The Twilight of Rome series by Ian Ross has given me such reading pleasure over the last few years. Set during the early years of the 4th century AD, the books provide such a fascinating and thrilling portrait of a divided Roman empire at war, covering the rise to power of one of Rome’s most famous (but perhaps not that well known in fiction) emperors Constantine the Great. The centurion Aurelius Castus, a fantastic hero, is placed at the heart of events and it is gripping stuff. In January, the series comes to a close with the sixth book, Triumph in Dust. This obviously makes me sad as I’ll miss it but I’m really excited to see how it will end – for Rome and for Castus. I’ll be posting a review of the novel closer to its publication in hardback on 10 January but the ebook will be available from 1 December. To celebrate the occasion, I’m delighted to join the blog tour with a guest post by Ian Ross on how he picked this particular period of Roman history to bring alive in the Twilight of Rome series.
You decide that you want to write a series of novels, following the adventures of a single character through an epic period of history. You’ve always been fascinated by the ancient Roman world, so that seems the ideal setting; but Rome endured for over half a millennium, and featured a wealth of extraordinary events; how do you narrow it down?
You want to choose a period that will allow you the widest geographical scope. You also need a cast of engaging historical figures, familiar to the educated reader but not over-represented in fiction. You want to steer your stories as close as possible to recorded facts, so you need a well documented era, but one with sufficient breadth of uncertainty to allow your imagination free rein. Lastly, of course, you need to choose a setting with the greatest possible dramatic potential, a time of wars and uprisings, plots and intrigues, a moment when the certainties of the past are being overthrown, and a single man – or woman – can rise from obscurity to take a guiding role in great events.
It’s strange to consider, as I reach the conclusion of my ‘Twilight of Empire’ series – the sixth and final book, Triumph in Dust, is published in January – that I did once ask myself these questions. But for me, there could only have been one answer. Years before, when I lived in Sicily, I had visited the ruins of the Roman villa at Piazza Armerina, and seen the fabulous floor mosaics, dating from the early 4th century AD, showing scenes of daily life: soldiers and hunters, aristocrats and slaves, all in dazzling colour. I soon realised that the thirty-year reign of the Emperor Constantine would provide an ideal framing chronology. From his first acclamation at York in AD306, Constantine’s bloody and dramatic rise to sole power would give me a powerful narrative arc, around which my story could evolve. He was also the first emperor to adopt Christianity, and the revolutionary changes in religion would add an extra social dimension to the turmoil of the era.
But I did not want to tell the story of Constantine himself; instead I wanted to view his world through the eyes of a figure on the periphery of power, a man who could move freely between the frontiers and the very heart of the empire. And so my protagonist was born: Aurelius Castus begins the first novel as a common soldier, recently promoted to centurion of a legion in northern Britain. His adventurous career will take him through the greatest battles of the age, and right across the Roman world from the barbarian wilderness to the palaces of the emperors, then onward to the distant eastern frontiers, as he scales towards the dangerous summit of power.
Now, even as I consider future projects, and once more ask myself those same questions about setting, I know that the world of the ‘Twilight of Empire’ novels will always endure in my imagination. Historical fiction gives us a way of encountering familiarity in the strangeness of the past.
Reviews and posts
War at the Edge of the World (Twilight of Empire 1)
Swords Around the Throne (Twilight of Empire 2)
Battle for Rome (Twilight of Empire 3) (with interview)
The Mask of Command (Twilight of Empire 4)
Imperial Vengeance (Twilight of Empire 5)