The Sand-Reckoner

Richard Lee

Richard Lee talks to GILLIAN BRADSHAW about Archimedes.

I read Gillian Bradshaw’s books first when I was in my teens – a wonderful Arthurian trilogy Hawk of May, Kingdom of Summer and In Winter’s Shadow. All the important ingredients were there. Saxons and Celts, the remains of Rome; a powerfully created sense of Light against Dark with strongly imagined witches and evil magic, and a numinous Celtic Christianity. It was just the sort of thing I liked in those days, and I reread the whole series. I lost sight of her after this, though, and only came across her name again much later, through the internet, when I had already set up this society. By this stage her books were no longer in print in the UK, and so I had to catch up with them piecemeal, buying second hand, or from There are still a couple I haven’t read.

Beacon at Alexandria is about Charis of Ephesus, a noble Roman woman at the time of St Athanasius who disguises herself as a eunuch and travels to Alexandria to become a hippocratic physician, rather than marry the man intended for her by her family. It is a warm tale of academic learning, of friendships in unusual circumstances, and a love story. Richard Zimler (author of Last Kabbalist of Lisbon) ‘enjoyed it immensely’ and praised its ‘wit and style’.

Island of Ghosts is the story of 5,500 Sarmatians – barbarian warriors – who were transplanted in the third century from their homeland in eastern Hungary, to fight on Hadrian’s Wall. The conflict is primarily of cultures, as a nomadic people are asked to live within walls, to have their proud, independent culture circumscribed by Roman laws, and to fight for the people who have defeated and humiliated them. Booklist called it ‘A historical novel of extraordinary depth and passion, and Publisher’s Weekly praises its fluid writing, “luxuriant with colourful authentic detail.”

Her latest book, The Sand-Reckoner, chooses the mathematical genius Archimedes as its subject. Archimedes has been studying in Alexandria, loving the city’s unrivalled atmosphere of learning. His father is sick, though, and his native city of Syracuse is at war with the Romans, and so Archimedes must return home. Once there he sets about building catapults for the city’s defence. The novel develops as a fascinating character study of a genius just finding his place in the world. Archimedes is drawn with touching humanity but also with humour. The worldly men and women that his work constantly throws him into contact with simply do not know what to make of him. On the one hand his brain can surmount obstacles that seem impossible. At the same time, though, emotionally and practically he is as ignorant as the most untried youth. Gillian Bradshaw is a tremendous writer. Her books are full of warmth and humanity, strongly plotted, colourful and about interesting and often little-known corners of history. To my mind it is one of the most telling points about the sorry state of English publishing – or perhaps about the English reading public – that she is not currently in print over here.

What drew you to Archimedes? How did you set about trying to imagine his character and his world? What resources are there?

I’ve been interested in Greek science for years (probably, I admit, because I’m married to a scientist and thus get exposed to scientific issues constantly) but I originally planned to do a novel about an invented character. Using a historical figure as the central figure in a novel usually means that you’re so constrained by history that you have no freedom with your plot: history rarely ties up the loose ends or allows you that really satisfying final confrontation.

However, as I researched, I realised, first, that so little was known about Archimedes’ personal life that I’d have a free hand, and second, that he was a type I recognised. Plutarch, in his Life of Marcellus, says that Archimedes was a “captive to the Muses”, so devoted to pure mathematics that even was he was washing he used to do calculations in the anointing oil or the ash. I have seen theoretical physicists scribbling calculations on paper napkins in restaurants or in the margins of newspapers on trains; the Cavendish lab in Cambridge provides blackboards in the cafeteria. I was amused to see that the habit goes back more than two thousand years, and I immediately had an image of Archimedes as an enthusiastic young post-doc, which is what fired the book.

Having made that decision, I researched fairly hard. I am a classicist anyway, so I knew a lot of the basic stuff – the mechanics of daily life, the system of education and so on. What I had to do was find out more on ancient technology and on Syracuse during the First Punic War. The principle source for the latter is, of course, Polybios, with a substantial contribution from Plutarch. Archimedes himself has left thirteen extant works, and there are references to another dozen or so; anecdotes about him occur in Vitruvius and Simplicius. Fortunately, I found a book (E.J. Dijksterhuis, Archimedes) which collected all the extant works and anecdotes in one volume, with comment.

Another book which was very useful was an anthology on ancient engineering, (A.G. Drachmann, The Mechanical Technology of Greek and Roman Antiquity) which had plans for things like water organs and the formula for calculating the aperture size of a catapult (out of Vitruvius). E.W. Marsden, Greek and Roman Artillery, was invaluable for catapults. Then there were the modern takes on Hellenistic Greece and the rise of Rome – the standard people like Walbank and Scullard and Austin – plus a couple of specialists like Woodhead and T.J. Dunbabin for the western Greeks.

I was living in Cambridge at the time, and had access to the University Library, so I could get pretty much anything. Warwick, alas, is less well supplied.

You have written about a number of ancient periods. What characterises the First Punic War for you?

The First Punic War is 1) not as well documented as the Second Punic War 2) noteworthy for nastiness. It’s been calculated that Rome lost a higher percentage of her population to that conflict than France did to World War I, which puts things in perspective. Carthage really does sound a very unpleasant society, and so, I believe, was Rome at that time­ certainly the warfare of the early Republic was far more brutal than the warfare of the empire, and the whole enterprise seems to have been begun to enrich a couple of patrician families.

The city Syracuse sounds a wonderful place in your novel, while Rome is presented as the brutish aggressor. Do you think Tyranny was a preferable system to the Roman Republic?

