History as Fiction, Fiction as History:
by Steven Saylor
As we contemplate various facets of the ancient novel, we are aware that novels are being written today which are set in the ancient world. Have the novels of the ancients served as inspiration to these modern novels of ancient times?
I will address this question not as a scholar, but as a novelist, and I will speak more from personal experience than from objective research. My acquaintance with the ancient novel is primarily as a reader, seeking narrative entertainment, atmospheric escape, and tidbits of curious information. My knowledge of the modern novel of ancient times is as both a reader and a creator.
Most of my novels are part of a series called Roma Sub Rosa and are set in the late Roman Republic; they employ certain devices of the mystery or crime genre. My main character, called Gordianus the Finder, debuted in the novel Roman Blood, first published in the United States in 1991. His professional expertise as an investigator (or detective, or sleuth) has brought him into contact with numerous powerful figures of the era, including Pompey, Julius Caesar, Cicero, Marc Antony, and Cleopatra, and he has participated in or been witness to numerous historical events, including murder trials, uprisings, riots, conspiracies, battles, and sieges. The novels are narrated in the first person by Gordianus, so that he serves as a guide (not always reliable and often biased) to the politics, sexual mores, religious beliefs, etc., of his place and time.
My more recent projects are of a more panoramic nature. The novel Roma, first published in 2007 in the United States, is an episodic narrative about the city spanning a thousand years, from its prehistoric beginnings to the time of Augustus. Told in third person omniscient, a series of long stories (or novelettes), set many years apart, follow the fortunes of a fictional couple and their descendents; their personal experiences are illustrative of certain specific historical situations or conflicts and often bring them into contact with famous persons and events. Roma is modeled on a storytelling technique pioneered with great success by the late American author James A. Michener, first in his 1959 novel Hawaii and later, with various refinements, in novels including The Source, Centennial, Chesapeake, Poland, Texas, Alaska, and Mexico. With these novels, the title is often the place where the action occurs, and in a sense this place, as the only constant throughout the book, becomes the main character of the novel as it is seen to grow, change, and develop over time. More recently a variation on this technique has been practiced with much success by the English writer Edward Rutherfurd, who adds another unifying element, the device of a multi-generational saga to link the characters over a great expanse of time. His novels in this vein (like those of Michener, using the setting as title and “main character”) include London, Russka, and Dublin.
My current work-in-progress is a sequel to Roma, in which I will attempt to produce a similar narrative panorama for the period from Augustus to Constantine the Great. [Author’s note: As it turns out, the sequel, Empire, spans only as far as the time of Hadrian.]
Have I been inspired, in writing either the Roma Sub Rosa series or in the more recent Roma novels, by those works we categorize as ancient novels? I fear the answer may disappoint the participants in this conference, because I can claim to have been inspired by the ancient novels only in the most indirect way. I am a modern novelist, and the modern novel has evolved into an animal very different from its ancient precursor. While every modern novelist owes some debt to those ancient works, my debt is probably no more and no less than that of the novelist who writes about modern New York or Lisbon rather than ancient Rome. Just because I write fiction about ancient Rome does not mean that I have a special relationship to the ancient novel.
The most durable motifs of the ancient novel—mistaken identity; separated lovers harassed by menacing strangers, shipwreck and other misfortunes; apparently extraneous digressions for the purpose of introducing colorful or exotic details; romantic fidelity tested by temptation and climaxed by a matrimonial happy ending—will always have a place in storytelling. Sometimes the borrowing has been obvious and deliberate, as when Shakespeare wrote “Pericles, Prince of Tyre,” inspired by the ancient Greek novel Apollonius, King of Tyre, a story of shipwreck and mistaken identity that reaches a joyful climax at the Seventh Wonder of the World, the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. Sometimes the borrowing is less obvious, as when Shakespeare wrote “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” set in the enchanted woods outside the Athens of Theseus, using certain motifs from The Golden Ass of Apuleius. These works of Shakespeare have in turn inspired later works of fiction and drama, and so serve as a link in the transmission of inspiration from the ancient novels.
