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Ancient Greece and Rome in Fiction!


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Initial post: Aug 27, 2007 10:32:10 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 18, 2008 3:03:40 PM PDT
edbrooks says:
I see Egypt has a discussion thread, but don't see one for Greece and Rome. Is there one? There is now. Please read and contribute!

I have thoroughly enjoyed the works of Michael Curtis Ford and Steven Pressfield, and hope they continue to share their views of ancient times with us. Each have published five novels so far dealing with Greece and Rome, each unique, and of course, some like certain books better than others, depending on which particular area they have an interest in.

I found Conn Iggulden to be an easy and fast read and really enjoyed his work, but I am one of the ones who cannot get past all of the changes made to the real history.

Besides Ford, Pressfield and Iggulden, other novels set in Ancient Greece or Rome that I've enjoyed are:

Robert Graves, the master. Loved "I, Claudius" and got through "Claudius the God" alright. "King Jesus" was tough to plow through, not because of the writing style, but because of the wealth of information given regarding ancient Jewish practices I know nothing about. And I hope "Count Belisarius" will get republished in the US as it is in the UK by Penguin. His GOLDEN translation was a blast!

POMPEII - Robert Harris

IMPERIUM - Robert Harris (the first of a trilogy)

DRUIDS by Morgan Llywelyn and THE DRUID KING by Norman Spinrod (Caesar's invasion of Gaul, their perspective)

MEMOIRS OF HADRIAN - Marguerite Yourcenar (Does jump overboard with Hadrian's love for Antinous - no pun intended- but a wonderful read.... Some of you will get that.)

LEGION by William Altimari and CENTURION by Peter Mitsopoulos are both self-published but quite enjoyable.

IMPERIAL GOVERNOR by George Shipway was fantastic; Boudicca's rebellion as told by Aulus Plautius.

AUGUSTUS by John Williams - absolutely gorgeous, but Julia steals the show.

Wallace Breem's EAGLE IN THE SNOW and THE LEGATE'S DAUGHTER. Eagle was definitely the better of the two.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 28, 2007 8:25:40 AM PDT
Andrew says:
Mary Renault wrote several great novels set in ancient Greece. Some deal with mythological subjects (though they are realistic in approach--essentially postulating the real origin of the myth). "The King Must Die" and "The Bull from the Sea" tell Theseus' story. Her first novel, "The Last of the Wine" is set in Athens during the later stages of the Peloponnesian war, and is (in my opinion) her best work. But perhaps her most famous novels are her Alexander trilogy: "The Persian Boy", "Fire from Heaven", and "Funeral Games". Renault's prose is often criticized as being too ornate. I disagree. Her characters are rich and fully realized and her stories are enthralling.

Colleen McCullough's "Masters of Rome" is perhaps the most thoroughly researched series of novels describing ancient Rome. The first book, "First Man in Rome", tells of the rise of Gaius Marius, and is a classic of historical fiction. The other books, "The Grass Crown" (deals with Sulla), "Fortune's Favourites", "Caesar's Women", "Caesar", and "The October Horse", are very, very good. McCullough is a masterful writer, and (for the sticklers)meticulously accurate in her chronology of events and her descriptions of the main actors involved. Warning: these books are not short, but they are definitely worthwhile.

Finally, I have seen mixed reviews of (and have not read) Valerio Massimo Manfredi's various historical novels. Some people love them, some...don't. Manfredi is a classical historian, and many of his novels are available in translation (from Italian).

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 28, 2007 9:51:04 AM PDT
Florentius says:
If you liked Graves' "Count Belisarius", you may also like "Belisarius: The First Shall Be Last." It's one of the few novelizations of late Roman life and heavy on the military action.

I'm also dying to try out "Justinian" by H. N. Turtletaub. Looks good.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 28, 2007 7:28:16 PM PDT
prophetman says:
I have read "Imperium" by Robert Harris, and I would highly recommend it. Its a great, semi-factual historical novel, and I loved it. I have also heard some good things about Collen McCullough, though I have not read any of her books.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 29, 2007 7:31:50 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 29, 2007 7:33:51 PM PDT
M. A. George says:
Others below have added Collen McCollough's "First Man in Rome" series (The First Man in Rome/The Grass Crown/Fortune's Favorites/Ceasar's Women/Ceasar/The October House.

Mary Renault concentrated on ancient Greece--the Alexander trilogy (Fire from Heaven/The Persian Boy/Funeral Games) and others like The Last of the Wine and The Mask of Apollo and The Praise Singer (among others)

What I have not yet seen are the books on ancient Rome by Alan Massie--Outstanding. I have them all and reread them regularly: Agustus/Tiberius/Ceasar/Anthony/Caligula/Nero's Heirs.

