Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD CLASSICAL DICTIONARY ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 14 December 2018

reception in historical novels

Summary and Keywords

Reception in historical novels set in ancient Greece and Rome differs fundamentally between the 19th and the 20th/21st centuries. In the 19th century, reception was governed heavily by imperial attitudes and religious controversies, particularly in regard to claims about the true Christian faith under the Roman Empire. Hence, novels set in Rome or the Roman Empire dominated the field. In the 20th century, attitudes to empire and religion were drastically revised in the wake of World War I. The growing authority of academic history in an age of scientific progress was another factor which helped to produce a decline in the reputation of historical fiction. Other changes, however, were more stimulating in nature, including the use of ancient Greece as a setting, more impressive source analysis, the rise of female novelists, different subjects and perspectives, and new social and sexual attitudes. These and other developments lifted the reputation of historical fiction once more.

Keywords: historical fiction, historical novels, ancient Greece, Rome, reception, 19th century, early Christianity, academic history

The history and cultures of Greece and Rome have proven to be extraordinarily fertile ground for novelists, whose narratives have influenced other media heavily (see film, popular culture). In particular, there are noticeable differences between novels of the 19th century and those of the 20th and 21st centuries. These distinctions are the product of factors such as the evolving political, social, and religious interests of the periods; changes in the sensitivities of the reading audiences; and the fluctuating reputation of historical fiction as a genre. Also relevant is the development of young adult (YA) fiction as a literary classification, as well as growing interests in women’s history, sexuality, inner emotions, and the viewpoints of outsiders and lower classes.

The 19th Century

Historical fiction as currently produced owes much to the work of Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832). Scott did not write fiction set in ancient Greece or Rome, but he established the historical novel as a respectable and popular form of literature. In fact, Scott’s readers seem to have particularly appreciated his command of historical and antiquarian detail, as displayed in the footnotes, appendices, and lengthy descriptions of artefacts which feature regularly in his work. The “historical” dimension of these novels was taken seriously. Historical novels exploded in number and appeal in Scott’s wake, with relevant examples soon produced in Great Britain, Europe, and the United States.

The political and religious environments of ensuing decades do much to explain the content and attitudes of many of the most famous novels. The imperial experience of Great Britain tended to produce a focus on Rome rather than Greece, whether in appreciation of the Roman Empire or as a cautionary model. Religious developments, especially the tensions in Anglicanism between Anglo-Catholic and more Protestant elements, also fuelled this interest in Rome. Both sides of the theological debate claimed to be more in the spirit of the early Church.

The most famous historical novel of Victorian times was Edward Bulwer Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), apparently inspired by Karl Briullov’s painting entitled The Last Day of Pompeii (1830–1833), which Lytton viewed in Rome (see figure 1).

reception in historical novelsClick to view larger

Figure 1. Karl Briullov, The Last Day of Pompeii. 1830–1833. Creative Commons License CC0.

There is obvious influence too from Sir William Gell’s Pompeiana (1817–1832) and contemporary experiences of travel to Italy in the footsteps of the Grand Tour. In the novel, Rome is a corrupt imperial power. Its moral and other deficiencies will be visited with destruction at the story’s end, when Vesuvius erupts and helps to bring freedom to the novel’s heroes and death to its villains. Religious conflict between Christianity and paganism is pivotal. The youthful, innocent, and morally upright Christian lovers (Glaucus and Ione) are threatened by dark forces of paganism in the form of Arbaces, a priest of Isis, and the similarly evil witch of Vesuvius. While the text resolutely sides with Christianity, it does show scorn for hardline Christian views. At the end, as the lovers sail off to live in Athens, good has triumphed over evil, Christianity has defeated its religious competitors, democracy and freedom have won out over tyranny and oppression, and the West has beaten the East (Egypt, the Isis cult). Greek and Christian values are combined in a way that would have appealed to many theologically liberal contemporaries.

As the 19th century progressed, so did religious tensions. Furious debates on the status of the early Church, the origins of liturgical practice, and the foundational role of priests erupted within the Church of England. It is against this background that Charles Kingsley produced his Hypatia: New Foes with an Old Face (1853), a novel about the martyrdom of the charismatic female philosopher from Alexandria. It was a novel designed to take these debates onto new ground, evidently seeking to influence a wider and more youthful audience. Edward Gibbon’s interpretation of the murder of Hypatia was well known. Kingsley borrowed from this and left his readers in no doubt that her gruesome death was brought about by a pack of wild Christian monks, driven crazy by abstinence and chauvinism. A church marked by strong men and women, families, and order was his preference. He had little time for the papacy and saw the Christianity of the East in terms of weakness and corruption. Lord Tennyson thought his description of Hypatia’s death was too graphic, but its influence can be seen in Charles William Mitchell’s painting of Hypatia (1885), which depicts her in the moments before her murder (see figure 2).

reception in historical novelsClick to view larger

Figure 2. Charles William Mitchell, Hypatia. 1885. Creative Commons License CC0.

The power of Kingsley’s attack required a quick and formidable response. Accordingly, Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman, head of the newly recognized Catholic hierarchy in Britain, released an historical novel of his own in the very next year. Wiseman’s Fabiola (or The Church of the Catacombs, 1854) portrayed early Christians as victims of intolerance and persecution, in spite of their moral innocence, lack of political ambition, physical passivity, and emphasis on love. His message was supported by appendices on life in the catacombs and other historical topics. The authority of history was used to support the authority of the Catholic Church.

