Roman History Through a Hundred Novels
Second and Third Century
Memoirs of Hadrian by the celebrated French writer Margaret Yourcenar presents a civilizing Hadrian, humane and eager to spread Greek culture with Roman rule. Much of the action seems to take place in Hadrian's mind, giving the novel a static quality. Geoffrey Trease's Message to Hadrian lives up to its subtitle as an adventure story as a young British orphan explores wider and wider roads leading to the proverbial focal point of all roads. Rosemary Sutcliff's exciting The Eagle of the Ninth, aimed at younger readers but without compromise of thought or language, explains the disappearance of a legion and the discovery of an eagle in a story which ends in Isca Dumnoniorum, modern day Exeter.
Walter Pater's Marius the Epicurean, taking place during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, concerns itself more with philosophy than history. Robert Pilpel's Between Eternities alternates between the enlightened rule of the philosopher-emperor and the reign of terror of Commodus, the gladiator-emperor. Ron Burns' Roman Nights shows sleuth Licinius Severus meditating on the philosophy of his emperor Marcus Aurelius while attempting to foil the felonious Commodus. (Burns' other Licinius Severus narrates Roman Shadows in the first century BC, a mystery most interesting for its antipathy to Antony and sympathy for Cicero.) Andivius Hedulio by Edward White shows Commodus killing elephants with arrows and ostriches with clubs while a conspiracy to murder him unfolds.
Duggan's Family Favorites recounts with historical accuracy the incredible rise to power of the the Syrian priest who became the Emperor Elagabalus whose grandmother claimed he was the bastard of Caracalla by one of her slutty daughters. The teenaged emperor took as lovers a male charioteer and a male prostitute before seriously violating propriety by marrying a Vestal virgin. His grandmother hopefully sent him a bevy of female prostitutes, but he hooked them up to chariots and raced them to popular acclaim. Antonin Artaud's version of the story, Heligobale, ou l'Anarchist Couronne*, opens with the olfactory image of the latrine in which the emperor's body was eventually stuffed and the sperm said to surround his cradle in the perverted environment to which he was born. The image of 300 bare-chested women leading his god's giant phallus to Rome is particularly vivid regardless of the gender or orientation of the reader.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Last Galley consists of vignettes set in chronological order, many of them through the Roman period. "Giant Maximin" tells the story of an eight-foot giant who rose to be emperor only to fall, as so many smaller politicians have, over excessive taxation.
The Christian Empire
Constantine by Frank Slaughter reads in part like a Latin pony with dozens of nouns carefully explained. Slaughter's hagiography gives us a saintly man who murdered his father-in-law, son and wife, but unlike Constantine's contemporary defenders who skipped over the deeds, Slaughter prefers to deal with and explain away the historical facts. It is an admirable effort from a historical perspective. Evelyn Waugh's Helena is equally uncritical without the virtue of either historical accuracy or the author's customary satirical verve. France's Thais is set in Christian North Africa where a courtesan is converted by an anchorite, and vice versa. The courtesan's calling a gathering a philosophers "a bunch of old goats" marks the high point of the book.
The reaction against the Christian empire receives a sympathetic portrayal in Gore Vidal's Julian*. Letters between two of his mentors document his struggle with his intolerant "Galilean" enemies. Julian's journal shows his plan to restore the old gods in a temperate and tolerant fashion. Dmitri Merezhovsky's Death of the Gods presents Julian as less sure of himself than Vidal's, and the Christians are less villainous, making the story a little blander. The Dutch writer Helga Haasse's Threshold of Fire describes Christian persecutions of virtuous pagans, centering in 414 AD. Nostalgic crowds taunt Emperor Honorius with chants of "Minerva" or "Games" when he makes one of his rare visits to the capital.
Beacon at Alexandria by Gillian Bradshaw follows Charis, a maiden of Ephesus, who flees a forced marriage, impersonates a eunuch, and becomes a physician with surprisingly modern views on hygiene, bleeding, and dissection. A strong feminist message pervades this story of the era of Theodosius I. Helen Mahler's Empress of Byzantium focuses on the Empress Aelia Eudoxia, the daughter of an Athenian philosopher who married Theodosius II. The emperor, his wife, and his sister Pulcheria (later canonized) are all in love with the same male courtier and each other, forming an intriguing incestuous, bisexual quadrangle. The action takes place amidst an attempt to reunify the Eastern and Western empires in the 5th Century. Imperial Purple by Bradshaw invents the story of a coup attempt in a later period of the same emperor's reign, showing the action through a dyer of cloaks and her fisherman husband, working together with Pulcheria to assure a worthy successor.
