The Classical Background

A bookstore owner told me a few years ago that a customer had asked her, “Where do you keep the classics? You know—like Jacqueline Susann.”

What I mean by ‘the classics’ is the literature of ancient Greece and Rome. Throughout my adult life, much of my pleasure reading has been in classical literature.

My Latin is good enough that I translate Ovid’s poetry for fun. I put the results up on my website just to keep myself honest, but to my amazement, a fair number of people do read them. My Greek only equips me to annotate other people’s translations, though that can be surprisingly useful.

All this is my whim, a way I’ve chosen to spend my time. It’s no better than tying dry flies or keeping up with indie bands: it’s just different. (I think it is better than watching reality television, but I accept that others have a right to feel otherwise. They’re unlikely to become my fans, however.) Though I don’t mean that other writers should do what I do, my writing gains a lot from this classical background.

Classical literature is a great source of plots. History in general is, of course, but the classical period provides a lot of well documented but little-known events. I don’t think anybody would have known that I used Polybius’ account of the Rhodes-Byzantium War as the background for a novel if I hadn’t said so in the introduction.

Using real events let me create an internally logical but very complex pattern of diplomacy, double-dealing, and battle. Good fiction is (to my mind) about character, but not having to worry about plot consistency makes it a lot easier to concentrate on traits of character.

It helps that classical events (both real and fictional) were on a smaller scale than those of modern history. When I’m reading Tacitus about the Batavian Revolt or Vergil on the struggles of the Trojans under Aeneas, I can view the whole fabric. That makes it easier to steal the details which give weight and texture to my fiction.

You can’t base a single novel on World War II or even on the Pacific Theater. If you focus down to something which you could handle in one book—for example, the Guadalcanal Campaign—you have a grain of sand on a beach, not a small beach.

There were only fifty Argonauts, however. Their story swept across the world of their time and still resonates today.

Modern historians will give you a better grasp of what really happened than ancient sources will, but ancient writers tell you what people felt was going on. I use that emotional reality to create characters with personalities.

Some ancient historians were eye witnesses to the events they describe. For three examples:

  • Xenophon’s account of helping lead ten thousand Greek mercenaries as they marched north out of Persia is part of world literature, not just the classics.

  • Herodian, a court chamberlain, leaves a vivid description of the truly imperial funeral of Septimius Severus.

  • Ammianus Marcellinus, an Imperial Guardsman, was present for the siege and capture of Amida on the Tigris as the reborn Persian empire moved against dying Rome.

Writing like this brings the past to life because the writer was living it.

More important than plot sources, classical literature brings me in intimate contact with a foreign—the Latin word is alienus, alien—culture. When I read Ovid, Juvenal—any classical author—closely enough to really understand what they’re saying, they provide ways of thinking which are startlingly different from my own. My fictional people and cultures don’t have to be cookie-cutter replicas of the here and now.

So—there’s a general discussion of why I find classical literature useful to my writing. Next week I’ll discuss the specific sources that helped me create my new fantasy, The Legions of Fire.

I’ll add one final comment. While nobody else needs to get as deeply into the classics as I have, I think we Americans would be better off as a country if more of us regularly read at least one non-English literature in the original.

It’s pretty minor if the elves of a fantasy novel talk as though they’re auto dealers from Poughkeepsie. It’s not minor if American foreign policy is conducted by people who assume the parties on the other side of the table have the same core beliefs as the folks they meet at prayer breakfasts in Waco.


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

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