Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Page-turner ancient Rome novel

Was the header of this review by Tannia Ortiz-Lopez. Many thanks for the kind words, Tannia!


With his historical novel, Centurion's Daughter, author and illustrator Justin Swanton takes the reader to the decline of Rome the great, and the rise of the Frankish Empire.

Seventeen-year-old Aemelia and her Frankish mother have lived in Reims all their lives. After her mother's death, Aemelia travels to Roman Gaul searching for her Roman father, Centurion Tarunculus, a man she has never seen and only knows through family lore. As Aemelia reaches Gaul, she sees a crowd making fun of a man giving a patriotic discourse about Rome's greatness. After inquiring about the whereabouts of Tarunculus, she is shocked to discover that the town's eccentric is, indeed, her father. Their first encounter is very heartbreaking to Aemelia because she is rejected by her only living relative. Since Taranculus has no knowledge of her, he thinks she is an impostor or a beggar and dismisses her. Despite this brusque first encounter, Aemelia finds herself a home and a family with him at Gaul.

The first two chapters were slow to my liking. However, the author cleverly used conversations between Aemelia, her father, and other characters to reveal crucial information about her life in Reims. After these get-to-know-me-better chapters, the reader will be totally engaged following Aemelia and her father through their daily routine in town.

It was interesting how the author created tension in the story by means of personality conflicts between Aemelia and her father. Aemelia is shy, prudent, obedient, and a devout Catholic. By contrast, her father is egocentric, dominant, bellicose, and agnostic; his only goal is restoring Rome's greatness. Their disparity in temperament will keep the reader captivated until the story's surprising end.

As the story unfolds, Aemelia's ability to speak, read, and write in Frankish and Latin is revealed to be a double-edged sword of critical importance. On the one hand, as news spreads that the Franks are about to attack Gaul, an ambitious member of the ruling class uses Aemelia's bilingual skills to arrange a secret meeting with Chlodovech, leader of the Salian Franks. The agreement they reach will have a pivotal effect on the Battle of Soissons, where Lord Syagrius is defeated, leading to the rise of the Franks over the Romans. On the other hand, once Gaul is conquered, Aemelia's ability will secure her family a steady income.

Because I do not have much experience reviewing historical novels, I found it extremely useful that the book included a glossary with brief explanations of the historical figures in the novel. It helped me to sort out the fictional and reality-inspired characters, as well as to verify the accuracy of facts mentioned in this page-turner of a story.

Including a foreign language in a book is challenging for an author since its use has to be limited so as not disrupt the narrative's momentum. Mr. Swanton skillfully utilizes the language only in those scenes were it is crucial to keep the story's authenticity. In those days, Latin was the language of the Church and the Roman Empire. Frankish was the dialect of the West Germanic tribes. Readers with a knowledge of Dutch or German will be able to fully understand it. Readers who cannot speak those languages will identify themselves with the Romans of Gaul who did not speak Frankish. If that was the intention of the author, kudos to him.

The story has all the elements of a great novel about Rome: betrayal, intrigue, clashes of the political and social classes and even a power struggle among the aristocracy, slavery, conquest, and an amazing battle. The few illustrations in the book help the reader to understand some crucial scenes. The elements of Catholicism depicted in the story offer a glimpse at the Church's importance during those times and its influence on politics and daily affairs. The author also mentions, through his characters' conversations, key saints whose diplomacy aided in the unification of the Germanic tribes and the beginning of a new era.

I highly recommend Centurion's Daughter to readers who fancy novels about ancient Rome.

Reviewed by the author of: The Window To My Soul : My Walk With Jesus

Monday, October 14, 2013

Back from the dead

Seven months. Truth to tell, I began to get the impression I was writing for the void and gave up posting. Popping in today, I noticed that there had been 14 views. I don't know if in blogland that equates to fairly good, so-so or pathetic, but it is better than zero. So hello, 14 visitors, and may God go with you.

Centurion's Daughter continues to fly below the radar. A busy daily job keeps me from writing much and the sequel stagnates. If you happen to be a regular visitor why not introduce yourself? It would help me decide whether I keep this blog going or not.

Till the next.