We can see a further response to Kingsley’s Hypatia in John Henry Newman’s Callista (1855). The title character was another female martyr who fell victim to intolerance and persecution of the kind described earlier by Wiseman. The novel has the same Catholic sensibility. These novels were vying for the hearts and minds of contemporary young people. Newman described Callista’s death in terms as graphic as those Kingsley used for Hypatia’s death. The dismemberment of Callista’s body by her murderers and the collection of various remains by grief-stricken companions are described in a tone which both explains and gives substance to the worship of relics, one of the most detested features of Catholicism in the eyes of low-church Anglican leaders.

Very different motivations were at play in the novels produced in Europe. Religion, violence, and passion are brought together in Gustave Flaubert’s French classic, the celebrated Salammbô (1862). In line with the rise of French influence in North Africa from 1830, the novel is set in Carthage shortly after the end of the First Punic War. It deals with the historical revolt by disgruntled mercenaries, who had not been paid for their service against the Romans and afterwards (Polyb. 1.66–88; Diod. Sic. 25.3; App. Pun. 5). Ostensibly a story of tragic passion between Matho, one of the rebel leaders, and Salammbô, the daughter of Hamilcar Barca, the novel trades on episodes of violence and excess in an exotic locale. Captives are mutilated and made to murder each other, armies are betrayed and annihilated; children are sacrificed in the temple of Moloch at Carthage; and victims of various kinds are crucified, trampled by elephants, or ripped apart by the frenzied mob. The civility and polite reserve of provincial life in Madame Bovary, Flaubert’s earlier masterpiece, are followed up with barbarism and excess in this novel. The lush settings and sweeping panoramas evoked by the descriptive style are reminiscent of 19th-century paintings of classical subjects, but Flaubert plainly wants to contrast the cool veneer of civilization with an alternate reality of barbarism. He poured his obsessions with violence, sacredness, irrationality, exoticism, and women into his tale of a world gone mad in the 3rd century bce.

Just as Salammbô was a response to French imperial expansion, so too was George John Whyte-Melville’s The Gladiators: A Tale of Rome and Judaea (1863) a response to the imperial experience of contemporary Great Britain. It tells the tale of a young British prince named Esca, who is captured, taken to Rome, condemned to life as a gladiator, and matched in the arena against the most vicious and dangerous opponent of the age. He survives and flourishes, eventually witnessing the fall of Jerusalem at the end of the Jewish Revolt of the 1st century ce. Through these adventures Esca wins love, wealth, and respect at Rome. It even transpires that he is the product of a romance between his widowed mother and a leading Roman general. Britain and Rome are united and mutually strengthened at the end of the novel, a tale of imperial greatness for young British boys to savour. Themes such as conquest and enslavement, transport around the empire, glistening muscles, cruelty, crowds baying for blood, revealed identity, ultimate triumph, and the restoration of Rome would recur in numerous successor novels.

The remarkable influence of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880) can hardly be overstated (see Ben-Hur, reception of). Written by Lew Wallace, who served as a Union general in the American Civil War and later as a politician and administrator, it became the most popular book ever written, aside from the Bible, until eclipsed by Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936). Its ongoing appeal derives partly from its exciting tale of injustice, cruelty, revenge, and salvation from the depths of despair in the shadow of Christ’s passion and crucifixion. Yet the great achievement of Ben-Hur is that Wallace managed to create a tale which remains largely nonsectarian in character. Christians of widely varying shades could experience and become inspired by the story, either through reading it or through viewing it on the stage or the screen. Pastors, priests, and church leaders of many congregations actively promoted the book and its adaptations as an authentic rendering of the passion of Christ and the piety and faith of early Christians (see figures 3 and 4).

reception in historical novelsClick to view larger

Figure 3. Film poster for Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. 1925. Creative Commons License CC0.

reception in historical novelsClick to view larger

Figure 4. Film poster for Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. 1959. Creative Commons License CC0.

It was a way of approaching God more nearly and of experiencing more intimately the triumph of Christianity over the brutality and oppression of the Roman Empire. One’s own faith could be confirmed in this way.

A more intellectual work is Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean: His Sensations and Ideas (1885), the story of another youth struggling to find his way on the path to fulfilment. The novel is set in the 2nd century ce, and Pater treats the religions and philosophies sampled by Marius in an extremely erudite manner. His writing imparts an ethereal quality to the novel that is partly a product of his aesthetic beliefs about the relationship between pure beauty and true divinity, and partly a product of some authorial choices, such as the absence of dialogue and the translation of Apuleius’s Cupid and Psyche story in the middle. Pater follows Gibbon’s interpretation of the Antonine age and depicts the emperor Marcus Aurelius presiding over a Rome in which theological ideas are free to compete on relatively equal ground. This includes Christianity, which is depicted as a faith in which women are respected, the Virgin Mary is venerated, and selfless love is dominant. Although he does not officially convert to this faith, Marius lives among Christians at the end of his life. Indeed, as he dies, it is assumed that he must be a Christian, and so he receives the last rites. Here the novel’s studied ambivalence towards Christianity reflects Pater’s own attitude.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the reading public began to tire of historical novels with an overtly religious message. Frederic William Farrar’s two novels, Darkness and Dawn: Scenes in the Days of Nero (1891) and Gathering Clouds: A Tale of the Days of St. Chrysostom (1895), represent the last gasp of this trend in Great Britain. A distinguished Anglican schoolmaster, cleric, and chaplain to Queen Victoria, Farrar wrote in favour of broad church inclusiveness. The basic message of his novels is a reinforcing one for Anglicans of the Victorian middle class: Christianity had lost its way through moral decline after being strengthened by official recognition under Constantine, until the infusion of new blood and new piety from northern Europe restored its moral and theological underpinnings. Farrar buttressed this interpretation with claims that his attention to the ancient sources was so complete that he was producing “an absolute photograph” of how events really developed.1 Such claims might have impressed the faithful, but the reading public in general were less appreciative. By the end of the century, the adventure yarns of writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson and H. Rider Haggard held sway. In competition with these stories, lesser writers flooded the market with their output. Many of these were incredibly prolific, largely because their work was ultimately derivative. Despite their enthusiasm and energy, it is not difficult to see why the reputation of the genre began to suffer.

