KDP Countdown deal: Apologies and what went wrong

To celebrate the release of my ebook, Scaevola’s Triumph, the third in my Gaius Claudius Scaevola trilogy, I arranged (or thought I had) a price reduction over a short period for the first two in the trilogy (Athene’s Prophecy and Legatus Legionis). I went to the US Amazon website, organized the price reductions for between October 3 – 6. Amazon confirmed the reduction. I then went to the UK Amazon, only to find they would not permit it. The reason was that when I published, I set the US price at $2.99, the bottom of the range required for KDP select, and arranged for the other currencies to be set at equivalent prices in local currencies. That, apparently, corresponded to £1.95, the bottom of the range for price reduction promotions in the UK. However, thanks to currency variations, this had slipped to £1.93. I was 2p short. So, I changed the prices there to £1.95, only to find that the promotion in the UK could not now be carried out for 30 days, because this corresponded to becoming a new publication. So, in my advertising, I excluded the UK, and in most of them undertook to give the UK a promotion in due course.

What I did not realize was that this meant that the US Amazon took this as a republication as well, even though nothing had changed and I had not done anything on their site, and they cancelled the promotion. All I can do is apologize. Yes, I could have checked, but really, would you have checked that they had withdrawn what had been agreed without any notification? You would? Good for you. Oh, as another interesting point, US Amazon, having republished (presumably) at my price of $2.99, have raised them to $3.50. The UK Amazon is closer, at £1.99. And they made all that fuss over 2p!

Anyway, all I can say is I am sorry if I have wasted any of your time. I will run the promotion about the beginning of November.

Could a Roman have built a steam engine?

In last week’s post, I raised the question outlined by the title of this post, and I mentioned the main problem being that a Roman would never consider doing it. Hero’s device in the Great Library of Alexandria is a dinky toy, but nobody would seriously consider that it could do useful work. In my ebook, Athene’s Prophecy, that problem was overcome by Athene telling the protagonist to do it. Easy, yes. Cheating, yes, but in fiction, why not? One problem for Romans is that primitive steam engines have to be very big to do a useful amount of work, or operate at high pressures. Newcomen designed the first one because too many miners were required to bucket water out of mines.

 The first question is, how much steam pressure? Actually, the required pressure need not be exceptionally high, because Newcomen’s engine (the first steam engine that did something useful) actually worked by atmospheric pressure. The way it worked was that there was a finely balanced beam, and the steam provided just enough pressure above atmospheric pressure to lift the piston and push the beam. A squirt of water then condensed the steam, and air pressure pushed the piston down, and it was this down stroke that did the work. However, I did not want to simply reproduce the Newcomen engine, so I made the concept use higher pressure so the steam did much of the work, although there was (or will be, in Book 3 of the trilogy) also a steam condensation cylinder.

 A major problem then arises: how to join large pieces of metal together? The Romans knew the principle of the bolt, and they made very small ones by soldering wire onto a metal shaft to make jewellery but they did not know how to make them reproducibly. They knew about soldering, and some of their mixtures were of sufficiently high temperature when melting that they were more akin to welding or brazing, they knew about the rivet, and finally, they had a process known as sweating, essentially heating one piece of metal (preferably a pipe) so that it expanded and could slip over a cold piece, then when it contracted as it cooled down, there was a firm joint. My answer was to use a variety, but emphasise the bolt to get the strength, the idea being to join cast pieces through a flange while employing a leather gasket. To make the bolt, I had my protagonist find workmen in Damascus to develop cutting tools similar to that used by plumbers to thread metal. Is that reasonable? I leave that to the reader to decide. The tools have to be harder than what they are cutting, so the bolts were to be made in bronze, and the tools in Damascus steel, which was actually harder than standard steel, the reason being that the local ores had a small vanadium content.

 The next issue was, could they make the necessary metal objects. They had developed quite intricate ability at casting bronze, so I assumed they could, given practice. The engine I thought up for my protagonist was in part based on a design for a fluid hand pump that you can see in the British Museum (or at least I saw it there). The concept was that instead of the piston going up and down and pulling and pushing fluid, the steam would push the piston, the cycle being completed by the inertia of a flywheel. They could make a small piston and cylinder, so I hoped they could scale up.  