Friday, March 29, 2013

A Satanic Mind Bender

...was the opinion of one reviewer of Centurion's Daughter. The review tickled me pink. Here it is in toto with a reply from a reader that I also found interesting.

Excellently Written, Defeatist Propaganda


In the later years of the Eastern Roman Empire written works and poems infiltrated the culture of the people that corrupted the minds of Roman women to believe their men were weak and the Turks naturally strong and desirable. This book does the same cleverly using parallels from the last grasp of Western Rome and destruction of American Culture in the present age. 

The book portends to tell a tale of a God fearing loyal daughter who stands by her father through thick and thin. In fact all of the reviews tell the same but couldn't be farther from the truth. All along the way not only is her father's cause ridiculed mercilessly and he a patriot for Rome savaged idoicly but she every step of the way betrays her father, her town, and her country with her confused Christian faith grounds for the cause. The inevitability of barbarian rule in the weak accepting mind of a woman has her undermine her father's cause, labeling its patriots naive, and make the reader think it was God's Will the godless prevail. In a period of reflection the reader is brought through her thoughts that ridicule a former weak crush on a Roman mommas boy she betrays and finds the "natural love" that all women should have in the strong powerful men you should betray your home for. 

This is a well written book, one of the best written I've read recently but propaganda works best when accepted as a great work and one it is. I wouldn't be surprised if Leftists in education make it standard reading. Don't let your young women read this Satanic mind bender. They need no help in our day to believe their people and culture doomed and God working with our enemies. If you want to take away a lesson from this book learn no woman should ever have anything to do with raising a man past the age of seven. In the history of the world there was only one woman pure and just and she gave birth to God. There will never be another one. How do you raise men when the women are corrupted? They should have nothing to do with it to begin with, nor should this book be read unless you have a basic grasp of how propaganda works and want to expand your knowledge of it.

And here is the reply: 

Florentius says: 
This is a compelling though strange review. While I don't begrudge the reviewer his opinion on the matter, I suspect he has misinterpreted some of what the author is attempting to do in this book. For starters, the comparison between Western Rome and American culture might be apt if the author was American. However, the author's bio clearly says he's from South Africa and so is quite obviously not commenting on American culture--perhaps South African culture, but that is a different kettle of fish entirely.

Calling the book a "Satanic mind bender" is also truly bizarre. If one knows anything about the history of the fall of the Western Empire, it is not all doom-and-gloom--even for the large numbers of Romans who survived it. The Franco-roman culture which emerged in the aftermath of the fall ended up being beneficial for both sides, combining the culture and religion of the otherwise enervated Western Empire with the vitality and strength of the Franks. The France that was created from this amalgam became the Eldest Daughter of the Church and a source of Western Christian cultural, artistic, philosophical, religious and political dynamism for over 1,000 years afterward.

As for the characters and how the author developed them, I came away from reading this book with a totally different view than the reviewer. I felt that the Centurion (the father) was portrayed very sympathetically. The reader (at least this reader) consistently felt an affinity for him as he steadfastly pursued his doomed cause. As the archetypal grumbly old man, I thought he was described perfectly. He rises to the occasion at the crisis of the book and demonstrates his valor even as all those around him turn coward. His tragic flaw, however, emerges in his signal inability to accept the inevitable and his expectation that others--including his daughter--will join him in his maniacal quest to revive a defunct political arrangement that few others believed in anymore. At that point, he is no more patriotic than the KKK in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Neither did I feel that Aemilia was in any way weak-willed. Like her father, she is shown to be intelligent and valorous, but her worldview is colored by the optimism of youth--the desire to make the best of whatever situation she finds herself in. I thought the author did a wonderful job portraying this and the contrast between young Aemilia and her old centurion father is more a universal statement about generational differences in outlook than a criticism of Western civilization. I think the reviewer is reading much too much into that.

If the key theme of Centurion's Daughter could be summed up in one sentence, it would be this: God brings forth good out of evil. The tale told by Justin Swanton in this book is one of hope springing from tragedy, of the wisdom of God's Providence versus the best laid plans of men, and the unexpected joy that may be found in the midst of suffering. Sure, there are plenty of works of fiction out there that are propaganda for a left-wing, atheist worldview. But to call Centurion's Daughter one of them is to have a fundamental misunderstanding of both the book and of history.

