I liked Gladiator, but a blurb such as that on a piece of Roman historical fiction is indeed ominous – because Gladiator was almost pure fantasy, playing almost as fast and loose with the facts of Roman history as the HBO series “Rome” did … and seemingly advertising a similarly cavalier attitude toward facts is a mighty odd way of praising a historical novel.
Or maybe it isn’t. Why do we read historical fiction, anyway? Since it’s not solely to bone up on the facts of history (for which, er, boning we have many first-rate history books, including many that’ve had their day in the sun here at Stevereads), it stands to reason we come to this type of fiction for more – we want the writer to take all that historical research and do what the historian can’t: neaten it, sharpen it, use it, in a way the ordinary sprawl of daily life would make impossible.
Virtually everybody who’s ever written historical fiction quickly comes to this realization, and then they start doing things with the facts (scholars for the last four hundred years have been saying this very quality makes ancient writers like Livy – who liberally sprinkle their allegedly historical accounts with long speeches and long interior monologues that can’t possibly be accurate – the forefathers not of history but of historical fiction)(which is mighty condescending thing to say, but I can’t help but wonder how Livy would have responded to it). They start shaping the facts to fit the stories they want to tell. This is a very different thing from simply making mistakes about the facts.
It can be a maddeningly fine line. In the first half of The Alienist, Caleb Carr draws a vivid, memorable portrait of Theodore Roosevelt – but he’s constrained by the historical record of Roosevelt’s days as New York Police Commissioner. But in the second half of The List of 7, Mark Frost hauls Roosevelt onstage and has him chomping on a cigar, something the real Roosevelt never did – and Frost does this because he wanted to stress the ‘big and bluff’ side of Roosevelt’s personality, in one scene. Same man, same facts, two different writers going to two different lengths to make their stories work.
Clearly, Carr’s method is better. To the fullest extent possible, the facts you read in historical fiction should correspond reliably to the facts you’d find in Gibbon or Parkman. Custer shouldn’t be described as tall if he was short; Jugurtha shouldn’t be described as black if he was only swarthy; Cleopatra shouldn’t be described as beautiful, period, since every ancient source and her own coins agree she wasn’t. It might look as though that places intolerable restrictions on responsible historical fiction, but that’s the wrong way of seeing it: think of it instead as a test for the cleverness of the author. The trick is to come up with ways to let the ‘fiction’ trump the ‘historical’ without doing it irreparable violence.
There are some tried-and-true methods for doing this, the easiest and most popular of which is to cast the whole of your story into some setting, some special circumstance, that you can come right and say would never, of course, find its way into the historical record (usually, books like this feature a scene toward the end in which one character stands up the table and says, “Gentlemen, we must never speak of this to anyone”). In Goodnight, Sweet Prince, David Dickinson wants his main character to solve the murder of Queen Victoria’s grandson Prince Eddy – but Prince Eddy died of pneumonia, which is unhelpful. So Dickinson links Prince Eddy and his murderer with a scandal and has the Royals cloaking the whole thing in obfuscation – which is not only plausible but gives him an entirely free hand. I, Claudius, The Sword of Pleasure, and countless other novels give us the creaky-but-effective gimmick of the lost or doomed-to-be-lost secret manuscript (emboldened, no doubt, by the fact that such manuscripts have always, in fact, existed in real life – by happy chance, we have not only the official, public things Procopius wrote, for instance, but also the secret account he couldn’t stop himself from writing, even though its discovery would have meant his very messy execution).
Another reliable way to write such books is to find some blank space in the historical record – and then swarm in to fill it. Iggulden does exactly this in his “Emperor” books, because despite the fact that Julius Caesar is one of the most famous individuals in the history of the world, we don’t really know all that many details about his boyhood and youth. Iggulden knows this and freely admits in his Author’s Notes that he’s made liberal use of his imagination – a canny move that both exonerates him from anything readers might dislike and effectively de-emphasizes the very large amount of research that went into these books.
He’s clearly angling for a wide popular audience, and there’s nothing wrong with that. He almost always refers to his characters by one name only (and what he considers ‘first’ names – Agrippa is ‘Marcus,’ for instance, and of course Caesar himself is ‘Gaius’), he centers everything on the vicissitudes of one boy growing up into a man, and he loads the books with action sequences – and he’s quite good at writing action sequences.
He keeps everything small-focus and personal, as when our young heroes are enlisted in the army of General and Dictator Marius:
At first, the main roads emptied as the early-rising workers stood well back for the soldiers. Gaius could feel their eyes on them and heard angry mutters. One word was repeated from hard faces: “Scelus!” – a crime for soldiers to be on the streets. The dawn was damp and cold and he shivered slightly. Marcus too looked grim in the grey light and he nodded as their eyes met, his hand on the hilt of his gladius. The tension was heightened by the clatter and crash as the men moved. Gaius had not realised how noisy fifty soldiers could be, but in the narrow streets the clank of iron-shod sandals echoed back and forth. Windows opened in the high apartments as they passed, and someone shouted angrily, but they marched on.
“Sully will cut your eyes out!” one man howled before slamming his door shut.
The books follow Caesar from his young boyhood to the edge of world-domination, and they’ve taken their share of lumps from critical readers (who were no doubt primed by that Gladiator tag … future editions of the books really ought to drop it), but this is partly because the books are Roman historical novels, a particular sub-genre that tends to bring out the petty-ass factchecker in otherwise easygoing readers. Such readers are unlikely to be satisfied by anything less than notarized videotape.
The rest of you might want to give the “Emperor” books a try. They’re quite entertaining.