ve always admired Belisarius for what he was able to accomplish with what he was given, but researching his story in-depth, I have to admit I feel a huge amount of sympathy for the crap and incompetence he had to put up with on a daily basis.

But at least it’ll make for some great storytelling…

The Fog of War

June 22, 2009

In following the recent events in Iran, I’ve been amazed at the depth, nuance, and sense of immediacy Twitter has lent to the proceedings. Reading tweets from thousands of miles away, I can’t help but feel a sense of being there, on the ground, experiencing the excitement, the terror, the bravery and the confusion in real time.

In a world where everything is covered, where canned statements are issued ad nauseum, where pundits pontificate endlessly, there’s something disconcerting yet refreshing about not really knowing what’s going on. We don’t have Brian Williams or Anderson Cooper or (god forbid) Geraldo Rivera reporting live. Instead we’re getting this rough, confused, ecstatic, frenzied, scattered reporting straight from the protesters. This unedited, unabridged data flow is something new, even in this world of mass, instant communication. In many ways, it’s very similar to actually being there, in the crowd.

This realization got me thinking about the very real, on-the-ground confusion that’s so often ignored in history. When we read the accounts of battles, or protests, or disease, or any other calamitous event, it’s typically from this bird’s eye, 20/20 hindsight perspective. But the on-the-ground reality, as we’re seeing in Iran right now, is so much messier, so much more confused. Carl von Clausewitz called this confusion, this lack of information, the “fog of war”. While a very apt description, I do think it’s important to keep in mind that this fog extends beyond the battlefield, especially when we’re talking about an age where information could only travel as fast as a guy on a horse (or in a boat).

As I start thinking about how to structure and approach the Belisarius novel, I keep coming back to this sense of confusion. Information flow, or lack thereof, plays a critical role in pretty much every aspect of Belisarius’ career. And while it’s something I’ve always planned to bake into the story, it’s taken a new media revolution in a far-flung Middle Eastern country to really bring it home.

The Research Continues

June 21, 2009

I have to say, it feels great to be back to researching after nearly two weeks away. The notes continue to pile up (my “Events” document is now at 76 pages…), and story ideas that have been percolating are starting to bubble to the surface as I gain a deeper understanding of so many complicated events.

Look for more posts soon, including Belisarius’ role in the Nika Riots of 532, as well as introductions to some of the supporting cast, beginning with everyone’s favorite redneck nuveau-riche emperor, Justinian…

The Early Career of Belisarius

June 17, 2009

As with so many other prominent figures from antiquity, pretty much nothing is known about Belisarius‘ childhood or the earliest stages of his career. We know only that he was born somewhere between 500 – 505 in the town of Germana (in modern Bulgaria).

Though we cannot know for certain, Belisarius likely hailed from a relatively noble family. This would explain his rapid rise in the army, as well as Procopius‘ silence on his upbringing in the Secret History (in contrast to the vitriol directed at the mean origins of Justinian, Theodora, and Belisarius’ wife, Antonina).

Whatever the circumstances of Belisarius’ upbringing, he appears to have enlisted in the military at an early age and risen rapidly through the ranks. By the time we meet up with him in 527 A.D., he is serving as an officer in Justinian’s bodyguard. At that time, the Roman Empire was at war with the neighboring Persian Empire, and Justinian, acting as commander of the eastern campaign, sent Belisarius and Sittas into Persarmenia to plunder the countryside in retaliation to Persian attacks on the regions of Iberia and Lazica. The expedition was a success, and Belisarius and Sittas returned with booty and captives.

Read the rest of this entry »

Byzantine Factoid

June 16, 2009

In the Byzantine Empire, there were two paths to fame, fortune, and influence. The first of the these was the military. The second was the civil service – the bureaucracy. Competition for posts was fierce, and individuals employed nearly every tool at their disposal to gain a coveted position. This usually involved family or personal influence, the recommendation of a higher ranking patron, and, of course, bribery.

By the fifth century, bribery had become so common that the emperor, Theodosius II, had it regularized and regulated by law.

Progress Report

June 4, 2009

The research continues. As of tonight, I’ve progressed through Ian Hughes’ Belisarius: The Last Roman General up through the conclusion of the Vandal War.

At this point, I’m still unclear on how exactly I’m going to portray such a rich life in the span of a single book, but certain story elements are already leaping out at me, and some subplots already seem fully formed.

I’m looking ridiculously forward to story development, but I still have a good bit of research ahead of me. At this point, though, I’m thinking a thorough reading and note-taking of Hughes should be sufficient to begin building an outline.