Nevertheless, Quo Vadis (1896), by the Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, became a bestseller and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905. The novel’s popularity in Catholic Poland was soon matched throughout Europe and beyond, especially in the religious United States. Emperor Nero is employed, as so often in the fictional tradition, as a symbol of corruption and despotism. Rome is a brutal, violent, oppressive, and unjust empire. Inevitably, the innocent Christians become targets, used as scapegoats to divert attention from the crazed emperor in the wake of devastation caused by the Great Fire at Rome. There is much reason to be inspired by the brave Christians drawn by Sienkiewicz. The novel also sought to make a political point. Sienkiewicz was a proud Polish nationalist, and the novel is fashioned as a comment on contemporary oppression of Sienkiewicz’s country by imperial Germany and Russia. The heroine, the slave girl Lygia, had been transported to Rome from that part of Europe which later became Poland, where she had been a princess. Marcus Vinicius, the Roman hero who falls in love with Lygia, eventually rejects his upbringing and leads the revolt against Nero. In the famous climax to the story, Lygia’s bodyguard, the man-bear named Ursus, an obvious symbol of Poland, saves his lady from death in the arena by snapping the neck of a huge German aurochs.

The 20th and 21st Centuries

Notwithstanding the ongoing appeal of Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis, significant challenges for the historical fiction genre soon arose. Critics derided the overproduction of boy’s own pulp fiction, with its simple manipulation of old themes, unimaginative narratives, poor characterization, and lack of attention to historical sources. In an era of scientific rationalism and progress, academic history discovered new appeal in competition with historical fiction. Theodor Mommsen’s Römische Geschichte won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1902, three years before Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis did the same. Attitudes towards war and empire were revised dramatically, particularly in the wake of World War I. Political and religious leaders faced hard questions about the devastation all around. Novels set in the ancient world needed to start from a substantially new base. Adaptation did not take too long. Among the noteworthy developments, the backgrounds of writers changed. Instead of aristocrats and clergy, women and working writers began producing novels set in antiquity. The genre diversified in its treatment of social and sexual themes, and ancient Greece began to receive more attention.

Religion was not the driver it had once been, but there were notable exceptions. The Robe (1942) by the Lutheran pastor Lloyd C. Douglas, and its follow-up story, The Big Fisherman (1948), are in certain respects reminiscent of 19th-century novels on Christian themes. Set in the wake of Christ’s crucifixion, The Robe follows the transmission of Christ’s robe through the hands of a Roman tribune named Marcellus, his Greek slave Demetrius, and various Christian friends. Marcellus converts to Christianity and shows the courage inspired by faith when he resists Caligula’s attempts to force him to recant his views on Christ’s redemption. Instead, Marcellus, together with his wife Diana, accept Caligula’s sentence of execution. At the novel’s end, Marcellus asks for the robe to be given to “the Big Fisherman”—that is, St. Peter—whose story is continued in the sequel. While recalling the 19th century in writing style and sentiments, Douglas clearly found a contemporary audience. The Robe was a runaway best seller, translated into a number of foreign languages and adapted for the screen in an award-winning film in 1953.

While Douglas looked back to the 19th century, the historical fiction of Robert Graves and Mary Renault set the standard for what was to follow. Each had academic credentials to match their literary prowess, and each moved beyond the subjects and approaches bequeathed to them by their predecessors. Their work incorporated new social and sexual attitudes, and they treated religion through the lens of anthropological theory rather than Christian doctrine. Graves was a professional poet, novelist, critic, and classical scholar of extraordinary breadth. He was one of sixteen Great War poets honoured in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey in 1985. His religious interests are obvious in The White Goddess (1948), The Greek Myths (1955), and in his novel King Jesus (1946), which treats its subject not as the Son of God but as a philosopher with a legitimate claim to the throne of Judaea through Herod the Great. Graves is best known for I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1935), perhaps the most famous and highly regarded novels set in the ancient world. Constructed as an autobiography by the emperor Claudius himself, the first novel concentrates on members of his family, especially Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Germanicus, and Livia, who is portrayed as a scheming, malevolent, duplicitous mother, working for the elevation of her sons, Tiberius and Drusus, and grandson Germanicus. Graves’s main sources were Tacitus and Suetonius, whose works he knew well, especially Suetonius, whose biographies he translated for Penguin. The second novel, Claudius the God, contains the emperor’s recollection of events from his thirteen-year reign and makes it clear that Graves disagreed profoundly with the view that Claudius was a fool. This was merely Claudius’s strategy for avoiding dangerous attention. Yet if historians agree that the emperor’s administrative and military policies seem basically rational and consistent, there remains the vexed question of his relations with his family, especially his wives Messalina and Agrippina the Younger, both of whom seem to have fooled and ridiculed him. Agrippina even managed to murder him. In the end, Graves retains the apparent inconsistency by depicting a Claudius who retains his administrative and political insight into his last days but ultimately succumbs to personal foibles, age, and despair.

