One of the greatest joys of writing historical fiction is those moments during the (0ften-arduous) research process when you stumble upon some detail, some event, some facet of the historical truth which is, in fact, stranger than fiction. These discoveries often fit perfectly, or with small changes allowed by artistic license, with the flow of your novel. Other times these nuggets will be so dramatic and gripping that they will demand a change in the flow of the book.
In A War Within: The Gladiator, Antonius Maximus and his friend, Theudas ben Yair, both have reason to hate Emperor Commodus. The Emperor made Antonius unwittingly carry his own mother’s death warrant to the Praetorian Guard, and he killed Theudas’ father in a gladiator bout. The two young gladiators escape from the Ludus Magnus – the gladiator school in Rome – and swear vengeance on the Emperor. As I was researching Commodus and the Coliseum I discovered an intriguing fact. There was a secret passage that led into the Coliseum for the Emperor to use to come and go. More than that, there was actually a failed assassination attempt that took place in that passage!
Edward Gibbon, in writing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, records “One evening, as the emperor was returning to the palace, through a dark and narrow portico in the amphitheatre, an assassin, who waited his passage, rushed upon him with a drawn sword, loudly exclaiming, “The senate sends you this. ”
The assassin’s shout warned Commodus just in time and the Emperor escaped death.
What potential for a gripping scene! I set Chapter 17, “To Kill an Emperor” here in this passage.
Fifteen feet below the very feet of the marching patrol Antonius and Theudas crept quietly around the bend to the right that would take them directly under the soaring walls of the Coliseum. Antonius held his torch high, surprise registering on his features. Here the plain rough-hewn tunnel turned into lavish luxury. Dark stone walls gave way to the translucent glow of white marble and alabaster. The vaulted ceiling was covered in lavishly-patterned stucco, the floors paved with intricate mosaics. The Emperor’s secret entrance!
Plug my characters into this historical event, change the assassin’s shout to Antonius’ cry “For my mother!” that foolishly warns Commodus of their ambush and allows him to escape, and you have the ingredients for a powerful chapter.
Discovering hidden gems of history and rolling them together with fiction into one entertaining and informative whole that brings the past alive: what could be more fun than that?