Why would an academic historian decide to write historical novels?

This series began with a question from my wife a dozen or so years ago. A connoisseur of historical fiction, she startled me one day by asking out of the blue, “With all of that historical research that you do, why don’t you write a historical novel?” The idea of writing fiction had never crossed my mind until that moment. My other books and articles are all highly technical works targeted toward academic scholars. Apart from one textbook, I had never written for a popular audience.

“I don’t know how to write fiction,” I answered before quickly putting the idea out of my mind. The next day, however, an intriguing opening scene (the Prologue to volume one in the present series) crept like a daydream into my consciousness. I shared it with my wife, who thought that it sounded promising. Over the next two weeks, a broad outline of what was to become the first two books in this series took shape in my mind. I related each new step to my wife, and she continued to find the story engaging. But I still didn’t know if I could turn this outline into a full-scale novel.

Later that year I was hiking in the U.K. between speaking engagements at a couple of British universities and the novel popped suddenly into my head. As I strolled along a hilly ridge, a word-by-word narrative of the opening scene began to frame itself in my thoughts. I carefully rehearsed and memorized the words as they came to me, then e-mailed them to my wife when I got back to my hotel. “You CAN write fiction!” she replied soon afterward. “This is as good as many of the historical novels that I’ve read over the years.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Encouraged by my wife’s support, I began the time-consuming task of writing what turned out to be over 800 pages of printed text. The process extended over several years as it had to compete with my academic writing and my ongoing teaching responsibilities. A substantial amount of research was also required to ensure that every detail was historically accurate. But it was truly a labor of love. Often it seemed as if the characters were living out their story before my eyes and I was simply recording what happened. Sometimes they truly surprised me, taking the narrative in directions that I had never anticipated. I’m thrilled to be able at last to bring their story before a modern audience.

You mentioned historical accuracy. Why was that so important to you?

Historians, of course, are always concerned about giving an accurate account of the past. But I have read or listened to too many historical novels where the depictions of characters’ thoughts, motives, and actions were so anachronistic as to make me cringe. As the British novelist L. P. Hartley famously stated, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Getting the names, dates, and places right is the easy part of reconstructing the past; getting the cultural beliefs, values, and practices right requires substantially more work.

Much of my academic research has been devoted to uncovering the “differentness” of the lives of ordinary people in the Greco-Roman world. One of my aims in writing these novels was to share some of that knowledge with contemporary readers of fiction–to give them what social historians call a “thick description” of life in the past that doesn’t attempt to squeeze ancient characters and events into modern molds.

While there is much in these books that will be familiar to any reader due to the consistency of human nature and human societies over time, there is also much here that will surprise, puzzle, and even offend modern readers who are used to authors toning down the uniqueness of the past, whether to make the material more accessible or because they simply don’t know better. My hope is that my readers will emerge from these novels with a new understanding of the complexity of life in an ancient Roman province while also enjoying a good yarn.

Can you give us some examples of what you mean?

At the “big picture” level, some readers will be surprised by my depictions of ancient slavery. Slavery is an evil institution wherever it occurs since it strips people of their most basic right, the control of their own bodies. But in a society where over 90% of the population lived on the rough edge of survival, a slave residing in the household of a wealthy citizen often had a better life than a poor free person. At least they were assured of having food and a roof over their heads.

But that’s only part of the story. A trusted male slave of a wealthy Roman who assisted him in managing his affairs could earn enough money through tips, bribes, and outside employment to buy his freedom and live comfortably (in some cases even luxuriously) thereafter. With his master’s permission, he could buy property and make investments even while he was a slave. My central character, Marcus, is a beneficiary of this system, but his success should not be taken as some sort of implicit justification of slavery. My aim is to show readers how Roman society worked, not to defend it.

At a more granular level, I have researched every twist and turn of the ancient route between Antioch and Pergamon, and readers can be assured that my account of Lucius’s travels reflects the actual geography of the region insofar as it can be ascertained. The same is true for the various cities, streets, and buildings depicted in these stories–most of these sites have been excavated to a greater or lesser degree, and many include partially reconstructed ruins and archaeological site maps. I did have to use my imagination to fill in the details of neighborhoods that lie buried under layers of unexcavated earth, but my speculations are based on archaeological data and a broad familiarity with ancient cities. My Website includes photos of many of these places under the “Resources” tab.

My obsessive concern for accuracy is especially evident in my account of the sanctuary of Asklepios at Pergamon, which plays a prominent role in my story. A reader who visits the site today might think that I erred in some of my descriptions of the facility since they don’t match what is visible there today. But the ruins that we can see today date mostly from the second century AD; my description is based on the German archaeological reports that show what the site was like in the first century AD when my story takes place. Only two elements of my narrative description of the site lack archaeological support: the location of the baths, which is unknown (though my siting is quite defensible), and the theater, which in its present form dates to the second century AD (though it probably replaced an earlier Greek theater like the one at the Asklepian sanctuary at Epidauros in Greece).

The same level of care was employed when describing the beliefs, practices, and customs of the various characters in the novels. Virtually very act that they perform, including those that appear strange by modern standards, can be justified from Roman records. Even their patterns of speech are based at least loosely on what can be discerned from our limited evidence of how ordinary Romans talked, with due allowance for modern comprehension.

In short, I’ve done everything in my power to immerse my readers in the ordinary experiences of Greeks, Romans, and natives who lived in Roman Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in the first century AD. I hope they find it as fascinating as I do!

Apart from a better understanding of ancient history, what do you want your readers to gain from these stories? What are some of the major themes or issues addressed in the books?

All good fiction aims to guide readers through an imaginary “experiment in living” that challenges them to consider how they might think or act in a given situation. Through this experience the reader is led to reflect on and clarify his or her values and outlook on life.

While there are many points in my narrative that might evoke reflection from a modern reader, I will focus here on three.

The first and most obvious challenge arises from the central character’s status as a slave. I presume that all modern readers hold strongly negative opinions of slavery and are convinced that if they had ever been enslaved, they would have chosen the path of resistance and escape over compliance and submission (i.e., being an “Uncle Tom”). But when we are exposed to the real-world ambiguities of life under slavery and discover further that not all systems of slavery have been as brutal as that practiced in the Southern United States, we might well find our assumptions being challenged. Living imaginatively through the experience of a character like Marcus could lead us to consider why we are so complacent about injustice and abuse in our world today and whether we should adjust our imagined values or our actions as a result.

A second issue that runs throughout the first two volumes relates to the human experience of sickness and the universal quest for healing. The depictions of Lucius’s illness and the various treatments to which he is exposed will undoubtedly seem too graphic to some of my readers, but this is by design. My hope is that this persistent exposure to one of the darker aspects of human experience might cause some of my readers to question why people in the modern Western world prefer to hide such experiences from public view and what this says about our attitudes toward our own physicality and mortality.

A final concern that pervades all three novels is the vital importance (and potential costliness) of relationships. Several of the characters in these stories struggle to determine what cost they are willing to pay to maintain a relationship that brings (or promises to bring) benefits to themselves and/or to others. The costs vary, as do the choices. Readers who empathize with these characters might find themselves reflecting similarly on the value of their own relationships and what they might or might not be willing to do if those relationships should be threatened. This in turn could lead them to reassess what they are currently doing to uphold those relationships.

In the end, what readers gain from a story is for them to decide, not the author. I have tried in these novels to encourage my readers to think about some of the vital questions of life, but I have also labored to create an engaging story that invites them to lose themselves for a few hours in a foreign world. If the latter is sufficient for them, who am I to judge? What is a story for if not to be enjoyed?

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