Apologies that this comment has now gotten much longer than I had intended, but I found this review fascinating to the extent that two people can read a book and come away with diametrically opposed conclusions about the message and the author's intentions.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The little picture

Central to the novel is the character of Tarunculus, whose tragedy is that he has the potential to become a good man, but does not because he cannot let go of the big picture.

By 'big picture' I mean his obsession with the Roman Empire, its survival and glory. To that obsession he sacrifices everything and ultimately loses everything. He has an illness common in contemporary society, the notion that a life that is not humanly significant is meaningless.

What do I mean by 'significant'? I mean doing something that has a major impact on society, something which raises one above the obscurity of one's common and unremarkable fellow-men. The desire to do something significant can go with a sincere aim of improving things or with a simple desire for prestige. Either way, if it does not meet with success, it leaves the conviction that life is pointless. This is the motivator behind ambition, the notion that a life that is not significant is futile. Someone with this disease cannot grasp the fact that an obscure life is not necessarily a failed one. Simple maths tells you that. Someone who stands out from the others must have others to stand out from. If everybody stood out then nobody would stand out. Following the logic, human society by its nature must have a majority who do not stand out, and hence who - from the optic of a Tarunculus - are obliged to be failures.

Eyewash. The simple fact is that most people, by temperament, upbringing and circumstance, are not meant to be stars on the stage. If life has any meaning at all, it has meaning in obscurity. It is something emphasised more by Catholicism than perhaps any other religion. One common denominator of the saints is their preference for a humble life. The last thing they wanted was to be big shots. One reads of them going off into the desert, often permanently, to get away entirely from society. The ones who became socially significant were those who were not interested in significance but committed to doing a necessary job of reform. St Ignatius once said that if the Pope disbanded his order (the Jesuits), fifteen minutes of prayer would be enough to restore his tranquillity. He meant it too.

What is good about obscurity? Just this, that one does not sink one's heart and soul too much into human affairs. Not 'humans', just 'human affairs'. No matter how obscure a person's life is, he still has a real effect on his immediate entourage: family, friends, colleagues. They are what matter. But not being obsessed about human affairs frees the mind to look further. Aemilia gets caught up her father's dream of the restoration of Roman greatness, but eventually comes to herself and returns to her true centre of gravity, her faith in God. It's only after that that she finds her true calling, which is significant after all but not what she either looked for or expected.

Friday, March 8, 2013


Centurion's Daughter marks the very beginnings of western Christendom, a civilisation that would reach fruition in the Middle Ages before changing into modern European culture that eventually became the world culture.

But what exactly is meant by 'Christendom'? It's a question worth answering since our conception of Christendom and Mediaeval civilisation is almost inevitably a caricature. The world we live in now is so fundamentally different from the world as it was then that it is very, very difficult to grasp the thinking of people of that time. One automatically conjures up a picture of religious intolerance, bigoted narrow-mindedness and backwardness, all mixed with a propensity for violence and a low respect for life. It's the backdrop of nearly all the big Mediaeval movies (oh, yes, and they hadn't discovered soap either).

The truth is different. I can pick out a few things from the society of Christendom that set it apart from the world we live in now, but which do not add up to a straw man.

1. Social institutions respected and actively upheld the people's deepest convictions.

The secular state did not exist. It was inconceivable that the government and legal system should not support the beliefs and moral values of the majority of the population. This applied everywhere, not just in Christian Europe. Contrary to popular conception, religious minorities were rarely persecuted for their religion. They were left with their own beliefs provided they did nothing to disturb the social order built on the religion of the majority. That included proselytising, which inevitably led to religious civil war. The Inquisition was actually set up not to torture Protestants or Jews, but to prevent the social fabric from being ripped apart, something which happened when a heterodox movement took root in a region. Once it had gained converts it inevitably raised an army. The idea of accepting a government that did not actively endorse the beliefs and moral values of its citizens was simply unthinkable. That came later.

