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Serjanus - Background to the Book

Sejanus followed on naturally from Germanicus, almost in the sense of unfinished business, although it was a shame - from my point of view - that for historical reasons there had to be a ten-year gap (the book is set in AD31). Still, there wasn’t anything I could do about that: if you’re ‘solving’ historical crimes - which is what I most enjoy doing - then like it or not you’re governed by the chronology of the historical facts. And I did, after Germanicus, want to ‘solve’ the puzzle of why Sejanus fell.

A word, here, about the fictional ‘solution’ to any historical puzzle. I’m very well aware, when I write a real-life historical crime book, that a good proportion of my eventual readers will know far more about the subject than I do, so simply to have Corvinus (or whoever) conduct his investigation and come up at the end with the traditional, widely-accepted (and so widely-known) solution just won’t do: the reader who was aware of it all the time simply feels cheated - or at least I would, in their place. So - for example - in Germanicus my final villains couldn’t be the Syrian governor Piso and his wife, with or without the connivance of Tiberius and Livia, because that’s where the historian Tacitus points the final finger, and a book which made them the culprits might be fairly classed as a piece of historical fiction but it’s not a whodunnit. You have to take the traditional explanation as the starting-, not the end-point and come up with a ‘solution’ which is your own but equally plausible, or you cheat your readers.

Sejanus was a little different from Germanicus in that it started with the question ‘why?’ rather than ‘who?’: what persuaded Tiberius to pull the plug on his right-hand man in Rome. Tiberius (my Tiberius, anyway, and I believe the real one, as well) was no fool: he must have been aware both of Sejanus’s character and ambitions and of his actions. So why did he leave it so long, and what - eventually - pushed him over the edge? I wanted, in Sejanus, to offer an explanation which would sound plausible (I hoped; I always hope!) to readers who already knew a lot about the matter; even (again hopefully) come as an intriguing surprise to them. I also wanted the ‘solution’ to have a bitter-sweetness about it: at the end, it’s not all beer and skittles, with the villain getting his deserved comeuppance and Corvinus being content with a job well done. I hope I succeeded, and that you do not feel cheated.

One interesting point. Part of the book is set on Capri, where Tiberius had taken up residence years before. His main villa there - the Villa Iovis - is still extant. I asked my friend Roy Pinkerton - then a member of Edinburgh University’s Department of Classics, and my ex-tutor there - if he could provide me with some sort of floor plan. He did, but not before I’d written the relevant chapter. When I checked, with a view to making any necessary topographical changes, I found that my fictional villa corresponded almost exactly, except that the corridor Corvinus went down at one point ended, not with a latrine as I had it, but with a bath suite. Eerie, yes?

David Wishart (May 2006)

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