Longsword by David Pilling

Friday, 28 June 2013

The Last Great General of Rome - Part One

"The Last Great General of Rome": that is how Lord Mahon, writing in 1829, described Flavius Belisarius. It is an inaccurate title, for the Roman Empire - or the Eastern half of it that endured until 1453 - produced many great soldiers and generals after the death of Belisarius, but he was the last to make any serious attempt to restore the power and glory of the Western Empire. He achieved a run of astonishing victories, all the more impressive since he was usually outnumbered and starved of resources by his envious and suspicious master, the Emperor Justinian I.

Possible depiction of Flavius Belisarius, from the Ravenna mosaics

When I decided to write a novel set during the sixth century AD, between the fall of the Western Empire and the rise of Islam in the seventh century, the life and career of Belisarius immediately stood out. He has starred in fiction before, most notably in "Count Belisarius" by Robert Graves (author of "I, Claudius") but I very much wanted to draw my own version of him,

Born c.500 into a noble Illyrian or Thracian family in what is now south-west Bulgaria, little is known of Belisarius's early life. He joined the Roman army as a young man, and swiftly came to the attention of the aged Emperor Justin and his nephew, a clever, sharp-eyed little man named Justinian. Belisarius distinguished himself in the constant wars against the Sassanid Persians, who were chipping away at the shrunken Empire's Eastern frontiers. When Justin died and his nephew succeeded to the throne, Belisarius was made commander-in-chief of the Imperial armies in the East and sent to teach the Sassanids some manners. 

Map of the Roman-Persian frontier

Belisarius proceeded to do just that, and at the Battle of Dara in 530 he routed a Persian army over twice the size of his own by using defensive tactics that he would repeat time and again: uncertain of the loyalty of many of his soldiers (by this time the famous Roman legions were long gone, and the 'Roman' army was largely made up of mercenaries), he dug a number of ditches and waited for the Persians to come to him. Charge after charge of cavalry was repelled, and when the enemy were exhausted Belisarius counter-attacked at the head of his best troops, the bucellari. The Persians were shattered and fled in rout, but Belisarius recalled the pursuit after a  few miles. Wary that the Persians might rally and turn upon his unreliable soldiers, he allowed the majority of the beaten enemy host to escape.  

A year later, at the Battle of Callinicum, Belisarius had cause to regret his hesitation. Reinforced by five thousand Lakhmid Arabs, the reformed Persian army attempted to invade Syria. Belisarius quickly moved against them, and by a series of brilliant maneuvers managed to block their advance. Puffed up by their success so far, his officers demanded the honour of fighting a pitched battle to round off the campaign. Belisarius didn't want to risk it, and attempted to persuade them otherwise. According to the historian Procopius, who accompanied the general on his many of campaigns, he spoke thus:

 "Whither would you urge me? The most complete and happy victory is to baffle the force of an enemy without impairing our own, and in this favourable situation we are already placed. Is it not wiser to enjoy the advantages thus easily acquired, than to hazard them in the pursuit of more? Is it not enough to have altogether disappointed the arrogant hopes with which the Persians set out for this campaign, and compelled them to a speedy retreat?..."

Belisarius's eloquent pleas fell on deaf ears, and he found himself obliged to fight a battle at Callinicum, in northern Syria. For much of the day the result hung in the balance, but then a squadron of elite Persian cavalry stoved in the Roman right flank and sent their mercenary cavalry fleeing. The Roman army collapsed, and many soldiers drowned as they attempted to swim the Euphrates. Belisarius staged a fighting retreat. He dismounted and stood at the head of his infantry, forming an unbreakable line of shields against the Persian cavalry as they tried to follow up and complete their victory. As night fell, the Persians gave up and the remnant of the Roman army was able to withdraw in good order. 

The Persian victory proved to be a Pyrrhic one. Though victorious, they had suffered terrible casualties and were unable to continue the invasion. Their commander, General Azarethes, was removed from command and stripped of his honours by the furious Persian Emperor. Weary of knocking each other about, both sides agreed to the Eternal Peace, a peace treaty that guaranteed cordial relations between the Roman Empire and Sassanid Persia forever: naturally, it was broken within a few years.  

Emperor Justinian I

Despite his defeat at Callinicum, Belisarius had done well enough in his first Persian campaign to remain in favour with the Emperor. He was recalled to Constantinople, where he was the highest-ranking military officer on the spot when the 'Nika' riots broke out in 532 - the riots were started by the Blues and the Greens, the two major chariot racing factions in the city, and almost resulted in the destruction of Constantinople and the overthrow of Justinian. Belisarius had to move fast to rescue the situation...just how fast will be described in Part Two!

