8 March 2021

Guest Post by Alistair Forrest, Author of 'Libertas': Behind the Writing

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

SPAIN 45BC: Julius Caesar’s crack legions bear down on an obscure Spanish town, Munda, at the climax of Rome’s civil war. Against him are ranged the massed forces of Pompey the Great’s sons, Gnaeus and Sextus. To the victor, the spoils. Caught up in the conflict is an unlikely hero, Melqart. Near fatally wounded in the battle, his family is sold into slavery and his people oppressed by Arsay One-Eye,
a foe crueller than Caesar.

Capturing a Sense of Place, Part One: Julius Caesar marched through my garden

I have a journalist friend who, back in the day, would begin a catch-up call with the words: “I’m writing a book.” The response was always, “Neither am I”.

Well I did, and now the question is, “What took you so long?” In fact I’ve written several, but that first book (Libertas) was like falling in love for the first time. There were times when it wrote itself, leading me on, introducing each character as if they were standing right there in front of me, teasing me with how it would all end.

The key, I believe, is to immerse yourself in the location you are writing about, wrap yourself in the history and backstory, the culture and nature, and all of the tensions that have made that place what it is.

Not so easy if your story is set in Iran or Burma, but perfectly possible if you find yourself on the very spot where Julius Caesar stood 2,000+ years earlier to survey the forces arrayed against him before the last battle in his remarkable life.

My good fortune came about when I moved to Spain with a burning passion to write historical fiction, an enthusiasm that had dulled each evening under the weight of a very demanding day job as editor-in-chief of four magazines. The house my wife and I chose was surrounded by well-tended olive groves in an upland valley opposite Monda, a charming village in the Sierra de las Nieves Natural Park not far inland from Marbella. I knew that here I could find the freedom of thought to write a novel based on a character whose intelligence and engineering skills could influence the outcome of ancient warfare against the odds. It was a fairly loose idea that needed a home in those elusive historical facts.

Monda today

As we enjoyed a glass of Rioja on the terrace we looked across the valley to the whitewashed houses of Monda and its imposing castle, surrounded by breath-taking views of the mountains. We began to find out more – and discovered that Caesar had led eight crack legions right through the valley to Monda (then called Munda) to finally defeat the sons of Pompey. He probably stood in our garden, long before it was populated with palms, olives and almonds.

There was a small problem though. Many historians believe that the Battle of Munda took place near Osuna, which lies some 50 miles to the North West. But facts need corroborating, and the community of our Monda was adamant that it was here that Caesar’s Populares finally defeated the Pompeian Optimates. As the Spanish don’t deal in facts so much as raised voices, I took that as proof enough – if there is a difference of opinion, then I have the choice to opt for one or the other. Or put another way, never let the facts get in the way of a good story!

And so to research. This took two forms, walking and reading. There is a small section of Roman road leading towards Monda – enough of an historical site to halt the progress of a new road – and in the town there are ancient springs that never dry up and would have made this a logical ancient settlement. The town would also have been easily defended in a siege with ample water and a steep incline for an enemy to climb. A Moorish castle now stands on a steep hill above the town, and although local folklore says there was a fort there in ancient times, this cannot be proved. The remnants of the Optimates army took refuge behind the walls of Munda and were under siege for several weeks.

Roman road at Monda

The lie of the land matches an eyewitness account. Caesar’s own ‘official’ history of the campaign states: “The two camps were divided from one another by a plain about five miles in extent, so that Pompey, in consequence of the town's elevated position, and the nature of the country, enjoyed a double defence. Across this valley ran a rivulet, which rendered the approach to the mountain extremely difficult, because it formed a deep morass on the right.” 

Stretching North East from the town of Monda, towards modern day Coín (Lacibis in Roman times), is what could be termed a broad upland valley where family-owned olive groves clothe a series of low hillocks. In front of Monda there is a brook, dry in summer, with a marshy area to the right as you look from this valley. In 45BCE there would have been no olive trees as these have been planted in ordered rows over the past century or so – it would have resembled a plain amid the mountains – and on the town side of the brook is a steep incline, the ideal ground for Pompey’s sons to stand their ground and hope to draw Caesar on.

While the location threw up some difficulties, the battle itself did not. Though his work has been questioned by some historians, I trusted the account of Appian of Alexandria (c.95-c.165) who has a passage in which Caesar is goaded by Gnaeus Pompey. The young general accused Caesar of cowardice, prompting a degree of rage that ultimately led Caesar to personally thrust his way to the front line at Munda and exhort his troops to victory. Caesar was unusually brutal in his last battle. He believed he was right, his patience had run out and he had been called a coward.

Having researched the Battle of Munda, its causes and its effect on the politics of Rome, it was time to weave the story around the facts. Before the Romans came, the community was probably based on the simple things in life like hunting, animal husbandry, arable crops, baking bread and brewing. A lifestyle that remained unchanged in inland Andalucia until EC money built new roads for other Europeans to venture away from the Costas. That is the point – this happened in the 1st Century BC when the Celtiberian and Phoenician population came under the influence of the Romans, and towns like Munda became important satellite settlements in support of larger cities like Corduba (Cordoba) and Gades (Cadiz), often at the intersection of existing trade routes.

Rather than assume a collection of Pythonesque yokels whipping up rebellion and asking, “What have the Romans done for us?”, I chose instead to develop the theme of an indigenous people who were creative and inventive in their own right. They understood herbcraft and lacked nothing for a full, healthy life. The hero in Libertas is not a warrior but a thinker. Melqart is appalled at the horror that Rome brings to his home town, but instead of running away he uses his intelligence to make a difference.

The inevitable diaspora after the battle takes Sextus to Sicily where he begins to build his pirate nation, and Melqart across the seas in search of his enslaved family. By chance he is shipwrecked in Sicily on his way to Rome, where he helps Sextus with a series of ideas that Archimedes himself would have been proud of.

Spain and my travels in the Mediterranean, not to mention an upbringing in three Middle Eastern countries, have given me so much inspiration that it would be a crime not to combine this with my love of history and writing: feel the location and dig deep into what others know. We never stop learning. Or as Harry S. Truman put it: “It's what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

But I still have the novelist’s get out clause. We make stuff up and apologise later, usually to clever-clogs geeks. So to those who insist the Battle of Munda took place at Osuna rather than modern-day Monda, I say this: You’re wrong. I found an old Polaroid of Julius Caesar dressed in full battle regalia when I was digging in my garden.

In my next guest post at The Writing Desk I will explain the inspiration behind ‘Line In The Sand’, the story of David & Goliath as it might have been before the religious scribes got their hands on it.

Alistair Forrest

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About the author

Alistair Forrest has worked as a journalist, editor and principal of a PR company in the UK. His books, published by Sharpe Books of London, include Libertas, Line in the Sand and the first two in a series of three novellas, Nest of Vipers and Viper Pit. The third novella is due out in the summer of 2021. He lives in Alderney in the Channel Islands with his wife Lynda, two large dogs and a rescued Spanish cat. Find him at www.alistairforrest.comFacebook and Twitter @alistairforrest 

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