A blogger friend not long ago published a post about writing notes for historical novels. It’s a good idea, and got me thinking about making some for my books, the time travel saga set in ancient Greece and Persia. On the other hand, I don’t want to pretend that my books are scholarly or academic – they are fiction, and even if I did research for years before and during writing, I can’t say they are strictly historical. I took too many liberties. So, if I did include historical notes, they would be more to explain where and why I changed things around and not to tell what really happened.
I always thought that a historical fiction writer has to walk a fine line between facts and fiction. I used several sources for my tales, including Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander, which one can now find online in its entirety. Arrian lived approximately 500 years after Alexander’s death and he mostly used writings from Aristobulus, a historian who accompanied Alexander on his journey; Nearchus, Alexander’s admiral, and Ptolemy Lagos. Unfortunately, those writings have largely disappeared and there is hardly anything left that is contemporary of Alexander. While I was writing, I contacted a professor in Italy, who very kindly advised me on some questions I had, including names and where to look for recipes for toothpaste. A surgeon was very helpful in explaining some of the operations and medical skills of the times, and told me that there weren’t any sutures in ancient times – these appeared late in the 18th century. And finally, Michael Wood’s book, In the Footsteps of Alexander was my constant companion to trace Alexander’s voyage.
As for his love life, most historians agree he was bisexual – but that was considered normal at the time. Macedonians and Greeks favored an active sexual life, with love, or eros, being reserved for friendship between men, and women reserved for sex and bearing children. So they mostly celebrated sex, rather than inhibiting or censoring it. Like hunting, homosexuality was thought to foster masculine bravery, especially for soldiers. Alexander was educated by Aristotle, who was not a fan of women. He stressed the clear disadvantage of the female compared to the male. He believed that women were failed “males” and thus struggled with a significant handicap (Hist. An. 775a4-17). A good book to read if you are interested in women in that time is Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. Women in Classical Antiquity. by Sarah B. Porneroy (1976).
So where did I change things, and why? In order to make the story flow better, I had to keep the same cast of characters around Alexander. There is no trace of his doctors’ names, or his servants, and his love life was mostly conjecture. Even the people who were present in Arrian’s Anabasis seemed to change places a lot – it was hard keeping track of them. Since Arrian mostly concentrates on Alexander’s battles, there are huge chunks missing from the story. I had to fill those in, somehow. Hephaestion becomes Plexis in my book, an Athenian, (he was from Macedonia in history books), and has a brother whom Alexander has killed. I needed to invent something to explain his fragility because I could never find proof that Alexander was complicit in his father’s murder. He needed an Achilles heel for my story, and so I invented one.
There are important secondary characters whose stories don’t change much: Callisthenes, the Royal Tutor, was Aristotle’s great-nephew. Onesecretus (Onsecrite in my books) is a journalist and wrote news to Athens. Demosthenes was a lawyer and orator who embezzled a fortune. Most of Alexander’s generals are present and accounted for. I Sometimes had them in the same place as Alexander for simplicity’s sake, when, according to Arrian or Plutarch, they were in different cities. Seleucus, (Seleucos in my books) founder of the Seleucid dynasty, starts off as a slave, whereas history books have him simply being “low-born”. But that is part of the joy of writing fiction – I could change things. I only hope that ardent Alexander fans can forgive me.
One more note – spelling names – I used some Greek spellings, some English, and some French and even Italian – and that’s because as I was doing research I was using books in three different languages and taking notes. It seemed easiest to use the Greek spellings for some (Nearchus, Ptolemy Lagos), French spellings for others (Seleucos, Onsecrite), because it soon got redundant seeing so many names ending in “us”. As a nod to that, Alexander’s doctor is called Usse! I also invented nicknames for everyone, but it is true the greeks loved nicknames, even calling their gods by pet names.
N.B. If I think if other things I changed, I’ll probably edit this post, and add them, or if I get questions, I’ll be glad to answer them as best as possible.