You can follow the adventures of Belisarius and his slightly less-than-devoted officer, Coel ap Amhar, in my novel "Caesar's Sword":

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Robyn Hode, part the Third

Part Three of my Robin Hood - or 'Robyn Hode' - series of short novellas is now available on Amazon. Readers of this blog might notice that I use a standard image for the covers, until my good friend and co-writer (as well as talented artist) Martin Bolton designs an individual cover for each installment.

The series has been going great guns so far, and I'm very pleased with the response. I thought I would share a customer review from Amazon, because it is very positive and the reader really 'got' what I am trying to achieve with the series:

"I have been an avid collector of books and films about Robin Hood for close to sixty years and believe that at some point I have probably read every book, fact or fiction about the legendary English hero, including juvenile fiction and some offerings that have been immediately consigned to the waste paper bin.

I bought Mr.Pilling's ROBYN HODE (1) in the belief that it was the first volume of a new series of novels. It is not, it is a short part work consisting of a handful of chapters, which I now understand will build into a full length saga over a period of time. This is my only disapointment with this publication... that I must wait between episodes for the next installment. This part followed on very quickly and I hope that the author will not keep us waiting too long until the next is released.

If the rest of the series in of the same quality or writing and style as this offering then they will build into one of the potentially best medieval fiction novels I have read in a long time, certainly on a par with Angus Donald's OUTLAW series.

The saga is set during the reign of Henry III, the most likely epoch for the source of the Robin Hood legends, and Mr. Pilling has choosen to base his tale not upon the commonly told legends of the Robin Hood ballads but around the snippets of historical records in the county rolls which may have some connection to the elusive outlaw hero; neatly stiched together with real historical characters interwoven to present a completely different vision of how the outlaw legend came to be with characters that are true to life with flaws and a dark side not just traditional villains and heros. This second enstallment fleshes out the characters of Gui of Gisburn, Tuck and the High Sheriff of Yorkshire and establishes Robyn as a denizen of the greenwood.

I now look forward to the next installments and hope that the promise of this developing into a really first class novel is met. My head tells me that I should wait to read the whole work but I know that in truth is shall not be able to resist taking in each part work as it is published. Meanwhile I will need to search out any other works that this author has to offer."

Wednesday, 19 June 2013


Many of us will have seen Charlton Heston giving it some whip in the chariot race in 'Ben Hur', or more recently, Russell Crowe dishing out orders and lopping off heads in the race sequence in 'Gladiator'. When I was planning my novel set in the Late Roman Empire, I wanted to try and capture the pulse-pounding excitement of chariot racing, Roman-style, on the page. 

The novel, "Caesar's Sword", is set mostly in Constantinople of the early 6th century AD, during the reign of the Emperor Justinian I. By this time most of the blood-spattered public games that the Roman public had been addicted to for centuries were banned, forbidden by the Christian church, who regarded them as savage pagan entertainments and a pointless waste of life. 

One sport, however, the church dared not try to ban, and that was chariot racing. The 'Romans' of Constantinople - they still called themselves Romans at this point, rather than the later Byzantines - were feverishly addicted to the races, and avidly followed the fortunes of the competing teams - much as football and basketball (etc) fans do today. 

Old illustration of the ruined Hippodrome in Istanbul (Constantinople)

The races were originally transported from Rome and consisted of four teams: the Blues, the Greens, the Reds and the Whites. By Justinian's reign only the Blues and the Greens still enjoyed considerable followings. The population of the city was sharply divided in their loyalties between these two teams, to the extent that violent clashes in the streets between gangs of rival supporters were common (sound familiar?). 

Often the violence escalated into widespread looting and general disorder, and the Emperor was obliged to send his guards out to restore order. However, the passion for the races affected all classes, and sometimes the Emperor himself gained or lost popularity thanks to his support for one or the other team. Justinian, for instance, was known to favour the Greens, and as a result was deeply unpopular with the Blue section of the city. His unpopularity was one of the reasons for the 'Nika' riots that erupted in the city in the early years of Justinian's reign, and which also feature in my novel.

