Thanks to writing and its many circles, I've met countless lovely individuals over the years. Recently, I made friends with the multi-talented Mark McLaughlin.
Not only has Mark authored the 'Throne of Darius' series - a unique take on the age of Alexander the Great - but he is also something of a master wargamer, having designed, prototyped and launched numerous games covering vital points throughout history.
I was particularly chuffed when he told me he had even tailored one gaming session to include elements of my depiction of The Battle of Kadesh (read more about my take and Mark's gaming sesh)!
So with our shared interest in books, battles and bundles of history, I reckoned it would be good to explore Mark's work a little further in a Q&A!
Here we go:
Q & A
Gordon: I find it most intriguing that in your 'Throne of Darius' series, you tell the story of Alexander the Great's conquests from the point of view of his opponents. Did you look at Alexander - one of history's giants, well covered as a protagonist by many novelists - and actively seek an alternative viewpoint from which to tell the story of this epic era, or did the viewpoint naturally strike you?
Mark: Just like everyone else in the West for the last 23 centuries, I was fed the Alexander legend. I was told his side - and only his side - of the story for as long as I can remember - right through military school and university... but after 60 years of that, I'd had enough of the propaganda. Alexander certainly was not 'great' to the peoples he fought, slaughtered, enslaved and conquered - and that included first and foremost the Greeks. The first battle he fought in was against Greeks (Chaeronea, where he led his father's cavalry to destroy the Theban Sacred Band) and the first city he sacked was Greek (Thebes - where he killed 6,000 Greeks, sold 30,000 Greeks into slavery and quite literally razed it to the ground - except for the House of Pindar, the poet, and two temples, lest he anger the gods).
That Greeks fought against first Philip and then Alexander is so often ignored. That Greek kings, generals and soldiers fought against Alexander at the Granicus, the Issos, and at Gaugemala is similarly glossed over.... or at best they are treated as 'mercenaries' or 'rebels' against him - which they were not. They fought against him as they saw him as a foreign tyrant (Macedonians were thought of as 'barbarians' by most Greeks). Even while Alexander was going east, at home Greeks were fighting his viceroy, Antipater - notably the "war of the mice" as Alexander so disdainfully called it, when King Agis of Sparta led a coalition against the Macedonians.
In 50 years as a journalist I covered a great deal of war, terror and politics in the Middle East and Central Asia - in many parts of which Alexander is seen as a destroyer of worlds and a foreign invader. He slaughtered tens of thousands, sacked dozens of cities, and destroyed a great empire - and culture. True, he built cities - all of them which he named after himself - but the empire he built broke apart immediately after his death. He doomed that part of the once united world to 300 years of internecine warfare.
So, as you can see, I began to see Alexander not as a hero or 'great,' but as a warmonger - and a savage one at that.
Gordon: You live over in the United States, so getting to the sites of Classical Greece can't be too easy, I guess? Do you manage to get over here to Europe and Asia Minor for research visits? I guess visits or not, all writers must become experts at armchair research too - how do you go about this side of things?
Mark: Unfortunately, I have never been able to visit Greece or the sites of Alexander's battles. On the other hand, I read a lot, and always have, and have friends who have traveled to some of those areas, and of course we can all go there virtually (thank you Sir Michael Wood for 'In the Footsteps of Alexander' book and video in particular). And, my editor is in Athens - a lovely, highly-educated Greek woman whose husband grew up outside of Thebes (and whose summer cottage is located on the site of the first battle in the first book!)
Gordon: You are something of a wargaming guru! Have you ever stumbled across a scenario while gaming, and realised it would work well in your writing projects? or vice versa - an idea while writing which influenced your approach in a subsequent gaming sesh?
