Dr Harry Sidebottom is a Fellow of St Benets Hall and lecturer at Lincoln College, Oxford, where he specializes in ancient warfare and classical art. He has an international reputation as a scholar, having published widely on ancient warfare, classical art and the cultural history of the Roman Empire. Harry is also a presenter on Ancient Discoveries for The History Channel and the best-selling fiction author of the Warrior of Rome series.
With his first two novels in the Warrior of Rome series (Fire in the East and King of Kings), set in the fragmenting Roman Empire of the later third century AD, Harry Sidebottom shot into the charts. The mix of heroes, treachery, political chicanery, and brutal warfare, combined with a fine literary style and and a sound academic background, made these two blockbusters the kind of books that truly deserve the clich page-turners.
On the publication of the third in the series, Lion of the Sun, Roger Michael Kean interviewed Dr Harry Sidebottom, asking about his influences, his real and fictional characters, writing techniques, and the genesis of his historical hero, the Romanized barbarian Ballista.
In the first place, as an academic, what made you turn to historical fiction?
Since a child I have always enjoyed reading historical fiction I grew up reading Alfred Duggan, Mary Renault, and Graham Shelby, and a lot of others and also writing it. It just took me a long time to get my courage up and try and get it published.
You have said that Ramsay MacCullens Enemies of the Roman Order showed you that history should be ideas-led. Could you clarify what you meant by that, and do you think it should also apply to fiction?
Too many students of the Classical world define the parameters of their research on the lines of I will study X body of evidence and see what turns up. Now there is a place for this. But I find MacMullens approach, where you ask a question (or come up with a model, or hypothesis, or whatever you want to call it) and then test it against the evidence we have, much more fun.
All fiction is better if there is some sort of big moral or philosophical idea in play. Each of my Warrior of Rome novels tries to raise a question that both was important in the ancient world and is still of relevance today.
Where do you stand on the historical fiction versus real history debate?
I think the division between the two is far from total. Historians and historical novelists do many of the same things: you choose what you will read/look at for research, excerpt the bits you want to use, string them together in a certain order, nuance them to try to nudge your reader to the conclusion you want. In some ways the barriers between the two are more fluid now than they have been since the end of the nineteenth century. Several leading academic historians have been experimenting with novelistic forms. See the late Keith Hopkins, A World Full of Gods; also Simon Schama, Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations; and Jonathan Spence, The Question of Hu.
To what degree do you believe historical fiction should be faithful to the historical events and, indeed, to what degree do you think the historical sources are themselves accurate (at what point do historical sources become fiction or, at least, biased?)
Unsurprisingly, I think historical novelists should respect history. In the Warrior of Rome novels the surface story of Ballista and his familia is almost entirely invented (what little we know about the historical Ballista is all in the third novel, Lion of the Sun). But the background, the political events as well as the social history of the time, both the externals the food, weapons, clothes etc and the attitudes and values, are as real as I can make them. I think it is important, when you deviate from history to let the reader know in the Afterword or somewhere.
All sources have an agenda and need careful analysis; that is a large part of the pleasure of doing ancient history.
The Historia Augusta (which I suspect has influenced many later historians) shows Gallienus in the worst possible light: Gallienussurrendered himself to lust and pleasurecontinuing in luxury and debauchery, gave himself to amusements and revelling and administered the commonwealth like a boy who plays at holding power At the battle outside Mediolanum in Lion of the Sun, you appear to give him credit for being a much better person, but can you indicate how his character in the book will develop in The Caspian Gates?
Gallienus is fascinating. The Latin sources, including the Historia Augusta, portray him as a degenerate, ineffectual tyrant, while the Greek sources see him as an essentially good emperor struggling against adversity. Possibly the former were influenced by how very badly he got on with the Senate. In the novels I want to blend the two images into one. Gallienus plays a major role in the next three Warrior of Rome novels. His growing closeness to the divine needs watching.
You refer to the Historia Augusta as being (by the mid-third century) free historical fiction and untrustworthy, and yet, with so little else to go by, how much did you use its narratives in constructing your own version of events?
