Rome, Barbarians & I

Friday, 20 December 2013

Io Saturnalia! And a Free Novella!

Happy Saturnalia and a free novella!

 To my good friends, Roman and Barbarian aficionados all, welcome to my new blog about what else but Romans and Barbarians and how my humble self fits into this mix.  First let me introduce myself, as I have explained in my first Blog Prognostications and Pouting I am indeed Gregory House born and baptised so some decades before the incomparable Hugh Laurie made that name infamous with his impressions of a more or less insane medical genius.  However, as I've explained elsewhere my medical qualifications are more Tudor in nature and very much based on the writings of that most famous Roman physician Claudius Galens AD 129–c. 200/c. 216.  This work was considered the foundation treatise of all western medicine and medical education until the late 1800’s.  Unfortunately for those wealthy enough to afford doctors, it also included treating the patient via balancing their four humors; black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood.  If these were kept in balance then the patient was healthy.  However if this changed, then began a series of treatments based on the position of the heavens, the season and the temperament of the patient and the quality of their urine and stool.  A short list includes; bleeding, purging, emetics, diuretics, concoctions including mercury, amber or goats testicles. 

Aren't we lucky we based our modern culture on that of the Classical Romans, their firm grip on the mental equipment of the medical fraternity didn't begin to slip until 1543 when more current and actually human anatomical sketches were published.  Unfortunately for the suffering patient and the community at large the vice like rigor of Galen’s prescriptions wasn't broken until late in the 1800’s.  Though the hold of the Roman Classical past reached subversively through every facet of Victorian culture molding thinking and influence great projects in ways we’d now find difficult to comprehend.  As an example the greatest engineering feat of its time was Bazalgette’s new London sewerage system.  It was consciously modeled on the Cloaca Maxima in Ancient Rome, even down to the theory of expelling the city wastes that caused the pestilent foul miasmas which spread disease. 

Delusions of a Fevered Mind 
Anyway please forgive me my enthusiasm for extolling the virtues of Galen’s medical treatise, that digression has usurped the tale of Rome, Barbarians and I.  So back we go, into the dim past to around 1992.
I was sitting in a teaching hospital bed (that’s another story) being poked and prodded by a bevy of student nurses ( luckily no sponge bath, that would've been embarrassing!) and to distract myself from the typically dull hospital interior I mulled over the then dismal state of historical fiction.  Back then readers of historical fiction were undergoing a profound and long running drought of quality work.  It would seem that publishers (based no doubt on their boundless wisdom and experience) had decided this market was the same as that catering to Aardvark fanciers and on the whole dismissed it as economically unviable.   Anyone suffering from the tremula of withdrawal was simply wavered over to ‘Romantic Fiction, Adventure Fiction, Fantasy Fiction or the shelves bulging with one thousand and one WWII stories.   In other words the book shelves were disappointingly sparse of anything but dross.  If a Historical Fiction reader wanted a fix then their only recourse was a re-reading of old favourites.   True it did include splendid writers like Henry TreeceRosemary SutcliffeMaryRenaultGeoffrey TreaseGraham Shelby, Cellia Holland, Ronald WelchDorothyDunnettJohn JamesRF Tapsell (whose classic The Year of theHorsetails has just been re-released) George Shipway,  Wallace Breem and Alfred Duggan
Definitely a stellar collection of writers, but sadly in the 1990’s there was only one or two still engaged in producing novels for us devoted and avid readers.  
Back to the bed in the teaching hospital, in between shifts of student nurses I was endeavouring to satisfy my craving with a tome of pseudo historical fiction pretensions.  I will for now spare the reader its title, suffice to say that it purported to tell the tale of the origins of the Arthurian legend via a veteran of the Roman legions in Late Antiquity Britannia.  As a novel in the genre it was perhaps one of the worst pieces of drivel I've ever had the misfortune to read through.  The story was promoted heavily as the new and modern style of Hist Fic, as promised it proved to be a revelation.  

To start with the novel was disjointed, jumping around in timeline, events and character recollections with all the logic of wired meth’s addict synapses, definitely postmodern. The prose was abysmal, the characters turgid and boring.  Then there was the ‘historical’ component of the novel which you’d think for a piece in the genre was pretty important, so was it historical? No, hysterical more like, with all the research depths of a less than average high school essay scrawled out the morning of submission.  Worst of all since the main character was claimed to have become a blacksmith/sword smith there was a far bit of supposedly period smithing described.  As a then fifteen year experienced smith specialising in reconstruction archaeology and damascene sword forging this bit peaked my interest for all of three seconds, after which I steamed and cursed a lot.  The moron hadn't bothered to do any Roman, Celtic or modern smithing research.  Only the Great Deity of Vulcan has any inkling as where he got this useless guff from, but it certainly wasn't from a smith. Tucked up in bed I stared at this piece of bum fodder aghast and looked bleakly out the window to the waving grey green leaves of the nearest gum tree.  Reflexively my hand jerked in a spam of disgust and the ‘book’ thudded against the wall falling conveniently into the bin.
“Strueth!”  I swore, forgive me gentle reader for the strong and intemperate language but I was feeling pretty despondent. 
“Is this what we can expect?”   At that point the future of Hist Fic resembled the desolate debris strewn beaches of Dunkirk after the evacuation.  Not pretty, however in the midst of this moment of despair, my hand clenched into a fist, jaw firmed and back straightened, and I recalled Churchill’s stirring speech exhorting the British people to carry on in the face of defeat and oppose tyranny.  Upon that day I swore that if we couldn't depend on the current crop of writers or publishers then I would take up the challenge.  If an obvious moron such the writer of this latest drivel could get published, then it shouldn't be any difficulty for a gentleman of wit, style and ability such as myself.
Oh dear…as I said it was twenty odd years ago and possibly the painkillers that made me so rashly euphoric.  But that afternoon I begged a broken pencil and several sheet of writing paper off a very cute student nurse with dark smoldering eyes and a very sympathetic bedside manner.

Thus I began to sketch out a series of novels set on the wide Steppes north of the Black Sea.  There the nomad tribes of the Sarmatians faced off the triumphant might of Rome under Marcus Aurelius in 167 AD, the start of the decades long Marcomannic Wars. It was a time of dramatic crisis and transformations that swept the Roman Empire.  During this 'war' whole legions disappeared from the records and tens of thousands of legionaries died along with their commanders.  The fields of battle ranging from distant rich and green province of Britannia to the life giving waters of the Tigris and Euphrates and the heartlands of Rome’s great rival the Parthians.  This great conflict matched the crisis of the Carthaginian Wars and for a short space of time the Italian Peninsular and the Eternal City was under threat.  While the legions of Rome with their emperor were cut off and besieged by the Germanic and Sarmatian tribes.

So what’s happening with the stories you ask, how did the Roman Empire almost collapse during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, why hasn't this been mentioned before?  Well my friends since this is the first of many articles I suggest you curb your excitement for now until my next installment.

Regards Greg. 
By the way to get you in the mood for the upcoming Saturnalia here's my seasons gift for you my novella The Fetter Lance Fleece from the Red Ned Tudor Mysteries series will be available to be downloaded free From the 22-26 December. Happy Saturnalia 

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