 Perhaps the biggest single problem lay in pipes. I have no idea how long a pipe the ancients could have made, so the design had to assume they would be short. The next problem lay in valves. The valves in the hand pump were simple flap valves, which work well enough when the force comes from the piston, which can exert force either way, but steam will hold a flap valve open from the boiler, and force the exit valve the same way. All that will happen is that you have the most complicated kettle exit! So, I suggested valves that operate by slightly rotating a metal cylinder with a hole in it embedded into a pipe, and operated by a rocker arm. Two valves were needed, or a double valve. I opted for the latter, on the basis that now only one rocker arm was required.

 Could something designed like that work? I think so, given enough effort, but maybe not in practice. But the point of the story is not to design a steam engine, but rather to illustrate the process of invention, which is essentially a lot of trial and error, and the making of incremental improvements on a principle. Also, of course, this is only a side-issue for the story underpinning the trilogy.

History in a novel: The Battle of Issus

In my previous post, I mentioned the difficulty of getting some historical information for the setting of a novel. The problem is somewhat greater when the background includes ancient battles. In my ebook, Athene’s Prophecy, my protagonist has to study earlier battles before he can become an officer in the Roman army, and one such battle is the Battle of Issus. What would my protagonist learn from this? First, what happened? Here we have a problem, because while the accounts are clear and include a lot of detail, they were written by the victors, and the Macedonians would not have been the first  (nor the last!) to exaggerate the nature of their victory. Leaving that aside, what my protagonist would have been told in his lesson goes something like this.

Alexander had captured Issus and had marched around the Gulf of Iskanderun and headed south. Darius had brought an army alleged to be about 600,000 men, while Alexander possibly had as few as 20,000 men. While I am far from convinced that these figures are at all accurate there is little doubt that the Persians greatly outnumbered the Macedonians, and that is sufficient for the lesson my protagonist was receiving. Darius had crossed a mountain pass and retaken Issus, then he marched south where there was a narrow coastal strip between sea and mountain. Alexander rushed to meet him. Strategically, Darius had made a huge mistake because the width of the strip could be filled nicely by Alexander’s men, while most of Darius’ army could not engage. So the first lesson was the value of terrain. Had Darius remained on the central plain, he would have been in a much better position.

As Alexander approached the Pinarus river, Darius sent 50,000 troops across to Alexander’s side to hold up Alexander while Darius fortified the northern bank. This worked, and eventually these Persian troops retreated back across the river. What I find interesting is that Alexander did nothing about this advanced force, but rather he waited and when they retreated, as far as we can tell, he let them go unchallenged. Why? In my view, because he did not want Darius to accidentally drift into his best strategy, given that Darius was where he was. At the battle itself, Darius’ men held fortified positions to stop the Macedonian phalanxes, Darius sent some light infantry and cavalry to the left flank and sent his main cavalry to the right flank. Alexander attacked through his right flank with infantry and cavalry, Darius’ men fled, Alexander pursued, and now there was a hole between Alexander’s cavalry and the rest of his army. Darius tried sending infantry into this hole, but he was too slow and the Macedonian phalanxes held. Meanwhile, Darius’ cavalry on the right flank crossed the river, and Parmenio allowed (or could not prevent) a modest withdrawal that put a bend in the Macedonian line. What actually happened? Most say the Persian cavalry was making progress, but I suggest Parmenio ordered this. Why? Because it makes a longer front that is at an angle to the cavalry. If the cavalry goes forward, its room narrows as it cannot move right because the sea occupies that space. At the same time, the cavalry cannot ride directly at the Macedonian line, again because the sea removes depth. They are trying to get around the Macedonians, but they have to slide past and their front becomes progressively narrowed while their own personal flanks are exposed as they become increasingly congested. Cavalry works best when it is mobile, and it is not suitable for a slugging match in a congested space. Further, the bend leaves a point, and if this is reinforced, it is like an arrow ready to plunge into the enemy. Eventually, Darius decided his left flank was in trouble when Alexander returned and attacked the flank of the men he had deployed into that hole, and he fled. Commentators invariably say that at this point the cavalry had to turn around and Parmenio cut them to pieces, but I think that could have happened anyway, and it might have been the cause of Darius fleeing.