2. There was no such thing as social climbing.

One of the lynchpins of modern society is the belief in material success. The idea that with hard work, positive thinking and the right skills one can rise up the ladder of a society in which social prestige is built exclusively on wealth. That didn't exist then. True, social prestige did to a large extent depend on wealth, but wealth could only be born into; it could not be made by fair means or foul. Which meant that the acquisition of money was not a primary objective of life. Other things had more importance. Looking after one's family or fulfilling ordinary obligations were honourable in themselves. For the wealthy class the notion of chivalry took hold, using one's wealth and power to protect the less fortunate, not prey on them. In a word, there was a sense of place, staying where one belonged and doing one's job in one's slot in the world. Sure, there was always room for greed and ambition since mediaeval society, like modern society, was composed of humans, but the fundamental outlook was different.

3. Material improvement was not a priority

Christendom was a highly conservative society, which meant that technologically very little changed for centuries after the fall of Rome. The Mediaevals did things the way their fathers had done them and did not try to find ingenious ways of doing them better. I put it down largely to something which the Mediaevals understood and we have somehow forgotten - the fact that there is no cure for death. We live, if we are lucky, seventy or eighty years, then we die. Everything we have built up in this life we will lose at death. We will be torn away from our possessions, occupations, social prestige, projects, friends, family, everything. All these things in themselves do not matter. They only matter inasmuch as they have a bearing on a future existence that will not end. It is only when the idea arose that this life is all we have and we must make the best of it, that the impetus was given to material improvement. Today the drive for material improvement is all-encompassing and it is killing us. The Mediaevals had no notion of it.

Was Christendom a better system than the one we have now? One thing it did do at least was to prevent the nightmarish excesses of a secular system in which power is ultimately under no moral constraint.  The Holocaust, the Gulag, the Cultural Revolution, the World War are children of the secular world, not of the Mediaeval. Compare about 4,000 executions by the Spanish Inquisition in its 350 years existence with 6,000,000 Jews over four years and 10,000,000 Kulaks over two. These horrors could not have arisen in the Middle Ages.

The question ultimately is a moot one. The ideas of religion as having a public as well as a private aspect, life as a sense of place, and contentment with a modest material lifestyle, are long gone. We are seculars to a greater or lesser degree and have no choice but to make the best we can of a secular world.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Illustrating Centurion's Daughter

Let me start with a question: do the illustrations in Centurion's Daughter enhance the book or detract from it?

I ask the question because I have acquired the notion that a literary convention rules out illustrations for a 'serious' book. This convention is fairly recent and perhaps not across-the-board. There was a time, not so long ago, when novels intended for adults were illustrated (remember those old Readers' Digest compressed novels?), but that seems to have fallen away in recent decades.

To illustrate the novel I decided to use the pen-and-ink medium for a couple of reasons. It is a technique I was fairly confident with, as opposed to painting which I'm no good at. It would also reproduce well on a black-and-white printed page, and it would hold its quality regardless of the printing quality (greys might have been inaccurately reproduced).

Here are a few examples of how I did an illustration. The first is the newly-crowned emperor Ennodius, on p156 of the printed edition - like several other illustrations it's not in the kindle version, so you do get slightly better value for money if you buy the paperback. I decided to base my style on Robin Jacques, a master of the technique back in the 50's and 60's. He illustrated Steel Magic, a fantasy children's book I won as a prize for a writing competition when I was ten. Here are some examples of his work from that book.

Before starting I needed some raw material. First Ennodius's upper torso with the clothing and armour. for that I used this image (from Wikimedia Commons)

Then the face.  This bust of the emperor Elagabalus from the University of Texas' Introduction to Ancient Rome came as near as I wanted.

Using these two I first did a pencil sketch then followed with the ink, first doing the main lines - outline of the head, edges of the cloth - then following with the details - the folds in the cloth, the details of the face the hair, uniform details. Finally the finished result:

Merovec was a bit more difficult. I found this image for his helmet, which I modified.

The face was largely made up. for the hair I needed an example of braiding and found this. OK, not exactly a barbarian warrior but it did the trick.

And the finished result:

For the picture of Aemilia and her father Tarunculus in their apartment I found a couple of willing volunteers to pose. Here is 'Tarunculus'. He is Brother Crispin from the nearby Mariannhill Monastery. I persuaded him to let me take a few snaps of him whilst there for a Christmas retreat.

Then 'Aemilia'. She was a fellow-retreatant.

