Longsword by David Pilling

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Caesar's Sword

I have just released CAESAR'S SWORD, a slight change of pace from my usual medievalisms: set during the days of the Late Roman Empire, the story could be described as a 'mashup' of Arthurian legend and Roman military history.

Romans seem to be all the rage in historical fiction at the moment. I wanted to do something different, and no recent author that I am aware of has covered the spectacular reign of the Emperor Justinian I (527-65). Justinian's reign saw the last gasp of 'Roman' military might, as his brilliant general Flavius Belisarius reconquered large chunks of the Western Empire that had been lost in the previous century. Starved of resources by his suspicious master, vastly outnumbered by the 'barbarian' nations he fought against, Belisarius managed to pull off a series of stunning victories that marked him out as one of the greatest soldiers of all time. 

Above is part of the Ravenna mosaics that depict the Emperor Justinian and his court: the bearded figure is thought by some to be the only contemporary image of Belisarius

I wanted to tell the story of Belisarius, or part of it, but I prefer not to have historical figures at the centre of the narrative: their lives and destinies are pre-set, and one can't fiddle around with them too much. I had the idea of merging the legend of Arthur, generally thought to have its origins in the late 5th/early 6th century, with the dramatic doings of the Empire. 

One of the more obscure tidbits of Welsh folklore describes Arthur as having a number of sons. This is very different from the more familiar medieval French traditions, in which Arthur's only son is the bastard traitor, Mordred. Arthur never had much luck with his family, and all of his sons in the Welsh tradition come to sticky ends. One of them, Amhar, is described in the Historia Brittonum as being slain by his own father: 

“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.”

How and why Arthur came to kill his own son is not described, leaving writers with much fertile ground for fiction: strangely, the less interesting French versions have prevailed, and the even darker Welsh alternative remains largely unexplored. I came up with my own explanation of why Amhar died, and decided that "Caesar's Sword" would be told from the perspective of Coel, his son. 

Julius Caesar

The title of the book is derived from another old British legend, relating to a sword once owned by Julius Caesar. When Caesar invaded Britain in 55BC (so the story goes) his legions were attacked by a British army led by a prince named Nennius. Caesar and Nennius met in personal combat, and before Caesar was obliged to retreat he left his sword buried in the unfortunate Nennius's skull. 

The prince later died of his dreadful wound, but Caesar's sword was kept by his family and passed down the generations. Known as 'Crocea Mors' (Yellow Death) by the Romans, the British named it "Angau Coch" (Red Death) or "Agheu Glas" (Grey Death). It was said to have been forged by the gods on Mount Olympus, and have the power of slicing through any armour forged by man. Any man unfortunate enough to be struck by the blade would die instantly.  

It is possible - though far from certain - that somewhere along the line the legend of Crocea Mors got mixed up with the stories of Arthur, and formed the basis for Excalibur, Arthur's magical sword. In the Welsh tales Arthur's sword is called Caledfwlch, which roughly translates as Hard Cleaver. The temptation to have Arthur's grandson running around in the glittering, blood-spattered world of the Late Roman Empire wielding Arthur's sword was too strong to resist, and so this forms the nucleus of my tale. 

There is much more to the story, including battles in North Africa, mad kings and corrupt empresses, prostitutes and dancers, chariots and Hippodromes, swords and sandals and blood by the bucketload, so I will say no more for now except to direct kind readers to the link below...

Caesar's Sword is available as a free download on Amazon from tomorrow until Sunday:


  1. Sounds absolutely fascinating. I love books set in the so-called Dark Ages, when we all know the real King Arthur did his stuff. Looking forward to seeing this one.

  2. Best of luck with the new release, I could see the Roman's being perfect material for your writing style.
    G x