David J. Cord

Author David J. Cord reveals the story behind his latest work.

IT WAS an innocuous passage I came across while looking for something else. It was an ancient account of the Roman Emperor Lucius Verus, his mistress, and a plague infecting his army as they returned from war. After I finished reading it disappeared from my conscious mind.

“It is said that he shaved off his beard while in Syria to humour the whim of a low-born mistress, and because of this many things were said against him by the Syrians. It was his fate to bring a pestilence with him to whatever provinces he traversed on his return, and finally even to Rome.”

Later it all came back, and I found myself thinking more and more about it. The historical significance of the emperor and the plague interested me, but the juxtaposition of the private details was even more fascinating. There was so much conflict stuck into those two sentences, and so much left unsaid. Who was his mistress? What happened in the provinces when the pandemic reached them?

Defining events and individual stories

The plague was a devastating event to Roman society in 166 AD. Some estimates are that up to 20 per cent of the Roman population perished, an event similar in scale to the Black Death. More than one historian has suggested the true decline of the Roman civilisation began with the plague. This was a defining event, a broad historical movement, but looking at it this way missed the most important point. Individual stories make up a societal change. I finally realised this was the story I had been looking for, and since it didn’t exist I had to write it.

I chose three narratives, each independent but part of the whole, like a triple helix. The first was at the lowest tier of society: a shepherd slave boy who has to save his family from being broken up and sold off by a cruel master. The second story was of the emperor’s mistress who is abused by her father, hated by the nobility, and gradually loses her grip on reality. The third was a tale of aspiration. An ambitious writer has to decide to either write a high-profile panegyric for someone he hates or else remain a humble baker.

These stories occur during the outbreak of the plague, that great historical event, the impetus for a change in the fundamental nature of things. This is the phenomenon where historians and doctoral students write their peer-reviewed studies. But historians look at the event, not the people. I turned it around, to look at the people of that era and not the event.

Dead Romans is now available through Stairway Press and many retailers.

The value of fiction

Two thousand years from now, historians will look at the great events of our era: the fall of the Soviet Union, the age of fear and terrorism, or the creation of the European Union, perhaps. Yet we are living through those times, we with our own lives and own stories. We think about our own hopes and dreams, our own struggles and conflicts as we go about our daily lives, not the grand historical movements we are living through. This is what I tried to do with Dead Romans.

Here is the value of fiction. There were no ancient accounts of what happened to a particular shepherd boy when the plague reached the city of Ephesus. He is not mentioned in history books, isn’t the subject of television documentaries, and has no doctoral thesis written about him. He doesn’t even exist, of course, because I invented him. But it is fiction’s role to imagine, to go beyond archaeological digs and written records, to give a view of something which is only dreamed of but has value and meaning nonetheless.

The three main characters in Dead Romans take progressive steps from historical reality. The emperor’s mistress was named Panthea according to the ancient writers, and we know a few things about her life. The remainder I imagined. The baker and aspiring writer Aristides is not known to history, but we know quite a bit about what bakers did in the city of Ephesus, how they worked and how they lived. Daphnis, the shepherd slave boy, is entirely unknown, entirely imagined, entirely original.

Documented history and inventive fiction

The farther one goes from documented history the more opportunities there are for inventive fiction. But it is necessary to have a backdrop, a time, a society, to properly ground the characters and the story. It is traditional to explore character development and societal themes in contemporary fiction, where the reader is familiar with the setting. Reviewers have been pleasantly surprised that I did this with historical fiction.

Historical fiction set in the time of the Roman Empire is supposed to be about Julius Caesar’s army, or gladiators, or any of the other tired tropes about ancient life. It is not supposed to be about private internal struggles. Yet I believe that by taking the characters farther from the society we are familiar with, the better we can identify with them.