I am delighted to be part of the blog tour for Sword of Rome and so here is an exclusive blog post from Douglas Jackson. Unfortunately I am having technical difficulties with my review of the book but as soon as I have sorted them I will post this afternoon.
EMPIRE ON THE BRINK: THE YEAR OF THE FOUR EMPERORS
My latest novel, Sword of Rome, is one of two set in the Year of the Four Emperors. Virtually no part of the Roman Empire was left untouched by this sprawling, brutally destructive conflict of 68 and 69AD that left brother fighting brother, father against son, friend against friend, destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives and almost brought the Empire to its knees. Militarily, it affected the Rhine frontier, the Danube frontier, Gaul and Hispania, and of course, Italy itself. The political reverberations rocked everywhere from Egypt and Africa to Britain and what’s now Portugal and Syria.
The first question I had to answer was: How do you encapsulate something so huge and all-encompassing in a single book? And the answer was pretty obvious. I couldn’t. Fortunately, the war, or wars, fitted reasonably neatly into two phases, the first opening with Nero’s death and ending with Otho’s defeat at first Bedriacum and later suicide, the second opens, more or less, with the build up to the second battle of Bedriacum, and ends with the sack of Rome.
By luck or good judgement, my main character, Gaius Valerius Verrens, Hero of Rome and last survivor of the Temple of Claudius, is ideally placed to have a central role in all the events. When the first book opens, he has just returned from meeting with Vespasian and his son Titus in Alexandria, and set out on a mission for Servius Sulpicius Galba that brings him into the orbit of Galba’s second in command Marcus Salvius Otho. All key players in what’s to come. Meanwhile, his old friend Aulus Vitellius is on his way to become the governor of Germania Inferior and a momentous encounter with legionary commanders Fabius Valens and Aulus Caecina Alienus, that will take the Empire to the brink and beyond.
There are any number of pivotal events, and many more, important, but peripheral. I decided from the start that I would concentrate, naturally enough, on the main players and that I couldn’t ignore the two main battles and the denouement in the capital. In Book 1 that takes Valerius from Gaul to Rome, Rome to Cologne, Cologne to the Rhone, through northern Italy. On the way he faces great danger and is hunted by his most implacable enemy yet. But focussing on the main characters and events meant I could only make passing reference to the revolt in Gaul led by Gaius Julius Vindex which was arguably the catalyst for Nero’s downfall, and Otho’s important campaigns in the Maritime Alps. Likewise, in the second book Enemy of Rome, I made the decision to more or less ignore the enormously significant Batavian revolt on the Rhine that kept Vitelllius’s potential reinforcements pinned in Germania.
The two major battles were probably the most difficult I’ve ever written about. First Bedriacum is an utterly shambolic affair where Otho threw in his outnumbered forces on terrain that was totally unsuitable and turned it into three separate confrontations, none of which he was likely to win. At times I felt like shouting ‘You idiot, why don’t you move everything to the flat ground south of the river!’. Second Bedriacum was a similarly confused affair, only it was fought mainly in the dark, which was testing to say the least.
But probably the most significant decision I had to make was whether to give the eventual victor a central role, despite the fact that he played little part in any of the major set pieces. At the moment, as I write the final chapters, Titus Flavius Vespasian is barely even a bit player in book two. I may have to think about that during the rewrites.