In part, Syracuse sounds wonderful in the book because a Syracusan is the central character; in part because Syracuse at that time was uncharacteristically well governed. The city certainly had more than its share of atrocities to its discredit, and nobody in their right mind would recommend tyranny as generally practised by the Sicilians as a model of good government. However, I have no respect at all for the Roman Republic, which began as a conservative oligarchy and ended as a spectacularly corrupt conservative oligarchy, and hypocritical with it. The only people with any degree of real freedom in the Republic were the nobles, and they abused everyone else­particularly those they conquered. Illyria did not recover the population or the prosperity lost to the Roman conquest until the end of the Roman empire: that’s how bad it was. One has to remember that the paeans to the Republic were all written by those same Roman nobles and their descendants.

One of the strongest characters in the book is the slave Marcus, and indeed The Sand Reckoner sharply confronts issues of freedom and slavery. Was this an aim from the outset, or was it a theme that grew in the writing?

I did not plan to write a book about freedom and slavery. I only realised I had after I’d finished. It usually seems to happen like that.

Are you as knowledgeable about catapults as you seem?

Well… I’m not looking for a job as a catapultist. However, I did read up on them, and a bit more than that. Marsden, (op. cit.) does include plans for the machines in his book; I suspect that he’s the source for the Vitruvian catapults employed by the Roman re-enactors. I built myself a couple of little model catapults, to see how they worked, and then enlisted one of my sons, who’s interested in such things, to construct a bigger model. It was made of hardboard and plywood, and couldn’t be brought to exert much force without cracking the struts, but we did take it along to the village fete and charge people 10p a go to fire empty soft drink cans at a target.

I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of music in the book. How did you research this?

I started off, as I always do, with the Oxford Classical Dictionary entry and followed it up from there. There also used to a tape available from Archaeologica Musica, which I bought from a museum, and I had an album of the surviving scraps (there’s a Hymn to Nemesis extant, which is quite impressive, and some bits of Euripides; alas, the album is defunct). I also have a very old Companion to Greek Studies which has some information on things like modes. You can learn from Greek drama and poetry, too­if you do the lyric metres you get some idea of how the rhythms worked, and what instruments were used. However, I confess that where information ran out, I invented.

Do you enjoy researching or writing more?

I like researching, but I adore writing.

Do you admire any other fiction writers particularly? Who do you read for pleasure? For comfort? Is there any writer whose new books you can’t wait to read?

I like lots of other writers, of various sorts, some of them serious and literary, some not. I suppose for me Dostoyevsky is still the benchmark of What Can Be Done By a Novel, because he turns philosophy into a thriller. I read a lot of science fiction for pleasure. For comfort I tend to listen to music (classical) or read poetry. I used to grab Patrick O’Brian’s books as soon as they came out in hardback (alas, no more!) There are a couple of science fiction authors (Cherryh, Brust, Bull) I’ll grab as eagerly, but not usually across the board­that is, if they have another book in one series I’ll buy, but for others I’ll wait for the paperback.

You live in an academic world. How do your fellow historians or classicists regard your novels? Are they a support?

Actually, I don’t see very much of my fellow classicists or historians. Most of the academics I meet are connected with my husband, and are physicists. I don’t teach, so I have no entree to the department, and research is a lonely business, as is writing. I’d like to be involved with others a bit more, but there’s always a question of time and energy.

You have written both fantasy and historical fiction. What are the advantages (and pitfalls) of each? Which do you prefer writing?

The fantasies I’ve written have all had carefully researched historical backgrounds; the main difference has been that I’ve treated as real some of things which people believed in at the time. Thus for me there’s no great difference in writing the two forms: it’s simply a case of resetting default assumptions before starting. That said, I think you have to be very careful in handling fantasy, particularly when you mix it with realistic history. It has to be very carefully defined and restricted, so that it blends in, and doesn’t jar. The magic can’t do
everything: it has to obey rules.

Which is your favourite of your own novels?

I always have a prejudice in favour of the book I’ve just finished, which in this case is a novel about Caesarion, the son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. I had a wonderful time doing it, and I’m still at the stage of feeling very pleased with it. I think, though, that Island of Ghosts has a lot going for it. It moves very well, it’s tight, and a lot of the drama in it springs from questions of culture and identity, which are questions I find extremely interesting.

What are you working on now, and do you have any long-term goals?

At the moment I’m mulling over an idea for a science fiction novel. I’ve just sold one in the same genre (called The Wrong Reflection: near-contemporary setting, doesn’t actually start off as science fiction at all, out later this year) so I thought I’d like to do another, using some ideas about brains and consciousness which I’ve been reading about out of pure interest. It hasn’t taken off yet, however, and if it won’t gel I’ll have to think of something else and perhaps go back and try again later.

Finally – how did you resist having Archimedes saying Eureka?

The constraints of history! The Eureka story (which is in Simplicius) very plainly comes after Syracuse extricated itself from the Punic War­ Simplicius starts off by saying that, after Hieron had successfully established the state in peace and safety, he resolved to dedicate a gold crown to the gods as a thanks offering. I couldn’t include the Eureka story unless I put it in at the end, where it would simply be a distraction from the whole thrust of the story, and ruin the tone of the final chapter. Of course, I could have had him say “Eureka!” earlier over something else, but it would have been rather artificial, since he was ostensibly speaking Greek all the time any way.

Copyright (c) 2000, Historical Novel Society. All rights reserved.

First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, Issue 7 (May 2000).

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