Andrew Levkoff grew up on Long Island, New York, got a BA in English from Stanford, then put that hard-earned degree to dubious use in the family packaging business. After a decade of trying to convince himself to think ‘inside’ the box (lots of them), he fled to Vermont where he attempted to regain his sanity by chopping wood and shoveling snow off his roof for 8 years. Like a fine cocktail, he was by then thoroughly chilled; what could be better after this than no sunshine for 13 years. That’s right – Seattle.
Since 2006 he has been taking the cure in Arizona, where his skin has darkened to a rich shade of pallid. Here it was that he finally realized, under the heading of hopefully-better-late-than-
Interview by Open Letters Monthly
Open Letters: Your new book, “Blood of Eagles,” brings to a close the trilogy telling the story of Marcus Crassus and his slave Alexandros. How did it feel to say good-bye to these characters, after living with them for so long?
Andrew Levkoff: The truth is, I can’t let go, not just yet. The “gang” has been with me for so long, telling me what to write, slapping me on the back when I get their voices down to their liking, keeping me up at night when I don’t, that I recently decided to wrest the recording of the audiobooks from the professionals just to hang out with them a bit longer. The Other Alexander was read by Andrew Randall, and he did yeoman’s work. (His was one of the voices of the Geico gecko!) Reading the next two installments aloud will hopefully make our farewells less traumatic. There is also a prequel in the works, Melyaket, A Tale of Ancient Parthia, that will keep me in their company at least through next year. Having said that, I am curious to know what it would be like to explore a world where bare-legged men don’t go around whacking each other with swords, a world perhaps 19 or 20 centuries down the road apiece.
OLM: What was that process like, capturing the voices of your characters? Was the process fundamentally different when envisioning Alexandros as opposed to somebody like Crassus, a major figure in Roman history?
Andrew Levkoff: The first voice I had to get out of my head was that of Lawrence Olivier. It is his portrayal of Crassus in Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus” that most people envision when they think of “the unknown triumvir,” if they think of him at all. I saw Crassus as a more sympathetic man. “Bow” is my humble if audacious attempt to rewrite history.
When I began writing almost a decade ago, I must admit that Alexandros wasn’t even a gleam in my eye. What drew me to the tragedy of Marcus Crassus was a very large question mark. Why did he do it? Why did he raise an army and trek 1,500 miles into the wastes of Mesopotamia, leaving comfort and security, wealth and power behind? Why did he risk everything he had achieved on such a gamble? He was one of the most respected and influential men in the West’s greatest civilization, and he had already lived at least a decade beyond the life expectancy of the healthiest Roman. If all this wasn’t enough to keep him at home, in a world where politicians changed wives almost as often as they did togas, Crassus was married to the same woman for over thirty years. While cynics may say it was this that sent him marching out the door, I chose to believe his love for Tertulla was real and enduring.
Plutarch and most historians were cavalier in their judgment: Crassus was greedy beyond caution and jealous of Pompey and Caesar’s military success. I wasn’t buying it, and I discovered something in Crassus’ private life (no spoilers) that gave him a much more satisfying and personal motive to abandon his perfect life. That something allowed me to humanize him in a way history had never done.
Once I knew that I wanted to recreate the events leading up to the disastrous battle of Carrhae, I thought, “What about the victors?” In the very first draft of the first novel, I contrasted the life of this venerable patrician with that of Melyaket, a poor Parthian boy from a backwater village in the middle of nowhere. 700 pages later, I realized this would never do for a first-time, unpublished author. Every agent and publisher in the business agreed. To do the story justice, and to make a more commercial entrance into the biz, I would have to write more than one book.
Enter Alexandros. You can’t write about ancient Rome without touching upon the engine that made it possible—slavery. I knew it would be fun to create a relationship between a demigod like Crassus and one of his countless servants. It dawned on me that as a witness to Crassus’ humanity and frailty, Alexandros’ voice could speak loudest for my alternate interpretation of the man. He pushes Crassus and tests the bounds of his master’s patience at every opportunity; it is one of his few freedoms in a life without choice. Alexandros “convinced” me to write not in the third person but in his own acerbic combination of intellect, sarcasm and naiveté. He was the perfect foil for Crassus, and I realized the perfect chronicler as well.
