Without sneering at it, I have no taste for military historical fiction. I will do battles in my own novels, but much prefer civilian intrigue. What I like above all, however, in historical fiction is a sense of moving in a different moral environment from our own. In all times and places, people have the same basic motivations. But the way these are manifested makes any competent recreation of the past a study in oddness. Fellini described his masterpiece Satyricon as “science fiction of the past.” That’s what I try to achieve when I write, and that’s what I like to read.
Here is a listing of my five favourite Roman novels:
5. The Sword of Pleasure by Peter Green (1957) – Told in the first person by Sulla the Dictator, this shows you the rapid decay of the Roman Republic. You can smell the garlic and dirt of the City before the Emperors tried to tart the place up.
4. Child of the Sun by Lance Horner and Kyle Onstott (1966) – Convincing portrayal of Heliogabalus, the most sexually bizarre of all the Emperors. It leaves out the accusations of human sacrifice, but otherwise follows the ancient sources. You see the Empire as it was, sliding into the grip of its third century military and fiscal crisis. The book has a low reputation, and I admit that I read it when I was a boy largely as porn. It is, even so, among the best of its kind.
3. Roman Blood by Steven Saylor (2000) – Saylor’s first and probably his best. Set in the Republic just as it begins its terminal slide, the story is a detective mystery that takes us into the rotten heart of the City’s politics. What I like most is the description of the streets of Rome – the dirt and the smells. I also like the unheroic portrayal of Cicero. He was one of the greatest of men, but hardly someone you would wish to know, let alone trust. The book was one of the influences that led me to write Conspiracies of Rome.
2. I, Claudius by Robert Graves (1934) – I liked this much more when I was a boy. But it cannot be left off the list. Too many digressions for my taste – not so bad as Claudius the God, which seems to begin with a 50 page essay on Eastern politics. Nevertheless, it shows pretty well the unwitting and wholly involuntary collapse of the Empire, after Augustus, into a scary tyranny. By the way, the first edition is much better than the second, which deletes all the naughty bits about Tiberius in his swimming pool and the horrid things that Caligula did to Apelles. I suppose his influence on my own writing has been negative. If he is the Ridley Scott of Roman historical fiction, I am its Ken Russell.
1. Julian by Gore Vidal (1964) – I like Gore Vidal. I admire his writing. This is easily his best work, and easily among the best historical novels. Told in first person narrative by a double act by Libanius and a philosopher called Priscus, it takes you deep into a world already crumbling and now being pulled apart by the establishment of Christianity. The superstition and fanaticism and vicious politics of the age are all clearly on display. It is as if Gibbon had taken to historical fiction. I particularly relish the description of the aged Constantine – all sickness and artificial curls. I also like the description of the growing eunuch hegemony. A definite and positive influence on my own historical fiction.
Read Richard’s newest book with Endeavour Press, The Devil’s Treasure, here.