A big welcome to Nancy Jardine, a great author and a specialist on Roman Britain. She raises a familiar dilemma for historical novelists: how do you get plausibly into the mind of someone who lived two thousand years ago? What sort of guesswork do you have to do? And what contemporary sources can you rely on – or not? Let’s hear it from Nancy.
Into the mind of…Agricola
Creating a completely fictional character is wonderful. He/she doesn’t come with pre-formed associations on the part of the reader because there are no known identifying characteristics. It’s then up to the author to imbue the character with whatever traits will fit the plot, their role in the story, and make them believable for the reader.
My Celtic Fervour Series is set in late first century A.D. in northern Roman Britain. Book 4 (to be published) begins after a great confrontation between the Caledonian allies against the armies of General Agricola, Commander of the Roman legions in Britannia. Agricola, one of my main characters in Book 4, is a historically recognisable individual to those who know a bit of Ancient Roman history but he’s not really that famous. My other characters are entirely fictional.
Cornelius Tacitus, Agricola’s son-in-law wrote ‘The Agricola’ c. A.D. 96, a few years after the death of Agricola in A.D. 93. Tacitus wasn’t recording verifiable facts about what Agricola was like or his time in Britannia. Tacitus’ writing was political propaganda and his objective was to entertain his audience. In ‘The Agricola’, the impressive speeches for Calgacus (Caledonian leader) and Agricola are splendid public speaking, intended to be read out by an orator at a rostrum in the Roman Forum. Tacitus could never have known what either leader said to rally his troops because Tacitus (probably) wasn’t there, though he may have had a (biased?) account second-hand from Agricola at a later date. Tacitus’ writing isn’t fiction but it’s not a credible biography either of Agricola. What I’ve gleaned about Agricola’s true character from Tacitus, the only real primary source, is zilch apart from Agricola being somewhat good looking.
My fictional account of Agricola isn’t influenced by hard evidence. He was given triumphal honours and a statue on his return to Rome though there’s no attested bust from antiquity (as far as I know). One current statue in Bath was created in the 1890s: a Victorian interpretation. There’s another recent statue in France, in Frejus in the Gallia Narbonensis region of Agricola’s birth and death (see image at the top of the post). My mind-image of Agricola is of a good looking man, dark haired, wiry and strong as a campaigning soldier needed to be, and of average height. The current statues reflect this to a certain extent.
My task is to enter Agricola’s mind and decide why he made his campaign decisions in northern Britannia c. A.D. 84. What made him choose where to site his temporary marching camps? Why did he not force the Caledons to sign post battle treaties which would have officially subsumed the tribes into the Roman Empire and would have created a new Roman Empire Boundary? Question follows question. By c. A.D. 85 Agricola was recalled to Rome. What frustrations, or relief, did he feel on receiving that order? Ancient Romans were superstitious and my writing needs to reflect Agricola’s waning support from his volatile Emperor Domitian.
The best thing about my writing is that Agricola is real to me! I’m hoping that when the novel is published in late spring that he’ll also be real to my readers. I do wonder though if I am entering the realms of historical fantasy, or is it still historical fiction?
My Celtic Fervour Series will be republished in the near future—Books 1-4 in new versions and new covers.
Nancy’s Other Books
Nancy Jardine writes contemporary mysteries; historical fiction and time travel historical adventure. She regularly looks after her grandchildren and sometimes her garden can look quite creative. She’s a member of the Romantic Novelists Association, the Scottish Association of Writers, the Federation of Writers Scotland and the Historical Novel Society. She’s published by Crooked Cat Books and has delved into self publishing.
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Copyright © 2018 Vanessa Couchman, Nancy Jardine. All rights reserved.