Hadrian’s Wall. For me, that’s where it all started. Several childhood summers spent exploring the forts and watchtowers along the northern frontier, imaginary sword in hand. All with one eye trained north—checking for the oncoming horde.
There’s something about Ancient Rome that keeps a tight grip on our collective imaginations. As a setting, it provides a perfect playground in which to set books, films, TV shows and even video games. The historical figures from the period continue to intrigue us—especially the mad, bad emperors. Here, I’ve picked out five novels which use Ancient Rome to construct different types of stories: from pure historical dramas, to crime, to science fiction—and even included a novel written during the period itself!
I, Claudius / Claudius the God by Robert Graves
I’ll start off by cheating: these are actually two books but are often presented together, and were filmed as one for the acclaimed TV show featuring Derek Jacobi as the Emperor Claudius. Written as an autobiography—as a historian himself, Claudius is known to have written one which is now sadly lost—Graves’ book covers the period from the reign of Augustus through to the ascension of Nero. It brings to life the different characters of each of the early emperors: particularly interesting, I think, is the brooding Tiberius—an emperor whose reign tends to gets overlooked especially when compared with the more colourful rules of those that followed (i.e. Caligula!). Roman religious belief systems, and the inclusion of the prophetic Sibyl, also provide fantastical themes which run through the book.
The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis
Roman novels often center on big battles that formed or defined the Empire. The Silver Pigs instead uses the Roman backdrop to set up a mystery, relating to the smuggling of silver ingots, or “pigs.” We are soon introduced to our proto-private detective—a Roman called Falco—who is hired in by the Emperor Vespasian. Of course, there was nothing like a modern police force in Ancient Rome but, just like in modern detective fiction, Falco’s investigations allow him to poke his nose into both low and high society—including forming a relationship with a woman of high birth—and thereby gives us a view of Roman life away from military camps and palaces.
Romanitas by Sophia McDougall
Ancient Rome has long marched successfully within the genre of science fiction and fantasy. Of course, Rome has provided a model for many alien civilizations and their rulers, but my interest centers on alternative history: what are the key moments that define our timeline, and make things as we know them? Within Romanitas, McDougall explores what the world would be like if the Roman Empire had survived to contemporary times: complete with mechanised crucifixes, magnetic railways … and the continuation of the Roman system of slavery. Part of a wider trilogy, the plot revolves around a conspiracy at the heart of the imperial system. Of course, Rome doesn’t have things all its own way, and there remain competing empires just across the water…
The Satyricon by Gaius Petronius
No, I’m not claiming to have read this! Written in the 1st century AD, this piece of Roman-era fiction is nevertheless an important part of the jigsaw through which the society of Rome has been reconstructed. Not all of the book has survived—there are large chunks missing—but what has made it to the present day is undoubtedly both historically and culturally significant. No doubt the most famous passages relate to the feast of Trimalchio, a former slave who liked to flaunt his money (and thereby shows that “new money” is certainly no recent phenomenon). The feast includes a bizarre scene where the host “rehearses” his own funeral; inflating his ego as he stretches “dead” on a coach and watches how his guests react as he listens to their mourning. But the Satyricon also tells us something very important about Rome: it was a dynamic society. Slaves didn’t need to remain slaves; and the rich couldn’t count on remaining rich. Everyone wasn’t too far away from ending up back in the gutter.
Imperium by Robert Harris
Aside from the Emperors, there’s probably no single individual from Ancient Rome that has a better known name than Cicero. In Roman fiction, however, Cicero is often presented as a secondary character. Not here, though, where he takes centre stage (albeit told through the eyes of his secretary, Tiro). The plot revolves around a courtroom battle in which Cicero made his name and, perhaps, became the most accomplished orator in history. The court case itself involves accusations that a Roman governor has overstepped his authority during his term of office, and Imperium therefore provides a great evocation of what political and social power actually meant in Ancient Rome, corruption and all.
Top image: Centurion (2010)
Daniel Godfrey has had several short stories published, including in My Weekly and Writers’ Forum, and is a dedicated reader of SF and historical fiction. He studied geography at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and gained an MSc from Leeds in transport planning. He lives in Derbyshire. His first novel, New Pompeii, is out now from Titan Books.