Mark: My readings often spur me to design games - I have had 25 published over the last 40 years, and have four more in various stages of production. My reading, research, and gaming (board and miniatures - I have painted THOUSANDS of miniatures) often all come together. Alexander's campaigns, for example, can be fought in two of my games: Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea (where you can fight his western campaigns) and the upcoming Ancient Civilizations of the Middle East (where you can fight all of his campaigns - and those of his 'Successors.') And, of course, that research spurred me to finally write these novels (and, of course, to fight out the battles in board and computer games and on the tabletop with hundreds of painted miniatures)
Gordon: I think I know the Alexander era 'fairly' well, as in I can recall the high level timeline of his father's exploits, then his march of conquest, then the successor states. But in writing 'Throne of Darius', I bet you have found some really interesting details - a comedy moment in the normally-haughty Persian courtroom or some blood-curdling torture technique?
Mark: When it comes to torture, never underestimate the value of a European education (or a Persian one, for that matter). They always have been and still are masters at it. As for haughtiness, well, I had a Persian roommate at Georgetown one year - his father was one of the court physicians to the Shah of Iran. After a year with him, I understood why the Iranians revolted. Unfortunately, the ayatollahs are no better than the shahs. I tend to treat the Persians as far more civilized and enlightened than the Macedonians - who, even to the Greeks, were 'barbarians.' Still, hubris knows no borders, and their own pride only hastened their fall. (I put a lot of that into the section in the first book leading up to the battle of the Granicus).
Gordon: Finally, in fifteen words or less, tell anyone reading this interview who hasn't already jumped off to buy the 'Throne of Darius' books why they are amongst the best historical fiction romps out there?
Mark: This is not your grandfather's Alexander; this is history written from the other side, to whom Alexander was anything but 'great.'
Thank you, Mark! Some really eye-opening detail in there, and I just love the fact that you see writing, gaming and research as different facets of the same core thing - storytelling!
It's been great to talk to you. Keep up the brilliant work.
So I went for a research donder (Scottish for walk/excursion) down to the site of Trimontium, where once Roman and tribal forts stood proud. Here's a short docuvid of my findings:
Thanks to the shiny new map engine over at arcGIS, I've put together a little overview of the Hittite Empire and an interactive tour of Hattusa. Enjoy :)
Take the tour here
The Hittite civilization lay lost to history for millennia. But the sheer extent of their world and all its achievements are coming to light now thanks to the work of modern archaeologists.
Hattusili III (or Hattu for short) our hero of the Empires of Bronze saga was very much a real, living, factual Hittite, but I had to stitch together the patches of information we have about his life with a thread of fiction. But let's take away the thread for a moment and examine the facts about Hattu. Who was he really?
The tablets unearthed at Hattusa, the Hittite capital, tell of a brilliant but dark and flawed character - brave, shrewd, ambitious, ferocious - who rose to the very pinnacle of power in the Hittite Empire. But where did it all begin, and how did our hero reach such heights?
Hattu was born more than three thousand years ago, in the last decades of the 14th century BC. This was an era known as the Hittite New Kingdom. It was a time of triumph for the Hittites: they drove their age-old adversaries the Mitanni Empire into the ground, marched all the way to and conquered the legendary city of Babylon, and faced off against and almost crushed Pharaoh's Egyptian armies at Kadesh. To put the scale of the Hittite Empire into perspective, consider the Trojan War: the legendary conflict between Troy and the Greeks is far more well-known than the Hittites and anything they ever did, yet King Priam's city was but a vassal of the Hittite throne. Concisely - the Hittites were an absolute superpower.
Back to Hattu: he was the fourth son of King Mursili II and Queen Gassulawiya. It seems that he was a sickly child. He is thought to have suffered some problem with his eyes (hence my speculative depiction of him having odd-coloured eyes - one hazel, one smoky-grey). The tablets go on to tell how Ishtar, the Goddess of Love and War, came to King Mursili in a dream, demanding that she should be named baby Hattu's patron deity to guarantee the child's health. The exact inscription from the Hittite tablets reads:
“The years for your son are short. Give him into my service, and he will live”
We do not know what became of his other two brothers, but Hattu's eldest sibling, Muwatalli (or Muwa for short) was appointed as Tuhkanti - crown prince. Meanwhile, Hattu was put through rigorous training at a military academy near Hattusa by a pair of veteran generals named Kurunta and Nuwanza and a chariot expert from nearby Hurrian lands named Kikkuli (or Colta as that name roughly translates).