But the modern novelist who writes about ancient times does not attempt to use the storytelling techniques of the ancients themselves (though this might make for an interesting “post-modern” experiment); rather, he or she attempts to recreate the atmosphere, personalities, and conflicts of the ancient world by using storytelling techniques familiar to writers and readers of today—first-person narrative with psychological introspection, third-person narrative with many shifting points of view, succinct but vivid (i.e., “cinematic”) scenes of violent action, explicit descriptions of sexual behavior, ironic manipulations of the reader’s expectations, attempts to camouflage exposition with dialogue, and so forth. The modern novel is an immensely complex enterprise, so complicated that we tend to take it for granted, rather as we do the Internet; even those who create the modern novel may have only a hazy idea of how the thing works, yet we know, from hands-on familiarity, how to navigate its terrain and how to obtain what we want from it. The novel has been evolving for millennia, at least since the time of the ancient Greek dramas and Aristotle’s dictum of beginning-middle-end, with many accretions from many sources; the ancient novel is only one of those sources, and the elements it contributes to the modern novel can be perceived only through the filter of many intervening contributions. Another metaphor for the modern novel might be the automobile; few among us could take the thing apart and put it back together again, yet we take its complexity quite for granted, and in it we can perceive the inspiration of the ancient chariot—but only dimly.
But if my debt to the ancient novelists is only very indirect, I can acknowledge a very direct debt to certain other ancient writers whose work is outside the canon of the ancient novel, but who nonetheless pioneered and practiced techniques surprisingly familiar to the modern writer of fiction. I speak of the ancient historians, whose work in some ways more closely resembles the modern novel than does the body of work we call the ancient novel. (Conversely, my own novel Roma in some ways more closely resembles a work of ancient history than it resembles an ancient novel.)
As a modern author, I sometimes chafe against current ideas about how to distinguish fiction from nonfiction, and to separate fiction into various categories and genres. These distinctions are determined partly by literary scholars and critics (upholding or subverting traditional ideas), but more immediately by booksellers, whose aim is to present their stock in such a way that buyers can find the books that will most interest them. With my books translated into twenty languages, I have discovered that booksellers in different countries sometimes have different ideas about how to classify books. For example, in bookstores in Hungary and Portugal, I have seen my Roma Sub Rosa novels placed on a shelf or table reserved for “historical fiction”; but in the United States, where such a “historical fiction” category very rarely exists, those same novels, because they feature an investigator hero and crime-driven plots, are almost always placed with “mystery fiction” (rather than the only likely alternative, “general fiction.”). When alphabetized by author, my novels often are located directly next to those of Dorothy Sayers (making Gordianus the Finder and Lord Peter Wimsey next-door neighbors, so to speak), so I often find myself tightly pressed against a British woman and devout Catholic with whom I feel little kinship, and far away (since his Burr and Julian reside in “general fiction”) from Gore Vidal, an fellow American atheist and historical novelist with whom I strongly identify. Categories exist because they are useful, but their application can be arbitrary and even perverse. When my novel Roma was published—by no possible definition a mystery or crime novel—one major bookstore chain in the U.S. insisted on shelving it in the “mystery” section next to my other novels, on the premise that my previous readers could more easily find it there.
In our own libraries, we may shelve the volumes as we see fit. Thus, while it may seem self-evident to some that Petronius and Longus belong on one shelf and Livy (Titus Livius) and Plutarch on another, in my library, for my purposes as a novelist, they are all side by side—and it is Livy, the historian, who is the most immediate inspiration to me as a writer of fiction.
In the first stages of my research for Roma—continuous research being a part of my work, as it must have been for the ancient historians— I was struck by a comment by T. J. Cornell in his book The Beginnings of Rome. Cornell notes that “all history contains an element of fiction,” and goes on to observe that the ancient historians, as opposed to their modern counterparts, openly practiced certain techniques in common with modern historical novelists. Cornell observes that, as “in other genres...such as [modern] historical novels...in pre-modern historiography…writers are permitted to reconstruct, from their own imaginations, the feelings, aspirations and motives of persons and groups, to conjure up plausible scenes—on the battlefield, on the streets, or in the bedroom—and even to put their own words into the mouths of persons in the drama. These conventions were accepted without question in antiquity, when history was at least in part a rhetorical exercise.” Thus the ancient histories, like modern historical novels, include “imaginary reconstruction, set battle descriptions, freely composed speeches, and so on.”1
Thus, in the Roman Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, we find long speeches attributed to Coriolanus—speeches which not only clarify the political issues of the day, but also convey the complex character of Coriolanus, just as dialogue in the modern novel is used both to convey background detail that would otherwise require exposition and to establish the personality of the speaker. No one assumes that the speeches attributed to Coriolanus recreate actual spoken words; they were freely invented by Dionysius, who thus to the modern reader begins to resemble a novelist as much as a historian.
