As I talked about in discussing my research on the mapping of Alexandria, my coming novel is a historical fantasy. So in addition to all the stuff I made up, it also has a lot of stuff that’s absolutely true: including a wide cast of historical people. Some are well-known, like Cleopatra and Mark Antony, Caesarion, or the future Augustus Caesar. Others are perhaps less famous but nevertheless stand out as absolutely massive figures in history, like Juba of Numidia and Cleopatra Selene.
And then there’s a pair that people might think I ripped off from HBO’s wonderful series, Rome:
That’s right. The Roman legionnaires Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus are main characters in my novel, just as they were in HBO’s series. Thievery! Knavery!
Except … I didn’t steal these guys from HBO. We both stole them from Caesar.
From 58-50 BCE, Julius Caesar waged a long and difficult campaign in Gaul. And because he was Caesar, he wrote about the experience in his Commentaries on the Gallic War. In Book 5 of this fascinating text, Caesar describes an engagement with the Nervii in 54 BCE, and he singles out the actions of two centurions:
In that legion there were two very brave men, centurions, who were now approaching the first ranks, T. Pullo, and L. Vorenus. These used to have continual disputes between them which of them should be preferred, and every year used to contend for promotion with the utmost animosity. When the fight was going on most vigorously before the fortifications, Pullo, one of them, says, “Why do you hesitate, Vorenus? or what [better] opportunity of signalizing your valor do you seek? This very day shall decide our disputes.” When he had uttered these words, he proceeds beyond the fortifications, and rushes on that part of the enemy which appeared the thickest. Nor does Vorenus remain within the rampart, but respecting the high opinion of all, follows close after. Then, when an inconsiderable space intervened, Pullo throws his javelin at the enemy, and pierces one of the multitude who was running up, and while the latter was wounded and slain, the enemy cover him with their shields, and all throw their weapons at the other and afford him no opportunity of retreating. The shield of Pullo is pierced and a javelin is fastened in his belt. This circumstance turns aside his scabbard and obstructs his right hand when attempting to draw his sword: the enemy crowd around him when [thus] embarrassed. His rival runs up to him and succors him in this emergency. Immediately the whole host turn from Pullo to him, supposing the other to be pierced through by the javelin. Vorenus rushes on briskly with his sword and carries on the combat hand to hand, and having slain one man, for a short time drove back the rest: while he urges on too eagerly, slipping into a hollow, he fell. To him, in his turn, when surrounded, Pullo brings relief; and both having slain a great number, retreat into the fortifications amid the highest applause. Fortune so dealt with both in this rivalry and conflict, that the one competitor was a succor and a safeguard to the other, nor could it be determined which of the two appeared worthy of being preferred to the other.
(Here’s Caesar’s original Latin if you’re interested.)
In my book, I actually have the scholar Didymus “Bronze-Guts” Chalcenterus (also real!) point out that few men are accorded such attention in Caesar’s work, and this is true. The highlighting of Pullo and Vorenus is unusual, it’s dramatic, and (to no one’s surprise) it has thus caught the attention of later writers. The late Colleen McCullough incorporates them into her Masters of Rome series. Harry Turtledove has great fun with the pair in his Legion tetralogy. And the writers of the HBO series used them, too.
I actually didn’t know this when I first started writing The Shards of Heaven. All I knew was that I needed a pair of legionnaires for my plot. I wanted them to be older guys, great friends, and veterans of Caesar’s campaigns. I wanted them to have a cool backstory. And, like so much in the book, I wanted them to be real.
So I read and reread Caesar’s tale of Pullo and Vorenus, and I then fashioned a way to get them from the 11th Legion (Legio XI Claudia), which is where Caesar has them (we think; his text is unclear), into the 6th Legion (Legio VI Ferrata) sometime between 54 and 49 BCE — that way these two could go to Alexandria first under Caesar and then later under Mark Antony.
It was only later that I learned how HBO had done something similar (though through a rather different means and to a very different end!). After one of my classes, a few students began talking to me about my creative writing endeavors, and the topic of my novel came up. In giving a basic gist of the work, I mentioned Pullo and Vorenus.
“Like Rome!” one of my students said. (Hi, Cary!)
I stared blankly. I don’t have cable, much less HBO. So he laughed, and then at the next class meeting he brought me the DVD set of the first season.
It was awesome, and I was truly pleased that, added to Ridley Scott’s wonderful Gladiator, the success of the TV show indicated that people were still interested in Rome.
I was also hugely relieved to see that despite some similarities we had gone in substantially different directions with these two characters.
Except … I really did love HBO’s Pullo and Vorenus. Their storyline wasn’t at all like that of my Pullo and Vorenus, but increasingly their faces were. The actors were simply wonderful. I adored them. And pretty soon, fight it though I tried, I couldn’t think of my Pullo without picturing the actor Ray Stevenson, and I couldn’t think of my Vorenus without picturing the actor Kevin McKidd.
By the gods, I thought at one point, I think The Shards of Heaven would be a damn good movie. And if anyone ever films it and I have anything to say about it … those guys are my Pullo and Vorenus.
And at that point, well, I tried to rig the game for them. I went back and changed a few little details in their physical descriptions to match Stevenson and McKidd.
So the ball is in your court now, Hollywood. I’ve got the story, and I’ve already even cast two parts.
Let’s get this thing rolling. Let Pullo and Vorenus ride again!
Order-Boost-Review: The Shards of Heaven. Tor Books. November 2015.