Jun 11 2010 6:19pm

The Classical Approach

In my previous post I discussed what the literature of ancient Greece and Rome meant to my writing generally. Here I’ll show you how the classics have specifically affected my latest novel, The Legions of Fire.

This has two parts: first, the texts and incidents that I’ve taken from classical literature for Legions; and second, the cultural ambiance of the world which I’m describing. I’m going to start with the details.

For some reason—and I’m darned if I know why—ancient historians help when I’m preparing to write SF but don’t for fantasy. Instead, for Legions I took extensive notes from Valerius Maximus.

Valerius compiled the equivalent of Cliff’s Notes for the Roman orator who wasn’t as well read as Cicero. (Almost nobody was.) His nine books of one-paragraph epitomes (called in English Memorable Deeds and Sayings) are grouped so that a speaker who wanted a colorful story about (for example) the virtue of moderation could pull out the correct scroll and choose among Camillus, waiting till he was sure the legal forms had been fulfilled before he took command of the army; Macedonicus, ordering his sons to carry the bier of his enemy Africanus and telling them they would never perform this service for a greater man; and more than a score of other possibilities.

None of those got into Legions (they may show up in later books), but I did use mention of an aunt holding a marriage divination for her niece (Book 1, 5.4). Scholars tend to sneer at Valerius—remember my Cliff’s Notes analogy?—but he’s our only source on quite a number of things.

The marriage divination broke the mental ice on my plot, not only by giving me the 16-year-old Alphena and her young stepmother Hedia but also by creating a relationship between them in my mind. Suddenly they—and the novel—began to fit together.

Valerius also mentioned Spurius Cassius, one of the Republic’s earliest consuls, who was later executed in his home as a traitor. That story, which I amplified by rereading Livy, became important also.

Besides Valerius, I took bits from Nonnos, Silius Italicus, Aratus, the Sibylline Books themselves (of course), and many other classical sources. The language of the divination came from a Homeric Hymn to Hera, the goddess with whom Romans equated their Juno. I find it a lot easier to use a real text rather than to make something up.

Those details give Legions texture. What I think is more important—but harder to describe—is the feeling for Roman culture in which I’ve been steeping myself for the past fifty years.

It doesn’t really matter if an author setting a novel in Rome knows how the Roman calendar worked. (The Romans themselves had problems with that.) It doesn’t matter if the hero’s name is Gaius Publius Julius, even though that’s a nonsense construction and makes me wince.

It matters enormously if the hero is named Petronius and the hero’s daughter is named Julia. That mistake means the author is crucially ignorant about the status of women in ancient Rome: women didn’t have names.

A Roman woman took a feminine version of her father’s family name. The daughter of Petronius was Petronia. If Petronius had three daughters, inside the family they were called Petronia, Secunda (number two) and Tertia (number three). After they married, they were all simply Petronia.

The Romans in many ways treated women better than the ancient Greeks did. (Women in Pathan villages today are treated as well as the women of classical Athens.) Nonetheless, if you’re mentally equating Roman women with women in Victorian England (let alone with women in modern America), you do not understand Rome.

I’m writing to entertain people, but folks who read Legions can also get insight into a very different time. My Alphena and especially Hedia are smart, forceful people, but they are women of their own culture, not ours.

Finally, I’ve frequently been asked why I call the city Carce, “when it’s obviously Rome.” Legions is not a historical novel set in Rome: it’s a fantasy novel set in a world with very different metaphysical underpinnings from ours.

I decided the best way to show the distinction was to borrow the name Carce, the (Rome-based) capital of the evil empire in The Worm Ouroboros. This also lets me pay homage to Eddison’s wonderful fantasy novel, which is part of my history as surely as Rome is.

Bestselling author David Drake can be found online at; his newest novel, The Legions of Fire has just been released by Tor Books.

Rikka Cordin
1. Rikka
I should probably read your literature. Because it sounds like delicious mind candy. This Legions of Fire sounds like it was immensely gratifying to write.
Matt Hiebert
2. Peacehammer
Did you catch "Sparticus: Blood and Sand"? Probably not historically accurate but very entertaining.
3. peachy
@1 - M'sieur Drake's website has a very full bibliography. He might howl in horror at the suggestion, but The Dragon Lord could be a good place to start - brisk action, neatly drawn characters, 'realistic' (just the necessary minimum of magic) but not quite so hard-edged as some of the other stuff. And it's a one-off, so if things don't work out there's no feeling of commitment to a series. Or, if you prefer sci-fi, I've always been partial to The Voyage (which is based on the hunt for the Golden Fleece.) It's a nice place to dip your toes in the Hammer-verse, too, but like pretty much all of the Hammer stuff it's effectively self-contained.
David Levinson
4. DemetriosX
An excellent point about women's naming conventions, though I might add the caveat that there are indications that very early on, women had their own praenomina. And of course, it all broke down in the later empire, starting with the lower classes.

Petronia Secunda could also be Petronilla (i.e. Little Petronia) and younger daughters might well pick up a nickname that would stick.
David Drake
5. DavidDrake
Dear People,

I'll try another group answer. To the first four questions. (Not necessarily in order.)

Spartacus: Blood and Sand doesn't ring a bell. (I saw the movie from the Howard Fast book many years ago, of course.) I'm not good on popular culture. As a matter of fact, when a friend mentioned he was in the Farmville Community website, I thought he was talking about the town in Idaho he grew up in.


Writing is hard work and often frustrating; but yes, I take great pleasure in it. If you're doing something for any reason except that (on balance) it makes you feel good, you ought to be doing something else.

Umm. The Dragon Lord is my first novel. It's got some good stuff in it, but it's badly structured and a great deal harsher than most fantasy readers are going to want. (It's very much on the Robert E. Howard end of the spectrum rather than the Tolkien end of the spectrum.)

I think I'd recommend Lord of the Isles for fantasy (or Legions, for that matter). The Voyage would work as an introduction, but the first of my RCN space operas, With the Lightnings, would work at least as well. (Feel free to buy everything I've ever written, but I'm trying to be honest, here.)

And sure, I gave myself 750 words and used 743, so there are lots of nuances that I elided. (The evidence of female praenomina is new to me, though.)

One thing I'd have liked to add to the essay is the confusion which the lack of specific female names causes. For centuries people assumed that the Clodia about whom Catullus wrote and the Clodia about whom Cicero wrote were the same woman. I'm now convinced that they were sisters (and there was a third sister of similar habits too).

All best,
Dave Drake
David Levinson
6. DemetriosX
re female praenomina: I wish I could remember where I saw that. It was fairly recently, though. In any case, they would have been very, very early. Age of kings early, which would imply strong Etruscan influence.
7. DensityDuck
"The Dragon Lord" definitely has some clunky moments (let's all pause for a moment while this hard S.O.B. merc gives us a monologue on roadbuilding technology!) but I do think that it has its moments and is worth reading. It could certainly give some more accomplished authors lessons in how you do an action scene, and the bit where the heroes pretend to be Odin and Thor was hilarious.


You bring up an interesting point about how ancient societies treated women; and, in a roundabout way, it brings me to another of your works: "Cross The Stars". At the time I read it, I wondered why you changed the Penelope analogue from being the main character's wife to being his sister; then, when I read more about the actual context of "The Odyssey", I understood that I was looking at it from a modern viewpoint of "husband/wife is primarily a romantic pairing", rather than the contemporary Homeric viewpoint of it being master/slave or even a business relationship (Odyssey And Penelope Incorporated, Extended Voyages Our Specialty.)

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