Plutarch, in his Life of Romulus, discusses the fictive nature of his own sources: “This narrative, for the most part given by Fabius and Diocles of Peparethus, who seem to be the earliest historians of the foundation of Rome, is suspected by some, because of its dramatic and fictitious appearances; but it would not wholly be disbelieved, if men would remember what a poet fortune sometimes shows herself, and consider that the Roman power would hardly have reached so high a pitch without a divinely ordered origin, attended with great and extraordinary circumstances.”2 Thus Plutarch justifies his recounting, as history, tales of a fabulous nature, because the gods and goddesses themselves exercise a novelist’s imagination.
Or consider Livy, the great historian of early Rome. As a novelist, I read his work with utmost respect, even awe, for his erudition, but with even greater appreciation of his skills as a storyteller. The melodramatic tale of the wicked decimvir Appius Claudius and the chaste object of his lust, the doomed Verginia, is perhaps the finest example of this. That tale may or may not be entirely fictional, rather than factual, but almost certainly fictional is Livy’s story of Hercules and Cacus, and likewise his tale of the foundlings Romulus and Remus and their arrival in Rome via the flooding Tiber, whereupon they were suckled by a she-wolf. Livy recounts these stories with a novelist’s verve, but like a historian he adds, as it were, footnotes; for instance, he speculates that the origin of the she-wolf fable may have arisen from the fact that the adoptive mother of the Twins, Larentia, was a prostitute, that is, a she-wolf, or lupa, in the Latin slang of the time.3 (Plutarch likewise tells the story straight, then digresses with the same prurient speculation.4) Nowadays we call this sort of storytelling, with asides that circumvent or subvert the text, metafiction, and it is a prominent feature of the post-modern novel.
R.M. Ogilvie explicitly compares Livy to a writer of fiction, specifically to the historical novelist Sir Walter Scott: “Like a novelist he subordinated historical precision to the demands of character and plot. He indulged freely in invention and imagination in order to present a living picture. He would have disclaimed the title of a ‘historian’ in the modern sense. He had no wish to spend long years burrowing for irrefutable but trivial facts and to secure himself against criticism by burying them again in unreadable monographs. Like Scott, he wanted to be read, and he wanted the public to enjoy reading him.”5
Further, says Ogilvie, “Livy made history comprehensible by reducing it to familiar and recognizable characters,” and gave those characters specific voices to bring them vividly to life. Thus “he flavours brief utterances with colloquial, archaic or poetical language as the situation demands. The coarse impetuosity of Turnus Herdonius is caught in a single vulgar exclamation; Coriolanus’s mother addresses him in tragic language with tragic thoughts; C. Laetorius speaks as a crude, blunt soldier; Horatius Cocles jumps into the Tiber with a thoroughly epic prayer. The list could be multiplied indefinitely and it is important to remember, while reading a translation, that to a Roman’s ears each of Livy’s characters would have sounded real because he was made to speak in a distinctive and fitting way.”6 This is a achievement which every modern novelist strives to emulate.
Betty Radice notes that Livy “never falls into the error of trying to create atmosphere by lifting pages from Baedeker—George Eliot and Lord Lytton earnestly did their best with Florence and Pompeii, but the dead stones never speak. Instead, he keeps descriptions to a minimum and recreates the spirit of Rome by entering into the feelings of the people of the time.” (When he does describe, says Radice, it is with a novelist’s vivid imagination and an eye for action: “We can forgive Livy his inaccuracies over the crossing of the Alps when we remember the scenes he has described—the elephants crossing the river, the stumbling horses, the terrible descent over the newly-fallen snow, and Hannibal’s unremitting efforts to hearten his exhausted men. This is imaginative writing of the highest order....”7)
Before a word of Roma was written, while still engaged in research, I resolved to make Radice’s description of Livy’s technique one of my prevailing strategies. First, I would deliberately keep descriptions to a minimum; second, I would attempt to recreate the spirit of Rome by entering into the feelings of the people of the time.
