Battle for Rome | Ian Ross | 2016 | Head of Zeus | 449p | Review copy | Buy the book
This month sees the publication of Battle for Rome, the next installment in one of the best historical series about today, which brings one of the most extraordinary periods of Roman history to life – on the battlefield and in the corridors of power. I am delighted to include here a Q&A with the author Ian Ross, in which he talks about the appeal of the early 4th century for a writer, the character of Constantine, the future of this marvellous series, writing historical fiction and the authors who have influenced him. The interview follows the review.
It is AD 312 and the Roman empire is on the brink of civil war. Constantine controls the west while Maxentius, son of the former emperor Maximian, rules Italy, North Africa and Rome itself. Two other rival emperors, Licinius – in the Balkans and Greece – and Maximus Daza – in Egypt and the east – ensure that peace will stay out of reach.
Aurelius Castus, celebrated for saving the life of Constantine, has been promoted from centurion and is now a tribune but his life is no less perilous. His courage has marked him for those missions that should be difficult to survive. Constantine needs to win over the support of Licinius to the east as well as the senators in Rome and Castus soon finds himself deep in enemy territory. Castus has personal troubles of his own – he suspects that his wife may be involved in the political schemes that are dividing the empire, working against him with one of his greatest enemies. It’s almost impossible to know who to trust as spies crisscross the empire and politicians plot to save their own necks whatever the final outcome. Nothing is certain, not even the gods. While some, including Castus, pray to the old gods, and others turn to sorcery, many more are following a new religion. It is even suspected that Constantine himself is becoming a Christian and, as a result, Christianity begins to move its way through the army ranks.
Battle for Rome is the third novel in the excellent Twilight of Empire series and it is a corker. Castus, now fully proven as a warrior and leader but still regarded with hostility by Rome’s aristocrats, occupies the perfect role at the centre of the empire’s breakdown. He moves between factions, somehow retaining his honour, and in this novel visits for the first time in his life the city of Rome itself. The battles are bloody, thrilling and brilliantly re-enacted by Ian Ross but the corridors of power are no less deadly. Castus is in maximum danger throughout.
This isn’t a period of Rome’s history that I’m too familiar with but what a fascinating time, not just for the civil war but also for the rise of Christianity, which must have been hard for many to accept. Ian Ross brings it alive. I have enjoyed watching Castus’s character develop over the novels but for me the most memorable portrait of Battle for Rome is Constantine. We largely see him through the eyes of others so he remains as much a mystery to us as he does to the people around him. Here is a complex man, flawed and proud but clearly with something about him that made people follow him into war. Castus’s relationship with Constantine is complicated.
The Twilight of Empire series has really come into its own with Battle for Rome. Castus is continuing to move across the Roman world, from Britain in War at the Edge of the World, along the Rhine in Swords Around the Throne, and now he has reached Rome itself and armies are on the march, Romans fighting Romans. This is a tense, exciting and gripping read and a fine contribution to what has become one of my very favourite series.
While you don’t need to have read the previous two novels to enjoy Battle for Rome, I certainly recommend that you do.
Interview with Ian Ross
Congratulations on Battle for Rome – I loved it! The Twilight of Empire series focuses on a period of Roman history that is relatively overlooked – the early 4th century and the rule of Constantine. What drew you to write about this time?
Thanks! I’m very glad you enjoyed the book. The period I’m writing about was a time of great change, and writers, I think, are always going to be drawn to situations of upheaval and revolution. By the early 4th century, the Roman empire was already centuries old. It had been through vast crises, and it was in the process of evolving into a new and different shape. The people of that time lived among the ruins of their own ancient past; the age of Julius Caesar and Augustus was as distant to them as the days of Marlborough and Queen Anne are to us today. So there’s a sense of historical perspective, of the depth of time. But it was still a recognisably Roman culture, feeding off the past. The empire may have been battered and crumbling, but there was a great vigour and energy to its society. Also, of course, it was a tremendously dramatic time, with wars all across the Roman world, from the wilds of northern Britain to the deserts of Mesopotamia, and a host of competing emperors and usurpers. It was an age of treachery and intrigue, of astonishing wealth and draconian government, of strange new religions and social transformation. An unfamiliar setting in many ways, but still oddly recognisable to us today, I think.
I love the way in which Castus’s character has developed over the three novels. He seems that he’d be fun to write about – an intriguing mix of strengths and flaws, sometimes out of his depth as anyone would be at such a time! Can you tell us what you like most about him?
