Supping with Glaucus: A Tour of Roman Historical Fiction

From kingdom to republic to empire, the ancient Romans have transfixed the imagination of the ages, inspiring bestselling novels, plays, poems, movies, and TV productions (not to mention several nations and more than a few dictatorships). Throughout 2009, Steve Donoghue will trace their pomp and circumstance in "A Year with the Romans."

Historical fiction is a minefield, and explosions can come from anywhere. Have a fifth-century Assyrian turn a door-handle before entering his philandering lover’s bedroom and your book could cross the desk of some ossified nonagenarian who’s studied Assyrian door handles his whole life and wants nothing more than to tell the world how wrong, wrong, wrong you got it. Tangle your twelfth-century monkish main character in torturous daydreams about one of his young apprentices and you might have some avant-garde French literary theorist yelling that twelfth-century monks didn’t have apprentices, and that nobody was gay anyway until roughly mid-September 1938. Write the simplest thing about the daily life of your heroic Flemish wool merchant and you risk having Derwent Snodgrass (author of The Systematic Cowardice of Flemish Wool Merchants, a Comprehensive Survey from 912-1765) say mean things about you in Granta.Of course writing any kind of historical fiction renders you vulnerable to the cudgels of expertise. Your purpose is to craft a good story, not necessarily to complete a doctoral dissertation, so factual slip-ups are bound to occur. Since ancient Rome in all its centuries and incarnations is generally so well documented and so schoolroom familiar, it has naturally attracted an inordinate share of historical fiction aspirants.  

Just look at all the elements that draw those aspirants like slugs to mud: a plucky city-state that works its way up to being a world-straddling empire, a civilization that at first glance seems comfortingly familiar to the modern day (whichever modern day that might be), a mercantile sensibility largely free of the exotic orientalism of so many other ancient societies, and most importantly, all those larger-than-life characters just dying to live again: Cato, Cicero, Sulla, Marius, Antony and Cleopatra, Augustus, Livia, Caligula, Nero, Justinian, Theodora, Belisarius, Julian the Apostate … and of course Julius Caesar, who’s proven so irresistible to writers of all ages and capacities that he remains the only historical figure to be dramatized not only by William Shakespeare (whose Cassius unknowingly invokes such a profuse future when he says “… how many ages hence/Shall this our lofty scene be acted over/in states unborn and accents yet unknown!”) but also by the writers of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Ancient Rome has managed to menace everybody from Tarzan to the X-Men to Captain Kirk – mainly due to writers being certain they don’t need to explain too much to their harried audiences.This very quality of name-brand recognition has guaranteed that Roman historical fiction will sport more than its fair share of the errors experts love to hate. In all of historical fiction, books set in only two time-periods outnumber those set in ancient Rome – Regency England and the Old West of America – and in both those cases, gaffes are easier to sweep behind the tapestries, because the huge majority of readers in those two other settings aren’t especially looking for accuracy. They want escape, so they they’re willing to turn a blind eye to their authors omitting the rampant venereal diseases of the Regency period as long as their authors are willing to turn a blind eye to cowboys merrily rogering each other during long lady-free cattle-drives.The stakes are slightly different when it comes to fiction set in ancient Rome, since so many of its readers have been encouraged by Rome’s very ubiquity to consider themselves homemade experts. When an author has a hung over Marc Antony rush up the steps of the new Temple of Ceres to meet a strumpet, most readers of Roman historical fiction will be irritated rather than titillated, angrily emailing each other that the new Temple of Ceres wasn’t built until the reign of Caligula, and strumpets be damned. When I’m reading a potboiler set in first century Rome and hear a character blurt out “Zounds!” or “Forsooth!” – well, let’s just say the web of the spell is torn a bit.And authors of such fiction can be keenly aware of this, which is why so many of them over-load their books with carefully-researched facts. You’ll never read a Regency romance that has footnotes, but you can hardly read three Roman historical novels in a row without finding them, often massed in great ant-armies as though documentation were a novelist’s first duty – or proof against graver defects.That’s the peril of pedagogical pedigrees: they tempt you to think that if you’ve got your facts all lined up, the rest of the, you know, novel-stuff will take care of itself. It doesn’t, O reader, it doesn’t! Of the ten best-selling historical novels of all time in the modern era (i.e., dating roughly from the heyday of Charles Dickens), fully half are Roman historical fiction, and the earliest of these was penned by a confidante and contemporary of Dickens, a man whose novels often outsold those of Dickens, and a man whose name is remembered now for the literary contest named after him, a contest specifically devoted to bad writing. In 1983 the English Department of San Jose State University began the Bulwer-Lytton Contest to find the worst first lines to horrible novels not yet written, boldly staking out their territory:

The contest was created to fill a need. Most literary contests are inherently unfair, favoring as they do talent, sensibility, and intelligence. They are snooty affairs that only encourage the tyranny of the talented, rewarding a favored few by perpetuating a talentist chauvinism. They are callously neglectful of the mediocre masses, those who might be authors if they had any craft, vision, or message.