To minimize descriptions would serve my novelistic purpose for several purely practical reasons. First, lengthy descriptions distract from narrative momentum, and in a novel as long as Roma, the author is always fearful that the modern reader, possessed of a notoriously brief attention span, will get bogged down. The pages must keep turning.
Second, when the historical and archaeological data give us no clear image of a place or person, as is often the case with early Rome, if the novelist wishes to describe, he must invent, using his knowledge of the period and his common sense. But outright invention introduces the possibility of outright error. What if I were to assert that Coriolanus had green eyes, thinking, from my research, that this detail simply does not exist in the literature, leaving me free to invent it. Almost certainly, after my book is published, I will receive, from a reader in a country I have never visited, an e-mail informing me of an ancient text I somehow overlooked in which we are told that Coriolanus had brown eyes. Never mind that this ancient text may in fact be no more accurate than my own invention, its author being an ancient historian given to fictional devices and prey to the errors of previous historians; as the creator of the later text, and a known writer of fiction, I will be thought to be in error, and for the historical novelist to be found in error is almost, though not quite, as embarrassing as for the historian to be found in error. Having once included stirrups in one of my early novels about ancient Rome, and a hummingbird in another—and been soundly drubbed for these errors of anachronism and ornithology—I long ago adopted a maxim regarding extraneous details and descriptions of ancient persons and places: when in doubt, leave it out.
Third, in many instances, lengthy descriptions of places, buildings, clothing, weapons, siege engines, triremes, fortifications, triumphal arches, statues, etc., are neither necessary nor pleasurable for the modern reader. A reader of the time of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens may have desired, indeed demanded, long and exquisitely detailed descriptions of the natural world, human physiognomy, the decoration of rooms, and so on, but today’s media-bombarded reader comes pre-equipped with an immense visual catalogue in his head, containing countless images from countless sources. The reader does not need to be told what a chariot looks like; he has seen many chariots already, and has a picture in his head. Only if there is something unusual or special about this chariot does he need to be given any additional information. The reader does not want a detailed description of a chariot; he wants the excitement of a chariot race.
So much for description as a means to create atmosphere, eschewed by Livy, according to Radice, who instead relied on psychological penetration to elicit the reader’s engagement with his protagonists and their stories. To enter “into the feelings of the people of the time” is Livy’s goal, says Radice; and that is also precisely the goal of the modern novelist who writes about the ancient world. Livy’s protagonists lived some hundreds of years before his own time. They lived some thousands of years before our own, and so the modern novelist must bridge a far greater gap to make their stories both credible and meaningful to the modern reader.
Here again Livy provides a model. Modern historians are wont to question Livy’s accuracy when he describes the class conflicts of the Gracchan era, or, even earlier, the secessions of the plebeians, in terms that would have been immediately comprehensible to readers of the Augustan age, who were much more familiar with politics in the late Republic. Do the political arguments in Livy’s imaginary speeches ring true, or are do they have an anachronistic clang, delivered in the political vocabulary of a much later time? Does his anti-plebeian Coriolanus speak like a Roman from the first years of the Republic, or is he really an Optimate from the age of Cicero masquerading in old-fashioned armor?
I tend to think that Livy, anachronistic or not, gets it right, because his political arguments are still so cogent today, two thousand years later. Would they not have been equally cogent four hundred years before his own time? The speeches in Livy intended to stir plebeian resentment or to defend patrician privilege are timeless, partly because he never simplifies or “dumbs-down” the politics. Livy’s rabble-rousers may be self-aggrandizing careerists, but they advocate honorable causes; his self-righteous patricians may be insufferable elitists, but perhaps they really are the only alternative to chaos. Such complexity conveys credibility and makes Livy’s people seem truly human, a mixture of good and bad together; that is why the passions they inspire still move us. The novelist, especially if he is dealing with ancient history and politics, must find a way to inspire that kind of passion if he wants the reader to keep turning the pages. The reader must care about the characters, must feel their suffering and share their hopes; along with intellectual understanding there must be an emotional engagement.