So, what does this teach my protagonist? First, Darius should make up his mind whether his strategy will be defensive or aggressive. If the former, he should keep his cavalry out of the right flank and plug that side with infantry. Over two thirds of his infantry were not doing anything, so he could easily spare them. Let the Greeks attempt to cross the river. If the latter, then once over with 50,000 men, he should let them slug it out with the Macedonians for an hour or so, then send forward a further 50,000 to replace them. The river is a defensive asset but an aggressive problem. If he wishes to be aggressive, he should cross that river while he can. If the accounts are true, he could do that for up to twelve switches, if the 50,000 includes cavalry. Alexander’s troops could not fight continuously for that long. This tactic works best if it had been practised. As it happens, that is also standard Roman procedure, and the Roman troops were so well drilled the substitution would be no problem.

If he defended, he should have kept his cavalry for his left flank. He would know that Alexander would attempt to cross the river, and a mix of cavalry and infantry that heavily outnumbered Alexander should have given Alexander at least a severe problem. So, the lessons I hoped to get into my protagonist here were simple. Pick a strategy that might work and throw everything behind it so that it should work. Pick a strategy that favours your numbers. Darius fled when over two-thirds of his massive army had not even seen a Macedonian. Pick a strategy that favours the terrain. Make sure the reserves are placed so that if something develops, they are ready to take advantage of it. I think these are sensible things to learn, so even if what I am writing seems a little academic, I think it at least has some air of realism.

Roman officer training (1)

In my previous posts I outlined the problems associated with getting the character of Caligulae right. However, there were other historical problems for my ebook novel Athene’s Prophecy, and one was to try to make the military aspects of my protagonist look authentic. The Roman army had an unusual way of choosing its leaders: they tended to start near the top! My protagonist, Gaius Claudius Scaevola, being a Claudian, would start as Tribunis Laticlavius. That was the tribune of the first cohort, which was twice the size of any other cohort and tended to comprise mainly the most experienced soldiers, and hence this tribune was effectively second to the Legio Legatus. The reason why this occurred was that in the Republic, the overall General in a campaign would pay for all the equipment and all the soldier’s pay out of his own pocket, but of course he would also expect his senior officers to at least pay for their own equipment and contribute to the pay of the men under him. Senior officers therefore came from the upper class, however there was then the issue of competence. Some of Rome’s biggest losses came from sheer incompetent officers. Following Marius, however, most senior officers seem to have had some personal instruction.

Exactly how they were trained is sometimes unclear, but the young soldier would have had some training. We know at least some studied historical campaigns and they would have been around the military. My solution to this problem was first to have young Scaevola receiving advice from and training with an old Centurion, mainly in the use of arms, and then, on Tiberius’ orders, having to study under one of Tiberius’ Generals.

The study would involve strategy, and specifically, how to gain advantage by initial marching, and as the battle proceeded, how to eliminate at least some basic mistakes. That leaves the question, how do I know what would be taught? One answer is, of course, I do not, but there is help available. Lessons would have focused on previous battles, and fortunately there is a lot of information available on some of the major ones, particularly those of Alexander. The second source was a book written by one of Napoleon’s Generals on this topic (The art of war, Baron de Jomini). Now you may think that this would involve aspects that were too modern, and indeed this General noted that you would not line your troops up as the Romans lined up their legions because the then “modern” cannon would shred them. Nevertheless there is a lot that probably remained the same. One of the more advanced marching maneuvers involved part of the line pulling back to create a point and an angled front as the battle proceeds. This gives the opposition quite a problem, and as it happens, particularly with ancient cavalry. An examination of the Battle of Issus shows that the Greek left flank folded back while the centre held. Most commentators say that Darius’ cavalry was making progress, and implying that the Greeks were in trouble there. My opinion is that Parmenio did this on purpose, and this is borne out a little later when the Persian cavalry got cut to pieces. Everyone says this is because Alexander did brilliant things on the right flank, and I would not deny Alexander was a great General, nevertheless I think in part he was a very fortunate man to have someone as capable as Parmenio holding the other flank.

Even more on writing about Caligulae

Previous posts have considered the difficulties faced when I was writing about Caligulae for my novel Athene’s Prophecy, and these difficulties were largely about his relations with the senatorial class. His limited military “adventures” produce far more difficulties. One example was his so-called “invasion of Germany”, which lasted about a week, after which he came back to Gaul. What do you do about that?

