Writing about the past – and the present, too


That’s my friend John Conyard of Comitatus

Sometime next fall, I plan to write a novel about Philopoemen, the so-called ‘Last Greek Hero,’ cavalry commander and strategos of the Achaean League in the time of Hannibal and the 2nd Punic War; a brilliant soldier, an innovator, and according to some, the creator of the concept of ‘special forces.’ He’s an exceptional character, and so is his ally and sometimes rival, the Roman Titus Quinctius Flamininus. The two of them are the subjects of a pair of biographies in Plutarch’s Lives’; the only pair that were contemporaries and friends (each of Plutarch’s lives is part of a pair, always one Greek and one Roman, always supposed to be similar men, but usually spread apart in time).
So, in the best tradition of Plutarch… while I write about Philopoeman, my friend SJA Turney is going to writer about Titus Flamininus. We will ‘pair’ our novels with interlocking narratives and probably even some shared scenes… like team-up comics. Maybe the two will be ‘unreliable’ about aspects of events… but mostly they will be a team… Greece and Rome…together, again. It’s an exciting idea; I love writing with a collaborator (I wrote eight books with my dad, you may recall) and it also allows me to explore a brand-new period in military history.
Brand-new, you say? Wait, Christian, haven’t you written a ton of books about ancient Greece? Don’t you have this thing wired yet?

Well, first, no, I don’t. Having spent the last five weeks feverishly preparing roughly a hundred people to go recreate a very small part of the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. I have to say that really, I barely have a clue how late Archaic hoplite warfare worked. I could write a whole blog on my changing perceptions of hoplite combat in 490 BCE. And I will, in time.
Today, though, I’ll merely say that the very worst mistake a military historian can make is to posit that war didn’t change over a significant period of time; that’ Greeks are Greeks’ and ‘Romans are Romans’ is to deny the whole social process that goes with war. Stuff changes. People change.
War itself changes.

When the Athenians and a handful of Plataeans fought Marathon, both sides probably had armies of around 10K men. Ten years later at Plataea, when they fought for ‘all the marbles’ both sides might have managed to raise 50K each. There are higher numbers. I will not debate them just now. I’ll merely note that nearly all historians agree that Greece was fairly populous in 490 BCE, and also, rather poor. Three hundred years later, in 190 BCE, Greece was much less densely populated. There were fewer Spartans, to a level of actual demographic crisis. There were fewer Greeks, period, as far as we can see, and they appear, for complex reasons, to have had a higher standard of living, and perhaps more slaves. Who, of course, were not reliable for war. Athens had gone from an economic powerhouse with industry and shipping unrivaled int he Mediterranean to a philosophical but provincial town.

Rome, by contrast, had a very high population, a lot of relatively new ‘citizens’ and an ability to squander manpower and rebuild that was unmatched by, say, Macedon or the Ptolemies running the major Hellenistic empires. It wasn’t just that the shape of shields had changed. It wasn’t just the invention of chain mail; or Tarantine cavalry with shields, or charging lancers. Those are the sort of technological developments that gamers track (I’m one of them) but they are not really the determinants in war. Morale, logistical systems, factory production of weapons, and increasing professionalization had more to do with the changes in warfare.
A small case in point; the Spartans in 490 BCE lacked the political capability to conquer anyone outside of the Peloponnese. So they didn’t. Athens had to virtually rebuild her polity to rule an empire. On the ground, most Greek hoplites in 490 BCE expected to serve for a few DAYS, at their own expense, close enough to home that a slave could go get more food from home. This army cannot conquer ANYTHING. It can, at best, defend itself. No amount of blather about shield shape or hoplite armour can change the fundamental reality of the system… It is a citizen militia. A home guard.

By 190 BCE Rome, Carthage and the Hellenistic Empires could sling fleets and armies around the Mediterranean basin with something akin to reckless abandon. Horse transports and gigantic grain ships and real logistics allowed the maintenance of armies larger than anything imaginable in the early fifth century to fight, win or lose, and be replaced if required. No one expected every soldier to own his equipment or train himself in the gymnasium (actually, some small states still did; they were hopelessly outclassed). Armies were very different. Men might serve for years; war might be a career. Our burgeoning sources suggest massively enhanced levels of actual strategy; we can see small unit tactics evolving as soldiers become more professional; and mainland Greece is a backwater. It’s a different world.
Can you tell I’m really enjoying learning about it?
At the same time, I want this book (pair of books) to have a distinct flavor that will be very different from other Historical Fiction, and the dual protagonists allow us to play with nuance and politics. Historical Fiction, at least, when involving adventure and conflict, tempts the author to contrasts; black and white, good and bad. War polarizes; even modern war gamers tend to ‘take sides’ and believe that ‘Rome is good/Carthage bad’ or some such.
And yet…

