Historical Novels in General
Davis, Lindsey, in a letter to Fred Mench
Gill, N.S., Truth: Based on Fact
Graves, Robert, Author's Note to Claudius the God
Hersey, John, in a letter to Fred Mench
MacMullen, Ramsay, The Focus of Interest in the Roman Empire
Nightingale, Dominique, Fantastic History or Historical Fantasy
O'Hagan, Joan, in a letter to Fred Mench
Roberts, John Maddox, in a letter to Fred Mench
Saylor, Steven, in a letter to Fred Mench
Saylor, Steven, Toiling in the Trenches
Robert Graves, Author's Note to Claudius the God, 1935:
"Some reviewers of I, Claudius...suggested that in writing it I had merely consulted Tacitus' Annals & Suetonius' Twelve Caesars, run them together, & expanded the result with my own 'vigorous fancy.' This was not so; nor is it the case here. Among the Classical writers who have been borrowed from in the composition of Claudius the God are Tacitus, Dio Cassius, Suetonius, Pliny, Varro, Valerius Maximus, Orosius, Frontinus, Strabo, Caesar, Columella, Plutarch, Josephus, Diodorus Siculus, Photius, Xiphilinus, Zonaras, Seneca, Petronius, Juvenal, Philo, Celsus, the authors of the Acts of the Apostles & the pseudo-gospels of Nicodemus & St. James, & Claudius himself in his surviving letters & speeches. Few incidents here given are wholly unsupported by historical authority of some sort or other & I hope none are historically incredible. No character is invented."
Lindsey Davis - in a letter to Fred Mench of 17 August 1992, in response to a letter & questionnaire he had sent.
The late John Hersey - letter of 11 Oct 1992 to Fred Mench:
Joan O'Hagan -- letter of fall 1992 to Fred Mench
N.S. Gill, Truth - Based on Fact
Courtesy of The Mining Co.
"[The historian] affirming many things can, in the cloudy knowledge of mankind, hardly escape from many lies. But the poet never maketh any circles about your imagination, to conjure you to believe for true what he writes." --Sir Philip Sidney quoted in The Bearkeeper's Daughter.
Of more than a dozen real life, personal experience essays I've sold, my son hasn't read a single one and exclaimed, "Gee, Mom, that's exactly the way I remember it." Not only is his memory and experience at variance with mine, but to make an article saleable, I've had to rearrange facts to fit the story. Although Thucydides criticized Herodotus for similar reasons, even he invented speeches to put in the mouths of military leaders.
Truth, as they say, is relative, and often the most palatable way to present a truth is through story. I used to think about writing historical fiction, particularly on Ovid's carmen et error. But before I'd written a single word, I gave up because I didn't know how to portray the petty details of life in Imperial Rome. What did they wear for underwear? What were their beds made of? What did they use for sheets? What exactly was the bathroom situation? Ignorance of these and thousands of mundane details kept me from writing and now I can no longer remember what mind boggling revelation I'd had about Ovid's mystery.
I can't begin to express my awe of historical fiction writers. They don't always include such details as above -- although those specific details are on my mind right now because I just finished reading Jack Whyte's The Skystone in which he answers them. And I know historical fiction cannot be cited as authoritative, but the writers do something we mere mortals can't -- get beyond the fact that we don't know for sure whether the ancients were the same as us or different. Novelists do not spend hours of our reading time arguing about whether the mass of Ancient Egyptians, who encountered hieroglyphs everywhere, were literate--an argument, that, if I knew more, I would love to take part in; nor do they squabble over whether the ancients had a different consciousness or sense of reality.
It's not just online Ancient and Near Eastern discussion groups that enter into these arguments. My husband and I discuss what it would be like to live in a comparatively colorblind society where the Crayola (R) colors are unknown; where pigments are expensive; where caerulean refers more to a tonal quality of the water than a specific blue or green, and purple could be pink. Although such discussions are stimulating, they're endless.
When reading historical fiction, we don't have to worry about diferent realities. The author has worked it out for us. Instead, we get to look at relationships or sequences of events that are plausible, if not literally true. For me, the fewer the glaring inaccuracies, the more I'm swept up into the work. Sometimes historical fiction reveals the past in ways I've never thought about, as, when reading Morgan Llywelyn's Druids (an indictment) on Julius Caesar, it dawned on me that he wasn't an innocent victim of a hypocritical society that kept offering him a crown which it didn't want him to accept. Similarly, through Jack Whyte's The Skystone, I can now appreciate the Romans as not merely conquerors, but also compassionate inhabitants of Britain.
E-mail above author: N S Gill
John Maddox Roberts --undated letter Jan 1993 to Fred Mench
Like most of the other authors I have contacted, Roberts is also not a professional classical scholar, though his mother was a Latin teacher & he has a friend who is a Classics professor.
The Focus of Interest in the Roman Empire. Ramsay MacMullen Classical World 57.8, (May 1964)
In the last three years. Classical World has published a list, and addenda to that list, of historical fiction dealing with the ancient world. Something over 150 titles have to do with Rome. Of these, a dozen lay their plots in Hannibal's time, a half-dozen in the following period down to Caesar; no less than 100 in the century from Caesar's floreat to Nero; then a score scattered over the period to about a.d. 300; and finally, not quite another score covering the fourth and fifth centuries. These statistics reflect with a fair accuracy the copiousness of our sources, from Polybius into the Golden Century, as it may be called from a publisher's point of view, running through Livy, Sallust, Caesar, Cicero, Suetonius, Tacitus, the Poets and the New Testament (for much of historical fiction draws on the early history of Christianity).
