The times they are a-changin’

There are many works of Roman political and military fiction, but few set in the late era like SONS OF ROME, and none with such a unique dual viewpoint as the story is told in turn by two different protagonists each voiced by a different author. Sons Of Rome, which releases today, is the creation of  Simon Turney and Gordon Doherty, who have more than 50 novels between them. I’m delighted to have Simon on the blog today.

So, in writing historical fiction, one of the prime requirements is trying to get our heads into the era. The further back our milieu, the harder it can be to connect with the people about whom we’re writing. Or can it? Can you imagine how different the world was at the end of the Third century? A world of pagan gods, of savagery and superstition, of autocracy and monsters? Let’s look a little deeper at it all.

The world into which our protagonists Maxentius and Constantine are thrown at the closing days of the third century is one in which religious strife is common. Christians might still have been persecuted under recent regimes, but they were also increasingly numerous and a strong sector of society even in the capital. Already, even before the Catholic Church exists (thank you, Mr Constantine), there are divisions and schisms arising. The Christian Church was still in flux at this stage, and there was no central set of tenets for an organised worship as there were once Constantine delineated them at Nicaea. As such there were many differing beliefs even within the Church, which often came into conflict with one another. Add to this the Lapsi (those Christians who had recanted their Faith during the persecutions and who now wanted to re-enter the Church) and you have something of a mess, with frequent conflict and persecution. I wonder what a Roman from 205 AD might think of our modern world with its settled religious state and lack of conflict?

With the era of Constantine and Maxentius, we are looking at a time when a once-great empire ruled by a strong and individual leader has all-but broken up due to internal pressures, both political and economic. The Rome of Augustus, Trajan and Hadrian is but a distant memory. Just a couple of decades ago, a huge chunk of the western empire had enjoyed many years as a separate and breakaway empire until brought back into the fold by the sword, and during that time the powerful city of Palmyra had done much the same with a large swathe of the East. There have been secessions, usurpers and civil wars for a century. Recently, the powerful emperor Diocletian tried to devolve the nation into more than one piece, a system called the Tetrarchy, each with their own rulers within a grand system, all in an attempt to try and halt the decay. At least nothing like that happens now, eh? Devolution and local governments, and independence sought by constituent parts of larger conglomerates… And certainly I’m sure we don’t have to worry about the rise of autocrats unsatisfied with being part of a larger machine and forging brutally conservative nations. *Coughs nervously*

Sarcophagus

Perhaps one of the most distinct differences between the empire of the late Third century and the modern world is our modern individuality, yes? Rome sought to enfold all within its grasp, whether by peaceful annexation or by conquest. Its religious policy was inclusive. Skin colour was no issue. Cultures may be disparate, but once part of the empire they were all Roman, subject to the usual low-level grumbles of the mentally myopic. This inclusiveness, added to military conquest and political machinations led to an empire that stretched from Scotland to the Sahara and the Atlantic to the Red Sea, all with Latin as the Lingua Franca, the Roman system of coinage, and the same military, political, social, architectural and engineering systems. Imagine if you could take your cash from the west coast of Portugal, cross every national border without worry, reach the east coast of Bulgaria, and still be able to spend that money? Wow, eh? But that was what it was like to be part of the empire in the third century. And if the common use of Latin empire-wide cannot be mirrored today, that’s only because Zamenhof’s language of hope – Esperanto – never gained sufficient popularity. Could the EU be the last descendent of Rome?

But at least we can content ourselves that now we are multicultural and widely-travelled. Because the third century was a land of Romans versus Barbarians, in which only the army travelled widely, surely? Perhaps not. After all, perhaps you could tell that to Barates the Syrian merchant, who married a Briton and lived in what is now Newcastle. And even to the occupants of the fort of Arbeia (‘Place of the Arabs’) there, who in the Third century were a unit of Boatmen from the Middle East. The simple fact was that traders and individuals travelled widely, and since military units were always posted far from their homeland, different accents and skin tones would be perfectly normal all across the empire. Heck, there were even tourists on Holiday. The emperor Hadrian toured his provinces and his wife visited sites of interest, including the Colossi of Memnon in Egypt, where she went so far as to leave graffiti. So you see once again, Rome in the imperial age was in a number of ways analogous to our modern world.