And yet, watching the world participate in a regional conflict in Syria (a backwater), we should be aware that war, however polarizing, almost never has ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.’ Or rather, there’s a spectrum. I doubt anyone in the west would seriously suggest that ISIS is anything but ‘bad.’ But when you look at Turkey and the Kurds, both allies of the west, and yet at daggers drawn; Russia and the Syrian government of the tyrant Assad, both adversaries of the west and yet, at least temporarily, sort of allies; Iran, perhaps the most efficient adversaries of ISIS, but in no way trusted by any part of the west… the USA, with a massive military of incredible capability, attempting to find ways to ‘influence’ Assad, maintain peace between Turkey and the Kurds, avoid conflict with a largely toothless but nuclear armed Russia, support ‘good’ anti-government Syrians but using airpower alone, for internal political reasons, to fight a ground war in Asia… That’s war.
That’s how war is.
We pretend that war simplifies, but in fact, there’s nothing simple about war; from logistics to relations between leaders and troopers, it’s all pretty complicated, and burdened, in fact, with all the nuance that makes Jane Austen’s novels work so brilliantly. (One of my best friends calls Patrick O’Brian’s ‘Master and Commander’ series, arguably the best military HisFic ever written, ‘Jane Austen for boys.’)
So I want to tell a story about Roman super-power attempting to deal with Carthaginian inroads into Greece; with resurgent Spartan ‘nationalism’ as a tool of distant enemies; of Macedon and Rome involved in a proxy war… a sideshow, and yet, to Greeks, a war that raised vital questions about what freedom really was, and sovereignty; where a single Roman who understood the complexity of the situation and the Greek mind managed to untie the Gordian knot for a while without too much cutting.
And I want to write about what makes a leader; how one grows, and what he does to keep faith with his people while managing his politics. Very modern.
And horses…
And the birth of Special Forces and small unit tactics…
See? All that, against a backdrop as complex and nuanced as modern Syria.
Simon and I think we can use Philopoemen and Flamininus to tell a very modern story, and keep you all on the edge of your seats.
Oh, by the way, we haven’t sold the idea yet, so if you love it, tell us, and if you hate it, tell us that, too. We need readers!

Craig's Attic

The original (Walters Art Gallery Baltimore) with the reproduction from Manning Imperial

And finally, Simon blogged about this today too. You can read his version here!

crest side

What the Walter’s helmet probably looked like, brand new. And I’ll be wearing it in 10 days, at Marathon!

And tomorrow, a Drear Wyrm blog!

10 thoughts on “Writing about the past – and the present, too

  1. I think this is a great idea. And I really like the idea of two books, different writers, different protagonists and different views of the same events. Exploring ancient wars with complex backgrounds with a backdrop of today’s conflicts in my head may help me to understand a little more of the minds behind what is happening today and what happened then. And horses!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Sounds great really looking forward to them coming out. The lack of complexity of actual life is a reason I find a lot of fiction hard to read these days, whether Historical, fantasy, Sci-FI etc.
    One of my favourite series was a Fantasy anthology you may have heard of or read, Thieves World. It is great reading all the interlinking stories taking place within the same place, but also seeing the same events and people seen through the eyes of different characters. one person’s heros becomes the villain in another description.
    Oh and there was an immortal non sleeping Demi god called Tempus Thales who was a leader of a scared band! If you haven’t read them you might enjoy them.
    Thanks for a good blog again and enjoy Marathon, your panoply looks great!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am an old Thieves World fan from way back… read them (devoured) the instant they were published. Can’t wait to actually run in panoply… and some arrow cutting with live steel, and, and and… 🙂


      • 😉 thought you might have been, a great series, I’d like to see a similar approach to historical fiction which is why your project sounds great.
        Looking forward to the AAR of Marathon and and and all the other fun stuff! 😉


  3. In a very general way and despite the fact that war changes and methods of war change, I think this wonderful saying covers it all: ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’.
    That said – can’t wait to see what you and SJAT come up with.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is a bias/fallacy that we as a species are good at playing on our selves. Mainly it stems from we like to boil things in to simple concepts, black white, yes no, good bad.Greek Roman etc.
      To our best understanding there have been few major changes in the make of humans since we became humans, heck looking at our Primate cousins, we haven’ changed hugely in the last few million years… however human society and technology have changed at an incredible rate.
      So we can be both very different and very much the same at the same time, which doesn’t fit things in to simple boxes, not least when we don’t look at the foundational areas.
      There’s what we know, what we know we don’t know, what we don’t know we don’t know, what we think and then what we feel…. the issues come about when these get mixed up or the important ones get overlooked altogether.

      Liked by 1 person

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