Also an older book by Rex Warner, "Young Ceasar"

Steven Saylor has a series of mysteries, with Gordianus the Finder, that take place during the time of the collapse of the Republic to the rise of Ceasar--of all mysteries taking place in historical times, these books are the most historically accurate--and good mysteries, too.

The is a novel called "Alcibiades" which is very good, but I can't remember the author.

Oh--almost forgot--Gore Vidal, "Julian the Apostate"

I know there are more, but can't think of them off the top of my head.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 31, 2007 1:40:53 PM PDT
Mark Mewell says:
And don't forget the all time great novels of this era - the eagle series by Simon Scarrow

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 12, 2007 1:45:51 PM PDT
I think that my novel, For the Amazon Nation, might be interesting for you if you like to read books that take place in ancient Greece. The story follows various settings: the island of Lemnos, Fezzan (in the Sahara desert) and Aretias. My co-writer and I tried to really reflect the traditions and ways of life of the Amazons, so to write the novel we made a lot of research. Besides, it includes quite a lot of mythology (particularly related to Artemis and Hestia), and if you like Greek as a language, you'll find that all the characters' names are based on Greek words (and what they mean is related to the characters' lives or personalities).

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 13, 2007 8:27:19 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 13, 2007 8:28:30 PM PDT
mbg_bookworm says:
I can recommend Tom Holt's books on Ancient Greece. Two set in Aristophanes' time are especially good - kind of like Amadeus/Mozart. They are "Goatsong" and "The Walled Orchard".

There are also another one about Alexander the Great (not sure of title) and one about beginning of Olympics (also not sure of title).

Also, I seem to remember enjoying Turtledove's "The Wine Dark Sea" and I think there are others in that series.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 20, 2007 10:50:37 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Nov 27, 2007 6:32:21 PM PST
Aspasia says:
Two things, Mr. Hill:
I agree with you in your disagreement about Renault's prose. If others do characterize her prose as "ornate," then they don't get what I think she attempts: her style is an effort to capture ancient Greek -- its elusiveness, its wonderful abstract vocabuloary, its sophistic influence (which, to be sure, included ornate style, i.e., Gorgianic). In fact, it's one of the reasons why I like Renault: I have a sense -- however much due to the author's art -- of being there, of being in the past, in Greece. This sense I like very much.

As to McCullough. I used to agree with Sidney J. Harris, who said he would read any novel in which a character wears a toga. But along came "First Man in Rome." I could not get through this novel. I do not care that almost everyone in the novel wears a toga; I do not care how accurate it is (and I appreciate accuracy). To me, it is so wretchedly written, its syle so pedestrian as to be vulgar. I couldn't do it. And I, along with Harris, am automaticallly disposed toward novels of Roman and Greek antiquity.

I know there are those who would disagree, and vehemently. I don't mean to discourage anyone else from trying this McCullough series; I simply surprised myself when I found that I could not continue reading the novel. --

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 20, 2007 12:13:11 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 20, 2007 12:15:21 PM PDT
David Blixt says:
I'm one of those who violently and passionately advocates Colleen McCullough's MASTERS OF ROME series. I just received the latest one, ANTONY & CLEOPATRA, from Amazon.uk (it won't be published in the States until December, and I decided I couldn't wait that long). I read some horrible news this summer - she is going slowly blind, and can no longer do her research. A real loss.

McCullough also has a Trojan War novel entitled THE SONG OF TROY that was never published in the US, but that I very much enjoyed.

As for Conn Iggulden, I had to put him down almost as soon as I started. To angry to continue, I was amazed that he felt the need to so butcher history. Why not simply create new characters, like Simon Scarrow? Scarrow's Eagle books feel to me like a knock-off Sharpe-in-Roman-armor books, but they're fun and never have me gnashing my teeth.

Stephen Saylor is very enjoyable, and his twists on history are fun and possible, if not plausable (disclaimer: he and I share an editor at St. Martin's).

Cheers,
DB

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 20, 2007 3:14:50 PM PDT
M. A. George says:
David Blixt: I had heard some time ago that McCullough intended to end her series with "The October Horse". Imagine my delight when you tell us that there is another one. Though her blindness is a great sorrow to all her fans.

I would love to buy it via .uk, but with the dollar so weak right now! I must try to hold my impatience until it is published here. I did not know about the Trojan War novel.

Stephen Saylor's Gordianus the Finder mysteries are very fine--I do not find them implausible at all--but then, I am no historian.