I had a very clear picture of Castus from the beginning. Actually I think my image of him came to me before the story itself, or even the setting. Initially I envisaged him as the opposite of me – I’ve always found it more enjoyable to write about people at a remove from myself, who experience the world in a different way (I’ve enjoyed writing about female characters for the same reason!). So Castus is a born soldier, illiterate at the beginning, brutal-looking and rather clumsy in social settings, but with a firm code of honour and a strong sense of loyalty. I didn’t want him to be either an author-avatar or a superhero; he’s a man of his time, similar to the many other career soldiers, often from a Danubian background, who played such an important role in the military and political history of the age. His rather straightforward approach to problem-solving leads many people to underestimate him, often to their cost. But his sense of honesty and justice puts him in conflict with the rather more twisted morals of the age, and as the stories continue many of his assumptions about the world and the empire are challenged. He’s pretty tenacious too though, and seems to have survived everything I’ve thrown at him so far!
The character of Constantine is a particularly interesting one. He challenges the traditional view of him and he’s not an easy man to like or for Castus to follow. The rise of Christianity in the empire and in its armies is such a fascinating theme. Do you think Constantine was genuine or political in his beliefs?
Constantine is certainly one of the more fascinating figures of Roman history. There’s been a vast amount written about him, but most of it focusses on the religious angle, for obvious reasons. He does come across as a hard man to like – singularly ruthless, utterly vain, intent on absolute power, convinced of his own cause, and in many ways a forerunner of the more narrow-minded rulers of later ages. But he was also quite similar to the emperors that preceded him – very much a soldier, a heavy drinker, at ease in the company of his officers (who perhaps found the situation a bit less agreeable!). He had a caustic sense of humour, and enjoyed mocking people. Whether he was convinced of his religious beliefs or not is one of those questions that historians love to argue about. I tend to think he was genuine; he was a passionate believer, in himself as much as anything, and seems to have found in Christianity a system of faith that would elevate him above common men, besides uniting the empire under his rule. And anyone who could compose and recite the two-hour-plus ‘Oration to the Saints’ (a fantastically boring exercise in religious dogma that served no political purpose) was clearly a man who believed that God was taking a personal interest in him!
How difficult is it to mix history with fiction?
I’ve never found it difficult at all – quite the opposite in fact. History offers such a wealth of stories and dramatic situations that it’s hard to avoid the urge to start melded fiction with fact, and imagining the lives of the real people caught up in those events. I think there’s a lot more emphasis on accuracy in historical writing nowadays – perhaps because the internet gives everyone much easier access to the raw materials – but I’ve always tried to stick to the known facts and authentic details of the era. I find research an inspiration rather than a chore.
Do you have the future of the Twilight of Empire series mapped out? How many books do you envisage in the series?
I have six books planned in the series, taking Castus from relative obscurity as a provincial centurion to the heady, and dangerous, heights of power. The action of the stories maps very closely onto the events of the time period, but my focus is always on Castus himself and the personal challenges he faces. Having such a long timespan to work with – thirty years or more – allows for a fair bit of character development!
Is there another period of history that appeals to you to write about?
There are a great many, and I have to try to avoid thinking about them too much. I can very easily get distracted from the task at hand! The mid-19th century appeals to me, as do the Renaissance, the interwar 20th century, archaic Greece and assorted other eras. I could happily research and write about just about any historical period, I think. For now I’m fixated on Rome, but who knows what the future may hold…
Which authors have inspired you to write?
Such a lot of them! When I first started writing, many years ago, I was mainly inspired by contemporary fiction, of the more literary variety. For a while I tried to write those sorts of books, but I don’t think my heart was really in it. When I turned to the work I’m doing now, I think I was consciously reaching back to the books I’d loved in my younger years – Rosemary Sutcliffe (particularly her Flowers of Adonis), the fantasy/sf writer Gene Wolfe, C.S. Forester, and various adventure/thriller type authors. I do still love J.G. Farrell’s books, although I doubt any of his influence comes through in what I’m doing now!
What’s your favourite novel of 2015?
Most of what I’ve been reading lately has been non-fiction, for research purposes! I’ve very much enjoyed Harry Sidebottom’s new series though, and John Henry Clay’s second novel, At the Ruin of the World. Away from the Roman theme, Jason Hewitt’s Devastation Road and Kim Devereux’s Rembrandt’s Mirror both had me engrossed.
Many thanks to Ian for taking the time to answer my questions!