I found references for the plates, lamps, lampstand, chest and the table. The end result:

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Golden String

How Providence actually works in the lives of people is a theme running through Centurion's Daughter. The main character, Aemilia, is at times dimly aware of a sense of direction in her life; a realisation that a series of odd coincidences are not just chance, but a fortuitous combination of events that nudge her in a certain direction. It is only when she begins to try and carve out a path for herself that she loses this awareness and things start unravelling for her. But she always comes back to what Malcolm Muggeridge calls the Golden String, which eventually leads her to a destiny she did not expect.

I give you the end of a Golden String,
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven’s Gate
Built in Jerusalem’s Wall.

Muggeridge was quoting from William Blake in his autobiographical Chronicles of Wasted Time, a work which I read years ago and never forgot. It became a central theme of the novel: what is Aemilia's place and what is she supposed to be doing with her life? At the beginning of the book she hardly knows - she is completely preoccupied merely with her survival, looking for a father she had never met in order to escape a master who wants to force himself on her. It is only when she finds her feet in her new settings and gradually begins to think for herself that the big question raises itself. She is half Frank, half Roman, and does not know in which world she belongs, being drawn in different ways to them both. How she resolves this dilemma and finds her true calling in the dangerous tangle of human affairs takes up the rest of the book.

The point which interests me here was showing how gently, almost imperceptibly, God steers us in the course of our lives without ever revealing himself. For me God is a tightrope walker par excellence. The most precious gift he has given us, and the one he respects the most, is our free will. We have a span of eighty odd years to decide whether we will, consciously or unconsciously, side with God or against him. With a very few exceptions, God does nothing that ever forces free will to a decision. There is enough evidence lying around to conclude that there is a God, but the evidence is not of a kind to oblige our acceptance. We are able, as long as we live in this world, to disregard God completely, even to the point of rejecting his existence.

For Aemilia, the hints of what God wants for her come, firstly, in the form of  enlightening thoughts, answers that seems to emerge out of nowhere for problems she cannot resolve by her own thinking; secondly, in the odd course of events. She is protected from a fatal suspicion by Syagrius who uncharacteristically does not see the obvious. She is brought by circumstance time and again to meet the man she will ultimately marry, the right man for her. It needs her co-operation, but eventually things fall into place, a little too neatly to write off as mere chance.

Does this correspond to real life? I think it does. One can either find the Golden String or try to manufacture something to replace it. The substitute must ultimately fall apart in one's hands. It's not golden, and gold lasts.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Whether a novel succeeds or not...

I'll make a confession. Centurion's Daughter hasn't exactly been a best-seller. In fact, royalties for the last year have totalled the princely sum of $50. When I got that news I did two things:

a) said 'Thy will be done' to God;

b) wondered what exactly does make a book a success.

I'm still working on b). Centurion's Daughter is sold through Arx, a small but established publisher specialising in Catholic historical fiction. The editor put a real effort in to publicizing the book, so nobody can blame him. The book itself, I've been told by people who have read it - and not all who have a reason to flatter me - tells an interesting story and is well-written. People like the cover, and the illustrations are a bonus. Oh well.

Looking into things, I get the impression that these days an author is expected to blow as loud a horn as possible, whenever and wherever he can, using every means at his disposal to get his book noticed ahead of the other several hundred thousand hopefuls who are trying to do exactly the same thing. Like getting his family and friends to write favourable reviews on Amazon (not so easy as Amazon is wiseing up and pulling reviews submitted from the same IP address), or even going as far as to post disparaging reviews for rival authors in order to drag their ratings down. Also visiting as many relevant or not-so-relevant sites as possible purely for the purpose of announcing the arrival of one's New Book. Anything that works, or looks like it might work.

Well, quite honestly, I can't be bothered.

Not that it works in any case. The bottom line from people who are the most experienced in this business is that nothing will promote a bad book. Write something worth writing about, write it well, polish it thoroughly, and give it an airing. Then let it go where it will. I flatter myself at least that I've done that.