If you do buy from amazon.uk, have you read Alan Massie's novels of ancient Rome? Among the best.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 20, 2007 4:50:34 PM PDT
David Blixt says:
I haven't read Massie, but now I know to look.

I think McCullough did intend to end with the death of Caesar - but the failure of her two recent books and the massive popularity of HBO's ROME combined to make her rethink her decision - probably at her publisher's urgings.

The improbability struck me in the first Gordianus book, when actor/aging boy-toy Metrobius is sitting around in society with Roman nobles. In Greece that might have been possible, but not in Rome. Still and all, great reads. My quibbles are very minor.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 21, 2007 6:47:00 AM PDT
James Mace says:
I actually have a series of books out about the Roman legions (okay, so only one is out so far). My first book is entitled "Soldier of Rome: The Legionary." It takes place six years after the disastrous battle of Teutoburger Wald in A.D. 9. It is available on Amazon.

The "Soldier of Rome" series follows the life and career of a legionary during the 1st Century A.D. My second book, "Soldier of Rome: The Sacrovir Revolt" is being proof-read and edited at this time. It should be ready for publication around the first of November, and available for purchase around the first of the year.

As for other novels on Greece and Rome, sadly they seem to be lacking. I tried reading Scarrow's "Eagle" series and just could not get into it, because I did not find it believable. That and the language sounded too much like dialog from the movie "Full Metal Jacket." Not that I have an issue with profanity (there is plenty in my books), it just sounded forced to me. Who knows, maybe I just need to give them another go. I also could not get into Conn Iggulden's "Emperor" series, namely because it completley disregards any sense of historical accuracy. They are well-written, mind you, but should not have been written about actual historical personas that we know so much about.

Now, on to books that I actually recommend:

LEGION by William Altimari - Great novel. A bit cheesy in places, with only one major battle, but overall a great read. The first book I ever read that actually gave a realistic perspective of the average legionary.

IMPERIAL GOVERNOR by George Shipway - One of my all-time favorites. Shipway is very underrated as an author, and seems to be about the only one to actually put Boudicca's rebellion into a realistic perspective. With all the films being made depicting her as some mythical heroine, it is good to read something that shows how it actually happened, without glossing over any of the details.

AUGUSTUS and TIBERIUS (seperate books) by Allan Maisse - Two books written as autobiographies in the same vein as "I, Claudius," Maisse's books are very readable and make one believe that they were written by the Emperors themselves. Personally I liked "TIBERIUS" a little better, but that is just my preference. Both books are very well done, and underrated.

PONTIUS PILATE by Paul Maier - All I can say is "WOW." Paul Maier is as Christian scholar and probably the only person to paint a realistic picture of one of the most controversial men in history. His entire novel is based on historical sources, with no deliberate deviations made. One is really able to get into the head of Pontius Pilate and understand things from his perspective. Whether one views Pilate as a sinner or a Saint (denominations of Christianity seem to differ in their judgments of Pilate) this is a must read.

GATES OF FIRE by Stephen Pressfield - The only Greek novel on this list, since most of my reading is about Rome. Pressfield shames most writers (to include myself) with his ability to tell a deep and gripping story. This is by far one of the best novels I have ever read. It seemed to start a bit slow, but when I got to the end, I realized that all the buildup made for a much more emotional impact once the Battle of Thermopolye happened.

I'd like to hear from anyone who may have read my first book, and get feedback on other great historical novels about Rome.

James
www.legionarybooks.net

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 23, 2007 9:27:24 AM PDT
M. A. George says:
Massie's books on Rome include Ceasar/Antony/Augustus/Tiberius/Caligula/Nero's Heirs. I have them all and have read them several times over. "Antony" is a personal favorite. Massie uses historical documents as much as possible to get his quotes and stays within known history.

Yes, quite right about Metrobius. But I was thinking more of the plausibility of some characterizations of such historical figures as Sulla, Ceasar, Crassus, Claudia and Clodius Pulcher, and especially Cicero--characterizations which seemed to me very accurate and plausible based on what we know.

I hope McCullough has had some down-time for her next book. "The October Horse" seemed to me to have been rushed through, without the painstaking care of the earlier books--as if McCullough were just going through the paces to get to the end. One can hardly blame her--the whole series is enough for a lifetime's work.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 23, 2007 9:56:22 AM PDT
David Blixt says:
Sadly, the new one feels even more pared down. It's still her, and she still has great connections between her characters. But there's something sadly - less about this book.

Okay, Massie is on the list. Thanks!

