Reiver by David Pilling

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Work in progress

I want to talk a little about my latest book, which I am in the last stages of editing and revising. I posted a short preview of it on here a few weeks ago, and thought it was time for something more meaty.

The working title is "Caesar's Sword: The Red Death" and the story is set outside my usual medieval timeframe. I wanted to stretch my wings a little and try to write something set during the Late Roman era. The Roman Empire is a popular subject in fiction these days, but most writers tend to stick to the 'classical' era of the first and second centuries AD. I thought it worth having a go at writing a tale set during the reign of Justinian I (527-565).

Justinian-ravenna4The Ravenna mosaic, showing Emperor Justinian I and his court

Justinian's reign was, to put it mildly, a dramatic one. By this time the Empire had split in half and most of the Western Empire had been conquered by various 'barbaric' peoples. The last Emperor of the West, Romulus Augustus, had been deposed and packed off into exile in 476. However, the Eastern half of the Empire, including Asia Minor and the vital breadbasket of Egypt, was still intact and ruled from Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). It was threatened by enemies on all sides, and Justinian inherited a realm that was beginning to crumble under the relentless pressure.

Hero-worship is unfashionable these days, especially in the study of history, but it does seem that the Empire was saved, and to some extent restored, by the actions of one man. This was Flavius Belisarius, a brilliant general whom Justinian employed as a sort of firefighter, sending him to one trouble-spot after another. Belisarius was a complex and tragic figure, and a superb character to portray in fiction.

Belisarius begging for alms on the streets of Constantinople

I prefer to keep famous historical characters in supporting roles, because essentially there is nothing unpredictable about their fate: the details of their lives and careers are known, and cannot be changed to any great extent. So Belisarius and Justinian and the rest of the glittering imperial court had to be happy with playing second fiddle to my main character.

This is Coel ap Amhar ap Arthur, grandson of 'King' Arthur, or rather the Dux Bellorum who defeated the Saxons at Mount Badon and protected Britain against barbarian invasions for over twenty-one years. At the beginning of my story Arthur is dead or vanished, his armies smashed at the Battle of Camlann, where the arch-traitor Medrauat was also killed.

Arthur's son and Coel's father, Amhar, is a curious figure mentioned only briefly in Welsh legend:

“There is another wonder in the country called Ergyng. There is a tomb there by a spring, called Llygad Amhar; the name of the man buried in the tomb was Amhar. He was the son of the warrior Arthur, who killed him there and buried him.”
- The Historia Brittonum 

Why Arthur has killed his own son is not explained. I thought there was something delightfully dark and mysterious about Amhar's fate, and decided to provide my own explanation in the novel.

So what does a British warrior-prince and a descendent of Arthur have to do with the later Roman Empire? And what's all this about "Caesar's Sword"?? Stay tuned to find out....

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