Friday, January 16, 2009

Hidden history

For most of my life I have wanted to write a novel. I have started many times, doing research, writing notes, even maps. Yet I have never gotten close to finishing a book. There are many reasons for this, but one reason is that my interests have changed a lot over the years.

One subject that continues to draw my interest is ancient history. I have often wondered how our modern world might have evolved differently if small changes were made in the history of the distant past. I am not interested so much in the history of kings, emperors, or battles, as in the struggle of intelligent and good people trying to cope and create lives of meaning in a sometimes insane world.

Writing alternate history seems like a difficult project, almost as difficult as building a complete fantasy world or science fiction future. I'm not sure I have the energy to start that kind of a project at my age with a full time job and a family. It also misses the deeper point of what I would like my writing to say to the world. I don't want to write about what could have been, but about what has been going on all the time but overlooked, what could be called “hidden history” or “subhistory”.

By “subhistory” what I mean is simply anything people could have done in historical times which is not supported by written records or physical artifacts but also not ruled out by them. That includes most of the history of ordinary people as well as of cultures without written records or before written records. It could also include cultures whose histories were destroyed or distorted by their enemies.

That brings me to the subject of my novel. Carthage was a city-state in north Africa near modern Tunis, which at its height was home to more than a half million residents. The Carthaginians are best known for their wars with the early Roman Republic, and for their general Hannibal Barca who marched his army with elephants over the Alps in 218 B.C. to invade Italy, dealing the Romans a series of crushing defeats but ultimately losing the war. Many questions remain, because the Romans sacked Carthage in 146 B.C., killing most of the inhabitants. Most of the Carthaginian records were lost, and the remaining histories were written by their enemies.

The Carthaginians were great mariners who controlled access to the Straits of Gibraltar and had a monopoly on the Atlantic sea trade. They are believed to have sent expeditions as far north as Britain to trade for tin and as far south as Senegal to trade for gold. I wonder if some of them survived the sack of Carthage, perhaps making it to some of the lands they know about from their trading expeditions to get well out of reach of the Roman armies. There is no evidence to support such an idea, but one thing we do know about the Carthaginians is that they were very good at keeping secrets.

The premise of my novel is that a small group of Carthaginians escape and establish a community in secret on one of the islands known to them in the Atlantic. How they survive in difficult conditions, learn to get along with their neighbors, and keep their culture and history alive for a time is what this story is about. Nothing to rewrite the history books, but hopefully an exciting and enjoyable read that will feed interest in history, and most importantly feed my need to write about this ancient culture that has fascinated me for years.

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