I don't know if the real Kurunta was quite as evil as the one I depicted in Son of Ishtar, but whatever his means and methods, he was obviously a master of his craft. I say this because Hattu was still an adolescent when he played a lead role in the campaign to reclaim the Pontic Mountain region - a land lost generations previously to the fierce Kaskan mountain tribes.
After the conquest, he was appointed as Priest of the Storm God in the overgrown ruins of the northern city of Nerik. He set about rebuilding Nerik and the other tumbledown sites of the north, repopulating and reestablishing trade and communications. More, it seems that although he was the conqueror of the Kaksans, he was wise enough to reach a noble truce and understanding with them, for they would play a vital part in his later life…
King Mursili died, possibly of a stroke, when Hattu was a young man. Thus, Muwa became Labarna, and quickly appointed Hattu as his Gal Mesedi - chief of the royal bodyguards and most trusted advisor - and gifted him governorship of the northlands he had won. More, Muwa granted Hattu custody of his second born son - named Kurunta, possibly in honour of the grizzled military trainer (long-dead by this point in time). At the same time, Muwa nominated his eldest son, Urhi-Teshub, as Tuhkanti and heir.
Hattu was clearly a pivotal figure in the Hittite Empire by this point - second only to his brother. When the long-simmering tensions with Egypt boiled over thanks to a dispute about border territories in the modern Levant, it was no surprise that Hattu was at the head of the army that marched to war.
At The Battle of Kadesh, Hattu orchestrated a deft deception, bringing Pharaoh Ramesses II's huge force to within a whisker of defeat. The exact pattern of the battle is chaotic and hard to understand, but it seems that the Egyptians avoided obliteration and fled the fray, ceding the disputed border territories to the Hittite throne.
On his way to or possibly on his return from Kadesh, Hattu met a Priestess of Ishtar named Puduhepa. They were soon married, and she bore him a child, Tudhaliya. Everything seemed set for Hattu. - war hero, general, husband, father.
But around the time when Hattu returned to Hittite lands with his new wife and child, King Muwa died. Muwa's son, Urhi-Teshub, succeeded his father as expected. Hattu had never contested Urhi-Teshub's station as the king-in-waiting, but clearly something went awry after the change of king. Urhi-Teshub apparently stripped Hattu of everything – all his armies, estates and possessions, including the cities of the north of which he had previously been Governor. More, Hattu's long-standing allies were removed from their stations.
Hattu revolted, bringing together his few remaining allies - including the Kaskans he had long-ago won over - and declaring war on his nephew. Urhi-Teshub likewise mobilised the Hittite divisions and the two forces marched to war. This would be an epic struggle for control of the greatest empire of the age.
Empires of Bronze: The Crimson Throne tells the tale of this ancient and cataclysmic clash.
Or start the saga from the very beginning, with the first three books:
In the early years of the 13th century BC, the Hittite Empire had known decades of prosperity, military success and expansion... and most importantly of all harmony in the throne room. This last virtue was thanks to a long-standing tenet of Hittite civilization, written by an old king named Telepinu. The 'Edict of Telepinu' declared that the Labarna (King) was the appointee of the Hittite Gods and that his rule was not to be disputed. More, taking up arms against the current incumbent of the Hittite throne was the darkest of crimes. Yet in 1267 BC, the Hittite Empire turned in upon itself, collapsing into a state of civil war. Why?
The reigning Labarna, Urhi-Teshub, was a young king, not long upon the throne. His uncle, Hattusilis (or Hattu for short), was some twenty years older and for a generation had been held in the highest regard by the Hittite people - as a battle hero, a great priest and a talisman for their civilization. Most vitally, he acted as a strong advisor to his young nephew.