I'm not grumping. Well, not too much. Right now I'm working (on and off) at a sequel, Crescentius the Great, which takes place about ten years after the events in Centurion's Daughter. Here is the opening chapter, which is probably going to change in a rewrite. Hopefully it will be ready by the end of the year when it will get its airing in turn. Then let it go where it wills. Or God wills. The main thing is that it will have been the best I can do.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Designing the cover for Centurion's Daughter

A picture tells a thousand words, which means that this post will have lots of pics and hopefully few words.

Designing the cover was fun. I originally worked on one attempt that I abandoned as being to puerile for the book's theme. It was meant to wrap around from the back to the front of the book. It shows Aemilia and Tarunculus on the walls of Soissons as the beaten army of Syagrius comes trickling into the town.

After scrapping it I tried something completely different. I found these pictures (some have the owner's permission; the others - I wouldn't have a clue now where they came from and they have been changed beyond recognition anyway).

First the background material. The sky.

And the black ground (I deleted the yellow sky).

Then the centurion's helmet. This fellow was delighted to have his picture as part of a novel cover.

And the centurion's face in profile (which was considerably darkened in the final composition).

Then the scale armour and scarf around his neck, taken from this pic.  The image was flipped in Photoshop.

Finally Aemilia's face, taken from this pic of the statue of the Empress Antonina.

With the raw material assembled I set to work. First I opened everything in Photoshop and start with the background sky. I cropped the picture then blended the sky with the blackened ground below, deleting the superfluous yellow sky from the ground pic. Then I applied a few filters to give the suggestion of a painting texture.

Next the helmet. Using deep etching I removed every part of the pic that was not the helmet itself including the face of the young man, which I replaced with the profile of the old man. I then darkened it and applied filters to give it a similar feel to the sky behind it.

 Then the scale armour and scarf, darkened down to be a suggestion and nothing more.

Now the hard part. The bust of Antonina was not ideal but was the best I could find. First I erased everything superfluous, blurring the edges as I did so.

Then I moulded the face, which meant working the jaw and completely recreating the eyes.

Finally adding the text, and voila!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Clovis...the most important man, ever

...from the point of view of the future of Mediaeval civilisation. It rather surprises me that he has been almost completely passed over in fiction. I find every aspect of his life fascinating. Let me give a brief timeline:

AD466. Birth of Clovis. His father was Childeric, a Frankish chieftain whose capital was the former Roman staging post of Tornacum (modern-day Tournai) that lay on the Roman road between Cologne and Boulogne. This area had been occupied by the Franks for about a century at the time of Clovis's birth. Childeric was an ally of the Empire, and exercised a loose overlordship over the tribes of Salian Franks, or the Franks on the western side of the Rhine.

Childeric had a bad reputation with the women, especially married women of prominent Franks, which led to his exile east of the Rhine. During his absence the Franks accepted the rule of Rome in the person of Syagrius, last Roman ruler of northern Gaul.

Childeric eventually regained the favour of his Franks and returned to Tournai. The absolute respect Clovis had for women, especially for his future wife Clotilde, suggests that he had learnt the lesson of his father's example and had made up his mind not to repeat it.

AD481. At the death of Childeric, Clovis becomes chieftain of the Salian Franks of Tournai. Shortly after this Syagrius conferred on him the post of administrator of Belgica II, one of the four provinces under Syagrius's control. This is mentioned by St Remigius, bishop of Reims, who wrote to Clovis:

Word of great import has reached us that you have received the administration of Belgica Secunda. This is not a new thing, that you should begin to be what your forefathers always were.

 For several years Clovis accepted the status quo as ally of Syagrius and lived in peace with him. He would have used this time to consolidate his power among the Frankish tribes (he was only fifteen when his father's men raised him on the shield), asserting his rank of over-king based on his status as Syagrius's foederatus.

AD486. Clovis defeats Syagrius in battle.  The causes of the war between Clovis and Syagrius are obscure and one has to read between the lines of the few scraps of evidence available. It seems Syagrius revoked Clovis's title of administrator over Belgica II and occupied Soissons, reasserting his own rights over the province. The subsequent battle at Soissons was a disastrous defeat for Syagrius, who, it seems, was deposed by his own provinces (largely controlled by a powerful militarised aristocracy) and fled to the Visigoths. He was later brought back as Clovis's captive and died at Soissons - murdered, according to the account of St Gregory of  Tours. The remaining Roman provinces did not capitulate to Clovis however, and successfully held him off during a war lasting ten years.

