Historical Novels in the Classroom
Although from 1970 till recently, historical novels have not normally been reviewed in Classical World, nevertheless Classical World provides a good overview of the historical novel in antiquity because of Edith Farr Ridington's capsule reviews between 1958 and 1969 and Hazel Beall's lists of ancient historical novels between 1959 and 1963). Also, a surprising spate of good novels (most of them murder mysteries in the first person, private eye vein of Raymond Chandler) prompted me to review 9 of these (from 84.5 on), as well as a few examples of bad Roman historical novels.
Part of my interest in historical novels comes from having had as a student Sharon Kay Penman, a professional historical (albeit medieval England/Wales) novelist whose talks to my history classes on her techniques confirmed the value of using selected historical novels in my civilization classes.
An interesting cautionary note on seemingly fictionalized details is her comment about the storm scene in Simon de Montfort's last battle in Falls the Shadow.
"The wild thunderstorm that broke over Evesham field during the battle was not a novelist's indulgence. So violent a storm was it that men invested it with a superstitious significance out of all proportion to an act of nature; one chronicler even compared it to the tempest that raged over Calvary as Jesus Christ was crucified. And Simon's son Bran did arrive at the battlefield in time to see his father's head upon a pike."
This is useful to remember when reading the Roman novels, since many of the writers use details that seem unlikely but come from their researches into areas often ignored in our textbooks. As Steven Saylor, author of Roman Blood & Arms of Nemesis and, like most of the others, not a professional classicist, says (letter to me),
"I try to be absolutely true to known facts. When writers consciously introduce impossibilities into historical fiction for their own convenience, it drives me crazy. (E.g., all the inaccuracies Thornton Wilder concedes in his introductory note to The Ides of March, such as using people in his story who would actually have been long dead...). This is not to say that many events do not lend themselves to interpretation & revisionism -- like events in our own lifetime....But I do make a great effort to be accurate about dates, sequence of events, where characters actually were at a given time, etc. ... I love finding little details about an obscure person or place and realizing I can work them into my story."
In a historical novel, I look minimally for an absence of errors in chronology, prosopography, topography and realia. Cicero should not hold his consulship in 130 BC or before his quaestorship. The author writing about Julius Caesar should not equate "patrician" with "aristocracy" and "plebeian" with "urban poor". This does not mean authors may not create unhistorical characters and let their careers (and characters) develop as best suit the interests of the novel - provided that the development does not fly in the face of acceptable procedures of the time.
If authors knowingly alter history or characters to further their plots (as Thornton Wilder does in The Ides of March), I expect a note (preferably a substantial foreward or afterword) explaining what really happened and (perhaps) why they made the change. The best historical novels, from the historical standpoint, will also capture the spirit of a specific era, the sense that this is what that time and those people were like - not only in actions but also in mind-set.
As Joan O'Hagan, author of A Roman Death (Doubleday, 1989) says (letter to me), "I think that to catch the spirit of the times is the important thing, even at the sacrifice of strict historical fidelity. On the highest level I suppose a writer could produce historical nonsense that is at the same time a work of art. Or he can (as Evelyn Waugh did in 'Helena') write a book that is soundly based in what actually happened on the broad historical plane & create in Constantine's mother Helena a character who brings tears of joy to your eyes. And behind his satire, Waugh seemed really to get into the minds of Constantine & the others. You felt they might very well have thought just like that."
Ideally, a good historical novel should be a good read and historically instructive. A great historical novel, e.g., Mary Renault's The King Must Die or The Last of the Wine, will also be memorable, the characters 3-dimensional and the statement of the human condition instructive. Wilder's Ides of March, despite its dislocating of chronology, is a great historical novel.
The problem with evaluating historical novels is one of personal perspective. The reader looking for a Christian message against dark paganism may not care about the background (offices of characters or furniture in a room) as long as the message is right & nothing is incorrectly used from the Bible, while the Roman historian/Latin teacher may demand accuracy of background and fidelity to historical characters and events but disregard literary quality.
The literary critic looks at plot and style, perhaps without caring much about the background or the historical fidelity. The few top straight novelists who have written Roman historical novels, like Thornton Wilder, John Hersey and Colleen McCullough may care a bit less about historicity, though the best research a great deal, even if they ultimately disregard some of what they know to be historically true in favor of specific effects.
What use can classicists, especially teachers of history or Latin, make of novels of this sort, especially these recent murder mysteries? Historical novels provide a painless entry into another culture, and murder mysteries have their own forward-driving dynamics. A careful (i.e., historically correct) writer who links these two genres can provide entertainment and instruction at the same time. When I structured my latest "Daily Life in Ancient Rome" course around four novels (SPQR, Petronius' Satyricon, Silver Pigs, and Apuleius' Golden Ass), supported by Tingay/Badcock and Carcopino, my students enjoyed not only the interesting presentation of a side of Roman urban daily life not normally covered in most texts, ancient or modern, but also the slightly disorienting culture clash that comes from seeing Rome as an analog of a Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler universe.
Jeffrey L. Buller's recent (1989), Historical Novels in the Classroom, a 44-page booklet on the use of Roman historical novels in class, mainly secondary level (available from the American Classical League #B806 for $4) is a good source if you have never used historical novels as class supplements or readings.
Other major resources include the following:
*Adamson, Lynda G. A Reference Guide to Historical Fiction for Children and Young Adults. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.
420 pages of reviews arranged by author, with good discussions of the techniques of the various authors.
*Irwin, Leonard. A Guide to Historical Fiction (For the Use of Schools, Librarians & the General Reader. McKinley Bibliographies, vol 1, 10th edition. Brooklawn (NJ): McKinley Publishing Company, 1971. Pp. 225.
