Bringing a laptop to a knife fight

As I’ve already mentioned, historical evidence about Corinth between the Persia and Peloponnesian Wars is fragmentary. One thing that does get mentioned is the city’s reputation for strife between rival political factions. Okay, that’s promising. Writing a murder mystery does require a certain amount of violence after all. Better yet, a crime novel set in the ancient world spares the author the complications of ballistics and calibres and other technical firearms stuff. As far as life in a classical Greek city goes, things become even simpler. No one’s going to cart a hoplite shield and spear around and expect to get away with a stealthy killing. This strife on the streets is going to be feet, fists and knives.

The novelist still needs to be able to write about this convincingly. How does an author do that research? Speaking for myself, I’ve studied a martial art, aikido, since 1983, and that’s proved extremely useful. No, you won’t read about Philocles or anyone else managing a faultless koshi nage or some other wholly inappropriate Japanese move. But for us to learn self-defensive techniques, and now that I am a third dan blackbelt for me to teach these things, we also learn about effective kicking and punching in our classes, to give students a realistic idea of what they might face. So that’s the first thing I have to draw on.

Secondly, occasionally, we get our movement or timing wrong. Accidents are thankfully rare, and injuries on the mat rarer still, but in the past thirty years, I have taken a couple of smacks in the face and other rather harder thumps than I was expecting. There is nothing quite like direct experience to enable a writer to realistically convey how that feels. Believe me, you don’t forget it, because you really don’t want it to happen again.

Aikido is a martial art that doesn’t meet aggression with aggression, but uses movement and an understanding of body mechanics to enable a student to avoid getting hit, and then to control an attacker with a variety of holds, pins or throws. These techniques for rendering an attacker incapable without injuring them are a major reason why over the years we have trained any number of police officers, fire fighters, nurses, paramedics, social workers and door staff. While we help them learn to stay safe, they share stories about situations they have encountered at work. Like the police inspector whose aikido skills saved his neck (not the word he used) when a violent drug dealer turned out to be immune to capsaicin, the active ingredient in the DI’s officially-issued pepper spray. So the third resource I have to draw on is that wealth of real-life experience of often inventive thuggery gleaned second-hand over post-training pints.

Lastly, those of us who study different martial arts always swap notes with each other, given half a chance. We invariably find common principles underlying our different approaches to what are the same essential challenges. I don’t only talk to blackbelts in other Japanese, Chinese and similar martial arts. Recent years have seen a great expansion of understanding and practise in HEMA – Historic European Martial Arts. I’ve had some fascinating compare-and-contrast conversations with experienced practitioners, as well as seeing some excellent displays at Living History days and in places like the Royal Amouries Museums in Leeds. All this enables me to make a fair assessment of the core skills that someone like Philocles would surely have had.

So what about a knife fight? We do also train against attacks with knives, swords and staffs in aikido. On the mat these weapons are wooden, but believe me, you still don’t want to make a mistake. We don’t only teach students how to avoid injury, but how to disarm an attacker safely as well. That’s far easier to demonstrate than it is to explain here writing, so if our paths should cross in real life, feel free to ask me about that. Meantime, you can rest assured that I know what I’m talking about when Philocles gets himself out of danger with a deft move – and I did check with an orthopaedic surgeon about the likely outcome for the person who tries to stab our hero. The stakes get increasingly high in Scorpions in Corinth.

Guides to Corinth, ancient and modern

Anyone writing a historical novel set in ancient Greece should pour grateful libations to the memory of Pausanias, a doctor from Ionia, who was an inveterate traveller in the 2nd century AD. That is to say, he lived roughly from 110 to 180 AD. The reigns of Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius were (mostly) an age of peace and prosperity for the Roman world, and Pausanias took full advantage, travelling far and wide. He wrote a detailed guide for those who might follow in his footsteps, and his Description of Greece is a fascinating read.

He wasn’t in any sense a professional historian, as we would understand it, but he diligently notes down what the locals say about the origins and founders of their cities, as well as summarising more recent events. As was always the case in the classical world, he makes no distinction between what we would call myth and history. The sons of Zeus are as real as the Roman generals who later sacked Corinth as far as Pausanias is concerned. There is similarly no question about the gods’ existence, as he details the Sanctuary of Poseidon at the Isthmus. And he really goes into all the details of the temples and the statuary, the monuments and the stadium, as well as the pine trees that adorn the site. Whenever he’s learned some interesting story about a hero or goddess, he notes that in an aside, along with observations about local customs and traditions. As he walks up the road to Corinth, he tells us about the city gates, along with the stories of the people they commemorate. Then he walks on through the marketplace, describing the many shrines and fountains. His work offers us an entertaining insight into the people of the classical world, as well as a guide to its places.

