Saturday, 28 August 2010

Rules for Writing Historical Fiction Set In Classical Times

As an addendum to the previous post and in the manner of An Awful Warning, here's a re-post of some rules which originally appeared in Solander, oh, a long time ago.

Rules for Writing Historical Fiction Set In Classical Times
Sarah Cuthbertson

I. Your Greek male characters must be philosophers, pederasts or homosexuals (but see Rule V). NB re Spartans: for 'philosophers' read 'stoics'. Your Greek females must be priestesses, nymph(omaniac)s or poets of the Sapphic persuasion. NB Spartan women should be wives/mothers/daughters who invariably instruct their menfolk to return home from war with their shields or on them.

II. Your Greek characters must always be witty, eloquent, learned and wise. (But see Rule X subsection v). Your Romans, though intellectual pygmies with no sense of humour or irony, can be relied upon to use the ablative absolute correctly when quoting Virgil or Cicero (which they must do at least once during any novel in which they appear).

III. Civilian Romans of either sex must (except for your Hero/Heroine) be any combination of decadent, fat, sleazy, grasping, politically corrupt or sexually depraved. They must be either bald (male) or afflicted with a high-rise hairdo (female). They must wear togas in all circumstances, however impractical (even the women). They must always consume (preferably to excess) stuffed dormice and braised lark’s tongues at least once during any novel in which they appear.

IV. Commissioned officers in the Roman Army must be anal-retentive control freaks with arrested libidos that can only be jump-started by comely Barbarian captive maidens. Such officers must always say, “The Roman Army is the greatest war machine the world has ever known” at least once during any novel in which they appear.

V. All Greek soldiers are Noble Heroes. All Barbarian warriors are Impassioned-But-Hopelessly-Disorganised Heroes. All Roman legionaries are Plundering (or Blundering) Rapists. The Plundering (or Blundering) Rapists must always win. (There’s a lesson here somewhere).

VI. Barbarians must always be portrayed as politically-correct Noble Savages, especially if Celtic. They must embrace sexual equality and be in total harmony with Nature and the Mystic Elements. They must always lose the battles but win the moral high ground (whatever that is), especially against The Greatest War Machine The World Has Ever Known. That’s probably the aforementioned lesson (see Rule V).

VII. In battle against Greeks and Romans, Barbarian chariots always have scythes on their wheels, never mind that blades would do more damage to themselves than to the enemy. Britons must paint themselves with designer woad before going into battle. This is not optional.

VIII. Your Hero must find slavery, crucifixion and gladiatorial combat Morally Repugnant.

IX. Despite the evidence of Cicero, Pliny the Younger and various Roman tombstones, slaves are always ill-treated except of course by your Hero (see Rule VIII). Revolting slaves are invariably idealistic, selfless proto-Communists who want to change the world. They are never just people who want to go back where they came from.

X. Miscellaneous Rules

i. Roman roads never have bends in them. Therefore they must always be described as “arrow-straight” (NB for the sake of variation, “spear-straight” is an acceptable alternative).
ii. Christians are always Persecuted, usually by lions.
iii. Jews are invariably Stiff-Necked. Sometimes they are also Biblical (or Apocryphal).
iv. Druids are usually to be found looming out of Celtic mists to incite rebellion. Some of them are women.
v. All doctors are both quacks and Greeks.
vi. All Roman emperors are devious psychopaths with speech impediments who marry their sisters, appoint their horses to the Senate, fiddle while Rome burns and die from eating poisoned mushrooms (or dormice or larks’ tongues - see Rule III).

Novels Set In Roman Britain

I did this list for an archaeology forum but thought it might be fun to post it here. I've asterisked my personal Top Ten. Do let me know if I've missed any.



