Have you ever asked yourself, “What if…?” What if Harold hadn’t lost at Hastings, what if Richard III hadn’t been killed on Bosworth Field, what if Hitler had been a better military strategist? Today, I’m thrilled to welcome an author who asked herself the “what if” question and came up with a terrific series of novels set in a 21st-century Roman society. Alison Morton is a leading light in the Historical Novel Society and packs more into a day than most of us do into a month. She tells us about her passion for ancient Rome and where it has led her. Take it away, Alison…
The Eagle of the Ninth (Rosemary Sutcliff) was responsible for a great deal in my life, including falling asleep in an English test the day after the night I’d stayed up to finish it, but principally it sparked my desire to know about the Romans. A few weeks later, I was crouching on a hot mosaic floor in north-east Spain, utterly wrapped up in the patterns. I asked my father, ‘senior Roman nut’, to tell me more about the people who had made such a beautiful thing. I was only eleven, but precocious. As I listened to his stories of sailors and senators, patricians and plebs, soldiers and slaves, I was caught.
They came, I saw, I was conquered
Driven by curiosity, I’ve clambered over most of Roman Europe since then, studied a few books, written some essays and gained a masters’ in history. The fascination hasn’t stopped. But one question has never been answered. Admittedly, it’s a 21st-century feminist one, but what would it have been like if women had taken a public role in the administrative and political life of Rome? They owned property and traded in antiquity. Even if not slaves, they worked or ran small businesses. But they, even female members of the imperial family who exerted influence, had no political power, nor any opportunity outside the private sphere. My mind turned this question over and over. The result (several decades later) is the Roma Nova thriller series – six books and a novella.
My heroines are modern; Carina in the 21st century, Aurelia as a young woman in the late 20th century, but their society is Roman in nature, practice and value. By bringing a Roman society up to the modern age where women are able to take on any role they choose, and rule the tiny state of Roma Nova, I can explore aspects of Roman society as well as gender that I couldn’t if the stories were set in antiquity. This is alternative history, a speculative subgenre of history. Practising it is enormous fun!
It’s nothing new; Roman historian Livy speculated on the idea that the Romans would have eventually beaten Alexander the Great if he had lived longer and turned west to attack them (Book IX, sections 17-19 Ab urbe condita libri (The History of Rome, Titus Livius).
What is alternative history?
It has two parents – history and science fiction. Its fiction can sit anywhere along a sliding scale from the well-researched counter-factual following historical logic and methodology to the completely bonkers story designed only to be cool. I explain the types in full detail here; I stand at the historical end because I’m a historian as well as a thriller writer.
Like any genre there are conventions for ‘althist’ stories:
- the event that turned history from the path we know – the point of divergence – must be in the past.
- the new timeline follows a different path forever – there is no going back.
- stories should show the ramifications of the divergence and how the new reality functions.
As with any historical fiction, good world building is crucial. To be plausible and consistent, a writer must have worked out how life in the alternative timeline looks, feels and smells. How do people survive economically, spiritually, physically? A good general knowledge of history is essential as well as a strong imagination!
And the future?
When I completed the second trilogy, readers asked if Roma Nova had now gone the way of the old Empire. As any author knows, when you’ve lived with characters for several years – Carina Mitela made her first appearance in INCEPTIO in 2013 – you can’t just abandon them. Thus, the novella, CARINA, which came out eight days ago. Will there be more? I’m working on a different project at present, but who knows what might happen in 2018?
About Alison Morton
Alison Morton writes the acclaimed Roma Nova thriller series featuring modern Praetorian heroines. She blends her deep love of Roman history with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, adventure and thriller fiction.
All six Roma Nova full-length novels have been awarded the BRAG Medallion. SUCCESSIO, AURELIA and INSURRECTIO were selected as Historical Novel Society’s Indie Editor’s Choices. AURELIA was a finalist in the 2016 HNS Indie Award. SUCCESSIO was selected as an Editor’s Choice in The Bookseller. CARINA is a novella set between INCEPTIO and PERFIDITAS.
A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, Alison has misspent decades clambering over Roman sites throughout Europe. She holds a MA History, blogs about Romans and writing.
Now she continues to write, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband of 30 years.
Connect with Alison
What’s CARINA about?
Carina Mitela is still a young inexperienced officer in the Praetorian Guard Special Forces. Disgraced and smarting from a period in the cells for a disciplinary offence, she is sent out of everybody’s way on a seemingly straightforward mission overseas.
All she and her comrade-in-arms, Flavius, have to do is bring back a traitor from the Republic of Quebec. Under no circumstances will she risk entering the Eastern United States where she is still wanted under her old name Karen Brown. But when she and Flavius discover a conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of Roma Nova, what price is personal danger against fulfilling the mission?
Set in the time after INCEPTIO but before PERFIDITAS in the Roma Nova series, this thriller novella reveals hidden parts of Carina’s early life in Roma Nova. And North America isn’t quite the continent we know in our timeline…
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Copyright © Vanessa Couchman, Alison Morton 2017, all rights reserved