AD 493. Clovis marries St. Clotilde. This may have been done partly for political motives. Clotilde was a Burgundian princess, whose uncle controlled the Burgundian state after murdering her father and mother. She was also a Catholic. Clovis needed to conciliate the Catholic population of Syagrius's former provinces, who would not accept him as ruler since he was a pagan. Politics aside, it is clear he had a genuine love and respect for her, allowing her to baptize their children, even after their first child died immediately after baptism. It is also clear she deeply impressed him, even though her efforts to convert him to the Christian Faith were initially unsuccessful.

AD496. Clovis converts to Catholicism and is baptized. This is undoubtedly the single most important event of his life. A neighbouring barbarian people, the Alamans, made war against the Franks. Clovis's army was on the verge of rout in the battle. At the crucial moment he invoked the Christian God, promising to be baptized if he won. The tide turned and the Franks triumphed, killing the Alaman king. Clovis, who was not a mere political calculator, kept his word. About half his army followed his example and were baptized with him. With his conversion the war between Franks and Gallo-romans came to an end and the latter finally accepted Clovis as ruler.

AD506. Clovis defeats the Visigoths and conquers southern Gaul. The Visigoths had been the greatest of the barbarian powers that conquered the Western Roman Empire. Like most other barbarians they were Arians and had an uneasy rapport with their Catholic subjects. Intermarriage between Visigoth and Gallo-roman or Hispano-roman was forbidden and things sometimes degenerated into violent persecution. The only barbarian ruler who could fuse his people with the local inhabitants of the former Empire was Clovis, and it was his kingdom alone that in the end proved strong enough to stop the tide of Moslem conquest two centuries later. If the Visigoths - defeated with ease by the Moslems - had retained or extended their control over Gaul, it is probable Westerners would be chanting Allahu Akbar today. In any event Clovis's defeat of the Visigoths and his subsequent conquest of southern Gaul made the Franks the premier power in Europe, and it was the Frankish kingdom and its successor states that eventually became western Mediaeval Europe.

So Clovis mattered.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Roman army at the end of the Empire

...was a good deal better than most people might think, and it outlasted the Empire. Procopius, writing in the mid-500's, had this to say about it:

"Now other Roman soldiers, also, had been stationed at the frontiers of Gaul to serve as guards. And these soldiers, having no means of returning to Rome, and at the same time being unwilling to yield to their enemy who were Arians, gave themselves, together with their military standards and the land which they had long been guarding for the Romans, to the Armoricans and Franks; and they handed down to their offspring all the customs of their fathers, which were thus preserved, and this people has held them in sufficient reverence to guard them even up to my time. For even at the present day they are clearly recognized as belonging to the legions to which they were assigned when they served in ancient times, and they always carry their own standards when they enter battle, and always follow the customs of their fathers. And they preserve the dress of the Romans in every particular, even as regards their shoes." – History of the Wars XII

 A few things stand out from this passage:

1. These troops were respected by the Armoricans and Franks. They were not half-trained levys or barbarian mercenaries. They were soldiers of sufficient quality to impress not only the Gallo-roman inhabitants of northern Gaul (the Armoricans or 'Arborychi' as Procopius misspelt it) but also the Frankish conquerors who took over that region. The Franks held them in such high regard that they did not disband them but accepted their fealty. Quality troops indeed.

2. They were professional soldiers in the Roman tradition. Their metier was passed from father to son, i.e. it was a traditional occupation that was handed down in a family, as was customary with many Roman professions in that time. These men made soldiering a lifelong career, with all the pride and competence that went with it.

3.  They were proud of being Roman. They made it clear that they were Roman soldiers, by the standards they took into battle, the military traditions they kept, even the uniforms they wore. This sense of Roman identity was remarkable, and enabled them to remain in being nearly a century after the deposition of the last Roman emperor in 476.

It was these troops that held Clovis and his Franks at bay for ten years, something that no other of his enemies was able to do. Their resistance ceased only when Clovis was baptized at Reims in 496/7, making him a ruler the Catholic inhabitants of Armorica could accept. A truly unique performance.

