A couple of weeks ago we popped along to The Summerhall Historical Fiction Festival, now in its third year. It had quite a line-up. I managed to get along to seven of the events, most of which were a little on the quiet side audience-wise, which is a shame, as there were a few real crackers: Robert Newman’s discussion of false continuities and true discontinuities was one of them, as expected, and Lucy Ribchester’s digressions into corsets and the fine detail of the women’s suffrage movement was another. I will, hopefully, return to these later.
A third was Robert Fabbri’s discussion of his Vespasian Chronicles. It was chaired by Allan Massie, but faced with the ebullient Fabbri, he hardly got a word in. The main thread was how, given that we know so little about the life of the Roman emperor Vespasian, he managed to spin out his series of novels. Massie asked how he had done it, considering he only gets 30 pages in Suetonius‘ histories.
“They’re 30 very good pages,” was the short answer.
The discussion began in earnest over a remark that Massie had made earlier that in order to keep suspense in a novel it has to be written so that characters do not know what’s going to happen. Fabbri’s series begins with the naming ceremony of Vespasian at which omens are seen that reveal his destiny.
“Vespasian in my fiction does not know the meaning, he knows there were omens at his naming ceremony. What happens is I have his mother swear everyone present to silence so they cannot tell Vespasian, they cannot even talk about these omens. Because to have Imperial omens meant a pretty short life, but Vespasian made it.”
He knows that there were omens, but initially doesn’t know what they were nor what they mean, a device that helps to drive the plot and allowed Fabbri to play with the very idea of omens. Eventually Vespasian thinks he knows what his destiny is, and “If you know that you’re going to be emperor then that affects your decision-making process so instead of decisions being focused on a balance between your desires and your fears — which I think is a rough way of saying how decisions are made — he starts making rash decisions.”
Massie, though, is not a fan of omens: “One of the problem I always have in the ancient world is finding all the omens tiresome and incredible. One wonders how many were invented post-hoc. If somebody becomes emperor then at some point there are going to be omens invented.”
Fabbri agreed they probably were, and went on to describe just how different Roman religion was from modern conceptions of it: “It was very superstitious and a very egocentral religion, it was about me and we start off with the prayer at the naming ceremony and it’s about my land, my family. I’ll do this for you if you do this for me, everybody else? No, not interested.” This led on to discussion of the Mafia and one of his totally fictional creations, Magnus, leader of the South Quirinal Crossroads Brotherhood.
“I was ridiculed in some circles for giving Vespasian a sidekick. But I felt it necessary because Vespasian comes from a certain strata of society … The Brotherhood were formed originally to look after the crossroads Lares, the gods of the crossroads in that area and they emerged into Mafia gangs who protected the area, tradesmen gave them money for protection and they were pretty unpleasant to people who did bad stuff on their turf. I have given Vespasian Magnus so that I can explore the side of Rome where Vespasian wouldn’t go. That gives me a nice overall view of Rome, because I cannot take Vespasian there that often and everything is seen through Vespasian’s eyes.”
The only exception to this rule is that the prologues are narrated by Vespasian’s brother, Sabinus. He then read the first chapter of Tribune of Rome, in which an awful lot of animal blood sloshes around as a sacrifice. Grisly yet compelling.
The big question, though, was “Why Vespasian?”
The answer was a very long one, but the short version is that what little we do know of his life shows that he moved around a lot, and this allowed him to make the backdrop to every book different rather than just lurking in Rome.
Also, he was an interesting character: “In France and Italy vespasiano or vespasien is a loo [specifically a urinal] and it proves the problem when it’s translated into Italian, they can’t call it Vespasiano because it’s ‘Public Toilet, Tribune of Rome’. It’s because he taxed urine. I love his humour. When he came to the purple he found that and economy which had been shattered, it had just gone through Nero with his golden house, his largesse to everybody and his complete delusion that he was the greatest singer of all time. I have a lot of fun with Nero.”
“To finance the empire, Vespasian started taxing things and he started taxing urine, so there was a barrel of urine on every street corner and it was used in the tanning industry. His son Titus said, ‘you can’t tax urine!’ Vespasian got a fistful of coins and said: ‘What do they smell of?’ “They smell of money.’ ‘Yet they come from piss!’ I thought that was wonderful. His sense of humour drew me to him. His final words were ‘Oh dear. I think I’m turning into a god.’ It was the scope of his career, he serves in every part of the Roman empire with the exception of Spain.”
One of the most interesting aspects of his talk was how he inserted Vespasian into the narrative of the empire as long as it was plausible and there was no evidence to the contrary.
I put him there because what is it about the word ‘fiction’ that we don’t understand?
“His first post was in Thrace. He probably didn’t arrive there in time for the Thracian revolt. He might have arrived two or three months later, it’s unclear, but that would be dull, so I put him there because what is it about the word ‘fiction’ that we don’t understand? You know, as long as the facts that happened are correct, I can put my man in there if there’s no evidence to say that he was elsewhere.”
