11 January 2021

Blog Tour Guest Post by Christopher D. Stanley, Author : A Slave's Story Trilogy (Book 1)


Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Marcus, a slave in the household of Lucius Coelius Felix, enjoys a better life than most slaves (and many free citizens) as the secretary and accountant of a wealthy aristocrat. 

I'm pleased to welcome author Christopher D. Stanley to The Writing Desk:

What inspired you to write A Rooster for Asklepios?

As an academic scholar and historian, I’ve been studying and writing about the Greco-Roman world for over 30 years as the background for understanding the early history of Judaism and Christianity. But I had never given a thought to writing fiction until a dozen or so years ago when my wife, an avid reader of historical fiction, asked me one day out of the blue, “With all of that historical research that you do, why don't you write a historical novel?”

“I don't know how to write fiction,” I replied, without giving the idea much thought. The next day, however, an intriguing opening scene (now the Prologue to A Rooster for Asklepios) crept like a waking dream into my consciousness. I shared it with my wife, who encouraged me to pursue it. Over the next two weeks, the broad outline of what would eventually become the first two books in my A Slave’s Story trilogy took shape in my mind. I shared each new development with my wife, who continued to find the story engaging. But I still didn't know whether I could turn this outline into a full-scale novel.

Later that year I was hiking in England between speaking engagements at a couple of British universities and the novel popped suddenly into my head. As I strolled along a hilly ridge, a word-by-word narrative of the opening scene began to frame itself in my mind. I carefully rehearsed and memorised the words as they came to me, then wrote them down and e-mailed them to my wife after I returned to my hotel. “You CAN write fiction!” she replied by e-mail after reading it. “This is as good as many of the historical novels that I've read over the years.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Encouraged by my wife's support, I began the time-consuming but enjoyable task of writing what turned out to be over 800 pages of printed text spread over two books, A Rooster for Asklepios and A Bull for Pluto. (The third volume in the trilogy remains to be written.) The process took several years as it had to compete with both my academic writing and my ongoing duties as a university professor. A massive amount of research was also required to ensure that every detail of the story was historically accurate, including two trips to Turkey to examine the various sites where the books take place.

I’ve always liked to write, but crafting these novels was truly a labor of love. I couldn’t wait to get back to work and see what the characters were going to do! It seemed to me as if they were living out their story before my eyes and I was simply recording what happened. Now and then they actually surprised me, taking the narrative in directions that I had not anticipated.

How historically accurate is your story?

Like any author of fiction, my first aim in writing these books was to tell an engaging story that would allow readers to lose themselves for a few hours in a foreign world. But as a historian, I also wanted to help my readers understand what life was like for ordinary people in the Roman world. I was particularly concerned to avoid the all-too-common error of having people in the past think, feel, speak, and act as if they lived in the 21st century. As the British novelist L. P. Hartley famously said, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Getting the names, dates, and places right is the easy part of reconstructing the past; getting the cultural beliefs, values, and practices right requires substantially more work.

While there is much in my novels that will be familiar to any reader due to the consistency of human nature and human societies over time, there is also much that will surprise, puzzle, and even offend readers who are accustomed to authors glossing over the differences between past and present, whether to make the material more accessible or simply because they don't know better. My hope is that readers will emerge from my novels with a new understanding of the complexities of life in an ancient Roman province while also enjoying a good yarn.

A few examples will illustrate my point. At the “big picture” level, many readers will probably be surprised by the way in which slavery is depicted in my novels. Slavery is undoubtedly an evil institution wherever it occurs because it strips people of their most basic right, the control of their own bodies. But in a society where over 90% of the population lived on the keen edge of survival, a slave who worked in the household of a wealthy Roman citizen often had a better life than a poor free person. At least they were assured of having food and a roof over their heads.

But that's only part of the story. Trusted slaves managed the farms, the businesses, and even the households of wealthy Romans. A skilful male slave who worked closely with his master could earn enough money through tips, bribes, and outside employment to purchase his freedom and live comfortably (in some cases even luxuriously) as a freedman. With his master's permission, he could buy property and make investments even while he was a slave. My central character, Marcus, benefits greatly from this system, but his story is not meant to “sugar-coat” or justify slavery. My aim is to show readers how Roman society worked, not to defend it.

At a more granular level, I have investigated every twist and turn in the ancient route between Antioch and Pergamon, and readers can be assured that my account of Lucius's travels reflects the actual geography of the region insofar as it can be determined. The same is true for the various cities, streets, and buildings depicted in my stories—most of these places have been excavated to a greater or lesser degree, and I have visited the reconstructed ruins and pored over the archaeological site maps wherever possible. I did have to use my imagination to fill in the details of neighborhoods that remain buried under layers of earth, but my speculations are based on archaeological data and scholarly knowledge about ancient cities. My Website for the series (www.aslavesstory.com) includes photos of many of these places under the "Resources" tab.

My obsessive concern for accuracy is especially evident in my description of the sanctuary of Asklepios at Pergamon, which plays a prominent role in my story. Readers who have visited this famous tourist site and recall its layout might think that I erred in some of my depictions of the facility since they don't always match what is visible today. But the ruins that we can see today date mostly from the second century AD; my description is based on the German archaeological reports that show what the site was like in the first century AD when my story takes place. Only two points in my story lack archaeological support: the location of the baths, which is unknown (though my siting of them is quite defensible), and the theater, which in its present form dates to the second century AD (though it probably replaced an earlier Greek theater like the one at the Asklepian sanctuary at Epidauros in Greece).

The same level of care was employed when describing the beliefs, practices, and customs of the various characters in the novels. Virtually every act that they perform, including those that seem strange by modern standards, can be justified from Roman records. Even their speech-patterns are based at least loosely on what can be discerned from our limited evidence of how ordinary Romans talked, with due adjustments for modern comprehension.

In short, I've done everything in my power to immerse my readers into the lived experience of ordinary people in Roman Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in the first century AD. I hope that they will find it as fascinating as I do!

Christopher D. Stanley 
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About the Author

Christopher D. Stanley is a professor at St. Bonaventure University who studies the social and religious history of the Greco-Roman world, with special attention to early Christianity and Judaism.  He has written or edited six books and dozens of professional articles on the subject and presents papers regularly at conferences around the world.  The trilogy A Slave’s Story, which grew out of his historical research on first-century Asia Minor, is his first work of fiction.  He is currently working on an academic book that explores healing practices in the Greco-Roman world, a subject that plays a vital role in this series. Find out more at Christopher's website: https://www.aslavesstory.com and find him on Facebook and Twitter @aslavesstory

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