That two thirds of the interest should focus on one out of the (let us say) ten centuries of Roman History, and that laymen or the idly curious should have to submit to this focus chosen for them is rather startling fact. It is connected with another aspect of interest in Roman history, translation. Within the Golden Century, all the authors of the slightest merit have been rendered into English, many of them many times. Translators have ventured, however, into the third and fourth centuries also: Symphosius' Riddles twice Englished (1912, 1928), Smyrnaeus' Fall of Troy once (1913), Longus' Daphnis and Chloe five times since 1890. By contrast, non-literary writers of the same period have been neglected. Vegetius was translated in 1572, and in 1767 (a private edition), and in 1944 (an edition drawing on its 1767 predecessor to the point of plagiarism); the Anonymous de rebus bellicis in 1952; Aurelius Victor in 1693 (nothing since; the Scriptores Historiae Augustae only in 1932; Synesius only in 1926 (the Letters) and 1930 (the Speeches); and Themistius never, Libanius never, Symmachus never, the Panegyrici Veteres never, Lydus never. Herodian's name did not once appear in the lists suggested to the Loeb Library by many experts (translated 1749); now again by E. Echols, 1961), nor was the Theodosian Code available in English till 1952. There are more translations of Symphosius than of the Augustan History, more of Longus than of Ammianus Marcellinus. Historians will shudder.
But historians are themselves to blame as well. On my shelves I see Ihne's History of Rome, stopping with the death of Sulla! Mommsen's (like that old stand-by, How and Leigh) stops with the death of Caesar. Only much later could someone be made to concede that the History of Rome extended as far as Constantine or beyond (M. Cary in 1935, to 330; A. E. R. Boak in 1921, to 565). Readable biography, by which the historian best reaches a lay audience, has moved slowly past Buchan's Augustus to Tiberius (Marsh, 1931; C. E. Smith, 1942; Marañon, 1956) and to Hadrian (Yourcenar, 1954; Perowne, 1960). Certain lives like Marcus Aurelius' or Constantine', certain writings like Julian's, have drawn attention even further. And there are several historical novels dealing with the last days of Roman Britain (natural for an English audience) or with Belisarius or Attila or Theodora. Generally speaking, however, those who have concerned themselves with the Roman world would agree with the author of the Roman Revolution: "In comparison with the Republic, the history of the Empire is dull" (Syme, in vol. XI  p. 131 of CAH, a statement for which his Tacitus  is a more than ample apology). They have treated their lay readers to a narrow and often frivolous choice of periods and personages. Their dereliction is important, if the study of the past important.
The explanation for the neglect of the last two or three centuries of Rome lies partly in the nature of the evidence, partly in an accident of modern education. In Mommsen's day, Latin and Greek were often taught where ancient history was not; even now, ancient history is often an appendage to a Classics Department; and often with the modern languages also to master, a student finds it easier to approach the world of Horace and Livy by a training in languages (necessary in any event) rather than through the additional labor of a history degree. These conditions help to explain the continued neglect of periods poor in literature, and the disdain for second-rate authors. Granted, Modestus (de vocabulis rei militaris), Donatus, and Charisius repel study or translation. But the posture of retrospect in these writers, as in so many others of the third and fourth centuries, turns the reader backward. One who pursues history through literature thus not only finds Ammianus less attractive than Tacitus, Symmachus less attractive than the younger Pliny, and Libanius than Cicero; but even when he reads the late writers for their own sake, they themselves continually refer him to far earlier days of greater brilliance. They themselves encourage him, too, in the cult of letters, which was so peculiarly appealing in the late Empire. The historian by after-thought, finding in later Roman history nothing but people, goes back to books. The result is the focus by the scholar upon the Golden Century; and with the scholar's researches the translator must be content, to interpret his text, and the historical novelist must be content to supply himself with the surroundings of his story. Historians of Rome, however, are gradually venturing into periods which are from a literary point of view undeniably bleak. Great vigor shows over the past generation, in the study of Rome after Marcus Aurelius; sources valuable more for their historical than literary value have received much attention; and the emphasis of the Roman writers on their own favorite topics is less and less imitated. Take, for example, 60-odd titles of books and articles written in our century, and dealing with the campaigns and battles dear to the Roman writer: from decade to decade, the number diminishes; whereas, on the subject of commerce and industry, so despised by ancient writers, 140-odd titles show a quadrupling over the same six decades (9 in 1900-1910, in my little sample, 39 in 1950-1960). As new aspects of history arouse interest, new kinds of evidence -- coins, inscriptions, archaeology -- must be used; and these allow the study of stretches of time which are, in written sources, very dim indeed. The late Empire appears now as a kind of frontier area. And there is something significant in the fact that the foremost historian of Rome, three generations ago, was Mommsen, whose work, extending over all periods, nevertheless lay most in written sources and in the Republic, while his successor in our own century is Rostovtzeff, who chose archaeology and the Empire. But it will be another generation or two before Rostovtzeff's period attracts the novelist.
**Footnote 1 to first sentence. Hazel S. Beall, "Historical Fiction on Classical Themes," CW 54 (1960-61) 8-12; Supplement, ibid., pp. 180-184; Revised list, 1963, ibid. 57 (1963-64) 57-64. While based on Miss Beall's earlier lists, Professor Mac Mullen's conclusions (publication regrettably delayed) are probably unaffected by the 1963 revision or by one addenda available in the articles in Mr. Ridington's series (cf. Supra, p.339, n.1.). - Ed.
-Brandeis University, RAMSAY MACMULLEN
For an essay by a prolific historical novelist of over 60 years ago, read "The Purpose of the Historical Novel" by Lion Feuchtwanger. (Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, University of Southern California) at Soon's Historical Fiction Site.
This essay, "Vom Sinn des historischen Romans," was published in 1935 in Das Neue Tage-Buch.
For Comments or questions regarding this web site, contact Fred Mench