There were various jobs he might have done, but “I put him in charge of book burnings and executions because that was the year when Sejanus fell. It made think if he was in charge of executions that he may have been responsible for Sejanus’ death.” Fabbri also makes Vespasian responsible for a horrific incident which actually did happen, the rape and murder of a child: “We’re dealing with a Roman, he’s got none of our Western, Christianised morality about him. For him, that’s a practical decision. He has to oversee this child’s execution because Sejanus has been condemned by law for all memory to be expunged, and that has to include his blood, so Vespasian sees nothing wrong in that because of the way that Sejanus has behaved, a practical Roman decision and you know he doesn’t like it but he does it.”
Having read the passage, I can confirm it’s particularly horrible and chilling. This insistence on seeing things from the characters’ point of view and not softening it for a modern audience was challenged by Douglas Jackson in his talk a couple of days later, and I intend to write that talk up soon, but his main point was that: “Every historical novelist has to strike a fine balance between representing a society as it was and representing a story and a people that are acceptable to the people who are going to be reading the book.”
Given the horrific detail and huge popularity of abuse memoirs and true crime, though, I’m not sure Fabbri can be blamed for reminding us that Romans were just as capable of inexcusable crimes as we are, and Vespasian is not the worst. As Fabbri later said, when Massie asked whether we can find him sympathetic, “He is sympathetic. He has Roman qualities, so you have to lay out the Roman world, in a way that he is sympathetic, so he has far less appealing characters to judge him against … You’ve still got all the natural stuff it’s just the morality stuff is different, and that’s where you bring out his natural personality as a human being in reaction to seeing things.”
One of the strangest results of closely following the historical records is that Fabbri decided he could include mythology as reality. “I was reading Tacitus and Cassius Dio and, in 34AD, Tacitus spends about two-thirds of a page describing the Phoenix … I thought, ‘isn’t that a fascinating thing, they believe in the Phoenix, let’s go and see it.’ It’s there in the history books, no-one can tell me that I can’t have it. I use a way of getting him out into the desert.”
“The Phoenix rises, bursts into flame and the ash comes down and it sings, and I was imagining The Great Gig in The Sky from Dark Side of the Moon, this wonderful voice going up and coming back down again.”
I had great fun doing modern takes on ancient stuff. I’m quite shameless about it sometimes.
This incident then leads on to other events where Vespasian is given a prophecy by the god Amun, and it allowed Fabbri to tie together and explain other parts of Vespasian’s life. Another creative interpretation was an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist to steal Alexander the Great’s breastplate: “One of the wonderful details about Caligula‘s reign is his bridge he built in the Bay of Naples, three miles long, where every piece of shipping in the Mediterranean was diverted to build it, so there was famine all over the place, but he didn’t mind that. He extended the Appian Way and rode over this bridge wearing Alexander the Great’s breastplate, which had been got from his mausoleum in Alexandria. Somebody had to go and get it.
“I do an amalgamation of those films, so I have Flavia Domitilla doing the Julia Roberts distraction and I’ve got Magnus’ slave trying to get inside. There’s a security system, which is geese. I had great fun doing modern takes on ancient stuff. I’m quite shameless about it sometimes.”
His enthusiasm for the puzzle of fitting all the pieces together was apparent throughout: “I call it joining-the-dots writing, how to get your character from A to B. You weave the story around then facts. I always work from the basis that if a fact doesn’t fit the plot it’s not an inconvenient fact it’s the wrong plot.”
He also gave an outline of what will happen in his next book, though with many digressions: “I’m going to start book eight with him being appointed governor of Africa. The prologue will start off with Sabinus, who is prefect of Rome and therefore was St Paul‘s jailer. Paul preaches quite bit throughout the book, not a nice guy in my version. My best one-star reviews on Amazon are from people who like St Paul. I’ve been called a heretic in this modern age, which I was pleased with. A heretic and a pornographer. That’s put the sales up.
“Vespasian goes on Nero’s tour to Greece and watches Nero win 1800 crowns at the Olympics and falls asleep in one of the performances and has to run for his life. Then when the Jewish Revolt breaks out and a legion is completely trashed he’s Rome’s best general and he’s the man who gets the job. It’s because of that that he gets into the East with four, five legions while the civil war of 69 rages in the West.”
And more imagination is employed in the next book: “Then in the book I’ve just finished, I had to do it, I’m really sorry, I had to take him back to Britannia for the Boudiccan revolt. No-one says he wasn’t there. Titus was there, probably for the mopping-up not the battle of Watling Street but none says Vespasian wasn’t there because no-one knows where Vespasian was. It’s just too much to resist. It’s only historical fiction.”
And I think this mix of absolute adherence to the known facts and a willingness to play with the unknown is what has sold me on giving him a try. While it sounds horrible, it also sounds quite fun, even playful. There’s a childlike glee to it all, which is mirrored in his reasons for starting the series.
“I’ve always liked historical fiction and I also have a collection of 3,500 little lead soldiers, Romans, Thracians, Macedonian … all sorts, and I used to re-fight battles and so I used to bring all my history and read Suetonius for pleasure and Tacitus. I thought OK, I’ll have a go. I always loved Robert Graves’ I Claudius and I wanted to have a play with the emperors. Vespasian kept on coming up. When you think that as a man who survived Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero and then the four emperors, that’s a pretty impressive thing. Just look at all the people who were executed in that year, how did he get away with it and thrive?”
So, while I’ve yet to read his books, I have bought at least one on the strength of this appearance at SHFF, and I’m looking forward to seeing if it really can justify that scene.