Yet early in Urhi-Teshub's reign, tensions emerged between the pair. The young king began removing old allies of Hattu from the court, and putting in their place men who had clear axes to grind with his uncle. For example, Urhi-Teshub:
Why all this tinkering? It is likely - indeed, quite understandable - that Urhi-Teshub saw Hattu as a potential threat to his throne, given his uncle's status.
The strain may have escalated during one incident of state, specifically an unfortunate and abrasive visit to the Hittite court of an envoy from the neighbouring superpower of Assyria.
The matter was this: vassal raiders from Hittite lands had spilled into Assyrian territory. Adad-Nirari, the Assyrian King of the time, had chased down the raiders, encroaching and camping upon Hittite lands in the process. Now Adad-Nirari was rather brashly suggesting that the encroached-upon territory should remain his.
Even the suggestion must have been a serious affront to Urhi-Teshub's credibility. Might his advisors have been whispering that the Assyrian King would not have dared to insult Hattu, the older, more experienced hand, in this way?
We don’t know exactly how Urhi-Teshub reacted, but we do know the Assyrian envoys were not exactly thanked for their message. One of the tablets uncovered at Hattusa is a copy of that addressed to Adad-Nirari, and mentions that:
“The ambassadors whom you regularly sent here in the time of King Urhi-Teshub often experienced ... aggravation” (Bryce, Letters of the Great Kings).
Once the embassy had left, it appears that Urhi-Teshub turned his unbridled anger upon Hattu. The young king began stripping his uncle of estates, soldiers and titles. One day, he went too far, depriving Hattu of the governorship and priesthood of northern cities that he had fought to capture many years before. This was the breaking point. Hattu, in another tablet, wrote:
"For seven years I submitted. But … Urhi-Teshub sought to destroy me. (Eventually), he took Hakmis and Nerik from me. Now I submitted to him no longer. I made war upon him."
Thus, civil war was afoot. The two factions mustered what support they could. At a time when the Near East world was bruised and battered and still licking its wounds from the Battle of Kadesh in which many troops - men of working age, vital to crop production - had been killed or injured, this new war threatened to upend the already delicate political and economic Bronze Age landscape. It would certainly mean yet more death and destruction... but possibly on a scale that neither aggressor could ever have imagined.
Empires of Bronze: The Crimson Throne will take you back to the distant Bronze Age, right into the heart of this ancient conflict and through all its sharp twists and turns.
A story of bloody and world-shaking revenge
The King of the Hittites has been slain, and a reign of terror begins…
1272 BC: Prince Hattu returns home from the battlefield of Kadesh to find his nephew on the throne, the old king’s blood dripping from his hands. Under Urhi-Teshub’s reign, the Hittite realm has become a land of fear and violent reprisals. Ancient family lines and old ways are being wiped out as the young tyrant strengthens his bronze-fisted grip on power.
Hattu’s loved ones are spared only in return for his absolute obedience. Yet he knows he must choose between his family and his burning need for restitution. The Goddess Ishtar, ever-present in his dreams, assures him that there is only one future.
A war for the throne is coming… and blood will be let.
As competition for the imperial throne intensifies, Constantine and Maxentius realise their childhood friendship cannot last. Each man struggles to control their respective quadrant of empire, battered by currents of politics, religion and personal tragedy, threatened by barbarian forces and enemies within.
With their positions becoming at once stronger and more troubled, the strained threads of their friendship begin to unravel. Unfortunate words and misunderstandings finally sever their ties, leaving them as bitter opponents in the greatest game of all, with the throne of Rome the prize.
It is a matter that can only be settled by outright war...
Praise for Gordon Doherty and Simon Turney:
In the late 3rd century, the Roman Empire was a creaking mess. Riven by endless civil wars, succession struggles and splinter empires, the whole realm looked to be on the brink of disintegration.