Island of Ghosts (Sarmatian cavalry on Hadrian’s Wall, late 2nd century. Plenty of atmosphere and authenticity)*

Dark North (North African troops in Britain in the reign of Septimius Severus)


Legions of the Mist (what happened to the Ninth Legion, but probably not)


The Silver Pigs (first Falco mystery, partly set in 1st-century Britain. Wryly amusing with lots of authentic detail)*

A Body in the Bathhouse (Falco is sent to investigate murder around Chichester and Fishbourne Roman Palace)


Hadrian’s Wall (set in 4th century. Implausible characters doing implausible stuff and the subtitle A Novel of Roman England doesn’t inspire confidence in historical accuracy)


Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls (USA: Medicus)*

Ruso and the Demented Doctor (USA: Terra Incognita)*

2nd-century mystery series about an army surgeon based in Deva who becomes a reluctant sleuth. Perceptive, atmospheric and often wryly amusing.


The Little Emperors (Britain and the fall of the Roman Empire)

Roman, Go Home! (Roman noble and British princess at end of Roman Britain. Nice touch of humour in Roman Empire-British Empire parallel, if I remember rightly.)


Aurelia Marcella mysteries set in c. 100AD on the road to York – Aurelia runs a mansio.

Get Out Or Die, A Bitter Chill, Buried Too Deep


The Eagle and the Raven (from Caradoc to Boudica via Cartimandua, historical romance.)


Claudius (Claudian invasion of Britain, the one with the elephants)

Hero of Rome (Boudica again but from Roman side for a change)


The Bridge of Sand (set during the governorship of Agricola, c 80AD, with Juvenal (yes, that Juvenal) as a junior army officer sent on a mission)


People of the Horse (Boudica, again but not too much romance)


Empire: Wounds of Honour

Empire: Arrows of Fury.

Roman military adventure series set on Hadrian’s Wall late 2nd century


Boudica, Queen of the Iceni


Libertus mysteries set in Roman Gloucester in late 2nd-century:

The Germanicus Mosaic, A Pattern of Blood, Murder in the Forum, The Legatus Mystery etc.


Roman military adventure series of which the first 5 are set during and just after the Claudian invasion:

Under the Eagles, The Eagle’s Conquest, When the Eagle Hunts, The Eagle and the Wolves, The Eagle’s Prey

Lots of thud and blunder, effing and blinding. Spawned imitators (see RICHES, JACKSON)


Dreaming the Eagle, Dreaming the Hound, Dreaming the Bull, Dreaming the Serpent Spear (highly original take on Boudica, with lots of shamanic dreaming and complex relationships)


The Mistletoe and the Sword (Roman soldier and foster-daughter of Boudica. Good mix of adventure and romance)


Imperial Governor (Boudica story from Suetonius Paulinus’s point of view. Solid soldierly stuff; author even made me sympathise with Suetonius)*


Eagle of the Ninth (quest to find Eagle standard of the “lost” Ninth Legion, soon to be a film)

The Silver Branch (Carausius)

The Lantern Bearers (end of Roman Britain. Full of atmosphere and impending tragedy)*

The Mark of the Horse Lord (gladiator on quest to Caledonia, 2nd-century, I think. Dark and moving.)*

Frontier Wolf (cavalry adventure on Hadrian’s Wall and beyond, 4th century)

Outcast (boy cast out by tribe, sent to Rome as a slave, struggles to get back to Britain)

Song for a Dark Queen (Boudica, from both British and Roman perspectives. Absorbing, elegaic)*

These are billed as children’s fiction but all of them make satisfying reads for grown-ups too, especially The Mark of the Horse Lord, Song for a Dark Queen and The Lantern Bearers (which foreshadows RS’s masterpiece, Sword at Sunset - written for adults – the definitive Arthurian novel, in my view).


The Gods Are Not Mocked (Druid priestess and Roman lover in time of Caesar’s 55BC invasion)


The Dark Island (Romans vs Caratacus. Brutal but affecting – great sense of “being there”)*

Red Queen, White Queen (Boudica)


Three Six Seven: The Memoirs of a Very Important Man (end of Roman Britain through the eyes of someone who doesn’t see it coming)


Cast Not The Day (4th-century Britain)


The White Mare and The Dawn Stag (Tribal resistance to Agricolan campaign in 1st-century northern Britain, romance/fantasy.)

The Boar Stone (4th-century, same area, same genre)


The Horse Coin (Boudica-lite, but interesting)*

Good sources of titles: (searchable database by title or period)

Steven Saylor’s website: