What would have happened if the Roman Empire didn’t fall? That’s the question author Alan Smale answers in his debut novel, Clash of Eagles. Set in 1218 A.D., the book dives into an alternate history where Rome is flourishing and the emperor has sent Praetor Gaius Marcellinus and the 33rd Legion to invade North America. The Romans expect an easy victory, but their numbers are decimated by the unyielding native inhabitants. Captured by the enemy he swore to conquer, Marcellinus must adapt to survive.
Paste caught up with Smale to chat about Clash of Eagles, Roman culture and where he’d love to time travel.
Paste: What sparked your imagination to write Clash of Eagles?
Alan Smale: I’ve always been intrigued by history, and most of my writing over the past 15 years has concentrated on alternate or twisted history, historical fantasy, secret histories. Since I emigrated to America from England, I’ve been delving into a lot of American history. I hadn’t been in the States very long when the quincentenary of Columbus’ voyages rolled around, with all the new books and renewed discussions of the annexation of North America by the European powers and of the tragedies that followed. I’ve been thinking about that on and off ever since—wondering how events might have played out if there had been a more concerted effort to explore North America around the time of the Viking voyages, say, or if there had been a different balance of Spanish, English and French interests later on. In our world, what happened was a disaster of the first magnitude for the Native Americans and First Nations. I’ve often wondered under what circumstances might things have worked out better for them.
But Clash of Eagles itself was really fired off by my fascination with Cahokia and the Mississippian culture. From 1050 A.D. though to the 1400s, the Mississippian culture dominated the Mississippi and Ohio valleys and built earthen mounds by the thousands. Cahokia, its principal city, was located near where St. Louis stands today and was home to more than 20,000 souls, which meant it was one of the largest cities in the world at that time—bigger even than London. Cahokia contained over 120 mounds, including a huge flat-topped mound at its center a thousand feet square at the base.
Once I got excited about Cahokia, the broad brush-strokes of the story came into my mind very quickly, tumbling over each other in their rush. Clash of Eagles began as a rather substantial novella that appeared in Panverse Two, an anthology edited by Dario Ciriello. That novella was lucky enough to win the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, but by that time, I was already deep into writing the novel. I knew this was what I wanted to write and a world I wanted to spend a lot of time in. I’m very happy that so many people want to join me there.
Paste: What aspects of Roman and Mississippian culture intrigued you the most as a writer?
Smale: When I was young, we used to take family vacations to Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England. That’s where I really got interested in ancient Rome and tried to learn as much as possible about it. Like many cultures, the Roman Empire was a huge mess of contradictions: high principles and great valor on one side, and massive cruelty and inhumanity on the other. Rome obviously had a substantial dark side. But I find Roman ruins and their reconstructions very evocative and visually stunning and the broad sweep of Rome’s history irresistible. I’ve also never believed that the Western Roman Empire was doomed to fall. A lot of history looks inevitable in hindsight, but I think Rome’s decline could have been averted. It was fun for me as a writer to determine which aspects of classical Rome would survive unchanged into the 13th century, and which would be subtly altered by the passage of time, and to illustrate those using the mindset, beliefs and actions of my hero, the Roman general Gaius Marcellinus, who leads the first legion into North America.
While much of the real Roman history is reasonable well documented, the same isn’t true of the Cahokians. It’s amazing how much and how little we know about them. Archeology can tell us all about their diet and their living spaces, their symbolism, weaponry, trade items and so on, but comparatively little about their social structure. There, my challenge was to stay mostly true to the archeological facts while bringing the city and its people to life to the best of my abilities.
Paste: What scene was the most challenging for you to write?
Smale: In general—and this seems to be different from the experience of several of my other writer-friends—I find conversations and dialog and human interactions fairly easy to write. Battles and action scenes are much harder for me. I sometimes find myself distanced from fight scenes and action in other peoples’ books, because all of a sudden the focus switches to movement rather than character. So when I’m writing battles, I try to keep the focus on the characters as much as what those characters are going through—while still trying to make the action as specific and detailed and exciting as possible, of course.
Having said that, in Clash of Eagles, the single scene I found the hardest, and the one I rewrote the most times, was the big confrontation between my hero Gaius Marcellinus and the warrior Sintikala, who is the leader of the Hawk Clan in Cahokia and effectively the second-in-command of the city. She is calling him to account for the crimes he’s perpetuated against her people and others in Nova Hesperia up to that point, but it takes place at a time when Marcellinus speaks very little Cahokian and nobody in Cahokia speaks much Latin. So a lot of it has to be conveyed in broken sentences and inference. It’s a turning point in the story, and quite emotional for Marcellinus and others around him. I wanted to get the tone of that confrontation just right.
Paste: What can readers expect from the second book in the trilogy?
Smale: To put it mildly, the first book ends with some unresolved issues between the Cahokians and their great enemy, the Iroqua, with whom they have been fighting the Mourning War for generations. In the second book, Marcellinus will be instrumental in working those issues out. In addition—and I’m sure this will come as no surprise to anyone—we haven’t seen the last of the Romans in North America. The legions will be back in force, and Marcellinus will be caught in a fairly terrible position. He has sworn never to fight against his own people, but neither can he abandon his new Cahokian friends. Somehow he’ll have to find a middle path.
Towards the end of the first book, after all of his adventuring in Nova Hesperia, Marcellinus is beginning to find a place for himself in his strange new world. But that place will be seriously threatened in Book Two, and he’ll face some even greater challenges. Perhaps this would be a good place to do a title reveal: Del Rey and I recently agreed that Book Two will be titled Eagle in Exile.
Nova Hesperia is a big continent. We’ll be seeing much more of it in the second and third books of the Clash of Eagles trilogy!
Paste: And now for a fun question: If you could travel to any point in history, what time and place would you choose?
Smale: This isn’t going to surprise you at all: the obvious answer to me would be ancient Rome in all its glory. Perhaps in the early 2nd century A.D., when a lot of the iconic temples and markets of the Roman Forum had been built. Being able to walk around the Forum and through the backstreets of the living city, see the Coliseum and the Appian Way, later on walk up to the harbor at Ostia and see the grain being offloaded in the hexagonal harbor built by Trajan … that would be a glorious day out. Although, if you’re going to take me all that way back in time, it would be a shame not to let me ramble around a bit more. I’d like to take a long hike up through Roman Gaul to Britannia. After that, Roman Egypt, then out to Mesopotamia and Babylonia, and perhaps even further off into the East. Why not? Naturally, I’m going to assume that I’m impervious to attack or disease, because most of the world for most of its history would probably kill or incapacitate me pretty quickly.
What I’d really like is a season ticket to all the major civilizations of antiquity. That’s the trouble with time travel. Too much to see!