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Why read historical novels? 

Helen Parkins 


Why should we read historical novels? If they are purely fiction, what can we possibly gain 
from reading them? Because they are fictionalized accounts of the past, we cannot refer to 
them as history. However, we should remember that even history is not the whole 'truth'. 
Try as we might, ancient historians and classical scholars can never fully reconstruct the lives 
of the ancients; our evidence is simply too fragmentary. We know - or like to think we know 
- quite a lot about certain aspects of the ancient world, but most of the time we are left to 
make intelligent guesses based on the few facts we have. Needless to say, this can be rather 
frustrating. 

This is where the historical novelist comes in. As a work of fiction, the historical novel 
doesn't have to concern itself with the recounting of facts. Its chief intention is to tell a good 
story. How historically accurate that story should be is up to the author. Of real importance 
though is the creation of a believable historical setting or atmosphere. What the author can 
do is suggest to us what life might have been like in the past, or to offer us a particular 
insight by using a vivid imagination. To succeed, the novel has to make you feel that 'this is 
how it was'. It doesn't mean, of course, that the author is 'right'; but then, without the help 
of a time-machine historians cannot guarantee that they are right either! But by using their 
imagination together with some knowledge of the period, novelists can go where historians 
would not dare. Inspiration is the key. 

For example, Robert Graves in his book /, Claudius attempted to get inside the mind of the 
Roman emperor himself by writing from Claudius' viewpoint. More recently, Allan Massie 
has attempted to give the same kind of treatment to two earlier emperors, Augustus and 
Tiberius. We therefore witness imperial intrigue and corruption at first hand, through the 
emperors' eyes. The result is so convincing that you might wonder why anyone would ever 
have wanted to be an emperor of Rome! 

Getting inside a different world 

Part of the skill in writing a historical novel therefore lies in making it 'realistic'. In theory, 
that task should be made easier by the fact that we like to think the Greeks and Romans 
were rather like us: 'civilized' people. The allure of their civilizations is, after all, the reason 
why we still want to study their languages, their writings, their architecture and so on; from 
all of which we still, at the end of the twentieth century, borrow heavily. But at the same 
time, we are intrigued by the differences between their world and ours. It is precisely these 
differences that are played upon and reconstructed in magical detail in books like The 



Beacon at Alexandria by Gillian Bradshaw. The emotions and reactions of the central 
character - as she is forced to disguise herself as a eunuch in order to study medicine in 
fourth-century A.D. Alexandria - are precisely 'realistic', or those that we might expect, even 
though the setting and circumstances are totally unfamiliar to us. 

If you should think that this all sounds quite obvious, then think again. In The Beacon at 
Alexandria (as in most of the books mentioned here) there is just the right blend of history 
and plot. To all novels, historical or otherwise, the strength of the story is vital; it must 
provide a 'good read'. But getting the right balance between historical detail and fiction is 
not easy. Not even experienced authors can necessarily write riveting historical novels as 
Colleen McCullough's recent effort (hilariously sent up by 'Thersites' in Omnibus 21) 
illustrates. 

The seamy side of Rome 

Of novels set in the Graeco-Roman world, the Roman ones are perhaps the more numerous. 
This may be because, on the face of it, what we know about some aspects of Roman life 
offers all the best ingredients for a blockbuster: sun, sex, corruption, bloodthirstiness, even 
an imperial dynasty (Dynasty?). Add to that a few Christians, some slaves, and the odd 
disaster (such as the eruption of Vesuvius), and you have the ideal basis for a story. So, to 
list a few examples, Robert Graves' /, Claudius and Claudius the God follow the perils of life 
in the imperial family; his Count Belisarius similarly follows life on the fringes of the imperial 
court, as seen through the eyes of the slave of Belisarius' wife; Hubert Monteilhet's 
Neropolis takes us through the seedy suburbs of Rome to chart the downfall of a young man 
whose mother gets mixed up with Nero; and Gillian Bradshaw's The Bearkeeper's Daughter 
relates the story of the Roman empress Theodora, whose secret and sordid past catches up 
with her. For a 'disaster' epic, and a much older (and 'classic') example of a historical novel, 
take a look at Lord Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii. 

But it is charismatic figures that continue to fascinate readers, writers, and film-makers the 
most. The Roman emperor Hadrian is one such figure. Arguably, he was an emperor with a 
difference: he got on with the Greeks, and longed to emulate their intellectual and artistic 
achievements. His autobiography, alas, has long since been lost, but it is imaginatively 
reconstructed in Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian. The author does not simply 
tell of events from Hadrian's point of view. Instead, she recreates Hadrian's thought- 
processes, his reflections on his life as he lies on his death-bed. Yourcenar therefore 
attempts perhaps the hardest task of all: to be Hadrian in his final hours. So we retrace with 
the emperor his joys and disappointments as the intelligent and sensitive ruler of an empire; 
we feel the happiness and sorrows of his personal relationships. An unlikely achievement, 
perhaps; it may seem impossible that a Frenchwoman of the twentieth century could 



empathize with a Roman emperor. Yet this book has frequently been acclaimed as the finest 
historical novel of all. 