In recreating for Roma some of the political conflicts recounted by Livy, it was my challenge to give them a sense of immediacy and urgency that would engage the 21st-century reader. How better to examine the pain caused by the patrician/plebeian conflict than to dramatize the law of The Twelve Tables which forbade marriage between a patrician and a plebeian, and to show its impact on a young man and woman deeply in love but forbidden to marry, whose lives are destroyed by a harsh, unjust law? Subtly, without making any overt contemporary references, I hope to call upon the reader’s awareness that such situations still exist. Within my memory, miscegenation laws in the United States forbade marriage between people classified as black or white, with no regard for their personal happiness; such laws were not abolished, with great controversy, until 1967. Today, a similarly charged debate rages in the United States over forbidding or allowing people of the same gender to marry, with many states voting to amend their constitutions to outlaw any such possibility. Once upon a time, to forbid intermarriage between plebeians and patricians, the ancient Romans used the very same arguments and justifications used in these later instances—society would be disrupted, the gods would be displeased, the very state would be endangered. Just as Livy’s original readers perused his presumably antique speeches and heard echoes of their own present and recent past, so I hope that readers of Roma will experience the epiphany that comes from recognizing the present in the past, and the tensions of the real world in a work of fiction.
Ultimately, I have come to regard Livy’s great work as a direct precursor of the modern historical novel. In my personal pantheon of writers, he is the Father of Historical Fiction, and on my bookshelf, Livy has a place of honor among the ancient novelists.
My current research has taken me past the world of Republican Rome to the Rome of the Caesars, and thus into one of the heydays of the ancient novel. It may be that in attempting to create a panoramic fiction set in Rome’s imperial age, I will find (as I did not in writing Roma) more direct inspiration from the novels which were then fashionable.
Certainly those novels give us a sense of the popular taste of the era in which they flourished. We are challenged to imagine the audience that read (or heard read aloud) the works of Achilles Tatius or Longus or Heliodorus, and to wonder how that audience differed from the audience for Plautus, or, for that matter, from the readership of my novels today.
As Michael Grant noted, the ancient novels “were read because their dream-dramas, although not wholly escapist seeing that they look honestly (if symbolically) at the hazards of the world, were nevertheless a relief from the tedious and anxious realities of daily life. Fantasy-fiction is the typical nourishment of people whose normal impulses are starved of the means of expression. The politics of the Greco-Roman world were unpleasant, and in any case out of reach. A much more agreeable , accessible and flattering wish-fulfillment was to be found in imaginative identification with the young lovers in these novels. In an age, moreover, when very nasty things could happen, these appalling ordeals gave the vicarious thrill which attracts harmless people to stories of crime and murder today.”8
B.P. Reardon also speculates about the readers of the ancient novels, and the ways in which they must have differed from earlier audiences. For such readers, “living in a world of large empires...there could not be the same intense interest in political matters as had characterized the classical city-state. The world had become bigger, and the individual, in consequence, smaller in it—smaller, and more absorbed in himself, his private life. And there is hardly any need to explain why romantic sentiment, love, should occupy his thoughts. The basic story was new in kind; the love story with a happy ending had never occupied center stage before. It is surely here that one must look for the most important impulse stimulating the new genre; this was the kind of experience people wanted to write and read about. The novel is a reflection of their personal experience, as the older forms of tragedy and Old Comedy had been a reflection of their civic experience.”9
Clearly, the thought-world from which the ancient novel emerged, and in which it gained its greatest popularity, is something that must be taken into account if I am to bring to life the period to be covered by the second of my Roma novels, and rereading those ancient novels as part of my research will hopefully yield fresh insight into the people of the time. But again, I suspect that the actual techniques and themes of those novels will be of little immediate inspiration to me, and so, as with Roma, the influence of the ancient novels upon its sequel will be only indirect.
But again, as occurred during my research for Roma, in my research for this new project I am finding that works not usually classified as novels are nonetheless providing the frisson of imaginative writing that opens a door into the world of the ancients. I will briefly mention two such works.
The Caesars, written by the emperor Julian at Constantinople in A.D. 361, is usually classified as a satire and sometimes compared to Lucian's Dialogues of the Dead, though, as the translator Wilmer Cave Wright notes, “Julian is neither so witty nor so frivolous as Lucian.”10 But for the novelist seeking fictive inspiration to portray the emperors of Rome, this short work (the English translation runs to about 9,500 words) is a goldmine. The premise: all the gods and emperors attend a banquet on Olympus held by Romulus (deified as Quirinus) to celebrate the Kronia, or Saturnalia holiday. The gods sit in a circle and the emperors parade before them; the emperors are described and the gods comment on them. Hermes declares a contest to decide which of the emperors, like Romulus, are worthy to join their number. Each of the most outstanding emperors is called forth to make a case for himself. Constantine (the author’s uncle and father-in-law) comes off very poorly; the venerated Marcus Aurelius wins handily when the gods vote by secret ballot.