2025 historical novels listed, 180 ancient, 117 Rome and ANE, 45 Rome (excluding Palestine and Juveniles).
*McGarry, Daniel D & Sarah Harriman White. World Historical Fiction Guide: An Annotated, Chronological, Geographical and Topical List of Selected Historical Novels, 2nd ed. Metuchen (NJ):The Scarecrow Press, 1973.
Includes 495 novels from antiquity, with 43 from Rome & the West to 31 BC; 180 from Roman Empire/Christianity to 180 AD; 43 from Roman Empire/Christianity, 180-400 AD. Listings include author, title, publisher and publication date plus one or two brief sentences giving subject matter and evaluation.
To focus on novels only from antiquity, turn to Beall and Ridington in Classical World.
Hazel Beall, "Historical Fiction on Classical Themes" , Classical World 54.1 (October 1960), pp. 8-12, was followed by a Supplement (54.6, Mar 61) and a Revised List (57.1, Oct 63).
The first 2 listed in tabular form 326 novels (including juveniles) with 191 set in Roman times and rated as Young Adult or Adult. For each she gave author, title, grade level (for most of those in 54.1), subject (in 2-5 words) & (for most in 54.1) Beall's recommendation. Note that her Not Recommended rating is specifically "a warning that there is too much of the sensational for indiscriminate use by the immature."
The revised list included 458 novels, but those newly added often lacked some of the earlier details. However, the revised list gave a publisher & publication date (though not always the original).
Edith Farr Ridington, "Some Recent Historical Fiction, 1", Classical World vol. 52.4 (January 1959), pp 101-104. Her subsequent 17 installments (which from #6 on added "& Juveniles" to the title): #2 (52.7, Apr 59); #3 (55.1, Oct 61); #4, 5 & 6 (56.1/5/9, Oct 62 & Feb/June 63); #7 & 8 (57.2, Nov 63 & 57.8, May 64); #9 & 10 (58.1 Sept 64 & 58.6 Feb 65); #11 & 12 (59.3, Nov 65 & 59.8, Apr 66); #13 (60.9, May 67); #14 (61.6, Feb 68); #15 & 16 (62.4, Dec 68 & 62.9, May 69); #17 (63.4, Dec 69); #18 (64.3, Nov 70).
Most books get a paragraph summary review, often with an indication of appropriateness for younger students. These very useful and often lively capsule reviews are not, of course, limited to Roman novels.
Among the best of the recent novels set in Rome are the following:
Lindsey Davis. Silver Pigs: A Detective Novel in Ancient Rome. (Crown Publishers, 1989). CW 84.5
John Maddox Roberts. SPQR. (Avon, 1990) (pb). CW 86.1
Steven Saylor. Roman Blood. (St. Martin's, 1991) CW 86.1 (Cicero's "Pro Sexto Roscio Amerino")
Also of note:
Colleen McCullough. The First Man in Rome. (Morrow & Co, 1990). 896 pages on Marius and Sulla
O'Hagan, Joan. A Roman Death. (Doubleday, 1989) (Cicero defends a fictional Helvia on the charge of murder. Includes extensive excerpts from a [fake] Cicero speech.)
Wagner, John & Esther. The Gift of Rome. (Little-Brown, 1961). Pp. 224. (Cicero defends Cluentius on trial for murder.) CW 55.1 (9)
Two groups of novels, with some overlap, demand special notice: (1) the murder mysteries of Davis, Roberts & Saylor and (2) the murder mysteries centered on Cicero court cases (real or fabricated) of Saylor, O' Hagan, and the Wagners.
It is fun to read Davis' accounts (3 so far, with another due this spring) of Marcus Didius Falco, her private informer who helps Vespasian, Roberts' tales of Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger, his aristocratic politician, contemporary of Cicero & Caesar, and investigator, and Saylor's novels or short stories about Gordianus the Finder, his lower class riddle solver (about contemporary with Decius) because the novels are well-written, with interesting fictional characters, lots of action, & a strong cast of real historical people that you already know (& therefore can project what they are going to do and can play what you know about them against the new revelations of their real motives - as shown by the authors). In addition, all 3 authors weave in copious but unobtrusive detail on social & political mores plus backdrop descriptions on foods, fixtures & assorted realia. Despite their occasional minor slips in details or Latin, you can enjoy the novels yourself or, for sufficiently mature classes assign these novels. Have your students read them and analyze them against what they already know.
A particularly interesting exercise if you are studying Cicero, especially the murder cases, would be to read Saylor's Roman Blood (in which you get the real truth behind Roscius' guilt), & The Gift of Rome by John & Esther Wagner (to find out the truth about the bribery in the trial of Oppianicus and the attempted poisoning of Cluentius). Both novels take you behind the scenes, bring the characters of Cicero's orations to life, & give a picture of Cicero the lawyer & person which may be rather what you thought all along but could not prove. If you move on then to read O'Hagan's A Roman Death, you can examine the truth behind Cicero's defense of Helvia on a charge of poisoning -- though beware of the kickers in the ending, even past what you assume is the ending. The extra final kicker is that the speech that is gotten behind and quoted liberally from by O'Hagan is completely her own brilliant fabrication, one
which T P Wiseman predicted was going to send bring O'Hagan many letters from readers asking for the best text of the [non-existent] Pro Helvia.
Historical novels can be a lot of fun for those who already know the characters and the history, but they can also be very instructive to those who are not or only slightly acquainted with the periods and places, provided they read the right novels. If teachers will choose the novels carefully and provide needed correctives and explanations, students will learn without conscious effort. Once started on a well-written murder mystery, who can stop without getting to the explanations at the end.
Stockton State College Fred Mench
Classical World 87.1 (Sept-Oct 93), pp.49-54, by permission of the Classical Association of the Atlantic States.
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