Apart from collections of short stories about figures from early Christianity designed for the religious instruction of infants, women of the 19th and 20th centuries had not ventured to write novels set in antiquity. This situation changed profoundly around the middle of the 20th century. Mary Renault’s stories are set in ancient Greece from the Bronze Age to the Hellenistic Period. The settings are crucial, for they permitted her to exploit pre-Christian attitudes to sexuality and to build a huge following among gay readers. This “turn to Greece” was in tune with her own homosexuality and her involvement in gay causes during the years following her emigration from England to South Africa, where she lived from 1948 until her death in 1983. Her first historical novel, The Last of the Wine (1956), is set in Athens during the Peloponnesian War. The narrator, a young nobleman and champion runner named Alexias, belongs to the circle of Socrates. He becomes a noted beauty in Athens and falls in love with Lysis, a man in his twenties who is a champion pancratiast and likewise a member of the circle of Socrates. After varied adventures during the Peloponnesian War, including service with Alcibiades, the two men become involved in the democratic revolt against the Thirty Tyrants led by Thrasybulus. Lysis, however, is killed at the Battle of Munychia. Alexias takes Lysis’s widow to wife and thereby continues his family line. When first published, the novel garnered attention for its prominent homosexual theme, though Renault sought a broader goal of engaging comprehensively with the social and cultural mores of Classical Greece, including such topics as symposia; the position of women; daily life; the conduct of war; and the importance of training in athletics, the military, and philosophy.

Renault’s second novel, The King Must Die (1958), is set during the Bronze Age and tells the story of Theseus’s early life and adventures. It aims to present an historically plausible account of the myths which swirl around Theseus’s name. Theseus himself tells the story in his old age. He concentrates on his upbringing in Troizen; his journey to Athens, where he is recognized as the son of King Aegeus; and his dangerous expedition to Knossos on Crete, where he takes his place as one of the Athenian youths destined to perform as a bull dancer in a frightening Cretan religious ritual. Of special note is the depiction of Mycenaean Greece as a time of transition. Crete holds sway in the Mediterranean but succumbs at the end of the novel to the natural catastrophe of multiple earthquakes. The smaller kingdoms within the Cretan orbit will rise to fill the vacuum of power. A crucial ideological transformation will take place as matriarchy gives way to patriarchy, and the mother goddess of the Cretans will be eclipsed by the sky and war gods of their successors. Kings will no longer be cut down as sacrificial figures in order to secure a bountiful harvest. Along with Renault’s deep knowledge of the written and archaeological sources, this reconstruction owes much to writers such as Sir James Frazer (The Golden Bough, 1890) and Robert Graves (The White Goddess, 1948). While their theories are generally unconvincing today, other aspects of the story seem credible. Once more homosexuality appears, especially among the hostages at Knossos, but more powerful are the themes of resistance to tyranny, acrobatic bull leaping as a religious element, and the maintenance of life through teamwork and sporting prowess. A sequel, The Bull from the Sea, was published in 1962. It covers the remainder of Theseus’s life and was intended to capitalize on the runaway success of The King Must Die.

The life of Alexander the Great is treated in two further novels by Renault. Fire from Heaven (1969) is about the childhood and adolescence of Alexander as prince, while The Persian Boy (1972) narrates events of Alexander’s later life, from his defeat of Darius at Gaugamela in 331 bce to his premature death in Babylon in 323 bce. The first book describes the development of Alexander’s aims and character in an environment of relentless conflict: conflict between his father and his mother, and between Macedon and Greece, the contradictory ideas of his two tutors, and the legacy of Homeric heroism in a more civilized age. The second book is narrated by the Persian eunuch Bagoas, who becomes lover and beloved of the brilliant Macedonian, whose campaigns are steadily making him the conqueror of the world. The strategy of using Bagoas as narrator has a number of advantages. He is a Persian, a young man deprived of his freedom, and an intimate. He is close to the action and yet detached, and often struggles to understand the Macedonians and Greeks, while experiencing reactions both rational and emotional. In this his experience often mirrors the experience of the reader.

Two important books, Thornton Wilder’s epistolary novel, The Ides of March (1948), and Belgian-born writer Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian (1951) anticipated Renault in restoring a gay voice to the ancient world, though they did much besides. The former is usually treated as an existential work or as a modernist novel told from a variety of viewpoints. Set in the months leading up to Caesar’s assassination, it is a fantastic concoction of events, ideas, and characters that defies historical reality (see julius caesar, reception of). Cato and Clodius, for instance, are both still alive as far as Wilder’s tale is concerned. This is partly because the novel is not so much concerned with Caesar’s murder as with passions of the time and the link between obsessive love and outstanding power or achievement. The stormy relationship between the poet Catullus and his sometime-mistress Clodia features prominently, but attention is also given to the love between Catullus and Juventius, which engendered poetry of its own, and to Caesar’s liaison as a young man with King Nicomedes of Bithynia.

Memoirs of Hadrian met with great critical acclaim and was a huge international hit. Like I, Claudius, it tells its tale in the words of the title emperor, though Yourcenar’s debt to Flaubert’s “melancholy of the antique world” is readily apparent. A psychological and spiritual study, rather than an action tale, it uses a fictional letter to Marcus Aurelius to recount the events of Hadrian’s life in the twilight of his days. The emperor thinks philosophically about the value of his accomplishments and contemplates whether he has attained virtue, wisdom, and love. The major achievements of his reign, as gleaned from Cassius Dio’s Historia Romana and the Historia Augusta, are weighed in the balance in a fundamentally generous spirit. These include his military victories, creation of defensive borders, public construction projects, sponsorship of social programmes, religious toleration, and deep appreciation of culture—especially that of the Greeks. The tragedy of the emperor’s relationship with Antinous is presented in moving and sympathetic terms.