The Historia Augusta is one of my all time favourite texts from antiquity (Doing my first research under Tony Birley, one of the great experts probably had an effect). Why did an unknown author some time around AD400 write a series of imperial biographies pretending to be six different individuals writing about one hundred years earlier? Why, about half way through the life of Heliogabalus, did he give up any serious pretensions to be limited by historical fact? In my novels I use it more for characters than narrative. I like the idea of taking ancient fiction and using it for modern ends.
The Historia Augusta paints the elder Macrianus as an upright, virtuous Roman of the old kind; in this you deviated from the source in as much as your Macriani are delightfully loathesome. How much of this characterization was derived from your own research/belief and how much is it a plot ploy?
Macrianus the Elder is an upright Roman in the Historia Augusta, but the Historia Augusta is fiction. In Eusebius, History of the Church, Macrianus is a devious, murderous schemer, but Eusebius History is propaganda. In the novels, mainly for plot-driven reasons, I went with the propaganda image, and then added some.
In the first two books particularly, your view of early Christianity and Christians comes across as mixed; how do you feel about the faith at this period (particularly bearing in mind middle-American sensitivity to any criticism)?
Learning a lot about early Christianity (or maybe better Christianities the heretics are just the sects that lost) was one of the keenest pleasures so far of writing the novels. The early Christian martyr acts are wonderful, atmospheric propagandist novellas. The Christians seem to have gone out of their way to make themselves as weird as possible in pagan eyes; not just denying the existence of the pagan gods, but being pacifists, downplaying the importance of the biological family, undermining conventional social status, consuming the body and blood of their god, meeting in the dark, and voluntary martyrdom; all that shouting I am a Christian, and I want to die!
The mid-third century is an obscure period to most readers. What drew you to place your story at that time?
A mix of reasons. It is a period of fast change but poor sources, so intrinsically interesting to a historian. I had studied it for years. Very few novels have been set in the period. The lack of good evidence, and the absence of modern popular preconceptions, brings a certain freedom.
You are clearly well placed to undertake literary research for the novels, but how much physical research do you do, trekking around the archaeological sites?
I started out as an archaeologist, and think there is no substitute for boots on the ground. I take at least one research trip a year for the novels. Last year, for Lion of the Sun, I went to Cyprus and Mersin province Turkey (ancient Cilicia).
Has the local geography or the topography of a place you have visited ever influenced any plot lines or made you alter a previously planned situation?
Usually I plan the scenes carefully before I travel; so I know where the characters will go, and thus where I will take the notes and photos. Sometimes I leave it more open. For example for the battle of Sebaste in Lion of the Sun, all I knew was that Ballista had fought the Persians there, so I left it until I was exploring the modern village of Ayas before plotting the chapter.
Does that mean that your characters are also carefully plotted before writing, or do you allow the story and characters to develop, as it were, under their own steam?
I try to get the main plot/time lines in place before I start. As the series goes on the main characters are becoming ever more real to me, almost taking on a reality independent of me; sometimes they say and do things that surprise me.
Ive pointed out in reviews that you deliver a geographically ordered framework in the big battle scenes so often a failing in novels, leading to reader confusion. How do you set out to write a battle?
Like a general I draw scale maps, cut out bits of cardboard of the frontages of units, move them about all very carefully choreographed. The thing is to get the big picture over to the reader, even if the characters only see a small, confused part.
Very little is known about the real Ballistas background, even his nationality (although theres no reason why he shouldnt have been one of the earlier Teutons like Bauto, Arbogast, Ardaburius, Stilicho, Aspar et al to rise to military power in later decades) but was the choice of his being an Angle a conscious decision to make him more appealing to a British readership, or was there a deeper meaning behind his nationality?
