Hidden or merely unknown history?

As mentioned in Monday’s post, Exsilium is author Alison Morton’s latest novel. Alison writes thrillers and has two ongoing series: Roma Nova, an alternative history series, and Melisende, a European crime series. Today’s post features Alison’s fascination for the history of the Roman Empire, both the known characters and time periods and the lesser known ones.

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Writing historical fiction is a strange thing. Can we really understand what went through the mind of our grandparents, let alone the small tribe that founded Rome?  But having studied the sources and carried out our research, we set about it. Some write fictionalised accounts of historically attested characters, others stories with entirely fictional characters. A third, blended type, feature fictional main characters interacting with historical characters.

But it’s curious how many historical novels focus on the same periods or group of characters; Julius Caesar and the transfer from republic to empire, the Tudors, the Second World War. There’s an awful lot out there… Sometimes television and films spark interest, such as Roman-themed Gladiator, Rome, Britannia and Domina, let alone I, Claudius, The Fall of the Roman Empire and Cleopatra for the Romans.

Some historical context

Traditionally, Ancient Rome was founded in 753 BC. It grew into one of the largest empires in the ancient world with roughly 20% of the world’s population and an area of 6.5 million square kilometres at its height.

Plagued by internal instability and attacked by various migrating peoples, the western part of the empire broke up in the 5th century, giving way to the pre-medieval ‘Dark Ages’ of Europe. The last western emperor, Romulus Augustulus, ruler of a rump area around Ravenna in northern Italia, abdicated in AD 476.

Using basic maths, the western Roman state existed for 1229 years; a simple comparison would be from AD 795 to now – what a lot of history that covers!

When we think of ‘Rome’ what do we mean? 

Romulus, founder and first king of Rome 753-717 BC? The 6th century BC tribal societies whose pottery figures of gods have been found on the Capitoline Hill in Rome? Perhaps it’s Cornelia Africana, the daughter of war hero Scipio Africanus, and mother of the political reforming brothers, the Gracchi. She died at age 90 in 100 BC and was remembered by Romans as an exemplar of female virtue. 

Or do we see a soldier in his red tunic and segmented armour of the imperial period? Maybe Augustus (63 BC – AD 14), the first Roman emperor, founder of the Julio-Claudians and great reformer springs to mind? Or his influential and clever wife, Livia?

Or perhaps you think of Constantine I, called ‘the Great’ (AD 272 – 337), the first emperor to convert to Christianity? And there’s Stilicho, the half Vandal general who was magister utriusque militiae (commander-in-chief) of West Roman forces AD 395–408.

Perhaps Galla Placidia (AD 392 – 450), daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, regent for Emperor Valentinian III from 423 until his majority in 437, and a major force in Roman politics for most of her life comes to mind She was consort to Ataulf, King of the Goths from 414 until his death in 415, and empress consort to Constantius III from 417 until his death in 422.

And near the end in the west, we find Emperor Majorian (AD 457-461) who was one of the last emperors to make a concerted effort to restore the Western Roman Empire. Possessing little more than Italia, Dalmatia, and some territory in northern Gaul, Majorian campaigned rigorously for three years against the Empire’s enemies.

Caesar, Mark Antony and Augustus are widely featured in historical fiction along with Caligula, Nero, Livia, Sulla, Marius Vespasian and Marcus Aurelius. Recent excellent stories featuring ‘bad’ emperors Domitian, Caligula, Elagabalus and Commodus have emerged recently. 

Far fewer (if any) novels have appeared featuring Galla Placidia, Emperor Honorius, even his father Theodosius I of the late period, or General Camillus, Dictator Cincinnatus, the Tarquin Kings of Rome, Lucius Junius Brutus, founder of the Republic, Cornelia Africana, and Lucretia who died for the Republic in the earlier history of Rome. Elisabeth Storrs’ excellent trilogy of the Etruscan/early Roman clash which eventually ended in 396 BC is one exception.

As for enemies, we may read about Boudica, Hannibal, Caractacus, Brennus and the Senones, Zenobia, Vercingetorix, but what about Lars Porsena, the Etruscan from 500 BC, Mavia , the fourth century queen who consistently beat the Romans in Syria? If you know of novels whose protagonists are Philip V and Perseus of Macedon, Antiochus III of the Seleucid Empire, the Lusitanian Viriathus, the Numidian Jugurtha, the Pontic king Mithridates VI, please let me know. They are sometimes in the pages as enemies of the Roman protagonist, but few books feature them. Yet they were as much part of the Roman story as Julius Caesar and represented change, sometimes transition.

Why write a story in the late 4th century, a time well past Rome’s ‘glory days’?

When I picked the year of 395 AD as the pivotal year for the Roma Nova series’ historical backstory, I did so because it was an equally pivotal year for the entire Roman Empire. In a way, I was caught in my own trap. I had stated in my very first book, INCEPTIO, published in 2013, that my world of Roma Nova originated in this period. Characters in many of the modern series mention it fairly consistently. 

But why?

The “fall of Rome” didn’t occur suddenly nor was it due to one or two events. It was a gradual process with scholars disputing it down the ages. Three major factors seem to combine: the increasing incursion of barbarians as conquerors and/or settlers, the adoption of Christianity as the Roman state religion and its aggressive spread throughout the empire, and a series of weak emperors. In January AD 395, Theodosius I, the last of the tough military emperors to rule both eastern and western provinces, died. He left two young and easily led sons to lead the empire which split permanently into east and west. Although weaknesses had been developing in the empire, particularly over the preceding fifty years, everything went downhill from that point.  

Such a period of change is fascinating for a writer of fiction! But there were few novelists writing about that period. People still lived, worked, grew crops, wrote poetry, discussed philosophy and took cases to law. The Roman administration system was still in place, but taxes funding services went unpaid, bridges fell, roads were not maintained, armies fragmented and raiders abounded. And persecution of ‘pagans’ intensified with execution as the ultimate punishment for refusal to convert to Christianity. The world was becoming a great deal more dangerous. Perfect, almost unknown, territory for a writer of history.

Exsilium by Alison Morton

Exile – a living death to a Roman. Or a way to survive?

In AD 395, the Roman Empire is riven with religious conflict, dividing parents from children, brothers from sisters, and deteriorating into bitter violence. As the Christianised state stamps out all vestiges of Rome’s thousand-year religion and threatens execution for failure to convert, a group of senatorial  Roman families, resolute in their traditional beliefs and values, has no choice but to go into voluntary exile.

Maelia Mitela, on the brink of ruin when her husband dies fighting for a tolerant emperor, grieves for her son lost to the Christians and is fearful of committing to another man…

Lucius Apulius, ex-tribune, true to the old gods, fixed on the powerful memory of his wife Julia’s homeland of Noricum, will risk everything to protect his children’s future…

Galla Apulia, loyal to her father but as the eldest of four daughters only too aware of not being the desired son, and enduring the sting of personal betrayal…

A logistical nightmare, spoilt egos and heartbreak are challenging enough but the threat of forced conscription into the imperial army, barbarian raiders and a vengeful ex-spouse could sabotage their whole escape. Will courage, steadfastness and willpower be enough for them to survive?

Highly recommended!!

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY. Use the SUBSCRIBE function on the right hand side of the page.

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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One Response

  1. Thank you for hosting me on your blog today, Mary, and letting me talk about Romans, known and unknown. In 1,229 years, of its history, there;s plenty of scope for the historical novelist!

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