The contest (in its 26th year, now located at – “where the www stands for Wretched Writers Welcome”) is named after Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), a bestselling Victorian author whose 1830 novel Paul Clifford begins with the now-infamous line “It was a dark and stormy night.” In his own day, Bulwer-Lytton was perhaps best known for writing the first of those modern blockbusters set in ancient Rome: 1834’s The Last Days of Pompeii, and it has an, er, unforgettable opening itself:

“Ho, Diomed, well met! Do you sup with Glaucus tonight?” said a young man of small stature, who wore his tunic in those loose and effeminate folds which proved him to be a gentleman and a coxcomb.

Someone thinking of defending Bulwer-Lytton (as I often unwisely am myself) might point out that both those openings could be a lot worse. “It was a dark and stormy night” is instantly evocative, and that robust hailing of Diomed not only instantly involves the reader but also teases slightly – that “a gentleman and a coxcomb” has a twinkle in its eye.But alas, Bulwer-Lytton apologetics die a swift death: he really was a horrible author, not least because in The Last Days of Pompeii is absolutely loaded with pedigree. It isn’t enough for Bulwer-Lytton to footnote – he weaves his careful research directly into his narrative as research:

Advancing up the vestibule you enter an atrium, that when first discovered was rich in paintings, which in point of expression would scarcely disgrace a Rafaele. You may see them now transplanted to the Neapolitan Museum: they are still the admiration of connoisseurs – they depict the parting of Achilles and Briseis. Who does not acknowledge the force, the vigor, the beauty, employed in delineating the forms and faces of Achilles and the immortal slave!

You’d think such interruptions of exposition would stomp to death any possibility of dramatic tension left in a book that could hope for very little to start with (we know how the story ends) – and you’d be right! And yet, The Last Days of Pompeii was a massive best-seller. Another of those all-time top-five Roman historical novels, I, Claudius by Robert Graves, was published in 1934, exactly one century after The Last Days of Pompeii, but a glance at virtually any of its pages shows you the same penchant for fact-piling:

Before I close this introductory chapter I have something more to add about the Sibyl and her prophecies. I have already said that, at Cumae, when one Sibyl dies another succeeds, but that some are more famous than others. There was one very famous one, Demophile, whom Aeneas consulted before his descent into Hell. And there was a later one, Herophile, who came to King Tarquin and offered him a collection of prophecies at a higher price than he wished to pay; when he refused, so the story runs, she burned a part and offered what was left at the same price, which he again refused.

Graves’ novel about the emperor Claudius is crammed with such passages – blocks of exposition quarried from Suetonius and Tacitus and lowered into place like pylons throughout Claudius’ first-person narrative of his life up until the moment of his elevation to the purple (the book’s sequel, Claudius the God, takes this penchant to Olympian heights – fully half the book is an extended excursus on the life and times of a minor character). Although Graves invents a little dialogue here and a few interpretive theories there, the sheer amount he leans upon his more entertaining ancient sources raised some critical eyebrows when the book first appeared. One man’s feast is another’s famine, as John Hersey noted in the afterward to his 1972 Nero novel The Conspiracy:

One of the glories of Tacitus is that under his sure hands time becomes something like a viscous amber fluid – clear, slow moving, shot with iridescent glints and strange refractions: and Suetonius cares less for chronology than for kicks. Thus I seemed to have some scope in ordering things, and I have let myself use it.