I know of nothing else quite like The Caesars, which portrays the emperors (and the gods) as deftly-drawn characters in a sort of historical pageant, with sharp dialogue and vivid descriptions. While too short perhaps to be called a novel, it definitely uses novelistic devices to drive its plot forward. The uncertain outcome of the contest, like the outcome of a trial, provides suspense; the banter of the gods provides humor; thumbnail descriptions and their own utterances establish the characters of the emperors. With its elements of fantasy and satire, Julian’s work may have served as inspiration to Thorne Smith’s comic novel The Night Life of the Gods (1931), in which the statues of various Greek deities in the Metropolitan Museum of Art are brought to life and let loose amid the unsuspecting citizenry of Prohibition-era New York City. (In Thorne’s novel, the situation in The Caesars is reversed, as in a mirror; rather than mortals parading through the world of the gods, gods parade though the world of mortals.) The Caesars will certainly serve as an inspiration to me when I face the challenge of capturing the personalities of Vespasian, Trajan, Hadrian, and others.
Even more novelistic than The Caesars is the Life of Apollodorus of Tyana written by Philostratus’s (ca. A.D. 170-245), a long work describing the far-flung travels and colorful adventures of a mediumistic wise man who supposedly lived ca. A.D. 20-110. Since they are lost, we cannot judge the accuracy of the biographies of Apollonius by Maximus of Aegae and by Moeragenes, but the ancients certainly believed in the existence of Apollonius, in both this life and whatever comes after; the Historia Augusta tells us that the emperor Severus Alexander worshipped Apollonius (along with Alexander the Great, Abraham, and Christ, among others), and that the spirit of Apollonius appeared to Aurelian and caused him to spare his native city of Tyana11. The sketchy details of his historical existence leave room for much conjecture. “If we were to discover the lost parts of the Histories of the Roman historian Tacitus,” speculates Jona Lendering, “it would not come as a surprise to meet Apollonius as a court astrologer” serving the Flavian emperors.12
Whatever the historical truth about Apollonius, the character who emerges in Philostratus’s purported biography seems quite fictional indeed. As Michael Grant notes, Philostratus, like the novelists of his day, “stressed the importance of Indian lore, introducing his saintly hero...to Hindu sages”13 and he further utilized “every kind of spicy out-of-the way anecdote to represent the solar devotee Apollonius as a virtuous, saintly, ascetic, miracle-working paragon leading a dramatic life in which he loved and helped his fellow-men....This career, echoing the Gospels and parodying the Christian martyrologies, could be set against Jesus’ life in rivalry—or even with a claim to superiority, since Apollonius’ alleged defiance of the tyrant Domitian seemed more comprehensible than the humiliation of Jesus.”14
Is the Life a work of biography or of fiction? It was apparently at the behest of Julia Domna, wife of the emperor Septimius Severus, that Philostratus composed his highly colored eulogy, and the whole work smacks of invention—one of the reasons, no doubt, that, far from supplanting Christianity with its synthetic mysticism, the work “fell between the two stools of philosophy and religion, and achieved little more than a fashionable donnish artificiality,” as Grant notes with characteristic acuity.15
But for today’s novelist writing about the era of Apollonius, Philostratus’ Life provides great inspiration. I’ll give only one example: the battle of wits in Books 7 and 8 between the wise man and the emperor Domitian in Rome. In The Caesars, Domitian gets short shrift; Julian doesn’t even mention him by name, but identifies him only as the younger son of Vespasian whom Zeus commands to be chained in stocks “like the Sicilian monster”16—a reference to the tyrant Phalaris, according to Wright17, but perhaps to the ogre Typhon (Typheous), the malevolent manifestation of “hot air.” In the Life, Domitian is placed center stage and is quite full of hot air, but his puffed-up ego is easily pricked by the wise, witty, always unflappable Apollonius. Apollonius is thrown in jail, but miraculously shakes off his fetters; called to stand trial before the emperor, he astonishes everyone by vanishing into thin air. Apollonius escapes from Italy, and years later, while delivering a lecture before the entire population of Ephesus, he miraculously witnesses the murder of Domitian in real-time back in Rome, as if it were taking place before his very eyes. “Smite the tyrant, smite him!” cries Apollonius, according to Philostratus.18 The historian Cassius Dio likewise relates the story of Apollonius’s vision and has him cheer on the assassin: “Good, Stephanus! Bravo, Stephanus! Smite the bloodthirsty wretch! You have struck, you have wounded, you have slain.”19
Will Apollonius figure in my sequel to Roma? How could I leave out such a colorful fellow? Thanks to Philostratus, I have a full-scale biographical novel from which to drawn inspiration—and like all good historical fiction, Philostratus’s Life provides a feeling not only for the life and times of its subject, but for the times in which the book was written, the era of Septimius Severus, when the world stood poised to chose between Sun worship or Son worship, between a wily wise man whom no chains could hold and who gleefully applauded the assassination of a tyrant, or a carpenter who was executed like a common criminal and counseled forgiveness to his dying breath. To capture the dynamics of that perplexing world—to recreate “the spirit of Rome by entering into the feelings of the people of the time,” as Radice said of Livy—I will need all the fictive inspiration I can find.