My answer is quite straightforward. The reason for going north was to arrest the Legates of two legions (who were almost certainly plotting a coup) but he had to take enough force with him that he would clearly succeed, and he had to have a diversion so the Legionnaires would think something else was going on. Once there, he embarked on a large number of military exercises involving the digging of fortifications, forced marches, and this ended with “the invasion of Germany”. Actually, what he was reported as having done was following the fairly conventional procedures for disciplining and bringing legions up to efficiency, and would have been somewhat milder than such procedures later employed by Corbolo. Invariably, these procedures included a river crossing, and the Rhine was the only available river. The “invasion” would comprise nothing more than crossing the river, followed by the setting up of defensive fortifications and a minor march inland, i.e. a drill for what would happen if there were war, followed by returning to base at the end of the drill.  What many do not recognize is that the Roman army was probably the most disciplined army ever, they drilled incessantly, and any slackness was jumped on mercilessly.

More difficult to understand was the so-called invasion of Britain. Caligulae took a legion to the Brittany coast, and when the men refused to board some fairly rotten ships, he gave them the alternative of declaring war on the sea and collecting seashells, which is apparently what they did. The way I interpreted this is not a sign of madness, but the deliberate humiliation of a potentially rebellious legion. One legion would be quite inadequate for the invasion. However, there are problems with this interpretation, and one was particularly troublesome. Towards the end of my novel, Scaevola (my protagonist) was appointed temporary Legatus of Legio III, Cyrenaica, temporarily at Bostra. As I was finishing, I found that anyone doing a deep historical search would be able to jump on me. Apparently, when Caligulae went north, he was accompanied by troops from the Cyrenaica, including the logistics experts. That means he planned the invasion of Britain. So, what actually happened? My guess is that when he saw the effects of his drills, he realized what would happen when he took troops to the coast. 

That does not mean he was a good man. He was definitely cruel and he had a superiority complex, but then consider his upbringing. All his family had been killed, one way or another, by Tiberius. Then he was brought to Capri, and watched Tiberius behave. If Tiberius did not like you, you were thrown off the cliff to your death. There is no doubt Gaius Julius Caesar was erratic, and he liked to put senators in their place. Perhaps the most obvious example was when he made his horse a Consul and tried to deify it. He made the senators worship his horse. Not exactly overly wise, but bearing in mind his objective, not exactly mad. Then there was the way he managed to get the streets of Rome clean. For that, you will have to read the book, or do some research.

What that meant for the novel was that my protagonist, who was of senatorial class, would have something to worry about. A particular problem was that the book concluded with the crisis of the Temple of Jerusalem. Caligulae wanted a statue of himself put there, to make up for the fact that Jews had defaced his statue somewhere else. That would have led to a revolt, and real bloodshed. In the end, Caligulae backed down, and I had to end my story about that back down. However, the way that ended did not signify madness, and this is one of the few incidents for which a real record remains, from the journal of Philo of Alexandria. What Caligulae did was to let everyone present thoroughly embarrass themselves, then he did the rational thing. Not exactly mad.

 If nothing else, while writing this I learned some classical history, or at least a version of what might have happened because I feel exactly what happened under Caligulae will never be known.

More on Writing about Caligulae

In my previous post, I mentioned some of the problems as to why we know so little that is clear about Caligulae, and why we have so many reports indicating he was mad. The question then was, how should I write about him? One of the first things that becomes apparent is that while many situations can have multiple interpretations, in general the author must settle on one for each incident, and overall, they must be self-consistent. I have tried to follow the interpretation of Anthony Barrett in his book, “Caligula, The Corruption of Power”, but I have also added some of my own personal interpretations. That actually brought me a further problem but also a solution. Caligulae does not appear personally in the novel other than in the very beginning, while Tiberius was still Princeps, and for most of the novel the information is delivered by letters from Claudius. Now Claudius is also on record of accusing Caligulae of being a very bad Princeps, but this was largely after Caligulae’s death, and Claudius had a very good reason to argue that the assassination was caused by some who had had enough of Caligulae’s bad behaviour. That raises the problem of what would be Claudius’ attitude prior to the assassination. As far as we know, the two got on quite well together, and Caesar did make Claudius a Consul, so I had Claudius making neutral or slightly favourable reports.