Social satire and criticism permeates Helena (1950), the sole historical novel of Evelyn Waugh, which follows the mother of Constantine I as she piously seeks relics of the True Cross on which Jesus was crucified. The novel mocks the social pretensions of Constantius Chlorus, who resembles Field-Marshal Montgomery in his postwar years, and treats in comic fashion Helena’s passion for horses and plans for her family, which normally go awry. The connections with British matriarchs of a later imperial age (Queens Victoria and Mary) are sharpened by Waugh’s acceptance of the unlikely opinion of Geoffrey of Monmouth that Helena was a British princess, daughter of King Coel.

Political tensions of the Cold War inevitably found expression in powerful novels. Howard Fast—novelist, political commentator, and television writer—joined the Communist Party USA in 1943 and was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950. Subsequently jailed for refusing to name associates, he used his time in prison to write Spartacus (1951), his most famous novel and inspiration for the 1960 film of that name. Several key characters are given the opportunity to discuss the place of slavery as an institution at Rome in the wake of the brutal suppression of the revolt led by Spartacus in 71 bce. General assessments are offered, and so are individual views on Spartacus himself, with additional detail supplied by an omniscient narrator. Spartacus is described as a man who sought justice and egalitarianism through the elimination of exploitation and cruelty. He stood for universal values of freedom, love, hope, and life. Given the political atmosphere of contemporary America, coloured heavily by the anti-communist activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy, Fast was forced to publish the novel himself, with the help of money contributed for advance orders. His portrait of Spartacus as a political dreamer and proto-communist, intent on defeating and changing the Roman system, joins a solid tradition of such leftist Spartacuses.

In Gore Vidal’s Julian (1964), readers find a novel penned by one of the outstanding writers, essayists, and political intellectuals of his day. Unsurprisingly, given his attitudes to religion, sexuality, and the United States as a decadent empire, Vidal provides an unflattering view of Christianity and an appreciative view of Julian as an emperor of reason and tolerance. When the emperor marches away to the East, a sense of foreboding descends on the novel, not only for the security of the empire but for the legacy of the Classical world. Later, in Creation (1981), Vidal provides an antidote to the Helleno-centric appreciation of ancient culture by reminding readers that brilliant minds such as Zoroaster, Buddha, Confucius, and Socrates were rough contemporaries, so that the flowering of culture experienced by ancient Greece in the Classical period was not an isolated phenomenon. This message is conveyed through the words of a half-Greek grandson of Zoroaster named Cyrus Spitama, who is raised at the Persian court of Darius I, sent on trade missions to India and China, and finally appointed as an ambassador to Athens. His “outsider” status gives him the detachment required of the best commentators.

Among a host of other works, the classicist, writer, and translator Rex Warner wrote novels entitled Young Caesar (1958), Imperial Caesar (1960), and Pericles the Athenian (1963). The last of these seeks to provide a picture of the man who effectively dominated the fickle state of Athens during the period of its greatest glory, in spite of operating under the most thoroughgoing participatory democracy ever to have existed. Presented in the guise of a rational biography written by his close friend Anaxagoras, Pericles the Athenian depicts its subject as a true statesman, who weighed alternatives carefully and argued with wisdom in favour of the superior course of action. Aside from the importance Anaxagoras gives to reason, tolerance, and freedom, he also deems it worthwhile to note that Pericles was attracted to women rather than youthful boys, as was the case with his peers.

Alongside these weighty contributions on themes of considerable contemporary interest, other novels were directed at children and those in search of light reading. Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) has entertained many children over the years but has also won a strong adult following and was made into a major motion picture entitled The Eagle in 2011. Set in Roman Britain, soon after the building of Hadrian’s Wall, it tells the story of a young Roman officer named Marcus Flavius Aquila, who searches for the truth about the fate of the Ninth Legion, which went missing north of the Wall, losing its eagle standard in the process. The disgrace of this defeat was a particular burden to Marcus’s family because his father was a commander in the Ninth Legion. Upon learning that the legion had been annihilated by a joint rising of northern tribes, Marcus clears his family name by finding the eagle and returning it to Roman possession south of the Wall, in the process establishing that his father led a desperate rear-guard action before succumbing to overwhelming forces.

Another popular British writer, Alfred Duggan, published a nonfiction treatment of the life of Julius Caesar (1951) and a couple of historical novels set during the period of the Roman Revolution. In different ways, these novels attempt to give voice to overlooked figures who are swept along by uncontrollable processes. Winter Quarters (1956) tells the story of two Gauls, Camul and Acco, who accidentally violate secret rites of the Great Goddess by killing one of her sacred bears. After fleeing for their lives from their original homes near the Pyrenees, they join the Roman army as cavalrymen, good-naturedly experiencing alternative religions and customs around the Mediterranean. In a manner reminiscent of Graves and Renault, there is constant friction between the Great Goddess and male gods of the sky and war. After Crassus launches his ill-fated invasion of Parthia, the Gauls are captured at the Battle of Carrhae. At the end of the novel, Camul has been drafted into the Parthian army, where he tells his tale to a companion. Three’s Company (1958) is a story about the triumvir Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, a figure rarely treated as central in accounts of Roman history. Highly significant for any appreciation of Duggan’s approach is the fact that his Lepidus is similar to Camul and Acco in being an amiable fringe figure of no special talent who is brought down by force of events rather than the nature of his own designs and manoeuvres. Indeed, the same can be said about Elagabalus, the subject of a third Duggan novel, Family Favourites (1960). In this tale, the emperor—contrary to the impression given in scholarly sources—is naughty rather than crazed, and misguided or misunderstood rather than cruel or tyrannical. His mother, for instance, fails to understand the basic harmlessness of his enthusiasm for chariot racing and sees his homosexuality as an aberration which can be overcome in time. These novels are relatively light fare, designed to entertain rather than tax the budding historian.