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 28, 2007 1:14:49 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 28, 2007 1:20:21 PM PDT
M. Cotone says:
There is a problem which lurks behind this discussion, emerges in several passing comments, and is never discussed. Some, for example, find Colleen McCollough's novels a hard go, although her work is the best historical fiction set in Rome which I've ever read. All too often what purports to be a novel, or movie, or television series contains such cultural howlers that someone who does know the history can't engage in the "suspension of belief," as the late Professor Tolkien described it, necessary to enjoy and appreciate. An example. Having bumped into the purportedly historically-accurate television series, "Spartacus," I saw, in the space of less than a minute and a half, 1st-century BC Roman soldiers marching about in arms and equipment which their great-grandsons might have worn, a senator with his toga on backwards and announcing the death of another senator, but the latter's name was not one by which any adult Roman male would have been known by in that era. After laughing uproariously and Bronx-cheering what I saw, I moved on. And unhesitatingly shared my opinion of what I saw with anyone who, knowing of my background in Roman history, asked me about the series. How, then, will those who can avoid such annoyances by saying "well, I'm not a historian" discuss historical fiction with those of us who are? Or shall you be obliged to start two separate discussions, one for historians and one for non-historians? (By way of p.s., guys and gals, the family name is spelled "Caesar" not "Ceasar," and his contemporaries pronounced it the way 19th- and early 20th-century Germans pronounced the imperial title "Kaisar.")

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 28, 2007 2:13:58 PM PDT
M. A. George says:
M. Cotone: I am not sure what you are saying about us non-historians. Many of us are perfectly able to discuss historical fiction from a number of angles. Not being a trained historian does not imply that we do not know a great deal about history or specific historical periods--not as much as specialists, but enough to recognize howling anachronisms and implausiblities, and enough to bring something to the table.

I can only agree with--and laugh with--your reaction to the "Sparactus" series. While watching the wretched Tudor series on Showtime, I did the same--yelled, snorted, groaned, threw a pillow--at the presentation of Tudor people thinking and talking and acting in ways the Tudors and their courtiers never would--or could. This sort of thing in historical dramatizations just drives me nuts--even if the costumes and backdrops are spot-on.

I did, in an earlier post, explain, "I am not a historian" (although I have a BA in History.) This does not disqualify me entirely, I hope. I have read a great deal about different historical periods--for the most part ancient Greece, Rome, Tudor England, 17th-18th century France--both in fiction and non-fiction. I am just not trained or expert. Still, even amateurs have something of interest to add--even if it is only a thoughtful question.

Discussing these things with 'real' historians is one of the great pleasures found in threads like these. It would be a great pity to shut us out, we who would love to hear the 'real dope' from those who know--or think they do.

I believe it was I who wrote "Ceaser." Indeed, it was very careless of me. It was an unfortunate typo--just typing too fast without spell-checking. Mea culpa.

P.S. Forgive me, but I believe you misquote
"suspension of belief." Unless I am mistaken (though I am not), it should be "suspension of disbelief", and it was not Tolkein who orginally cited it. It was an 18th century English playwright--the name escapes me (though it might be Sheridan. Perhaps someone in this forum could pin it down for us.) Well, we live and learn!

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 28, 2007 2:51:51 PM PDT
Mark Mewell says:
I see you have missed out on the eagle series by Simon Scarrow. Shame on you, they're brilliant reads.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 29, 2007 2:51:25 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 29, 2007 2:52:07 PM PDT
Bill Marlow says:
And Cicero is pronounced "Kickeroh" and Caesar also was mangled into the Russian word Tsar, yeah. We know.

For me it's about a good-faith effort on the part of the author to be accurate. If you look at my five favorite authors - Dunnett, Cornwell, O'Brian, Sabatini, and McCullough - they're all quite accurate in their details, though words and phrases and even ideas emerge that are historically inappropriate. Like McCullough using the word "assassin" and its derivitives. Though over a thousand years too early, she uses it as a sop to her modern readers, as the best word to describe the idea she wants to convey.

Once the good-faith effort has been made not to use historically inaccurate clothes/weapons/events, etc., we can move on to try and enjoy the story the author has told. There will always be errors. As long as the errors are not glaring (you know, the kind that could have been fixed by a basic Google search), historians and amateurs alike should be able to forgive the flaws and focus on the story. This is fiction after all.

Take, for example, the film Gladiator. I was able to forgive the use of stirrups on the horses in the opening battle, though Romans did not use them. However, I was unable to get past the use of Gaius Gracchus, transporting him through time and space to a different era of Rome's history, to perform different deeds. Why not create a new character, why feel compelled to debase history so blatantly?!

