When you write a novel about Roman Britain and you do the research, your readers will thank you for it. While most readers won’t be sitting a Latin or history exam a week after reading your novel, I think they’ll appreciate learning something. But novels which take place during the Roman Empire are plentiful—you’ll still need to create compelling characters and a great story of course!
The Romans managed to hold an empire together for centuries because they were clever and persistent, and there were a lot of them. You may have visited the Coliseum in Rome, Pont du Gard (an aqueduct) and the Maison Carré (a temple) at Nîmes, France or Diocletian’s palace in Split, Croatia. And don’t forget Hadrian’s Wall! Wonderful stuff. The Romans were not afraid of building in stone.
But on the dark side of empire was the necessity for slaves. Romans sailed (and rowed) all over the known world including Scandinavia and Britain where they traded with the local ‘barbarians’. Their trade goods and forts have been found even in countries such as Ireland which they never got round to conquering. (They were working on it.) They were a practical people; where raiding was too difficult or costly of Roman life, they traded. If they needed a tribe to be quiet, they would pay them off while they dealt with the difficult tribe. The Trapain Law hoard from the SE of Scotland has Roman silver dishes in it. No one is certain whether the Romans traded or paid brides with it.
The Romans were as prone as any other people to making themselves look good and their enemies look bad. I’m talking about Roman histories; their writers exaggerated or understated the facts; that is, they fibbed. All part of the business of aggrandising themselves and their gens (family).
Pagan religion was considered the glue that held Roman citizens together; bull sacrifices to the gods were public and citizens obliged to attend. (Christians refused to do so and got into considerable difficulty.) Gaius Julius Caesar was over his toga in debt when he set out to make his fortune, and did what upper-class Romans did to get ahead. He became a priest, pontifex maximus to be precise. The major deities during the period of empire were Jupiter, Mars and Minerva, and membership in their priesthoods was most prestigious. As the priesthood was a part-time job, it left time for ambitious Romans to work on their military and political careers.
To climb the political ladder, a Roman had to make a name for himself. So a frequent tactic was to make speeches in the fora (public squares). Not the most exciting entertainment for everyone. Another tactic was to give away bread to the Roman mob. But, best of all, an aspiring politician became famous by paying for gladiatorial games in the arena. Very popular among the plebs (common people).
Caesar joined the Roman army and chose to conquer Gaul (now France); the Gauls had invaded and sacked Rome in the early 5th century BC and the Romans never forgot it. So the Senate and People of Rome agreed to fund Caesar’s venture. He wrote a history of his campaigns called Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the War in Gaul). Roman writers thought people would believe lies if they were surrounded by lots of facts. So Caesar wrote about Celtic ships and deities, and the names of tribes both Celtic and Germanic. He says he visited Britain twice. All true.
So what did he lie about?? Druids, the priesthood of Celtic peoples for one thing. The Romans thought they encouraged resistance to Roman rule as druids were part of the councils who advised Celtic kings and chiefs. So Caesar wanted to create some bad PR about them. The Romans were not squeamish about violence especially to protect their empire. After Spartacus’ slave rebellion over 6000 slaves were crucified and the roads of Rome lined with them. To make the Gauls look a lot worse Caesar wrote that the druids burnt people in vast wicker cages shaped like men. The Roman had outlawed human sacrifice about 50 years before the conquest of Gaul. When the folks back in Rome heard about Caesar’s exploits, they thought he’d done a good thing to civilise the terrible people of Gaul.
A hundred years after Caesar’s time, the Romans conquered Britain. Same problem with the druids. Suetonius Paulinus, the Roman governor, went to sacredMona (Anglesey in NW Wales) to destroy the druid sanctuary. Cornelius Tacitus wrote several histories about Agricola, his father-in-law who was with Paulinus in Wales. He wrote the druids were horrific and scared the Roman soldiers so much that the Roman commander had to give a rousing speech to encourage the soldiers to do their duty. Druids, as Julius Caesar knew, did not fight; it was taboo. So they likely hurled a few curses at the Romans, but that was all they could do. They and their families were massacred. The idea was to be rather severe with one set of people and the rest minded their manners. Usually worked; however, the Romans underestimated Boudicca, queen of the Iceni.
Boudicca and her husband were allies of Rome BION. After her husband’s death, a third of his kingdom was willed to Rome. Not enough. The Romans wanted the whole thing. It is said that she was whipped and her daughters raped. Not sure that is true, but they were insulted and likely maltreated. However, what drove Boudicca to rebellion was losing her kingdom and the impoverishment of her people. They were joined in rebellion by various tribes who had lost land to retired Roman soldiers. Several coloniae (towns) were destroyed and the inhabitants killed, but eventually the Romans restored order in Britain.
The reporter of the rebellion was Tacitus who paints a terrible picture of the fierce British rebels. But he wrote a sympathetic picture of Calgagus, the leader of Caledones defeated at the battle of Mons Graupius. Because Tacitus despaired of corruption in Rome, he admired the Caledones who ‘shall be fighting to preserve our freedom’.
The Romans were dead scary people to the people who resisted becoming part of the empire, but they were remembered with some nostalgia and fondness after the fifth century. When threatened with raids by Picts and Scots, they begged for help from Rome. And didn’t get it alas. Then they hired Anglo-Saxon mercenaries. Big mistake. The mercenaries came and didn’t ever go home. We speak their language (with one or two changes over the centuries).
If you use Roman sources in your research you should be aware of the writers’ agenda. Don’t think the Roman version of events is necessarily accurate. Go ahead and write a Roman POV or write a British one. Make one of your major characters a Roman and another a Briton; personify the culture clash to enrich your story.
I hope to have interested you in tackling a novel set in Rome. Should you want more information, Savvy Authors will sponsor my course on Celtic & Roman Britain in February 2015.
- Anthony Birlay, Lives of the Later Caesars –gossipy book about the emperors written in the 4th century! good but cheap paperback
- Jerome Carcopino, Daily Life in Ancient Rome
- Nic Fields, Hadrian’s Wall AD 122 – 410 — Osprey book
- Michael Grant, Tacitus: The Annals of Ancient Rome — cheap paperback
- Rupert Matthews, The Age of the Gladiators
- H Mattingly & S A Hanford, Tacitus: The Agricola & the Germania –cheap paperback
- David Potter, Emperors of Rome –beautiful photos
- I A Richmond, Roman Britain – paperback: cheap but good
- Peter Salway, Roman Britain –large, academic text but comprehensive
- Philip de Souza, The Ancient World at War –great illustrations; chapters on Celtic and Roman warfare
- Malcolm Todd, Roman Britain 55 BC – AD 400 –cheap paperback, good info
- Anne & Peter Wiseman, Julius Caesar: The Battle for Gaul –although Caesar only stayed for a short time in Britain, his information on Gaulish society is good for Britain as well; nice photos and illustrations
While living over eight years in Europe, Sheila Currie studied the languages and history of Britain and France. She learned Gaelic at Xavier College in Nova Scotia (now UCB) then received an MA in Scottish History and Celtic Studies from the University of Glasgow. She now lives in British Columbia, Canada and teaches Scottish and Ireland history part-time at university. Her historical fantasy will concern a woman who is a member of a minority who struggles to deal with the power of the majority. And finds allies along the way who won’t support her at first but learn respect for her and her people.