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Too Much of a Good Thing…

May 7, 2009

Ever since I put the finishing touches on The Scourge of Rome, I’ve been in a strange sort of limbo state regarding what to write next. At first I honed in on Alaric, the Visigoth who sacked Rome, but then I bounced back to the Second Punic War, went through a few ideas, and finally ended up right where I started. 

I’ve been researching the Alaric novel for a few months now, and while I have an absolutely killer first chapter mapped out, the rest of the story is…dense. The real story of Alaric isn’t that of a rampaging barbarian tearing down an empire. It’s far more nuanced than that. He was, for the better part of his career, actually working with the empire, albeit walking a delicate tightrope between the Eastern and Western courts (the propaganda machines of which did much of the bloodthirsty-barbarian-casting).

Now…I like big books…and I find the “true” story of Alaric endlessly fascinating. I love that his sack of Rome wasn’t a triumph in any way, but rather a monumental failure that was the result of a breakdown in diplomacy. But, as a novel, I just don’t know how satisfying it would be, especially considering he died months after the sack, having basically accomplished nothing. With all the intrigue the reader would have to wade through, I don’t know if such a bummer of an ending would really hold up.

So, once again, I’m back to doubting my basic topic, and casting my eyes afield for something else. Something perhaps a bit less ambitious in scope and more direct in its narrative. 

If there’s one thing I learned writing The Scourge of Rome, it’s that history is a lot more dense, complicated, and messy than it appears at first glance. Even writing that, I had to cut back my goal of covering the entire sixteen year history of the Second Punic War and settle for the first two years. And even then, it was still a massive story. Tackling the entire life of a figure as complex as Alaric would, I think, be even more daunting (and less accessible).

But if not Alaric, then what, or who?

My first thought was Marcus Agrippa, the right hand of Augustus and probably my second-greatest historical man crush beside Scipio Africanus. It’s his loyalty that fascinates me. Here was a man who basically shared power with Augustus, and for a considerable amount of time wielded equal authority, but who never moved to sieze it all for himself, even when he he had ample opportunity. But, as with Alaric, his story is long and winding.

Then there are the other personalities I’ve considered. Roussel de Bailiol, the Norman mercenary who screwed over the Byzantines at Manzikert and went on to establish a rogue kingdom in Asia Minor, to the dismay of the Byzantines and Turks alike. Or El Cid. Or Charles Martel, who halted Muslim expansion into Europe.

But for some reason, my mind keeps coming back to the great Byzantine general, Belisarius. Taking on the entirely of Belisarius’ exploits would no doubt be too much for one book – I mean the guy beat back the Persians, ended the Nika Riots that threatened to overthrow the Emperor Justinian, and retook Africa and Italy from their barbarian overlords. But handled in chunks…it could be doable. One particular episode stands out to me – his defense of Rome in 536/7. 5,000 men against an army of 50,000 and he pulled it off. You can read about it HERE. That defense could, I think, make for an awesome story in its own right. 

I guess it’s time to research.

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