Though I would have come badly unstuck, if I had relied on Pausanias alone. He was writing hundreds of years after my story is set, and pretty much the closest he gets to dating evidence is references to before or after the days of Homer. There’s no way to tell from his text when the buildings and temples he describes were actually erected. More than once I came across a place I thought I could use, only to discover it hadn’t been there when Philocles would have needed it. For that vital information, I am indebted to ASCSA, the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Founded in 1881, their affiliated scholars and students have been digging in Greece for decades, most especially in Corinth and the wider Corinthia. Their work means there’s been a wealth of papers and reports available for me online, as I researched the setting for this book. Even better, with absolutely superb timing, ASCSA recently published their fully updated site guide to Ancient Corinth. If you plan on visiting Corinth’s archaeological sites, you really should buy it. Full of detail, descriptions, maps and dates, it’s been been invaluable for my purposes. All told, ASCSA has more than earned my gratitude in this novel’s acknowledgements. (I wonder if this is the first time they’ve had a mention like this?)

Lastly, but by no means least, I’ve been able to make use of something Pausanias could never have dreamed of – Google Earth. I have been to Corinth myself and it was most definitely memorable, which is one reason I wanted to set a story here, but that was decades ago, and I had no reason to fix particular views in my mind’s eye, or in our photographs. Now, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I could (virtually) stand on the stage of the classical Greek theatre. I can turn through a full circle and see for myself the details of the landscape that Philocles and his actors saw as the backdrop to their performance.

So the sense of place in this novel has been brought to you by resources spread over nearly two millennia!

The challenge of knowing what we don’t know, when Philocles goes to Corinth.

Writing a historical mystery set in Athens takes a lot of research. There’s a great deal of material available. We have a wealth of primary sources in pots, manuscripts, statues and inscriptions. Then there are the decades of scholarly thought interpreting all those things. Finding the precise detail that a writer needs, to be certain that a vital clue or a passing reference is correct can take a whole lot of work.

Taking Philocles and his play on tour gave me pretty much the exact opposite problem. Outside Athens, and beyond its interactions with other cities, much of the history of 5th Century Greece is fragmentary, literally and metaphorically. When it comes to Corinth in particular, the focus of so much of the available research is the first century AD, thanks to the apostle Paul stopping by, and writing a couple of letters. I kept coming across things I thought I might use, until I found out they were far too late historically to be relevant for my story.

Records from earlier centuries are sparse, and physical evidence is far less readily available, for all sorts of reasons. For instance, it’s said that the Corinthians posted their civic decrees engraved on gleaming plaques of a fabled alloy known as Corinthian Bronze. Very impressive – and very easily melted down in the two and a half millenia since the city’s classical heyday. All that information is lost and gone for ever. A carved stone recording some Athenian civic honour or festival victory can also be reused of course, but when that’s found as part of a later construction, the inscriptions can still be read.

This might seem like good news for the fiction writer. Doesn’t that mean you can just make things up? Yes – and no. Not unless you’re willing to risk a well-informed reader posting a link to an academic paper that you missed. If that supplies some information contradicting that vital clue, your whole plot could unravel. Take the simple fact that Athenian actors and playwrights sometimes took their plays to other cities. We know that happened from references in the primary, contemporary, written sources. So far, so good, for the premise of this second book. But who decided which plays went on tour? Who issued invitations? Who paid the bills and why?

I needed to know – or I needed to know for certain that scholars didn’t know. Believe me, it was a great day, when I finally found an authoritative paper firmly establishing there is no evidence to answer these particular questions. That meant I was finally free to weave that fact into my historically plausible scenario, along with other scraps of Corinth’s ancient reputation, mostly mentioned in passing as the Athenians recorded their dealings and battles with the city.

The ancients tell us Corinth was famous for its hero-worship cults. It was also known for outbreaks of civil strife. After the archaic kings were overthrown, Corinth was ruled by a Council of uncompromising oligarchs. It was a society where women lived very different lives to their Athenian sisters, even competing and winning prizes in musical competitions. The cosmopolitan population had links to the furthest Hellenic settlements to the east, and to the far distant west, thanks to Corinth’s twin ports on either side of the Isthmus. All this trade and bustle was overlooked by the brooding bulk of the Acrocorinth, the mountain fortress that ensured no army could ever leave or invade the Peloponnese without making allies of the Corinthians.

It’s all very different from home, as far as Philocles is concerned. It’s a risky place to make any misstep, even before he’s caught up in a murder…