  Credit: Letavia

Sunday, January 20, 2013

When did the Western Roman Empire end?

Most historians give 476 as the date of the fall of the Roman Empire in the west, that being the date of the deposition of the puppet boy-emperor, Romulus Augustulus, by his Commander-in-Chief Odoacer.

It's a date, but not a terribly convincing one in my view. As far as imperial politics went Rome had not mattered for some time. For decades emperors had been accustomed to live elsewhere, like the easily defended town of Ravenna. Strictly-speaking Romulus Augustulus may not have been the last emperor.  There existed another, Nepos, who had ruled at Rome before Augustulus and been obliged to move to Dalmatia which he still ruled with the support of the Eastern Roman Empire. Augustulus himself had no power and less respect. Even his name was a mockery of the sonorous title his father Orestes gave him. Orestes had renamed his son Augustus. The populace nicknamed him Augustulus, or 'Augustiekins'.

After he was quietly removed (his father having been murdered by Odoacer) there remained at least two imperial territories under Roman control: Dalmatia under Nepos, fated to last until occupied by the Ostrogoths in 480, and northern Gaul under Afranius Syagrius.

Syagrius was the son of Aegidius, the last Commander-in-Chief of Gaul, elevated to the post by the emperor Majorian. After Majorian's death the corridor connecting northern Gaul to Italy was cut by the Visigoths. Aegidius and Syagrius after him were isolated from the other remains of the Empire and became in effect independent rulers.  What is important to note however is that they always considered themselves imperial governors, and ruled their territory in the name of Rome. This gave them legitimacy and enabled them to maintain their authority over the four provinces they controlled: Lugdunensis II, Lugdunensis III, Lugdunensis IV Senonia and Belgica II. It was this territory that became, in effect, the last remaining stretch of the Western Empire after the fall of Dalmatia. It would endure until 496/7, when it finally accepted the rule of Clovis, king of the Salian Franks.

Here is a more detailed history of the period. The map below shows the extent of the territory of Aegidius and Syagrius.It was about the size of Ireland, and contained some of the wealthiest lands of Gaul. It would later become part of the economic heartland of Mediaeval Europe. But more about all that in a future post.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

First Post

Well, here it is, a blog to go with Centurion's Daughter, but which will most probably wander into historical fiction in general, and writing fiction even more in general, and Catholic fiction slightly more in particular.

So why did I write Centurion's Daughter? OK, I'll tell the truth: I enjoyed telling a good story.... and I had a dream about a Roman town that seemed to be a good scene around which to build a novel....and I was interested in fame and fortune (or at least making a living as a writer). There, told the truth.

Since then it has boiled down to liking to tell a good story and hoping a few people will enjoy reading it. Maybe even one day making a living as a writer as well.

Currently I am working on a sequel - more a spin-off actually - that takes place about ten years after the events of the first novel, at the very end of a long war between the Gallo-Romans and the Frankish confederation under Clovis. For a history of that war look here.

My approach to historical fiction is this:

Do the research thoroughly. A fictional world hangs together if you know a good deal more about the time period than you actually put in the novel. Tolkien's Middle Earth was three ages long before he started writing Lord of the Rings. The unequalled depth and panorama of his world came from that fact.

Use ordinary people as the main characters and VIPs as the supporting cast. I steered clear of making Clovis the main character as I wanted to be right on the ground in my late Roman Gaul, with ordinary (if eccentric) people interacting with ordinary people.

Don't overdo the dramatics. I know, it's the name of the game in historical fiction these days (maybe it always has been) but I prefer to avoid it. The worst thing that happens to my principal character is that she undergoes a bout of grinding poverty that eventually causes her to break down in tears. That's pretty much the worst thing that can happen to most of us. There is real poignancy in drama that is constrained by the ordinary circumstances of life, as opposed to the Hollywood let-rip-all theatrics that personally leave me stone cold. Historical fiction is about real life in another age.

Find a good story to tell. A good story is defined as something that touches the depths of the human heart - something that drives the will, the longings, the wellspring of human happiness and misery. It has to be real, not contrived. There's no formula for it (the movie industry would pay big bucks for a formula). One just has to know a story is genuine or fake.

And that's enough for a first post.