Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Roman Empress - An interview with Manda Scott

Manda Scott is the best selling author set in the Ancient Roman Empire.  Her latest novel "Rome: The Art of War" is released in the UK on 28th March.  I have had the pleasure of previewing the novel (my review can be read here) but Manda has also given me an exclusive interview in which she gives an insight into how the world of Pantera, the spymaster, was created.

Manda, welcome to Sir Read-A-Lot...... 
Q: The Art of War is billed as a Roman-era spy thriller.  What can you tell us about spies and spying in the ancient world? 

A: How long have you got? (!).   The first written reference we have comes from China, in the Art of War treatise by Sun Tzu from which I took the title, and the part titles.  Sun Tzu wrote his treatise on the Art of War in the late ‘Spring and Autumn period’ of Chinese imperial history (around 500BC), and he devoted part of the thirteenth book (of 13) to spies. 

Central to his argument (essentially he thought good intelligence made armies more effective and save lives) he created five categories of spies:
1)     Local Spies – basic informants
2)     Internal Spies or Moles
3)     Double Agents – agents of the enemy
4)     Doomed Spies (also, sacrificed spies)
5)     Surviving Spies – the heroic agents who risk their lives for information: most of our books revolve around these.
Nobody has ever said it better.  To put it in context, Rose Mary Sheldon, Professor of History at the Virginia Military Institute says, ‘Espionage is practiced occasionally by spies, and all the time by neighbours, relatives and colleagues.’  We all want information, it’s what we do with it that counts.
In the ancient world, the limiting factor was distance and the time it took to travel.  Walking was slow, riding was a bit faster.  Xerxes had set up a ‘Pony Express’ messenger service where a series of men waited at waystations and took messages on one from the other in a relay.  The Romans went one better and posted way stations with horses, but the same man rode from beginning to end, which meant that he could carry additional information on top of what was written down.  The very best of these could go 200 miles in one day – Tiberius is supposed to have done that when he went to the side of the dying Germanicus – but it wasn’t common.  The only fast method of sending information was carrier pigeon but even using codes, these could only transmit very basic information or orders. 

The second question is how to protect your information.  Modern codes and ciphers are fantastically complex; they have to be so because computers can break any but the most complicated codes and have done so ever since the pioneering work of the Colossus and Enigma machines at Bletchley Park.   

In the ancient world, codes and ciphers could be simpler.  Julius Caesar wrote an entire book on the subject which sadly doesn’t remain, but we know he used simple letter substitution ciphers (A-> B, B-> C etc. etc.) and he may well have used more complicated variants on that theme.  Other men used belts that could be wound around dowels of particular diameter and only then read linearly. One ruler went so far as to shave the head of a slave and have his message tattooed on his scalp, then let the slave’s hair grow back! I hope it wasn't urgent!

So we know that they used different ways to distribute information, and that they had codes and ciphers to keep that information secret.  We know also that they used divination and oracles, although I suspect that, like a lot of the disinformation around the Colossus ciphers and their breaking after WWII, the ‘entrails’ simply revealed to a commander what his agents had already told him.

The whole history of the Year of the Four Emperors, in which the Art of War is set, is redolent of secret deals done behind the scenes, and these must have been aided and abetted by agents of one side or the other – individuals who could gather secret information from the other side, and use it, spies who could disseminate false information, the double cross, the triple cross, and were fleet enough of mind and foot to take advantage on good luck when it came their way. 
Q: The first two novels of the ROME series saw Pantera, the spy who ‘came in from the cold’ to server Rome again as their central character.  Then in The Eagle of the Twelfth, we had a new man, Demalion of Macedon, as the main character, and it was told from his first person perspective.  Where do we go with Art of War?