Bryher was the pen name of the English novelist, writer, and editor Annie Winnifred Ellerman. The Coin of Carthage (1963) is an example of the compact, engagingly written stories she produced about ordinary people whose lives teeter on the brink of potentially catastrophic change. In this case the lead characters are two Greek traders, Zonas and Dasius, who must carry on their business in the shadow of the Second Punic War. They deal with various quirky Romans and Carthaginians, but the big historical names remain tangential to the story. Hannibal, for instance, makes just one appearance and rates only a few mentions besides. The novel contains few instances of dramatic action, and there are no long explanations of political institutions or historical events to burden the story. Bryher is fundamentally interested in the psychological state of her characters as they respond to the momentous struggle taking place around them. Her novel trades on conversation and contemplation rather than the kind of action often found in historical fiction. For Bryher, this was evidently a pre-Christian world governed capriciously by fate, whom the minor characters of the novel can only hope to appease intermittently, and never with confidence.

A story that likewise focuses on fringe characters under great pressure is Wallace Breem’s Eagle in the Snow (1970), set in the ever-popular surrounds of Roman Britain. This suspenseful tale highlights the thankless task facing Paulinus Gaius Maximus, a Roman general of the late 4th and early 5th century ce who must hold the line, first against Picts and their allies who threaten to breach Hadrian’s Wall, and later against restless hordes intent on crossing the Rhine. The narrative conveys the uncertainty and fear of those facing impending ruin with rare conviction.

A more serious study of power is Augustus (1972), written by the American John Williams. The novel is divided rather predictably into two parts, Augustus’s rise and Augustus’s reign, but for readers interested in imperial biography it has a number of fascinating features. For instance, it is written in epistolary form in a way that allows a variety of voices to emerge. Many, including the emperor’s daughter Julia, suffered for Augustus’s ambition. The novel dwells in thought-provoking fashion on the question of what is lost when so much power is gained. Different viewpoints give rise to different opinions on the first emperor, so that Williams’s method helps the reader to see how the ruthless man who became Augustus could still seem enigmatic after so many centuries.

Also interested in power, but with more attention to its effect on the absolute ruler, is Nicholas Nicastro’s Empire of Ashes (2004), which shines a light on the dark side of Alexander the Great. The novel employs as narrator an Athenian named Machon, who was Alexander’s confidante but who finds himself an outsider accused of playing a role in the king’s death. In his defence, he does not shrink from describing Alexander as a man who lost his mind and humanity in his drive for conquest and divinity. Nicastro charts the start of the legend of Alexander, how it developed, who was involved, and why they shaped it as they did.

For those interested in military history, the output of Steven Pressfield includes a handful of novels set in ancient Greece, beginning with Gates of Fire (1998), a hugely successful retelling of the Thermopylae campaign from the point of view of a helot slave named Xeones, who though badly wounded was one of only three survivors on the Greek side. Pressfield has a gift for military narrative. He is a military scholar who served for a time in the Marine Corps, and he revels in gritty, intense, realistic accounts of battle action. His work clearly emerges from the school of military history represented by realists such as John Keegan (The Face of Battle, 1976) and his followers. Pressfield carries readers closer to the front line than any previous authors. The same can be said about his treatment of Alexander’s major battles in The Virtues of War (2004).

In similar vein, Christian Cameron, author of (inter alia) Killer of Men (2010) and Marathon (2011), does not stint on gruesome realism. The first novel is named for Achilles, the man-killer of the Iliad, and is narrated by Arimnestos, who begins the story as a farm boy in his native Plataea. By the time of the second novel, through conflict with Thebes and the Plataean alliance with Athens, Arimnestos is drawn inevitably into the struggles of the Ionian Revolt and the great battle at Marathon in 490 bce.

Interest in the “great men” of the late Republic and early Empire has remained strong in recent decades. The Masters of Rome series (1990–2007, seven books), by Australian novelist Colleen McCullough, contains a magisterial narrative of the period from Marius to Augustus which has been taken seriously by some historians, given the quality of its research and ideas. McCullough engaged in a highly critical process of independent source analysis, to which she draws attention in the massive notes, appendices, and bibliographies added to each novel. Yet the unique blend of history and fiction does not always run smoothly and contemporary historians have proven critical of her attitudes to Caesar and Augustus. Caesar is idealized and admired in a fashion reminiscent of Mommsen, whereas Augustus is far more critically rendered. In McCullough’s pages, Caesar is wronged by his contemporaries, whereas Augustus disposes of his enemies with treacherous ruthlessness. There is not much nuance in such polarized portraits.

A series of a very different type, blending historical fiction with the detective novel, is Lindsey Davis’s Falco series (1989–2010, twenty novels), which is set in the Flavian era and stars the eponymous detective Marcus Didius Falco, who solves crime mysteries of the whodunnit variety. His adopted, British-born daughter, Flavia Alba, has recently used her status as “an established female investigator” to solve two crime mysteries of her own, recounted by Davis in The Ides of April (2013) and its sequel, Enemies at Home (2014).