Along came Emperor Diocletian, who proposed a new system of rule: The Tetrarchy. Here, the empire would be split into more manageable Eastern and Western halves, with each half having an Augustus (a senior emperor) and a Caesar (a junior emperor). When an Augustus abdicated or died, his Caesar would step into his throne and appoint a Caesar of his own. And so on and so forth. No more wars of succession!
Diocletian's vision was well-intended, but dreadfully executed. At the dawn of the 4th century AD he made one of his biggest mistakes by sponsoring the Great Persecution - a tyrannical pogrom of the empire's many Christians, led by himself and his Eastern Caesar, Galerius.
Diocletian's complaint against the Christians was this: for centuries, the citizens of the Roman Empire had worshipped the old pantheon of Jupiter and the Olympian family. In doing so, they were also acknowledging and paying homage to the emperor himself, venerating him as the embodiment of one of those Gods. Indeed, Diocletian had a penchant for painting himself gold and insisting on being addressed as Jupiter.
Citizens were expected to demonstrate their loyalty to Jupiter and thus to him by sacrificing animals. The Christians, however, did not believe in the sacrifice of any living creature. They also did not believe in worshipping their god 'via' an emperor.
In the eyes of Diocletian, they lived their lives in the Roman Empire, but not as part of it. This would not do, and so the Great Persecution began. What came next was an age of public burnings and peelings, of riots and butchery across the empire's cities.
It must be noted that much of the descriptive that follows comes from the Christian authors writing after this bleak time, and of course they were undoubtedly biased and keen to stress just what horrors their predecessors had been put through.
It all began in a relatively gentle fashion with the legions. Soldiers seen making Christian gestures were blamed for imperial and military failures, and were summarily dismissed, losing their reputations and pensions.
Things became bloody when Diocletian and Galerius were at the city of Antioch to witness a ceremony of sacrifice. The proceedings were interrupted by a loud and grating voice. The Deacon Romanus circled the ceremony over and over, denouncing the act. Diocletian ordered his arrest, first sentenced him to death, then changed his mind and ordered his tongue ripped out first.
Returning to his Tetrarchic seat at the city of Nicomedia, Diocletian then set about formalising his dislike for the Christians. Egged-on by his underling, Galerius, he then issued what has come to be known as the First Edict of Persecution - a call to destroy all Christian buildings and scriptures and seize the faith's property and wealth.
Diocletian recommended this should all be carried out without bloodshed. However, in practice - and overseen by Galerius - it was very different.
Etius was one of the first to be martyred. Having torn down a copy of the edict in Nicomedia's forum, he was arrested and burnt alive. Burning happened to be Galerius' favoured way of dealing with the Christians. Indeed, one prominent Christian church in Nicomedia was soon after set ablaze while still packed with worshippers. Bishop Anthimos escaped the flames, only to be captured and beheaded. Shortly after this, the imperial palace caught light and the Christians were blamed. This, in a way, legitamised Galerius' brutality and so many more Christians were now hunted down, beaten and, yep, burned alive.
In order to weed out hiding Christians, the tests of sacrifice were became mandatory and took place all across the Eastern Empire. After refusing to comply, Diocletian's butler, Peter, was hung by his wrists and had the skin peeled from his body. If that wasn't enough he was then "roasted on a gridiron".
Countless burnings, peelings, beheadings and more followed. These atrocities threw the empire into chaos: widescale riots and protests against the persecutions only led to retaliatory mob attacks on the rioters and further edicts that intensified the brutality.
Into this bloody and fiery world, Constantine the Great was born. Sons of Rome tells the story of his rise during the days of the Persecution and of the Tetrarchy, and his days of friendship with Maxentius, son of a Western Augustus. A friendship that was not to last...
Gordon Doherty, writer, history fan, explorer.
Empires of Bronze: The Shadow of Troy - a blistering new take on the legendary war from the dawn of history.