Speedbumps on the road to writing

Sometimes when writing, I feel like I’m just rolling nicely. The word count climbs, I describe setting and action, important events flow onto the pages and then, WHAM! I’m stopped by some tiny detail that I need to research.

I like the fiction I write to contain as much fact as possible, whether it’s a mystery or a historical fantasy. I think that my readers will be delighted to find a detail was real, such as the Roman Emperor in the late sixth century being named Maurice, or that the name of the “barbarian” Avar king was Bayan.

When it comes to writing about guns, an author must get their facts right or the readers will let you know in no uncertain terms that you have failed to a certain degree.

So what’s the problem? Exactly when did the Roman Legions mutiny against Emperor Maurice?

My first published novel, The Bones of the Earth, is set at a particular point in the Dark Age, in and near the Eastern Roman Empire. I wanted the action to start about a generation after the year 535, when Krakatoa erupted causing a worldwide year without summer. I also wanted to begin with a full moon ceremony the night before the summer solstice.

I know, most people wouldn’t care whether it ever happened, but I wanted to be as accurate as possible.

It turns out that the coincidence of full moon and solstice does not happen often. It happened in 2016, and the previous occurrence was in 1948—68 years later. After much research, celestial calculator sites pinpointed the perfect date: the night of June 19–20, 593. You can look it up with a moon phase calculator and a solstice calculator set for southern Poland.

The sequel, The Triumph of the Sky, is set five years after the conclusion of The Bones of the Earth. The hero, Javor the Sklavene, has settled down in Constantinople, the greatest city in the world at the time.

Families were bigger back then

A five-year interval gives Javor time to settle down, buy a house, establish the lady Tiana as his infirm aunt (to find out why she’s infirm, you’ll have to read Bones), and marry a rich merchant’s daughter. The structure of the book will have Javor return from a series of adventures, defending human civilization from the forces he encountered in the first book, to find his wife has delivered a baby. Eventually, he’s going to have seven.

That brings the date up to 599 CE. It turns out that this begins a tumultuous time in Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine) history. The Roman Emperor had just helped restore the Persian King Khosrau (or Chosroes) on his throne, securing peace on the eastern frontiers and allowing the Romans to concentrate on quelling the Avars and Slavs on the western side. A series of battles led to tens of thousands of “barbarian” deaths. Then Emperor Maurice refused to ransom 12,000 Roman prisoners of war, and the Avars killed them all.

Mistakes lead to regime change

In 602, Maurice made a mistake that set the course of history. He ordered the army to spend the winter beyond the Empire’s borders, north of the Danube, instead of coming home for the winter to tend their farms and spend the booty they had looted. They revolted, marched on Constantinople, set a centurion named Flavius Phocas as the new Emperor and beheaded Maurice’s four (or five, or six, depending on the source) sons in front of him before beheading the Emperor.

Flavius Phocas, Emperor of the Romans, from a later engraving.

Maurice died on November 23 (or 27 or 28, depending on the source), 602. The question that vexed me: when did he issue the fatal order that caused the mutiny? Did he order them in late 601? Or early 602? But winter is generally December to March, but in southern Europe, it could be shorter. Did the Legions spend the winter north of the Danube, find it intolerable, then march? Did it take several months to fight their way to the capital?

Websites, online encycopedias and two books, including John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium and Byzantium: The Imperial Centuries AD 610–1071 by Romilly Jenkins, did not provide this detail.

I know what you’re thinking:

“You’re a writer. Make it up.”

I can’t. Or more precisely: I don’t want to.

I finally found the answer in The Lost World of Byzantium by Jonathan Harris. It turns out that Maurice issued the order in the autumn of 602 and the army balked immediately. They marched to the capital, the Emperor fled and was recaptured, all within a matter of weeks.

Remarkably fast considering they had to march hundreds of kilometres.

There’s a lot more interesting stuff to work into the book. Stay tuned for more details!

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