Steven Saylor’s output is remarkable in various ways. He has written an historical mystery series set in ancient Rome, the Roma sub Rosa series (1991–2015, fifteen novels), which stars a fictional detective named Gordianus the Finder, who was supposedly active in the period from Sulla to Cleopatra. The wily Gordianus interacts with powerful historical figures such as Cicero, for whom he works on cases such as that involving Sextus Roscius of Ameria. He is never, however, a member of the social elite and so is able to comment upon their behaviour and attitudes in a detached manner. This usually results in severe criticism of their self-aggrandizement and cruelty. Moreover, as a pacifist, he is a harsh critic of the imperial adventures of men such as Pompey and Caesar. In addition, Saylor has written two epic-length historical novels set in ancient Rome, respectively entitled Roma (2007) and Empire (2010). Roma spans roughly one thousand years of history down to the reign of Augustus. It purports to give a history of the patrician Potitii and Pinarii families over this period and weaves Roman myth, history, and archaeology into a reasonable literary narrative in the mould of James A. Michener. Empire, which proceeds at a more sedate pace, follows the fortunes of members of the Pinarii family from the reign of Augustus to that of Hadrian. The various Pinarii act as commentators on a succession of major personalities and events of this age, and they become involved in fascinating activities, such as attending the Flavian Amphitheatre and helping to build Trajan’s Column. Saylor’s picture of Nero’s aims and personality is more appreciative than the norm, but his attitude to Domitian tends to follow the standard view of that emperor as a tyrant.

The novels of Robert Harris, a former BBC reporter on news and current affairs, offer serious comment on the contemporary world. His Pompeii (2003) owes much to the detective fiction of Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor and to the tradition of disaster stories set in the shadow of Vesuvius’s imminent eruption. Yet there is a clear comparison between the empires of Rome and the United States, which is uncomfortable for the latter. The spectre of an empire on the brink of collapse, or about to face a catastrophe, calls to mind the events of September 11, 2001. Pompeii itself resembles a thousand Hollywood sets: a boomtown run by a corrupt entrepreneur with a shady (in this case, servile) past, a man adept at the hustle who boasts that he “runs this town.” The hero Attilius, a hydraulic engineer sent to investigate falling water levels around Vesuvius, must employ rational logic and science to overcome the obsessions of the villain Ampliatus, who trusts a sybilline prophecy that the fame and streets of Pompeii will endure long after the age of the emperors has come to an end. At the end of the novel, while Ampliatus and his henchmen perish, it is nothing more than likely that Attilius and his lady Corelia survive. Cicero is well served in Harris’s follow-up trilogy on the life of the Roman statesman, Imperium (2006), Lustrum (2009), and Dictator (2015). The narrator, Cicero’s slave and secretary Tiro, is able to comment as a detached intimate. The first novel describes Cicero’s early career to his election as consul in 64 bce. The second and third describe his years in power and the repercussions of power, respectively.

Simon Scarrow has two series of particular relevance to this survey. The first, known as the Eagle series (2000–2015, fifteen novels), is set in the later Julio-Claudian period, whereas the second, known as the Gladiator series (2011–2014, four novels), is aimed at a YA audience. The Eagle series is structured around the adventures of two Roman soldiers, one a centurion named Macro and the other named Cato, who is a raw recruit at the start of the narrative. The first five novels are set in Britain during the island’s conquest under Claudius, while the action shifts to the East after that. Scarrow has much to say about military life and military operations, and his low-level heroes become embroiled in plots involving famous names such as Vespasian, Narcissus, and Vitellius.

The Percy Jackson series (2005–2009, five novels), by Rick Riordan, translates Greek myth for a modern YA audience. Supplemented by graphic novels and companion books, the series has become wildly popular. Two film treatments have appeared to date (2010, 2013). Loosely based on the Perseus cycle of myths, the stories have in fact been honed by youthful audiences during school visits made by the author for this very purpose. This unusual procedure means effectively that the stories are products of unique collaboration or unique contemplation of audience reception as a crucial element in the creative process.

Literary figures have sometimes served as interesting subjects for historical novels. The Roman poet Ovid attracted the interest of Australian author David Malouf in An Imaginary Life (1978). The novel portrays Ovid, in exile at Tomis, trying to communicate with the natives, among whom he feels alienated from his Latin roots. He attempts to teach Latin to a boy child but comes to realize that he must free himself from his former life and culture if he is to thrive in his new environment. The connections with questions of identity and indigenous rights in contemporary Australia are strong. Malouf moved on to a retelling of Homer’s Iliad, Books 22–24, in Ransom (2009). In this novel, a distraught Achilles systematically mistreats the body of Hector in revenge for the death of his friend Patroclus. Priam does the unexpected when he appeals to Achilles in person, successfully evoking the hero’s emotions for his father and his son, finding the means to empathy and causing Achilles to release Hector’s body to Priam for an appropriate funeral. The treatment appears less political than An Imaginary Life and more philosophical in its consideration of Homer’s fatalistic universe, though the moral novelty of Priam’s approach, in which he humbles himself before his enemy, could be applied to various world tensions.

Another treatment of Ovid may be found in Jane Alison’s The Love Artist (2002), in which the poet has been banished to the most distant shores of the Black Sea at the opening of the novel. From here, however, he follows his muse in the form of an enigmatic young woman back to Rome, so that the action of the tale is told mostly in flashback. The novel is essentially about Ovid’s relationship with his muse. It may be viewed literally and figuratively, so that it becomes a study of the creative process whereby a sensitive and brilliant young man seeks to write a new play about Medea in growing knowledge that emotional turmoil and terrible loss must feature heavily.

Late Antiquity has proven to be a period of great interest for contemporary historical novelists, mirroring a trend among contemporary ancient historians. Some of the more noteworthy writers show a distinct interest in exploring the atmosphere created by the decline and fall of Rome. Gillian Bradshaw’s Dark North (2007), a tale of war and romance, is set in a troubled year, 208 ce, during the emperor Septimius Severus’s unsuccessful attempt to conquer Scotland. The action is recounted by Memnon, an African cavalry scout, and two members of the household of the Empress Julia Domna, an attractive slave named Athenais and an important official named Castor. The strong rule of Septimius is on the point of unravelling, and if the love between Memnon and Athenais has reasonable prospects for the future, it becomes clear through the writing that the forces of intrigue and treachery surrounding the throne make a similar outcome for the stability of the empire unlikely.