To illustrate one of the problems, Seneca reports at one time Caligulae offered his foot to be kissed. That would represent the ultimate of arrogance to Romans, and would be seen as an abominable practice; so much for gravitas and dignitas. However, Seneca also added that there was an alternative interpretation, and some had reported this incident as Caligulae showing off his new slippers. There is a difference! As for the excessive and sadistic killing, there are only twelve people who are unambiguously executed by him, and some of these executions were actually ordered by the senate without reference to Caligulae. There were another twelve examples that involved suicide or some other similar ending. So, approximately 24 deaths in four years, and recall there were at least four attempts at assassinating him. That is hardly the record of a mad tyrant.

Caligulae is often accused of having depleted the Treasury to an unacceptable level. This is almost certainly untrue, because after his assassination, Claudius gave out lavish donations from the Treasury to buy the loyalty of certain sections of the Roman community. He could not have done that without there being adequate cash on hand. So why would this accusation be made? My guess is, taxation. Prior to Caligulae, Rome itself was exempt from taxation. Caligulae argued that all Roman citizens should be equal, and hence all should pay tax. This was extremely unpopular with the Senatorial class. As an aside, the Roman flat tax rate at the time was about 1%. They should be so lucky! Interestingly, another complaint was that he taxed clients at brothels, which also seems to have upset the Senatorial class. Again, a 1% tax to all is hardly a sign of an extreme tyrant.

 I should also add that I am not trying to rehabilitate Gaius as a benign Princeps. He was not; all I am saying is that he was nowhere nearly as bad as certain Senatorial accounts, and certain lurid Hollywood outputs, would have us believe. More next post.

What do you think of Caligulae?

Let me start my first post of 2014 by wishing you all a happy, healthy and prosperous new year. In my last post of 2013, I mentioned my latest ebook, Athene’s Prophecy, and that the main protagonist had to dodge the erratic imperium of the other Gaius Julius Caesar (Caligulae – note he had two feet!). That makes this ebook at least partially a historical novel, and the question then is, how do you portray Caligulae? Before I address that, stop and ask yourself, how would you describe the man?

I think the average response would be to describe him as a mad tyrant who delighted in killing at random and ruling through terror, I have seen him listed amongst the most despicable rulers. Now, pause, and try to describe what you think.

Now, let us be fair. If he were a terrible tyrant, then surely there would be great cheering when he died. That more or less happened when Tiberius died, and Gaius was cheered vigorously when he publicly destroyed the information Tiberius had on various other Romans. They may have cheered a little less vigorously had they known he had made copies and kept those. Nevertheless, when Gaius was assassinated, the crowds became very angry and they demanded the guilty be caught and punished. All evidence is that the general public were angered by Caesar’s assassination. To understand this, it is necessary to recognize that those of senatorial class tended to want a return to the ideals of the Republic, whereas the masses could not care less for the Republic. The Republic was of no value to the masses, and when, in the Republic, people of adequate means and property volunteered for the legions, when they came back they tended to find themselves dispossessed of their property, and the senators the new owners.

The various privileges the senators had in the old Republic allowed them to amass huge wealth, at the expense of the ordinary Roman. These privileges had been taken in part by the first Gaius Julius Caesar, then further by Augustus and Tiberius, because they knew that you could not run a professional army unless the soldiers could look forward to something in retirement. The first Caesar appealed to the masses, and tried to make their life better, and, at the same time, give himself the masses as defence to being isolated by the senators. Caligulae tried to follow the principle of the first Caesar, except that he did not have quite the same ability. The problem for us is that most of our information comes from people of senatorial class, and they were clearly against Caligulae. One popular source of material is Seneca. Now, he would hardly enthuse about Gaius after Gaius’ death, given the Gaius had exiled Seneca for being involved with plotters who were trying to assassinate him. As an aside, is that what a brutal tyrant would do? Not execute those plotting to kill him? Accordingly, Seneca’s complaints cannot be relied on at all. A secondary problem is that the relevant sections of Tacitus’ Annals are missing, and while Tacitus was of senatorial class and probably did not have any love for Caligulae, Tacitus appears to at least attempt to provide a true picture of what happened, even if he does add some personal comments.

So, what to do? Next post I shall explain my solution.