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.


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