Harry Sidebottom’s career as an academic historian underpins his output as an historical novelist whose twin series, Warrior of Rome (2008–2013) and Throne of the Caesars (2014–2015), are set in the 3rd century ce, a period often neglected by other writers in the genre because of the difficult and exiguous source material. The hero of the Warrior of Rome series is a Roman soldier of Angle origin named Marcus Clodius Ballista, who has numerous adventures that place him at the heart both of imperial politics and military crisis in a tumultuous period. Moreover, Ballista must manage the intrigues and pressures of his day in the eastern half of the Empire, where he often seems like a fish out of water. The narrative and characterization are on par with Sidebottom’s command of historical detail, so that a lasting sense of insecurity probably echoes the experience of many who lived at the time. The novels are supplied with magisterial notes and detailed bibliographies, and Sidebottom’s credentials as a military historian are open to view on just about every page.

Historical fiction set in ancient Greece and Rome is extremely popular in the early 21st century (see FILM, POPULAR CULTURE). Steven Saylor’s work has been translated into twenty-one international languages and other bestsellers have flowed from the pens of contemporaries. In comparison to the 19th century, novels of the 20th and 21st centuries are more diverse in terms of the subjects that are treated, the strategies and viewpoints adopted, and the range of periods covered. Through the 20th and early 21st centuries, new interests have emerged in sexuality, women’s history, “outsider” and “bottom-up” perspectives, questions of power, emotion and “interior” lives, detective mysteries, myth, and the past as an alternative rather than heritage world. These and other developments show that the past does not come out of nowhere. The exploration of antiquity in popular culture generally is simultaneously an exploration of the contemporary world.2


Bulwer Lytton, Edward. The Last Days of Pompeii. 1834.

Douglas, Lloyd C. The Robe. 1942.

Douglas, Lloyd C. The Big Fisherman. 1948.

Farrar, Frederic William. Darkness and Dawn: Scenes in the Days of Nero. 1891.

Farrar, Frederic William. Gathering Clouds: A Tale of the Days of St. Chrysostom. 1895.

Flaubert, Gustave. Salammbô. 1862.

Henty, George Alfred. Beric the Briton: A Story of the Roman Invasion. 1893.

Kingsley, Charles. Hypatia: New Foes with an Old Face. 1853.

Newman, John Henry. Callista. 1855.

Pater, Walter. Marius the Epicurean: His Sensations and Ideas, vol. 1. 1885.

Pater, Walter. Marius the Epicurean: His Sensations and Ideas, vol. 2. 1885.

Sienkiewicz, Henryk. Quo Vadis. 1896.

Wallace, Lew. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. 1880.

Whyte-Melville, George John. The Gladiators: A Tale of Rome and Judaea. 1863.

Wiseman, Nicholas. Fabiola (or, The Church of the Catacombs) (1854).Find this resource:


Margaret Donsbach’s site, containing comprehensive lists and reviews by David MacLaine of historical novels set in numerous periods and locales.

Stefan Cramme’s site, containing bibliographies and reviews of historical novels about ancient Rome.


Reviews appear intermittently in classical journals of a more popular orientation, e.g. Amphora (APA/SCS publication) 2002-; CA News; Omnibus.

Burton, P. “Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth: A Festival of Britain?” Greece and Rome 58.1 (2011): 82–103.Find this resource:

Dominas, K., E. Wesołowska, and B. Trocha, eds. Antiquity in Popular Literature and Culture. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016.Find this resource:

Goldhill, S. Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity: Art, Opera, Fiction, and the Proclamation of Modernity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Levick, B. “I, Claudius Revisited.” Ancient History (Macquarie University) 20.3 (1990): 135–143.Find this resource:

Lindsay, H. M. “Robert Graves on Claudius.” Ancient History (Macquarie University) 25.2 (1995): 139–156.Find this resource:

Malamud, M. Ancient Rome and Modern America. Malden, MA; and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.Find this resource:

Marciniak, K. Our Mythical Childhood: The Classics and Literature for Children and Young Adults. Leiden, The Netherlands; and Boston: Brill, 2016.Find this resource:

Maurice, L., ed. The Reception of Ancient Greece and Rome in Children’s Literature: Heroes and Eagles. Leiden, The Netherlands; and Boston: Brill, 2015.Find this resource:

Rhodes, R. W. The Lion and the Cross: Early Christianity in Victorian Novels. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Scodel, R., and A. Bettenworth. Whither Quo Vadis? Sienkiewicz’s Novel in Film and Television. Chichester and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.Find this resource:

Solomon, J. Ben-Hur: The Original Blockbuster. Edinburgh, U.K.: Edinburgh University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Stevenson, T. “Imaginations of Ancient Rome in 19th Century Historical Novels.” Ancient History (Macquarie University) 41–44 (2011–2014 [2015]): 93–126.Find this resource:

Turner, F. M. “Christians and Pagans in Victorian Novels.” In Roman Presences: Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789–1945. Edited by C. Edwards, 173–187. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Vance, N. The Victorians and Ancient Rome. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.Find this resource:


(1.) Frederic William Farrar, Gathering Clouds: A Tale of the Days of St. Chrysostom (London and New York: Longmans, Green, 1895), vii–viii.

(2.) K. Dominas, E. Wesołowska, and B. Trocha, eds., Antiquity in Popular Literature and Culture (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016), xi–xv.

Do you have feedback?