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The Hundred Best (James Hawking)

The Historical Novel Society is a an organization devoted to promoting, describing, reviewing, stimulating, and discussing historical fiction.

It published Solander, a journal containing discussions of historical novels, samples of historical fiction, news about the historical novel process, and a general celebration of the type. Historical Novels Review is a semi-annual publication reviewing novels arranged by time period. Reviews are several paragraphs long, and they tend to be a good survey of recently published historicals with a natural emphasis on British authors.

The society may be contacted at HISTNOVEL@aol.com. Membership information should be available there.

The following article was printed in Solander in 1997.


I know histhry isn't thrue Hinnessy, because it ain't like what I see ivry day in Halsted Sthreet. If any wan comes along with a histhry iv Greece or Rome that'll show me th'people fightin', gettin dhrunk, makin' love, gettin' married, owin' th'grocery man an' bein' without hard coal, I'll believe they was a Greece or Rome . . .

Finley Peter Dunne. Observations of Mr Dooley

Novelists of widely varying reputations, abilities, purposes, and nationalities have chosen to set fiction in an ancient world dominated by Rome. Fiction makes the history of Roman world come to life because fiction is freed from the constraints which make history tell the victors' story. Fiction set in the Roman era sometimes features women, slaves, so-called barbarians, children, and even pets. The 100 works of fiction which will be discussed in this paper provide a history from the Romulus' founding until the final rummaging through the ashes. In keeping with the Historical Novel SocietyÕs first steps toward establishing a canon of historical fiction, I am marking my 10 personal favorites with an asterisk (*).

Foundations and Carthage

Alfred Duggan's Children of the Wolf* opens with seven bare hills and the fratricidal foundation of Rome. Not a city in the true sense, but "an encampment of brigands," early Rome practices the mixture of brutality and clemency which was to make it great. Simple rustic spearmen, desperate for women, follow a man who claims to be the son of Mars while privately entertaining more naturalistic explanations for his mother's pregnancy.

Gustave Flaubert's Salamnbo recreates the revolt of Carthaginian mercenaries with Roman power in the background. Salamnbo, a priestess with a personal python, evokes the exotic aura of the doomed alternative to Rome. Ross Leckie's Hannibal follows the elephants through the frozen passes of the Alps, onto Italy and ultimate failure. "The cloying, rich, sweet and sickening, sticking, stinking smell of death" is the kind of phrase which typifies the novel. Whether you like the work may depend on whether you respond to this vivid kind of description of brutality. (It makes me anticipate Scipio, the sequel.) Bryher wrote Coin of Carthage about the Italian peninsula during Hannibal's invasion. A sharp Greek trader predicts a Roman triumph because they represent "a people rather than an army." Carlos Fuentes' story "The Two Numantias" focuses on Scipio the Younger's destruction of a Spanish city, using the hero's role as a patron of Polybius and a Latin language purist to meditate on fiction, history and language.

The Late Republic

The civil wars of the late republic receive irreverent treatment from John Arden in Vox Pop*, relating events between 91 BC and 81 BC. Actors and pirates become involved in the Mule Driver's (Marius's) attempts to undermine Sulla (Stain) and to foil Strychnine (Mithridates) in this view of the late republic from the perspective of the common man and his Egyptian mistress Cuttlefish.

Stephen Saylor's series Roma sub Rosa puts Gordianus the Finder to work solving homicides. Roman Blood, set in the time of Sulla's proscriptions, begins with a hungover detective approached by a slave of Cicero to work on the case of the accused parricide Sextus Roscius. In Arms of Nemesis, the hero works for a conscienceless Crassus who hopes to reap political benefit by executing his slaves at the villa where the murder took place. A charismatic Catilina and a headless corpse provide the mystery in Catilina's Riddle, a story which does not abuse our patience. The Venus Throw alternates between international intrigue and household life, with a subplot involving the poet Catullus and his enamorata Clodia. Saylor's books guarantee a meticulously accurate Roman setting and a well-plotted mystery with enough clues for reasonable deductions.

In John Maddox Roberts' SPQR, a commissioner on the first rung of the political ladder, solves the murder of a wealthy freedman. Joan O'Hagan's Roman Death portrays Roman domestic relations and the court system in yet another case of Cicero's. Benita Kane Jaro's The Key intersperses invented fiction with quotes from the poems of Catullus, resulting in a wonderfully lyrical yet ironic story of his love for Clodia.

Howard Fast's Spartacus shows the horror of Roman slavery and the nobility of the revolt. The thin and conflicting historical record of the events gives the author a chance to play Fast and loose with history, but the novel is still more accurate than the film made from it. Arthur Koestler's The Gladiators joins the Spartacus revolt in progress. Chapter titles such as "The Lofty Reasons" are in keeping with the book's stated theme - the question of revolutionary ethics. Those to whom this is appealing might turn to Koestler while the rest of us read Fast or rent the video.

Duggan's Winter Quarters follows a legionary from Gaul after the defeat of the loathsome Crassus at Carrhae. In this well-crafted novel, the Gauls join the Parthians, fighting where no Gauls have fought before, trying to fashion a name for heroism. Empire of the Eagle by Andre Norton and Susan Schwartz starts with more Roman legionaries who survive the Carrhae disaster and then fight their way through India on to China - not much history here, but there is an authentic spirit of the hardened legionary, living to fight and adapting to new circumstances.