A: We go back to Pantera being the central character – this is very much a spy novel again, where Eagle of the Twelfth was more my answer to Rosemary Sutcliff’s ‘Eagle of the Ninth’ and needed to have a different angle.  Art of War is all about Pantera, setting him at the centre of the action in the second half of the Year of the Four Emperors, between July, when Vespasian’s troops hail him Imperator , to Saturnalia (17th – 21st December) , when they march into Rome. That said, this is a departure because none of it is told from Pantera’s viewpoint; it’s all first person reports from other people, told to Hypatia, to discover the ‘truth’ about what went on. So each of them is describing his or her interactions with Pantera, which keeps him central, but we can only infer what he’s thinking and feeling from the views of others –and obviously everyone has his or her own agenda, so they might not be entirely reliable. The idea that history is a collection of differing people’s ideas of what might and might not have happened is fascinating to me – it seems to me that fiction explores what we might call the ‘shadow gaps’ between each person’s different account.
Q: How did you go about the research for this and was there anything that stood out?
A:  I was lucky in that this Year is one of the few that everyone in Rome thought was important.  Other events may have happened on the margins – the Boudican Revolt, the Parthian war – but in AD69, the legions marched on Rome itself, so the men who wrote the histories – and they were all men – took it seriously.  So along with Tacitus and Suetonius, we have Plutarch, Josephus and Cassius Dio, plus coins minted by all four men who made themselves emperor, plus the occasional marble monument, or bronze plaque. So we have some idea of what people were really thinking, particularly since some of our sources say they were taking their data from eye witness accounts by men who actually fought in the field.  
So I read all of those, and then the various interpretations of them – because of course, they don’t all say the same thing, so there’s plenty of room for deciding one or other is being economical with the truth.  Then on top of that, I found some fascinating texts on life in first century Rome.  One was a reprinting of a contemporary – that is, Roman contemporary – book on the interpretation of dreams which was just utterly inspiring and another was ‘Invisible Romans’ by Robert Knapp which I would recommend to anyone who wants to know what the ordinary people, the slaves and freedwomen, the bakers, weavers, hairdressers, ironmongers, smiths… did and thought and said in this era.
What was really interesting, and what always, for me, brings a time alive, is trying to imagine exactly how things were done.  So for instance, there’s a line in Tacitus which says that when Vitellius got back to the palace in Rome after having defeated Otho (Otho killed himself to prevent further bloodshed and so rose almost to sainthood in Rome), he found a document signed by 120 men of the Praetorian Guard saying they’d helped in the murders of Galba and Piso in January of that year (Galba was the first of the four men on the throne in AD 69, having taken it after Nero’s death the previous June.  Piso was the unfortunate youth he named his heir).  Vitellius promptly sacked the entirety of the Praetorian Guard and installed new men – and then he ordered the new men to kill the 120 whose names were on that list. But these were Praetorian Guards.  They weren’t a pushover.  And they knew what was coming.  Working out how it must have been for the men on either side of that was fascinating – and it gave me three of the key characters in the book: Geminus and Juvens, the friends who draw a name each from the lottery, and Trabo, one of the two men they are sent to kill (the other is Pantera, but they have to take him alive).

The women were another fascinating angle.  We know that Vitellius’ mother was particularly sharp, and that she killed herself when his downfall seemed obvious.  We know also, of Caenis, whose story is worth a book in its own right.  She was the former slave girl, now freed, who had been secretary to Antonia the Younger, daughter of Mark Antony, and in her own right, a powerful woman.  Vespasian had fallen in love with her (Caenis) when he was newly a senator and, although he had been forced to marry elsewhere because it was illegal for senators to marry freedwomen, he came back to her when his wife died, and they lived as man and wife until her death in AD 74.  What little we know of her suggests she was an intelligent and highly competent woman and it was a pleasure to make her acquaintance in the book. 

And then there was Jocasta, who had an off-stage role in The Coming of the King and who became central to The Art of War.  Giving her space to be the SpyMaster she has become was immensely rewarding. These people always surprise me; which is 90% of the fun of writing (the other 10% is knowing I’m not still in veterinary medicine. I loved it, but I’d had enough and I have far more freedom as a writer.  If I am working a 70 hour week, it’s because I choose to, not because someone else has told me to.)
Q: Where next? Do we have more of Pantera? Or something different?
A: Something different, at least for now.   I’m heading to the 15th Century and Jeanne d’Arc.  As Sherlock Holmes said, “Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” So – there is no way on earth that a peasant’s daughter (or even a burgher’s daughter) from a village was able to pick up a lance, don full armour, get on a warhorse and ride it into battle.  None.  Add to that, the fact that a contemporary orthopaedic surgeon has found a set of bones contemporary to Louis XI (the son of the man that ‘Jeanne’ put on the throne) belonging to a woman who, in his estimation, ‘was trained to ride a warhorse in full armour from an early age’ and you have the beginnings of a far more plausible story – particularly if you look at it from the point of view of the present day, and the impact such a truth might have on contemporary French politics.  So this is a dual thread novel, with part set in the France of the woman who called herself Jeanne and part is in France of 2014, at the next set of elections. After a decade of writing in the first century, it’s magical and wonderful and glorious (and rather scary) to be writing in the fifteenth, but every single paper, or article, or book I read makes me more certain that the theory is right (it’s not my theory, so I can say that, it was put forward by the surgeon who examined the bones – just before he was thrown out of France!). So that will be next. I’m mid-way through it now.

Q: What else do you do when you’re not writing?
A: I spend half my life on Twitter and Facebook – these days being a writer is as much about building brand as it is about writing – but in between, I train myself and my working cocker for agility competition – not that there’s much of that around when we have this much snow – and I climb rocks, again, when the weather is good.  I’m thinking of trying out Cani-X, which is cross-country with a dog – that looks a lot of fun.  And I might get back into battle re-enactment; it’s a while since I picked up a sword!
Thank you Manda for a wonderful insight into your world of writing.  You can find Manda on Twitter @hare_wood & click here for her Facebook page (Manda Scott Author)

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