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Why I Write Roman Historical Novels, by Ben Kane

There are a number of reasons that I chose the Roman period as a background for my novels when I set out to become a full time author. I knew that I wanted to write military historical fiction in the style of such great authors as Bernard Cornwell. I was particularly drawn to the Romans and the Vikings, as I had been since childhood. Although the legions never came to Ireland (where I grew up), the iconic YA book The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, cast me under its spell when I was about nine or ten – and it never let me go. The Vikings exerted a similar influence on me through the books of Henry Treece and because of their long history in Ireland. They featured heavily in the history that was taught to me in primary school. I grew up about 8 kilometres away from a round tower that would have been built to safeguard monks from Viking raiders. Carlingford, a deep water bay (not a true fjord, but one that was named by Vikings) lies about 30 km. from my parents’ house, and I have visited it many times. So these two peoples featured heavily in my childhood imagination (let it be said that medieval knights and cowboys did too, though).

In 2001 and 2002, I spent a year working on the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak as a veterinarian. I was posted to Northumberland, in northern England. This is the county through which most of Hadrian’s Wall runs. Little was I to realise, but this would reawaken the interest I’d had in Rome more than twenty years previously. I took the chance to visit the wall frequently, and could not help but imagine Roman soldiers standing on it, living in the forts there and serving out their careers wondering how in hell they had come be there, at what must have seemed the ends of the earth. I decided to write a book about such men. My first novel (begun in 2003 and never published) was about a real life rebellion in AD 181 on and around Hadrian’s Wall.

Other reasons that helped me to settle on Rome included the fact that Bernard Cornwell had just started his Alfred novels, and I worried that no one would be interested in Viking novels because of them. How naïve! I didn’t then know that there is room for many authors in any one time period, but it was enough for me to give up on Vikings at the time. I also thought that Rome would be interesting to write about because it has such a long and glorious martial history. There are more than a thousand years of wars, politics, battles and tragedy to pick and choose from. Unlike other authors who write about Rome, I found myself drawn to the Republican period. Initially, I thought that was coincidence, but I think there’s more to it now. Coming from a republic, I disagree fundamentally with the idea of monarchy. I therefore find myself instinctively disliking Roman emperors, which means that I find the idea of novels set after the Republic’s fall less appealing. Still, that doesn’t confine me. I’ve been working backwards since my first trilogy, writing novels about Spartacus and currently, a second novel about the Second Punic War, which took place between 218 and 202 BC. There’s plenty more Roman history before that too, so I hope not to run out of material any time soon.

***Write with Ben Kane near Hobart, Australia with Novel Writing Retreats Australia in February 2014

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Spartacus: The GladiatorThe Road to Rome (Forgotten Legion Chronicles)Hannibal: Enemy of Rome     The Sultan's WifeBetrayalAuslander

Writing Historical Novels

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Yeah, for me as a kid, Rosemary Sutcliffe ruled when I staggered out of the library with my pile of books.
    Re. your republicanism – it’s a nice frisson to not like crucial aspects of the period you’re writing in too – it gives spice and depth to your characters and plots. Nice one. Thanks for the post.

    September 17, 2013
  2. Ben, three cheers for Rosemary Sutcliffe and The Eagle of the Ninth and for Henry Treece. They all conspired to set me not just on the path of reading hist.fict when I was 11 and ever onward, but eventually becoming a writer of hist.fict (Albeit a different timeframe)!

    I understand you will be taking a writers’ retreat only five minutes from where I live (literally 5 minutes!) when you come to Australia (Tasmania). Am hoping madly that you will be able to do a wider-scale meet and greet whilst here. Cheers.

    September 17, 2013
  3. This is a really interesting post, Ben. It continues to astonish me how much of our childhood experience and writings continue to influence us as adult writers (in fact the word adult may not be altogether appropriate here.) Like you I was influenced by books, Treece in particular, by landscape and by strongly held moral positions. You have made your influences explicit and it will make me ponder mine more, What is really pleasant to muse on is the fact that some young people may be influenced by the novels we write and in years to come will be posting articles like this around the Solar System. (I also liked Science Fiction.)

    September 18, 2013

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