In the steps of Greek heroes 

Greek history, too, has its heroes. From the age of Classical Greece (traditionally 479-336 
B.C.), the Athenian leader Pericles stands out, and he is the subject of Rex Warner's fictional 
biography, Pericles of Athens. It is also Periclean Athens and its rivalry with its powerful 
neighbouring state, Sparta, that are the subject of Mary Renault's The Last of the Wine. The 
book boasts a cast of characters that includes some of Athens' best-known cultural figures, 
such as Socrates. The story, that of the last great conflict between the two states, is seen 
through the eyes of a young Athenian who grows up entirely in the shadow of the war. 

Later, and arguably greater still than Pericles, was Alexander the Great of Macedon. His 
empire extended from Macedonia, in the north of Greece, as far east as India. It is his style 
of leadership that has attracted storytellers down the generations, for the lands that 
became part of the Alexandrian empire were conquered by Alexander himself, always at the 
head of his army. Mary Renault's Fire from Heaven, The Persian Boy, and Funeral Games 
(which together form a trilogy) follow the progress of Alexander from a young man to the 
events of his funeral. Of these, it is The Persian Boy that is perhaps the most memorable, 
told as it is from a personal perspective, that of the eunuch Bagoas, Alexander's servant and 
bed-mate. 

Alexander changed the outlook of the Greek world and the lands he conquered for good. By 
creating links between Greece and other, seemingly more exotic countries Alexander 
ensured that people from very different cultures could begin to borrow ideas and to learn 
from one another. But it was a time of change in other ways too. In Sparta in the 230s B.C., 
the then king, Cleomenes III, tried to even out the distribution of wealth and land - too 
much of which was in the hands of a tiny minority - among his citizens. It is his attempt at 
creating a new Sparta, together with the new background of multi-cultural exchange, that 
form the basis of Naomi Mitchison's The Corn King and the Spring Queen. The changes in 
Sparta are seen from the viewpoint of a group of non-Greeks, Scythian visitors from the 
Black Sea coasts. The Scythians were famed in antiquity for their archery skills and their rich 
corn-growing lands, and are known to archaeologists today by their spectacular gold 
jewellery. Unfortunately, we know almost nothing about the real Scythians; but this does 
not prevent Mitchison from painting a wonderfully vivid picture of their society, including 
their all-important religious ceremonies, in which the role of their chosen Corn King and 
Spring Queen is central. The magic of the past It is all too easy, when studying the ancient 
world, to explain events of the past in modem terms; that is, to rationalize them. Things that 
may have been mystical and magical to the ancients can often seem pointless or silly to us, if 
we use our modern knowledge, for example of medical and scientific processes, to explain 



them. But it is precisely the mysterious nature of religion, especially Greek religion, that 
above all makes the ancient world different from ours. The best historical novelists 
understand this. Set in a half-historical, half-legendary time, perhaps about 1000-800 B.C., 
Mary Renault's The King Must Die is a reconstruction of such a world. Historians of Greece 
have very little evidence of any kind for this period - which is why it is often called 'the Dark 
Ages' - and have been unable to fully piece together a picture of Dark Age life. By drawing 
on ancient legends, the limited historical evidence, and her imagination, it may be that Mary 
Renault has come closer to understanding the religion, the otherwise baffling rituals (such 
as bull-leaping), and the inner life of the early Greeks, than historians will ever be able to do. 
The story itself revolves around the legendary founder of Athens, Theseus. His early life, 
from his upbringing in Attica to his epic encounter on Crete with the Minotaur, forms the 
basis for this book; the sequel. The Bull from the Sea deals with the aftermath of that clash, 
Theseus' return to Attica and his new role as king of Athens. 

Interested? Well, the books I've mentioned are only a taster; there are plenty more that I 
haven't had the space to discuss. So if you want a glimpse of what life might have been like 
in the ancient world, why not try picking up a historical novel? Remember that although 
they might be writing fiction, historical novelists are often just as scrupulous in their use of 
sources - that is, in referring to archaeological evidence, ancient texts, and so on - as are 
historians. It could be argued that the novelists simply put the dialogue back into history! 
Have a look for yourself - you never know what you might discover about the ancient world 
without really trying ... 

Helen Parkins is excavating some of the magic of the Roman world as a postgraduate 
student at Leicester University.