These are my thoughts. They don't really get at the historian/not part of the argument, because in all honesty I think it's specious. The moment we open a book or watch a film, we're an audience. As a reader, I'm far more likely to be turned off by poor writing than by minor historical inaccuracies. As a film-goer, I'll hate bad acting or bad cinematography long before I quibble with how they wear their togas. The Spartacus on TV lost me long before I saw the period flaws - because it was poorly made all around.

Each audience member has personal views of what makes a good story. For you, it may be slavish devotion to period detail. For someone else, it might be the score. For me, it has a lot to do with the balancing act between character development, dialogue, pace, and (yes) historical accuracy - or the illusion of it. Historian is just another set of audience standards, like the ones I have as Actor and Director, or someone else will have as Grammarian.

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is a classic play, but riddled with "cultural howlers" as you phrase it. Should it not be performed? Should we rewrite it? Or should we let it stand as a tremendous piece of literature, more a reflection of humanity and the time of its writing than of actual history?

The more I reread your note, the more aggravating I find it. Not the thought, but the tone. Very off-the-cuff, to be sure, but still quite dismissive of the readers of historical fiction, who are somehow less able than you to appreciate the good from the bad. By setting yourself up as outside the audience - indeed, above it ("or shall YOU be obliged...") - you have cut yourself off from discussing it with people who may have learned from your base of knowledge. And from whom you may also learn, a possibility you seem not to acknowledge.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 29, 2007 7:00:59 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 29, 2007 7:06:06 PM PDT
D. Gillespie says:
Beautifully said, Bill Marlow. Writing a novel is a highly specialized art, as difficult to learn as architecture, as demanding as writing a symphony - I don't think M. Cotone understands this. We are working with illusion when we write. A novel should not be judgd by the standards of non-fiction historical writing.

Another point I'd like to add to all the wonderful ones you make, Bill, (and this is actually something that has come up for me in regard to my own work) - What happens when an archaeological dig takes place after your book has been published and archeologists uncover something that contradicts a fact you've included in a scene? Should an historical novelist be afraid, be very afraid - every time a university sponors a new dig? It's just ridiculous.

This is why I always like to say - Expecting to get your history from an historical novel is like trying to learn botany by studying impressionist paintings of trees. There is truth in those trees, but it's a different kind of truth.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 30, 2007 12:03:48 PM PDT
J F Ridgley says:
New Kid on the Roman Block...check out Jim Duffy and is gladiator series. It's very good

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 1, 2007 10:40:06 PM PDT
David Chacko says:
I'm glad to see Rex Warner on the list. He was one of my teachers and a great guy. If you want a new historical read, try THE SEVERAN PROPHECIES by David Chacko. It's just out, and mine, but if you don't agree it's worth putting on your list, you can have your money back.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 2, 2007 8:04:09 AM PDT
M. A. George says:
David Chacko--I appreciate the reminder of how much I enjoyed Mr. Warner's "Young Ceasar" so I went to Amazon and bought the sequel, "Imperial Caesar" used and at a very modest price. I did check out your book, too, and it does look very interesting. Unfortunately, it being so new there are no used copies that I can afford this month. But it is on my list.

About getting one's money back: Books are always a crap shoot. Remember that "Seinfeld" episode, where Kramer tries to get Jerry to return some fruit that wasn't good? Jerry explains that buying fruit is always a gamble--you don't take it back. Ditto books!

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 28, 2007 6:26:00 PM PDT
K. Gilligan says:
I love Greek historical fiction, specifically Alexander the Great historical fiction. I made two lists and added as many as I could find. You may find it of some interest: http://www.amazon.com/WIP-Historical-fiction-about-Alexander-the-Great-and-his-time-Part-1/lm/R3QA5VT9ZMMKJA/ref=cm_lm_byauthor_title_full/103-9686108-0183022
and
http://www.amazon.com/WIP-Historical-fiction-about-Alexander-the-Great-and-his-time-Part-2/lm/R3Q145KQ9RNQW4/ref=cm_lm_byauthor_title_full/103-9686108-0183022

I'd recommend Mary Renault, Judith Tarr, Melissa Scott, and P.C. Doherty.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 3, 2007 6:00:55 AM PDT
Some suggestions:
'Medicus' by Ruth Downie
the Marcus Didius Falco series of books by Lindsey Davis
'Hadrian's Wall' by William Dietrich
several titles by Gillian Bradshaw 'Render Unto Caesar' 'Island of Ghosts' 'The Sand Reckoner'
Also, I heartily second the Eagle series by Simon Scarrow. They are lots of fun.
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