The races were staged inside the Hippodrome, a gigantic U-shaped structure next to the imperial palace, and which served as Constantinople's version of the famous Circus Maximus in Rome. There was a lodge in the centre of the arena for the Emperor and his entourage to watch the races, and also to hear complaints from representatives of the Greens and the Blues: the Hippodrome was as much a government building as a sporting venue, and a complex warren of governments departments and offices existed beneath it. 

In the finest Roman tradition, the races themselves were violent and bloody affairs, and the death and serious injury of charioteers was common. The chariots were lightweight affairs usually pulled by teams of four horses, and the drivers were allowed to strike at each other with their whips, or even force their opponents into the 'Spina', a row of statues and monuments in the centre of the track. Forcing another driver to crash, injuring or even killing himself and his horses in the process, was considered a great trick. 

Emperor Justinian I and his court

As if that wasn't enough, Roman citizens used to enter the arena with bags of heavy lead amulets covered in spikes and engraved with the names of drivers they particularly hated. During races they would throw the amulets at the object of their passion, hoping to smash his skull (for this reason, drivers wore helmets) or at least distract him enough to veer off the track. Romans also created wax dolls - like voodoo dolls - of unpopular drivers and stuck nails and pins into them before a race, hoping they would meet with bad fortune. 

By the time of my story, Constantinople was sports-mad, and the contending passions of the Blue and Green faction was beginning to infect every aspect of city life and government. The atmosphere inside the city was volatile. Thrown into the melting pot were high taxes, an unpopular Emperor and a not very successful war in the East against the Sassanid Persians. The imperial city was ready to blow, and just needed one match to light the explosion...

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Arthur's (other) children

 King Arthur and Sir Mordred duel to the death at Camlann

Many with a passing knowledge of the Arthurian legend will be aware that Arthur is finally betrayed and killed by his own son, Sir Mordred, at the Battle of Camlann, thus closing the circle of treachery and incest that began when Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, betrayed Duke Gorlois and slept with his wife Igraine (it's a cheerful tale). 

Mordred is usually portrayed in modern versions of the legend as Arthur's only son, the product of an unfortunate one-night stand with his own half-sister, Morgana. Dig a little deeper into other versions of the legend, and you will find that Arthur sired many more children. One of them, the strangely-named Sir Borre le Cure Hardy, appears briefly in Malory's La Morte D'Arthur as the result of another of Arthur's illicit unions, this time with an earl's daughter named Sanam. The horny young monarch 'had ado with her', apparently, and the result was Borre. He grew to be a 'good knight', but not so good as to be mentioned more than twice in the whole of Malory's very long tale.   

The 'Twrch Trwyth', a savage and gigantic boar hunted by Arthur's warriors

Switching to the Welsh tales, we find that Arthur has three sons: Gwydre, Amhar and Llacheu. All three come to sticky ends. Gwydre is slaughtered by the monstrous wild boar, the 'Twrch Trwyth', along with two of Arthur's maternal uncles. Llacheu is killed at the Battle of Llongborth, as recounted by the following stanza (translated from the Welsh):

"I was there where Llacheu fell,
Arthur's son renowned in song,
When ravens flocked on the gore..."

In later legend Llacheu appears as Sir Loholt, and is treacherously slain by the envious Sir Kay. 

Amhar is possibly the most interesting of the three, for he is slain by none other than Arthur, his own father. Nennius says the following in  the Historia Brittonum (written c.800AD):

“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.”

Incredibly, no explanation is given why Arthur killed his own son. Fertile ground for fiction here, and from this seed was born the idea for my latest book, "Caesar's Sword." I provide my own explanation for Amhar's death, as described by his son and Arthur's grandson, Coel. 

Coel has an extremely hard time of it. After the tragedy of Camlann he and his mother are forced to flee to the Continent, and from hence to Constantinople and the Eastern Empire...

I should say a big 'thank you' to Tyler Tichelaar for his fantastic book, "King Arthur's Children", which provides lots of eye-opening information about the tangled history of Arthur and his offpsring through the ages. 

Monday, 10 June 2013

Blog Hop winner's announcement!

...and the winner of the Summer Banquet Blog Hop iiisssss.....


Well done, Tinney :) And a big thank you to everyone else who entered, read my post and 'hopped' with the best of them!

A free paperback copy of The White Hawk will be winging its way to the winner ASAP!

More hops will surely follow, so keep your eyes peeled....

Sunday, 2 June 2013

The Summer Banquet Blog Hop!