OLM: In “Blood of Eagles” he’s very much cut adrift from the Roman world he (and we) know, forced not only to trek the byways of a foreign kingdom but also to learn a good deal about its customs, its peoples, and even its mythology. This obviously took lots of research (in your Bibliography you cite, among others, that great Victorian classicist, George Rawlinson, the greatest Herodotus translator of them all!) – did it yield any surprises for you?
Andrew Levkoff: My copy of Rawlinson’s “The Sixth Great Oriental Monarchy, or the Geography, History and Antiquities of Parthia” is so old it doesn’t have a copyright. I am gingerly holding it together with spit and rubber bands.
Familia was the term used for the Roman household, but it encompassed more than sons, daughters and immediate family. Household slaves were included in the familia as well. Slavery in ancient Rome, while it was often casually cruel, was of a different quality than say, the slavery of the antebellum South. Crassus invested in his workforce, encouraged their training and advancement, and as in most other ways, got the best return on his investment.
Pompey, in an effort to bolster his fading popularity, built a theater bearing his name that was the architectural wonder of 55 BCE Rome, if not the world. It was the first (legal) permanent theater in the city, for plays, according to the city fathers, were vulgar and common displays of immorality. Pompey got his building permits by placing a temple to Venus Victrix at the stop of the amphitheater, insisting the curving rows of soaring benches were not theater seats but steps leading up to the temple! To commemorate the opening, Pompey had a herd of elephants massacred. But the slaughter designed to rekindle love for the people’s out-of-favor benefactor backfired, for the crowd sided with the suffering beasts. I dramatized the event in A Mixture of Madness.
How many of us believed that the fabled vomitorium of Roman orgies (thank you, Steve Reeves and Victor Mature), was the place where party-goers could indulge their festive bulimia? (My hand is raised.) The truth is far more prosaic, not to mention sanitary. Vomitoria, from the latin word meaning “to spew forth,” are the entrances and exits whereby fans could leave the amphitheater.
Mithraism, a sun-god cult absorbed by Zoroastrianism, was sweeping from West to East. The secretive cult was particularly popular with Roman soldiers. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that the Roman survivors of Carrhae helped spread the rites and worship of Mithra throughout the Empire where it flourished into the 4th century CE.
17 years after the Crassus expedition, Mark Antony (through his general Ventidius) tried it again. Ventidius’ early success earned him the first triumph for a Roman victory in Parthia. Antony, wanting to boot his subordinate out of the limelight, marched East with a force of up to 100,000. His failure was equally as stunning as that of Crassus, but we don’t hear much about it. He let his baggage train lag too far behind. The Parthians pounced, cutting off Antony’s lifeline of supplies and grain. Antony had no choice but to retreat, losing up to 30,000 of his troops. Ultimately, Parthia could never be held by Rome. If the eastern giant had been less de-centralized and disorganized, if their own in-fighting had not undermined their focus, instead of studying ancient Latin today, we might all be reading Farsi.
Which brings me to my favorite surprise: I have never been introduced to a more ruthless, back-stabbing (sometimes literally) bunch of paranoid throne-warmers than those that ruled Parthia. Orodes and his brother Mithridates were the impatient sort: when they considered that Dad had ruled long enough, they removed him from office—permanently. Then Mithridates banished his younger brother, but ruled with such a brutal hand the nobles begged Orodes to return. Orodes then killed his brother. Impatience ran in the family: Orodes’ eldest son, Phraates, poisoned his father. But Orodes recovered! So Phraates resorted to the desperate assassin’s weapon of last resort, the pillow. Being an enterprising and forward-thinking sort of fellow, Phraates then had all 30 of his brothers and step-brothers assassinated—Ambien could hardly have ensured him a better night’s sleep. Those rascally Parthians!