The past is said to be another country, and thus historical fiction fascinates because it has the power to transport us into different worlds. If one goes all the way back to Antiquity, the transition can be quite jarring for the reader, and yet fascinating because while people will always be people in so many ways, the culture and belief structures was very different than our own. For five hundred years, Roman society was a cradle democratic government (alongside Greece of course). But Rome quickly grew from a city-state to cover an area so vast and its government corrupt and inefficient that the republic ended up being replaced by an Imperial state with a series of autocratic rulers.
I have been a fan of Robert Harris since I read Fatherland, and he has written a trilogy centered on the life of the great Roman orator Cicero entitled Imperium. The first volume of this fictional biography is told form the viewpoint of his secretary (and slave), writing of his master’s first steps as a provincial outsider and his rise as an orator and philosopher before going into politics and fulfilling his goal of becoming one of the most influential Consul in Roman history. Though it is not light reading, it provides the reader with an insider view of the Roman government, its key players, and their struggles for absolute power. A believer in republican ideals despite his own personal ambitions, Cicero would witness the civil war that would bring Julius Caesar to become dictator, as well as his downfall.
Masters of Rome is a series of novels by author Colleen McCullough, set during the last days of the old Roman Republic. It is one of the best series of fiction for those interested in learning in depth about what it was like to live in ancient Roman society. The books come complete with maps, timelines, and glossaries of Latin terms used, which allows even newcomers to stay with story. The cast of The First Man in Rome is large, a who’s who of the figures that helped shape what was the “known world” of last century B.C., but it centers on the rise of general and statesman Gaius Marius and the power struggle that pitted him against the conservative aristocracy, most of whom regarded him as an upstart plebe. Though Marius and his wife Sulla’s alliance was instrumental in bringing about the end of the Roman Republic and the rise of the empire, the series is told by people of all classes and walks of life. The author takes great care in respecting historical accuracy but also makes it fun and exciting to read, both for the personal dramas as well as the larger history lesson.
If you are more interested in the Roman world of its ordinary citizens (and non-citizens), there are series like Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn. Thea is a slave girl from Judea, who survived the sacking of Jerusalem only to be sold to a Roman heiress. Thanks to her wits and musical skills, she becomes her mistress’ rival for the love of a gladiator, and eventually confidante to Emperor Domitian himself. If you enjoyed the HBO miniseries Rome, you will be in your element in this story, with action, drama, and romance included in the mix.
The Eagle series by Simon Scarrow focuses upon two main protagonists: grizzled veteran Quintus Licinius Cato and the more bookish newbie Lucius Cornelius Macro, who are both Roman soldiers taking part in the invasion and occupation of Britain by Julius Ceasar. This series is for fans of adventure/military tales with lots of action.
Even though Roman society did not have “detectives”, they did have delators – private informers who reported crimes to the courts. I was unaware until recently of how vast a selection of detective fiction is set in Antiquity, and they offer a refreshing variation on the Victorian/contemporary stories.
Marcus Didius Falco is known as “The Informer” and is the narrator in a series of historical mystery novels by Lindsey Davis set in Imperial Rome during the reign of Vespasia. The tales read much like our more modern detective novels and Falco’s description of his world is tinged with cynicism and, more surprisingly, a good dose of humor. Of humble Plebeian origins, Falco has to endure grim trials and misfortunes, and he often has to rely on his fists as much as his wits to get out of situations alive. In his first adventure, entitled The Silver Pigs, he is plunged into a political conspiracy involving stolen silver ingots (also known as “pigs”) and the murder of a senator’s niece. If you do get hooked on the series, it is interesting to note that Falco’s daughter, Flavia Albia, eventually takes up the mantle of her father in later volumes.
In his acclaimed SPQR mystery series, John Maddox Roberts takes Readers back to the late days of the Republic. Decius the Younger is a more cultivated “finder” than Falco, and comes from a powerful family and is involved with such figures as Pompey and Caesar. Despite being another veteran, he relies more on his brain and wit rather than his brawn to resolve problems. He also has the help of several interesting companions during his investigations, including slaves, a gladiator/physician, and a crooked political agitator. His adventures are told in flashback form as he is writing his memoirs at the time of Octavian’s reign. In A Point of Law, Decius, now raised to the rank of senator, must defend himself against accusations of corruption and even murder, while exploring some of the roots that led to the collapse of the republic’s political system.
If you are looking for something “new” and different in your leisure reading, I encourage you to have a look.