And although The Conspiracy is, despite its author’s manifest ability, a relatively lifeless affair (as is the seemingly obligatory Roman novel by Thornton Wilder, The Ides of March), I, Claudius, despite its author’s lecturing indulgences, is every bit as entertaining to read as The Last Days of Pompeii – and the same grace attends each of the other five despite their individual flaws. The darkest of these flaws (refreshingly absent from Graves and too silly to be taken seriously in Bulwer-Lytton) is anti-Semitism – the emergence of a new religion called Christianity, destined to supplant and then subsume Rome itself, gives predilected authors an opening to put their own drawing-room rants safely in the mouths of doomed pagans, as in Lew Wallace’s bestselling 1873 “Tale of the Christ” Ben Hur, in which the arrogant Roman Messala mockingly taunts his childhood friend Judah ben Hur:

Oh, I understand you now! Ishmael [the new high priest], you say, is usurped, yet to believe an Idumaean sooner than Ishmael is to sting like an adder. By the drunken son of Semele, what it is be be a Jew! All men and things, even heaven and earth, change; but a Jew never. To him there is no backward, no forward; he is what his ancestor was in the beginning. In this sand I draw you a circle – there! Now tell me what more a Jew’s life is! Round and Round Abraham here, Isaac and Jacob yonder, God in the middle. And the circle – by the master of all thunders! The circle is too large. I draw it again –" He stopped, put a thumb upon the ground, and swept the fingers about it. “See, the thumb spot is the Temple, the finger-lines Judea. Outside the little space there is nothing of value! The arts! Herod was a builder; therefore he is accursed. Painting, sculpture! To look upon them is sin. Poetry you make fast to your altars. Except in the synagogue, who of you attempts eloquence? In war, all you conquer in the six days you lose on the seventh. Such your life and limit; who shall say no if I laugh at you? Satisfied with the worship of such a people, what is your God to our Roman Jove, who lends us his eagles that we may compass the universe with our arms?”

  As the patronizingly pious 19th century gave way to the more cynical 20th, these extended portraits of Christianity’s march to triumph become increasingly tempered, and they change in tone, as writers disillusioned with the modern Church take the opportunity to slight the ancient Church. It’s no coincidence that the Roman emperor celebrated novelist Gore Vidal chose to dramatize is Julian, who attempted to reverse the empire’s conversion to Christianity. The thread Robert Graves weaves through I, Claudius and Claudius the God that mentions Christianity as at best a bizarre background-distraction is taken up by Anthony Burgess in his own 1985 fictional epic of the early Empire, The Kingdom of the Wicked, which shuttles between stories of the early Church and Technicolor versions of Suetonius’ twelve Caesars. Burgess is probably the best prose stylist ever to write about ancient Rome, and he uses the period time and again to demonstrate his familiar theme – that everything in the world is always and in every way just getting worse and worse:

So the Emperor and his entourage climbed back to the imperial box and air unpolluted by rage, sweat, fear and kindred emanations. The Empress, stupid bitch, was there. She rose on Nero’s entrance and, as he did, remained standing to bow to the loyal roar of the crowd. The crowd was huge: sure sign of a prosperous Empire, this massive afternoon leisure. The hydraulic or water organ was footed and growled chthonian thunder. It was the voice of a coarse and pampered citizenry wearing the collective blue cap of a flawless placid heaven. The weak voice of Vergil’s ghost called them to collective virtue, but they wondered what team Curgil or Purvil had played for.

Other writers take the ruefully philosophical undertones of Burgess’ book and put them front and center of their own Roman historical novels, almost always with deplorably dreary results. Hubert Monteilhet, in his unexpected French 1984 bestseller Neropolis (translated into English by Christopher Robinson in 1988), at least keeps the proceedings lively, as when a character tries to explain the virtues of Stoicism to the novel’s approachably stupid main character Kaeso:

I don’t know any more about religion than I do about philosophy, but one thing seems obvious to me. In our good old Roman religion, the gods have multiplied to the point where there’s one for every human activity – soldiers, gladiators, lovers, thieves. Every virtue has a god to protect it – and so does every vice. I think there’s something deeply significant about looking at the world in that way. In the Iliad which we read so much at school, and which you know much better than me, the gods take up human causes of the most pedestrian and contradictory sorts. What matters, for a pious man, is surely to devote himself to the interests of someone who can protect him efficiently, ward off the blows and assure him of good fortune. That way, if the gods exist, you’ll always find one to match your own interests. And if they don’t, there’s all the more reason for following your own star, isn’t there?”

But such restraint is abandoned by some of the more windy novels in question, including the two incontestable worst offenders. There’s Hermann Broch’s 1945 tome The Death of Virgil (translated into English by Jean Starr Untermeyer), in which occur innumerable passages like this one:

“Caesar, there is always scope enough for human responsibility; man performs his duty well or ill, and even though it be time that prescribes the sphere of his task, even though he may be unable to exert an influence upon it, his responsibility to his duty remains unchanged and independent of the modifications in the realm of the task: his duty is to duty.“And I cannot admit that the course of duty is altered through time … man bears responsibility for the duties and tasks which he has set as the goal of his actions; at all times he has to adjust there to the community and to the state, and when he fails to do so, then the time is formless. Man, however, has to shape time, and he shapes it within the state; this constitutes his highest duty.”

(Impossible to give an example from the other offender, Marguerite Yourcenar’s 1951 Memoires d’Hadrien, since if memory serves it’s a 288-page unbroken single sentence)

Thankfully, almost in explicit reaction to this kind of heavy freight, there are innumerable Roman historical novels that positively revel in the kind of what-happened-next stories the Romans themselves so unabashedly loved. At one end of the spectrum of these particular books are hordes of sword-and-sandal gladiator novels undistinguished by even the smallest breath of originality of evident research (a notable exception being Richard Ben Sapir’s deceptively intelligent 1978 novel The Far Arena, even though it’s about a Roman gladiator who gets frozen in ice and revived in the present day – proof, if any more was needed, that a talented writer can make any premise work). Certainly in this category – if usually further up the spectrum – would fall the many ongoing murder mystery series set in ancient Rome, featuring sleuths of varying degrees of believability. John Maddox Roberts’ SPQR mysteries feature a slightly tetchy young aristocrat with a “nose for snooping;” Lindsey Davis’ books feature an underdog Imperial informer trying to do the right thing; Steven Saylor’s books starring problem-solver Gordianus the Finder are by far the most literate and substantial of this lot; and David Wishart’s Marcus Corvinus mysteries are by far the most abandoned in their channeling of Sam Spade:  

The first guy I saw on the steps of the temple of Juno Monesta was Caelius Crispus. He’d been giving me a wide berth since our run-in over the Ovid affair, which was fine with me because the oily little pratt made my stomach crawl. However, he knew more about the ins and outs of the Treasury building than a cockroach knows a cookshop, so I gave him the big hello.

(It must be added here that the what-happened-next urge can also be over-indulged with abandon; the most hideously protracted recent example of this – indeed, the most protracted example of this imaginable in a sane world – must surely be Colleen McCullough’s series of novels that began in 1990 with The First Man in Rome and continued with gruesome remorselessness through six 1000-page novels of stultifying minutiae, the entire flotilla beginning with the rise of Marius in 110 B.C. and concluding with the immediate aftermath of the death of Julius Caesar in 47 B.C. You feel certain that if Caesar himself had been forced to slog through these things, his last words would have been “Thank you, Brute”).It’s to this solidly plot-driven stratum of novels that belong the very best stuff that Roman historical fiction has to offer – including the remaining two of that top five, Howard Fast’s Spartacus and Henryk Seinkiewicz’s Quo Vadis, which, despite having been written way back in 1896 (and featuring its share of those smug we’ll-tell-you-so Christians), also manages to be a wonderful, sad, funny story about the mad emperor Nero and his entirely too-sane master of revelry Petronius, through whose observations Seinkiewicz so often interjects moments, quite lovely pauses into his headlong tale (as in this bit from W.S. Kuniczak’s remarkably good 1993 translation from the Polish):

Meanwhile Petronius sat beside Pomponia and enjoyed the sunset, the garden and the sight o the figures clustered by the fish pond. The setting sun gilded their white tunics and togas against the dark backdrop of the myrtles. The evening sky turned into deeper violets and purples; the roof of the sky glowed lavender and lilac, as opaque as opal. The cypress trees stood black and stark against the sinking radiance, their silhouettes harsher than in daylight, and the quiet stillness of the evening settled on all of this, falling upon the trees, the people and the entire garden.

  Among this type of Roman historical fiction you’ll find a library’s worth of lively, fascinating reading, from Paul Wellman’s account of Emperor Justinian and his scandalous Empress Theodora in 1953’s The Female to Florence Seward’s story of Emperor Trajan’s rise to power in 1961’s Gold for the Caesars, to Wallace Breem’s gritty tale of the 5th century in 1970’s Eagle in the Snow to Ernest K. Gann’s celebrated story of the siege of Masada in 1970’s The Antagonists. In 1965 Robert DeMaria wrote Clodia, a novel of the tempestuous love affair between Catullus and his Lesbia (here, as everywhere, assumed to be Clodia Metelli), and eight years previous to that book, W.G. Hardy wrote a fantastic and badly overlooked novel on the same subject, his entirely thrilling City of Libertines, in which every scene is as excitingly realized as this one, where Catullus first performs a major marriage poem for an influential audience:

The door was closed. The last note rang out. Catullus brushed his hand across his forehead. He stared around him, returning gradually to reality. There was a hush about him for an instant, that quiet which is the sincerest tribute to an artist. Then came the applause in a crescendo of clapping. There were people thronging round, not only his own group but Hortensius and Servillia and Cicero and Caesar and everybody else. Above all, there was Clodia.“Nothing so perfect, ever, Catullus. Beyond all else you’ve done. Pefect.”He was flushed outside himself, a joy inside him, knowing with a part of his mind that this song had put the capstone on his reputation as a poet, realizing that, for once, he had achieved the perfection for which he strove. He accepted the first drink that was thrust into his hand and then the second. There was Metellus, he saw, gazing at him with a puzzled frown since even Metellus comprehended that this provincial had scored a triumph.

Needless to say, the star of the lion’s share of Roman historical novels – especially of this plot-driven kind – is Gaius Julius Caesar, who’s so well-documented that virtually all of the novels devoted to him merrily air his dirtiest laundry, real or rumored – as in 1976’s The Alexandrian by Martha Rofheart, in which Cleopatra tries to help our balding Casanova count up his conquests:

I had asked him how many women he had had; it was quite light by then, and I saw his face clearly; a little spasm, perhaps of humor, passed over its stillness. He shrugged and said, “Counting war prizes, and brothels, and a hospitable night in some friend’s house … ? Oh, perhaps a thousand or so …”I think now that he mocked me, laughing inside; I believed it then. It did not bother me, somehow, but some dark feeling prompted me to ask, “And what of the boys …”“Oh,” he said airily, “I was not counting them … and they are in the dim past of my youth.”

Or are they? In the next year, William Bostock wrote I, Cleopatra and the subject comes up again:

“They say Caesar has a hard heart,” Apollodorus said.“I could soften it,” I [that would be sexy little Cleo, of course] cried confidently.“Cleopatra, you are exquisitely beautiful, but you have had no experience with men,” Apollodorus said.“So much the better,” I explained. “My innocence and youth will appeal to Caesar’s jaded flesh.”“Yes, but in the meantime,” Apollodorus said, “perhaps Caesar’s jaded flesh, at this very moment, is being stirred by the youth and beauty of King Ptolemy.”I stared at Apollodorus, surprised at this statement.Apollodorus shrugged. “Well, Ptolemy would not be the first king to bed with Caesar. They say Caesar is the most Greekified of all the Romans. The world remembers the story of Caesar and King Nicomedes of Bithynia.”“Yes,” I recalled with a sigh.

(One of the only consolations of seeing a worthless worm like Caesar so endlessly evoked in novels like these is how exceedingly much the novels themselves would have upset him)Of all the contenders, my personal favorite of these smart, kinetic Roman historical novels is Robert Harris’ lean, understated 2003 work, Pompeii (a fitting termination point for our little tour, bringing us back to where Bulwer-Lytton started us off), which starts two days before the famous eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79. The subterranean rumblings that always precede such eruptions have broken Aqua Augusta, the mighty aqueduct supplying the Bay of Naples with all the drinking and bathing water it takes for granted, and Attilius, a taciturn young engineer, has been sent out from Rome to find the source of the problem. Neither he nor any of his grumbling recruits nor anybody else of course knows the incredible events that are coming their way, but Harris plays on his readers’ sense of this inevitably in cunning and thoroughly effective ways that seem never to have occurred to poor lollygagging Bulwer-Lytton. When some of Pompeii’s corrupt and arrogant grandees convene to discuss the prophecy a sibyl made about their up-and-coming town, they hear exactly what they want to – but we hear something quite different:

She saw a town – our town – many years from now. A thousand years distant, maybe more … she saw a city famed throughout the world. Our temples, our amphitheatre, our streets – thronging with people of every tongue. That was what she saw in the guts of the snakes. Long after the Caesars are dust and the Empire has passed away, what we have built here will endure.

___Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He hosts the literary blog Stevereads and is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly.Join the Open Letters facebook pageReturn to the Main Page