Colleen McCollough's series Masters of Rome exhibits meticulous research and a subtle interpretation of the political history of Rome from the time of Marius through Caesar. The struggles over the laws and the forms in the late republic become personalized through the interactions of the oligarchy. By staying close to the facts of a specific time and place, McCollough, achieves a generalized portrait of politics in any era, much as Anthony Trollope does in his parliamentary novels. The First Man in Rome, beginning in 110 B.C., centers on Marius's rise to dictatorial power and the shaping of the Roman army by recruiting among the lowest free classes - the Head Count. The Grass Crown* features the aristocratic bohemian Sulla seizing Rome, upholding conservative values by an unprecedented attack on the city. Fortune's Favorites continues the story of Sulla with more of Pompey's ego and Caesar's charm added to the mix. Caesar's Women personalizes the political still more with a vivid portrait of Caesar's wives, mistresses, and female relations. Each of the volumes contains a glossary and lists of characters, making the confusing political and family relationships somewhat easier to follow. By carefully presenting her facts, McCollough seems to be daring some hypothetical pedant to challenge her flawless work. The next entry in the series is tentatively called Let the Dice Fly.

Rex Warner's Young Caesar and Imperial Caesar are told in the form of a first person narrative by the man who always said "Caesar" instead of "I." They offer little except to have provided Robert Graves as reviewer of the former with a chance to formulate an evaluation algorithm for historical fiction:

  • 1) He knows his stuff, and writes convincingly [ ]
  • 2) He knows his stuff, but writes unconvincingly [ ]
  • 3) He does not know his stuff, but writes convincingly [ ]
  • 4) He does not know his stuff, and writes unconvincingly. [ _ ]

More of this later. Thornton Wilder's The Ides of March shifts Clodius's interruption of the rites of the Bona Dea seventeen years forward, intentionally confusing it with the events around Caesar's assassination, creating what Wilder calls a historical "fantasia," evidently a synonym for mishmash. Allen Massie's Caesar is narrated by the imperator's protege, the "other Brutus." The author cleverly inserts his narrator at the center of Roman intrigue by assigning him the overextended Clodia as a lover and the undistinguished but sly young Octavian as a catamite.

The Early Empire and Early Christianity

Massie's Augustus is a self-justifying and self-congratulatory vita narrated by the first emperor. "Marcus Tullius Cicero was the cleverest man I have ever known, yet I outwitted him constantly," is an example of the kind of ironic characterization that is one of the many delights of this work. John Williams' Augustus presents the emperor's life through a series of documents giving us views such as those of Marcus Agrippa, Cicero, and Antony.. Julia's memorable diaries from Panadeteria carry much of the narrative and are the most compelling parts of this 1973 National Book Award winner. (U.S.) Duggan's Three's Company resurrects one of history's nonentities, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, Octavian and Antony's partner in the Second Triumvirate. Although politically irrelevant in his role as Pontifex Maximus, he was the last of the freely elected Roman magistrates. Gossip from Clodia ends each chapter. The heroine in Marilyn Todd's I, Claudia is fictional creation who becomes a sleuth to conceal her practice of a still older profession. The puritanical and hypocritical standards of the Augustan Age provide a moral background for this amusing mystery. The well-regarded German writer Hermann Broch's Death of Virgil captures meditations of the poet in his final illness, weaving his real poems and imagined thoughts into a unique art form of its own. Augustus tries to dissuade the poet who threatens to destroy the Aeneid.

The story of the earliest days of Christianity provides a special Roman context. The Yiddish language writer Sholem Asch shocked many of his co-religionists with a trilogy of novels favorably portraying the origins of the messianic religion. Mary shows the Virgin as a Jewish maiden weaving vestments in the Temple and then hearing an angel telling her that she will bear the son of God. The Nazarene is told from the point of view of a Roman soldier doomed to live two millennia after the crucifixion. The rediscovered gospel according to Judah Ish-Kiriot sheds new light on the Passion. The Apostle* follows Paul from flinging stones at Reb Istephan, down the road to Damascus and through the mission to the Gentiles. "Among Jews a Jew, Greeks a Greek" expresses the tone of a novel that treats pagan, Christian and Jewish traditions with respect. Graves' King Jesus, on the other hand, begins with a secret marriage between Herod's son and Mary, no Virgin in this version. The mission of the messiah here concerns Jewish politics, which may offend believing Christians while non-believers might wonder why he bothered with the story. Paul Maier's Pontius Pilate connects Pilate to Roman history through an attested relationship to Sejanus. Maier struggles valiantly to make a sympathetic character out of a model of cowardice. Anatole France's story "The Procurator of Judea" depends on a trick ending, but it is an authentic view of Jewish society through Roman eyes. Lew Wallace, an American governor of the 19th Century, wrote Ben Hur without much regard for the historical background. The prose is quaint, and the journey from galley slave to spiritual and material wealth is wildly improbable, but the story keeps even a sophisticated reader's interest nonetheless, and the attention to detail is pleasing if not particularly accurate. This book has been overwhelmed by its film versions, but this makes reading about the chariot race more visual. The Christianity in Lloyd Douglas' The Robe seems to center around relic worship. It uses the names of such characters as Sejanus and Julia, but it distorts their role and the time frame in which they lived. Then Vice-President George Bush named it his favorite book when asked during the 1988 presidential campaign.. Kingdom of the Wicked by Anthony Burgess brings together the pagan world and the early Church. The apostles are humanized by their rivalries and weaknesses, and the Roman officials are portrayed in accurately and originally.

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