We must use our imaginations to picture the readers of the ancient novels, but I do not have to imagine the readers of my novels; thanks to the modern ritual of the book tour, I have had the opportunity to meet quite a few of them, in a number of different countries.
My exchanges with these readers—the inevitable Q&A—is often quite valuable to me. Readers discern patterns in the novels which I, being too close to my work, lack the perspective to observe; they make requests, telling me which characters they wish to see more of and which historical episodes they would like to see dramatized; and sometimes they come up with ideas that certainly would never have occurred to me.
A few years ago, in Marin County, California, just a few miles from my home, a reader put forth up a notion that truly startled me. “Mr. Saylor, have you ever imagined that in some far future time, all other records of ancient Rome have been lost—as so many records have been lost already—and that the only chronicles left of those times are your own historical novels?”
At once, I dismissed the idea as outrageous—but then had to admit that such a thing would not be completely impossible, given the haphazard way in which so very few documents survive over the centuries while so many others do not. Stranger things have happened—and therein lies the notion’s seductive allure, at least to the author. Here would be the key to immortality—to be the only source left for the tales of Romulus and Remus, Coriolanus, Hannibal, Caesar and Cleopatra! To have the last word—literally! In such a circumstance, would my texts be thought of as history or as fiction, or as some combination, or would they be placed in some category yet to be invented by the confused but earnestly striving scholars of the future?
To dwell on the idea too seriously would court hubris, I suspect, but the reader’s notion did make me realize that my novels, fictional as they may be, nonetheless bear a responsibility to tell the truth, whatever we may mean by “truth.” To readers who read only my books about ancient Rome and no others—and such readers may well exist—my books might as well be the only surviving documents. And so, fictional or not, while they exist and are read they are a part of the story of the ancient world, and the story of the novel, which begins in antiquity and continues into a future we cannot see.
1. Cornell, pp. 17-18
2. Plutarch, Life of Romulus 8.7 (Dryden translation)
3. Livy, History of Rome 1.4
4. Plutarch, Life of Romulus 4.3
5. Radice, pp. 18-19 (quoting R.M. Ogilvie, ‘Sir Walter Scott and Livy,’ a Third Programme talk printed in Listener, 3 November 1960)
6. Ogilvie, p. 9
7. Radice, pp. 19-20
8. Grant, p. 132
9. Reardon, p. 7
10. Wright, p. 343
11. Historia Augusta: Severus Alexander 29.2 and Aurelian 24.2
12. Lendering, www.livius.org/ap-ark/apollonius/apollonius02.html
13. Grant, p. 155
14. Ibid., p. 182
15. Ibid., p. 183
16. Julian, The Caesars, 311.A (Wilmer Cave Wright translation)
17. Wright, n. p. 357
18. Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, 8.26 (F.C. Conybeare translation)
19. Cassius Dio, Roman History 67.18.1 (Earnest Cary translation)
Cornell, T.J., The Beginnings of Rome, Routledge (London & New York), 1995.
Grant, Michael, The Climax of Rome, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London), 1968.
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Saylor, Steven, Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome, St. Martin’s Press (New York), 2007; in Portuguese translation, Bertrand (Lisboa), 2008.
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© copyright 2008 by Steven Saylor