There were various reasons for making Ballista Germanic. As an academic I wanted to play with the ideas advanced by a friend of mine, Hugh Elton. In an excellent book, Warfare in Roman Europe AD350-425, he argued that barbarian generals like Stilicho et al were more or less completely Romanized. I wanted to explore how true that was likely to be would a man completely forget the culture of his early life? As a novelist, I wanted Rome observed by a (semi-)outsider. Ballista is an Angle because I have long had an interest in the Saxon Shore Forts. The first of these were built in the late third century AD. I would not be surprised if Ballista ends up defending or attacking them.
Have you any wish to write about a Roman (or other) period where there is a great deal more contemporary source material extant, or would this be more of a hindrance than a help?
HS: I want to write about the period just after the death of Alexander; his generals have helped him conquer most of the known world, now they have to work out what to do with it. I would also like to write modern thrillers. I suspend my judgement whether more source material will help or hinder.
RMK: How important to you are maps in the books?
The maps are vital to my books. Ever since I was a kid reading Tolkien, I have loved maps in a book. In mine they help the reader know what is happening, and maybe learn a bit of geography, just like I did when researching them.
Did you suffer second-book nerves, and was King of Kings more difficult to write than the first, Fire in the East? (I had the feeling that, owing to the historical framework, Ballista had to be found work to flesh out the central section, not that this was uninteresting far from it but it meant the driving narrative force of the first book was more subdued in book two until the climactic ending. Lion of the Sun has, again, a more linear drive from start to finish.)
Fire in the East had a deliberately simple plot. With King of Kings I wanted to write a more complex novel. The central section of King of Kings, the persecution of Christians in Ephesus, was conceived as the heart of the story. It is the big moral question the novel raises: how is a good, but basically irreligious man to act in the face of religious extremism?
I may be wrong, but I had thought the Warrior of Rome series was to be a trilogy; thats obviously not the case, with The Caspian Gates coming next year. I see the titles The Nomad Sea and The Amber Road are also slated. Are these in the Warrior of Rome (Ballista) series as well?
The Warrior of Rome novels were always seen as an ongoing series I jotted down rough plans for no fewer than seventeen initially but (and here is a very pretentious, Oxford Classics Don bit) influenced by Tacitus in the Annals, I wanted each three books to form a trilogy within the whole. From Fire to Lion we are in the Near East. With The Caspian Gates, The Nomad Sea, and The Amber Road, we move via the Black Sea to the north.
You say in your notes that you admire the work of Bernard Cornwell and Alfred Duggan did you ever read Wallace Breems Eagle in the Snow? In many respects, it would seem in a similar vein to Warrior of Rome.
I read Eagle in the Snow at school, and very much enjoyed it. When Breems other Roman novel, The Legates Daughter, was re-released a few years ago, I enjoyed that as well.
Other than Cornwell and Duggan, do you read novels of the period by other authors (eg: Simon Scarrow, Conn Iggulden, Manda [M.C.] Scott, Ben Kane, Lindsey Davis et al)?
No unless I am reviewing them for the TLS, I tend not to read novels set in the classical world. I want my fiction based on my reading of the primary evidence and modern scholarship, and I do not want other novelists ideas getting in the way.
I read somewhere that you do not rate the Roman novels of Colleen McCullough (Masters of Rome series), would you care to explain why?
Like in so many historical novels which pretend to be set in Rome, her characters are modern western people in fancy dress; utterly anachronistic in attitudes and values. Also, the one I reviewed, The October Horse, was just far too long.
Finally, can we look forward to a deliciously lurid portrait of Zenobia?
Most def (as characters say in The Wire). Not sure how lurid it will be I need to do a lot of reading/thinking about her before I make up my mind. So far, in Lion, what little we know of her ambitious in unwomanly areas of politics and war, keen on culture, uses sex as a way of controlling her husband comes via Bathshiba, so might be wrong. But she has provided Odenathus with a new heir; which might prove awkward, as he already has one from his previous marriage.
‘Warrior of Rome III Lion of the Sun‘ by Harry Sidebottom is published July 22nd, 2010. You can read Roger Michael Kean’s – very positive, it scores 9/10-review of the book here. Looking for more modern authors that successfullytackle the Roman Empire? Dr Sidebottom shares his Top 10 Modern Writers on Roman History with Lyn.