Welcome to the Summer Banquet Blog Hop – ‘sumer is icumen in’, as they sang in medieval times, and so myself and thirty other historical fiction authors have decided to get our heads together and treat you, the lucky readers, to a series of posts all about food and drink in days of yore.
We are also hosting a fabulous range of prizes and giveaways, so please browse through the blogs listed at the bottom of this post to see if anything takes your fancy. If you wish to enter a competition, just leave a comment below the relevant post. The author will then announce the winners at end of the hop and send the prize out to you as quickly as possible.

I am giving away a free paperback copy of The White Hawk, Book One of my family saga set during the bloody days of The Wars of the Roses. You can see some reviews and a blurb at the link below:
The White Hawk

The White Hawk follows the fortunes of the Boltons, a family of Staffordshire local gentry. The Boltons are much further up the social ladder than the average peasant, slightly above the yeoman and mercantile classes, but well below the upper tiers of the aristocracy. They own three manors and are reasonably prosperous, though constantly threatened by the shifting tides of war and the ambitions of treacherous neighbours.
People like the Boltons could have expected to eat well, though their diets would seem crude and alarming to modern eyes. Cuisine didn’t change much in Europe throughout the medieval period, and it would be centuries before the health benefits of fruit and vegetables were fully appreciated. The emphasis for rich folk like the Boltons was on meat, and lots of it. 

Medieval illustration of peasants working in the fields
The peasants that worked their land were not quite the feudal slaves of previous centuries: events such as the Black Death and the Peasant's Revolt had done much to shake loose their chains, and by the late fifteenth century many farm workers would have been hired labourers. Their diet hadn't changed much, though, and most would have relied on cereals for sustenance. Barley, oats, rye, pulses and beans were still staples among the poor, since New World crops like potatoes and tomatoes were not yet discovered. Rye bread, porridge and gruel was the order of the day. 
Ironically, the poor consumed more vegetables than their social superiors, and so enjoyed a healthier diet in that sense: if ‘enjoy’ is the right word to describe such a dull, repetitive and tasteless repast. Prevailing wisdom considered there to be a natural resemblance between one’s labour and social class and one’s food: it was only right that the working classes ate cheaper, more functional foodstuffs. After all, you wouldn’t feed a horse roast beef, would you? Even the briefest study of medieval society is enough to bring out anyone's inner socialist.
Rich medieval folk with bad haircuts absolutely stuffing themselves

While the plebs chewed miserably on their bowls of slop, the Boltons and their ilk were dining on game and other rich meats in their manor houses. Domestic fowl, beef, pork and chicken were all popular and regularly found their way down well-muscled aristocratic throats. A wide variety of fish was also consumed, including dried, smoked and salted cod and herring. From the Crusades onwards, exotic spices imported from abroad increasingly found their way onto the dining tables of the nobility. 

Common seasonings included combinations of wine and vinegar, while spices such as black pepper, saffron and ginger served to improve the taste of meat (and hide it if the meat was tough or spoiled). Eye-watering combinations of spices, along with the widespread use of sugar and honey, would have given many dishes a sweet-sour flavour that might taste extremely curious, if not downright revolting, to modern palates. Biscuits, cakes and scones made with honey were popular as after-dinner snacks, assuming you could stuff anything else down on top of the heaps of cooked flesh. The rich also loved their fruit, and consumed vast quantities of almonds, currants, dates, figs, prunes, raisins, pears and apples etc: presumably this was the only thing that saved them from chronic constipation. 
Given this taste for sweeteners, and the general lack of proper dental care, it is hardly surprising that many of the nobility suffered from bad teeth: Henry VII’s teeth, for example, were described by a contemporary chronicler as being “few, poor and blackish.” The recently-discovered skull of his mortal enemy, Richard III, also showed signs of dental trouble, as well as a few painful tooth extractions. The skeletons of soldiers found in the mass grave-pits on the field of Towton showed signs of having enjoyed a better diet than the working poor – it was in the interests of the warring nobles to keep fighting men well-fed – but their teeth, like their horrifically mangled remains, were in a generally hellish condition. 

Note: I was going to post a sample image of some medieval teeth, but decided against it: I don't want to turn stomachs!

Entire books could be written - and no doubt have - on the subject of medieval food, and this is only intended as a brief overview. Hopefully it gives some idea of what our ancestors ate, and how the stark divide between rich and poor in medieval times was reflected in diet. Whatever other dangers that face my fictional family, the Boltons, they are certainly not threatened with starvation...
Below is the list of other Hop participants. Please have a browse and enjoy the foody posts!
Hop Participants