The Fall of The Empire and After
Cecilia Holland's Death of Atilla describes the army of the Huns in disarray after the wedding banquet and death of their leader who leaves a vacuum after his death. Events on the fringe of the Roman world are moving quickly toward the center by this period. Wilkie Collins' Antonina tells of the sack of Rome through invented characters because, Collins notes in his preface, stories where historical figures form the main characters must necessarily falsify some details. Antonina, an innocent Roman maiden, becomes a pawn in the pagan plots of Ulpius. The Goth who falls in love with her incurs the wrath of his countrymen in a tried and true Romeo and Juliet plot, but the style is as elegant as that of Collins' better-known works. Stefan Zweig's The Buried Candelabrum* pursues the menorah stolen from the Temple by Titus and removed from Rome during a sack by the Vandals. The seven-branched sacred object was made of gold to increase the respect in which even pagans would hold it and to preserve it for the Jews who pursue it even after the empire falls.
The end of Roman rule in Britain has its own literature. This book's preface claims that writers turn to Rome in their old age. Late Roman Britain also forms the setting for Jack Whyte's recent novel The Skystone, which tells the tale of the meteoric rise of a local blacksmith. Duggan's The Little Emperors takes place after the empire has sent word that Britain is on its own and describes the competition for the right to rule as Romans. John Cowper Powys Porius, restored to its full original length in a recent edition, takes place over eight days in 499 AD, marking the transition toward Arthurian legend with the familiar characters of Mallory and Tennyson appearing under their Welsh names.
Graves' Count Belisarius tells the story of the title character's Job-like sufferings at the hands of the Emperor Justinian, territory also covered by Bradshaw's The Bearkeeper's Daughter, which focuses more on the actress-prostitute Empress Theodora. Gary Jenning's Raptor traces the career of the hermaphroditic Thorn who didn't allow his/her condition to act as a bar to a highly active and varied sex life while helping Theodoric in his attempt to restore Roman ways. George Gissing's unfinished Veranilda highlights the architecture and religion of ancient Rome in the difficult era of the 540's. Cecilia Holland's Belt of Gold describes 9th Century Constantinople through the eyes of one of Charlemagne's knights stopping off on the way home from a Crusade, but in spite of the presence of Blues and Greens, this moves us into another period of historical fiction.
Finding and Evaluating Historical Fiction
Finding fiction by setting or subject is possible through a number of sources. Most of the bibliographies I will mention are from my own country, the United States.
Nield's A Guide to the Best Historical Novels and Tales (1925), arranged by century, provides older titles with bare descriptions of their subject. Logasa's Historical Fiction went through nine editions before changing its name to A Guide to Historical Fiction for the Use of Schools, Libraries, and the General Reader (1971). Books are arranged by century with short descriptions and are mostly juvenile. Books come and go between editions, so all editions are relevant. The fullest one-volume work is McGarry and White's Historical Fiction Guide (1963, 1973). Books are arranged by era and place and the listings are extensive.
Hartman and Sapp's Historical Figures in Fiction (1994) indexes by real historical characters such as Nero. Now Read On (1990) lists works by related authors with complete lists and suggestions as to what author someone who likes another author should move to next.
Fiction Catalog, 13th Edition (1996) can be used with maximum thoroughness by going back through all editions. It is selective, describes books well with snatches of reviews, and is indexed superbly.
NoveList by CARL is a CD-ROM-based database issued quarterly. It already has extensive listings for many eras and places and gives signs that it will grow in importance.
Evaluating historical fiction after you fnd it requires different rules. Even readers who do not demand historical accuracy want to know when they are getting it. While imagination is permissible, counter-factual invention causes frowns. Robert Graves' four categories previously mentioned form a framework for an analysis. We may borrow Cartesian coordinates from algebra to make a playful system of categorizing historical novels. I have called "knows his stuff" "history" and used it for the x-axis. I have taken the liberty of calling "writes convincingly" "story" and used that for the y axis. Four novels reviewed above are given as samples of the system.
Needless to say, all novels with an asterisk (the ten best out of the hundred plus discussed) fit into the first quadrant. It could be argued that one would pick Duggan over Flaubert writing about history, especially if learning or experiencing history is part of the goal of reading.
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