Finding Caesar in Spain
By Alistair Forrest
ALISTAIR FORREST draws on an upbringing in the Middle East and travels around the Mediterranean to merge ancient history fact and fiction
As a young journalist I used to laugh with colleagues who joked: “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” Alas, I have known some for whom this was a serious mantra, but for me – and my passion for history’s treasures – there’s something of a compromise to be embraced.
You can’t argue with facts, you can only weave your story around them. But first you have to dig them up like the gems they are, and that is a daunting prospect unless you are a 100-year-old historian whose life has been devoted to study.
I count myself lucky to have spent my childhood and early teens in three Middle Eastern countries and subsequently to have travelled widely as a journalist, always delving into the history that made each place what it is today. A burning passion to write historical fiction finally came to fruition with a six-year sojourn in Spain to “just write”. My wife and I chose a house amid well-tended olive groves in an upland valley opposite Monda, a charming village in the Sierra de las Nieves Natural Park not far inland from Marbella.
And it didn’t take long to discover that Julius Caesar had marched his crack legions through our garden.
|Our view of Monda.|
Sure, sniffy historians will tell you that the Battle of Munda (45BC) against the sons of Pompey the Great didn’t take place at Monda, but at Osuna some 50 miles to the North West. Stuff and nonsense. I chose to believe the locals and started writing Libertas, revelling in the scenery and culture, and imagining what the community might have been like when Caesar came. More a case of, Let some of the facts make a good story.
There is a small section of Roman road leading towards Monda – enough of an historical site to halt the progress of a new road – and in the town there are ancient springs that never dry up and would have made this a logical ancient settlement. The town would also have been easily defended in a siege with ample water and a steep incline to where early palisades and Roman walls could have been. A Moorish castle now stands on a steep hill above the town, and although local folklore says there was a fort there in ancient times, this cannot be proved.
|The Roman road to Munda?|
Though his work has been questioned by some historians, I trusted the account of Appian of Alexandria (c.95-c.165) who has a passage in which Caesar is goaded by Gnaeus Pompey. The young general accused Caesar of cowardice, prompting a degree of rage that ultimately led Caesar to personally thrust his way to the front line at Munda and exhort his troops to victory. Caesar was unusually brutal in his last battle. He believed he was right, his patience had run out and he had been called a coward.
Having researched the Battle of Munda, its causes and its effect on the politics of Rome, it was time to weave the story around the facts. Before the Romans came, the community was probably based on the simple things in life like hunting, animal husbandry, arable crops, baking bread and brewing. A lifestyle that remained unchanged in inland Andalucía until EC money built new roads for other Europeans to venture away from the Costas! That is the point – this happened in the 1st Century BC when the Celtiberian and Phoenician population came under the influence of the Romans, and towns like Munda became important satellite settlements in support of larger cities like Corduba (Cordoba) and Gades (Cadiz), often at the intersection of existing trade routes.
Rather than assume a collection of Pythonesque yokels whipping up rebellion and asking “What have the Romans done for us?”, I chose instead to develop the theme of an indigenous people who were creative and inventive in their own right. They understood herbcraft and lacked nothing for a full, healthy life. The hero in Libertas is not a warrior but a thinker. He is appalled at the horror that Rome brings to his hometown, but he warms to the younger of the Pompey brothers, Sextus.
Living in the same community as my protagonist, separated by centuries in which nothing much happened between Caesar and Franco, enabled me to add colour and feeling to my imagined community of bakers, brewers and cheesemakers. Happily I can refer to a comment by the Historical Novel Society’s reviewer: "Forrest makes us care about Munda. He captures the tragedy of a people dragged into the horror of a vicious war brought about by circumstances over which they had no control and could hardly understand."
In my research, I found myself liking the younger Pompey; his Roman sense of adventure would make the perfect foil for the more thoughtful hero, Melqart. And this is where I have taken a risk with the facts – the invention of embryonic Morse code, the retractable keel and an early torpedo (fired by ballista-type springs and pulleys).
And it is Sextus Pompey and ancient naval warfare that has inspired my next series of three novellas, the first of which is due for publication by Sharpe Books around now (February 2020). After defeat at Munda, the pirate leader escaped to Sicily and built a fleet to squeeze Roman supplies of grain and other goods, bringing famine and unrest to Italy under the new Triumvirate of Octavian, Mark Antony and Lepidus. Again, my travels in the region have served me well, not least sailing in a tall ship with the late author Leslie Thomas (The Virgin Soldiers), sensing the historic menace of Etna as we passed in its lee on an eerily still and misty morning. The volcano features in Libertas as well as the new series.
Where next? While a passion for writing remains, I will definitely return to my formative years in the Middle East and extensive studies of ancient Mesopotamia, including the amazing stories waiting to be reimagined of Assyrians, Israelites, Phoenicians and Philistines.
And while there’s ink my pen, I must surely make the most of the archaeological dig just a few yards from my home in Alderney where archaeologists Jason Monaghan and Phil de Jersey have uncovered well-preserved remains of Roman and Iron Age settlements. The historian Dan Snow is keenly interested in the site. But that’s yet another story…
|An Iron Age skeleton is discovered beneath a Roman floor at Longis, Alderney. Photo: David Nash.|
|With my faithful helpers at one of Alderney’s many forts.|
By Alistair Forrest
Spain 45BC. Julius Caesar’s crack legions bear down on an obscure Spanish town, Munda, at the climax of Rome’s civil war.
Against him are ranged the massed forces of Pompey the Great’s sons, Gnaeus and Sextus. To the victor, the spoils.
Caught up in the conflict is an unlikely hero, Melqart. Near fatally wounded in the battle, his family is sold into slavery and his people oppressed by Arsay One-Eye, a foe crueller than Caesar.
Melqart’s quest to free his family takes him to Sicily and the shores of Africa as he encounters enemies and allies alike.
Ultimately, the Spaniard must return to his homeland and confront Arsay. Melqart and his people must free themselves, or die trying.
Praise for Libertas
"Alistair Forrest's Libertas is a fast-moving tale of fortitude, survival and eventual retribution told against the background of Rome's bloody civil war.”
Douglas Jackson, author of the best-selling
Gaius Valerius Verrens series.
"Forrest has the gift of the true story-teller the ability to engage his readers interest from the very first sentence."
Lord Cormack, politician, historian and author.
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Alistair Forrest is a journalist, editor and author of historical fiction. He has worked for several UK newspapers, edited magazines in the travel, photographic and natural products sectors, and headed a PR company.
He lives in the Channel Islands with his wife Lynda. They have five children, two Maremma dogs and a Spanish cat, Achilles.
His books are published by Sharpe Books of London. Alistair loves to hear from readers. Contact him through his website or Twitter.
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See you on your next coffee break!
Mary Anne xxx