The most inept coup ever?

Previous posts have featured the scientific aspects of my latest two ebook novels, and these were put there to show people what science is about. However, more important was the story, and since these were set in the first century, I had to get some historical facts right. Or did I? There is always the question, how much latitude should be permitted in a historical novel? There is obviously some imagination needed as the protagonist has to make the story work, and in this case I made my protagonist, Gaius Claudius Scaevola, commander of a legion, and for the purposes of the story, first the 11th Legion in Dalmatia, hence the title of the novel: Legatus Legionis. Two important events took place to provide the reason for what the protagonist did, and the first was the effort by Scribonianus to overthrow Claudius. 

The first obligation when writing a historical novel is not to get anything spectacularly wrong. So the question then is, what do we know? Here, I had a problem, but also an opportunity, since what we know historically is somewhat limited. All I could find out was that Scribonianus announced his intention to overthrow Claudius in the Senate. It is sometimes stated he intended to restore the Republic, with himself as Consul, and other sources state he intended to be Princeps and simply replace Claudius. It may be that both are correct, the second one the intended outcome after some time as Consul, but we shall never be sure. There was, of course, the problem of overthrowing Claudius, and to do this he also announced that two legions from his region were marching on Rome. However, it is also reported that the two legions “found their eagles stuck in the ground” and the attempted coup collapsed. What really happened is probably accounted for in Tacitus’ Annals, however the volumes for the early Claudian period are lost. Suetonius states that a civil war started, but was put down in five days since his legions had changed their allegiance and were turned from their purpose by superstitious fear. This makes no sense at all to me because he then states that when the order to march was given by their new commander, by some providential chance the eagles could not be adorned nor the standards pulled up and moved.

The remark about civil war does not make sense because there is no evidence any fighting took place, and the last remark about the standards indicates the legions never moved. The statement that the new commander gave an order to march makes no sense either because the eagles would be prepared before any marching took place. One fact that does come through, though, is that the instigators possessed connections with many of the most influential of Rome. Another unusual fact is that Claudius rewarded the seventh and eleventh legions by giving them the title Claudia pia fidelis. There must have been something more than just the legions ignoring their Governor and refusing to become involved in a coup, because that was their duty. 

For a historian, I rather suspect this sort of information hole would be extremely annoying, but for a novelist, this is just what I needed. You can make up what you like, with only very limited constraints, so I did just that. Before this happened, I had a preliminary conflict, where Scaevola married Valeria Vipsania, in part to protect her from Caligulae. The protection was partly needed because Vipsania’s father was possibly suspected of plotting, and Scaevola was banking in part on his good relationship with Claudius. The story conflict arose following the assassination of Caligulae when Scaevola discovers Vipsania’s father is involved in a plot to overthrow Claudius and he has the job to persuade Scaevola to march the legions. I hope I have made what follows at least believable.

I also involved several senators and equestrians, and the survivors continued to plot. Historically, there were several more plots, and apparently 35 senators and about 300 equestrians died as a consequence of such plots. The Senator Valerius Asiaticus was one such conspirator, and he was somewhat associated with the assassination of Caligulae, so it did not hurt to have a Valerius as a conspirator. (Roman women at this time tended to have the gens name first. That was the norm in the Republic, but it changed some time in the second century, which leaves the first century again a little unclear. That is another thing I hope I got right.) Of course this is just a story of love, betrayal, and the poison that follows, but it is also important to try to get the background facts right to inform readers of what happened in a time of history that is still of interest.


2 thoughts on “The most inept coup ever?

  1. A historical novel is like the model of a dinosaur in the museum. A few teeth are found, and a footprint in stone that was once mud, and then a few other bones, and from this an artist-scientist creates a model of what the whole animal could have been like.

    You are doing the same for the 1st century.

    That dinosaur could have had green scaly skin, or been covered in colorful feathers. Who is to know? In the same way, you have freedom in creating anything plausible that is in accord with the known facts.


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