Barates’ Wife

At least we don’t have gladiatorial combat today. Mind you, we have cage fighting, ultimate fighting championships and the like. And I don’t think we have to look too hard to find a sport where vehicles hurtle around a track at dangerous speeds. And horse racing? Wrestling? Ok, maybe we’re not so different in that respect. And perhaps, then, we’ll go and see a comedy or a tragedy at the theatre? Perhaps we can watch some Frankie Howerd, whose monologues in Up Pompeii were derived from the works of Apuleius?

Were there differences between then and now? Of course there were. The world of Rome was a brutal one, and we have moved away from concepts such as slavery, divine leaders, organised torture and the like (for the most part). But despite the many differences you can identify, the simple truth is that we share more with our ancient counterparts than we hold as differences with them.

Remember that as you read Roman Historical Fiction and try to get your head into the mindset.

Many thanks for taking us back to the present, Simon.

Available at Amazon, Barnes & Nobel, and Indiebound.

Sons Of Rome by Simon Turney, Gordon Doherty ~~ Four Emperors. Two Friends. One Destiny.
As twilight descends on the 3rd century AD, the Roman Empire is but a shadow of its former self. Decades of usurping emperors, splinter kingdoms and savage wars have left the people beleaguered, the armies weary and the future uncertain. And into this chaos Emperor Diocletian steps, reforming the succession to allow for not one emperor to rule the world, but four.

Meanwhile, two boys share a chance meeting in the great city of Treverorum as Diocletian’s dream is announced to the imperial court. Throughout the years that follow, they share heartbreak and glory as that dream sours and the empire endures an era of tyranny and dread. Their lives are inextricably linked, their destinies ever-converging as they rise through Rome’s savage stations, to the zenith of empire. For Constantine and Maxentius, the purple robes beckon… 

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, 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.

The Splendor Before the Dark by Margaret George

Margaret George is a superb writer of historical fiction. Her novels are deep character studies, and she has tackled people from Elizabeth I to Mary of Magdalene. I had the pleasure of an early copy of her second and concluding novel about Emperor Nero.

Margaret introduces Nero and the novel:

The Splendor Before the Dark closes the life story of Nero, one of the most remarkable emperors Rome ever saw.  The era was indeed one of splendor, as well as passions, conspiracies, and outsized characters, none more so than the emperor Nero himself.   He was a complicated person, though, with many contradictory traits, and strangely modern in that he put self-fulfillment as his highest value.  In that way, I think readers of today will find him fascinating, and familiar.

My Review: Following The Confessions of Young Nero, Margaret George concludes her tale of Emperor Nero with an insightful and passionate novel of the final four years of Nero’s life. On every dimension – superb writing, feeling immersed in time and place, characters both heroic and human, authenticity, and compelling plot – The Splendor Before the Dark is a winner.

Politics and power. Throughout the novel, these two are tangled in an intricate dance where one false step can lead to tragic consequences. Despite the warnings of those who know him best, Nero is unaware of, or willfully blind to, the false steps he takes. The people of Rome are fickle. Although Nero understands that “The crowd. They can turn to beasts in an instant,” he remains convinced of his people’s love far beyond the time when popular opinion begins to shift. And with his far-flung empire at relative peace, Nero fails to appreciate the fissures that threaten his leadership and Rome’s stature: religious unrest; rebellious territories; ambitious commanders; betrayals; and resentment of the costly and extravagant rebuilding of Rome.

Underlying all this complexity—and making crucial decisions more difficult—are Nero’s conflicting personas: the dutiful emperor, the idealistic artist, and the man who allows his dark side to take over. As the novel gathers momentum and urgency, I found myself wanting to whisper in Nero’s ear, to warn him before he stumbled into further danger; before it was too late.

Margaret George tells the story through three voices: the voice of Nero; that of Acte, a woman he has always loved; and that of Locusta, a woman who specializes in herbal medicine and poisons. Through Acte we see the young Nero and his idealist and artistic side, while through Locusta we see Nero’s dark side. The author’s research and interpretation of Nero has such depth that as the novel progressed, I felt I understood Nero on an intimate level.

Here’s Locusta reflecting on Nero:

“If, all those years ago when the prospect of being emperor was a poison mushroom away, did he have any comprehension of what was waiting on the other side? … Now he had entered fully into another kind of bondage, with no deliverance as long as he lived. Emperors did not retire into private life, like philosophers. There was only one retirement for an emperor—the grave. And if he is lucky, a natural descent into it at an advanced age.”

Near the end of the novel, Nero broods on what has happened:

“There is none so blind as he who will not see.”

The Splendor Before the Dark is historical fiction at its most powerful. Highly recommended.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.