Review of Adrian Goldsworthy and Doherty & Turney, or Can There Be Too Much History in Historical Fiction?

Copies of the books have been provided by the publisher in exchange for a review.

The western part of the Roman Empire ceased to exist in the late 5th century CE while in the East it continued all the way to the late Middle Ages, or 1453 to be precise. Still, this long-gone civilization continues to capture our imaginations, as evidenced by two recent novels from British independent publisher Head of Zeus, namely Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Fort and Sons of Rome, written in collaboration by Gordon Doherty and Simon Turney.

As a historian, it was an interesting experience to read these two books back-to-back. They both belong the same subgenre–Roman military historical fiction. They are both set in the later centuries of Roman history; The Fort during the 2nd century CE and Sons of Rome around the turn of the 4th century CE, as Rome is coming out of the Crisis of the Third Century. Neither book takes place in what we conventionally think as Rome, that is the western part of the European continent and the Italian peninsula. Instead, The Fort takes place in what is now Romania, while Sons of Rome is mainly focused on the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.

When reading historical fiction, there are two ways to approach the material: history and plot. When you approach it through history, you are concerned with the historical correctness of context and details. When you approach it through plot, you are concerned with the historical plausibility of the action. In the case of The Fort and Sons of Rome, Goldsworthy has taken the first approach, Doherty & Turney the second. The Fort is about the fictional character Flavius Ferox, while Sons of Rome chronicle the lives of real-life Roman Emperors Maxentius and Constantine.

The result is two different types of stories. One where the context is based in historical research while the characters are fictional, the other where the characters are based in research while the context is fictional. (However, in the case of Maxentius and Constantine, so little is known about them as people, that Doherty & Turney’s characters are near fictional as well.)

Regardless of the approach, what matters in the end is the story. But again, when it comes to historical fiction, there are certain things that need to be taken into consideration that we don’t need to care about when we read fiction that is purely creative. If we go back to the two approaches to historical fiction, i.e. historically based context with fictional characters or fictionally based context with historical characters, the writer’s choices are determined by which approach they take. If we look at The Fort versus Sons of Rome, the first story is fictional and therefore unknown. The second story is historical and consequently known. I wouldn’t be guilty of any spoilers if I told you the plot twists of Sons of Rome, because we know the general outline of the lives of Maxentius and Constantine, but you would be very upset if I told you the twists and turns of The Fort.

Even though the choices each writer of historical fiction makes are limited due to history, there is still the fine balance between how much of history to actually include. Historical fiction is meant to entertain first and educate second, while the purpose of history is the opposite. The main critique levelled at historical fiction tends to be that it is so preoccupied with entertaining that it forgets to educate. In other words, the problem with a lot of historical fiction is that there isn’t enough history, or that history has been bent to fit the story, rather than the other way around.

But what about the reverse? Can there be too much history in historical fiction? My answer to that question is that yes, there can be. Take The Fort for example. As I’ve stated above, the context is historical (Roman fort at the border between the Roman Empire and Dacia, present-day Romania) but the characters are fictional (main character: Flavius Ferox).

Goldsworthy himself is a leading authority on Rome, in particular its army. And this is, paradoxically enough, where the novel stumbles.

To create a historically accurate environment for Ferox to work within, Goldsworthy loses sight of the narrative forest for the historical trees. Unless you, like Goldsworthy, are a Roman army geek, and also somewhat fluent in Latin, names of legions, military terms-of-art, military ranks, and categories of weapons will fly right over your head. This is usually not a problem, but when the text is peppered with italicizied Latin terminology, most of which cannot be found in the sparse glossary nor is explained in the chapter on the historical background, the attempt at historical accuracy becomes a nuisance.

What’s more, for a novel written by a considered authority on Rome, the world presented is surprisingly outdated. The Fort is a story about men, which is not surprising since military settings tend to be male dominated. But that is not an excuse to feature women as background characters only brought to the fore as eye candy, or when the male characters are in need of engaging in some witty banter, or both. Moreover, the Roman army is known for its diversity as it recruited people from all over the lands it conquered and then deliberately stationed them far from home. Very little of that comes across here (unless the character is British). Doherty & Turney are also guilty of pushing women to the back, as well as non-Christian religious movements and ethnic groups. In their case, it’s not as egregiously done as in the case of Goldsworthy; there are women featured, who speak for themselves and take action, albeit in their role as auxiliaries to the men.

All that being said, I enjoyed both books very much. Sons of Rome does a great job of going inside the minds and hearts of two young men who lead their lives at the center of Roman Imperial politics, not because they chose to, but because their social status and family lineage forced them to without any possibility of opting out.

As paradoxical as it might seem, despite its outdated history and sometimes stiff characters, I enjoyed The Fort the most out of the two, and the reason for that is Flavius Ferox. As a historian, I am well acquainted with characters who have lived to make a mark in history. I am familiar with their motivations, I know their life stories, and I know their end. The same goes for any battles that are fought. This is why, out of all the characters in The Fort, Hadrian, future emperor of Rome, is the least interesting to me.

In enjoyed The Fort because Ferox is a clean slate. The end of the siege that he finds himself under together with the people who populate the fort under his command is unknown to me. Whereas I know how Constantine and Maxentius’s careers developed, it is with Ferox I stand on the top of the fort, staring into the thick fog, looking for signs of the enemy, and wondering if we will live to see another day.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Defne Suman’s THE SILENCE OF SCHEHERAZADE, or Searching for the Voice of the City of Smyrna

A copy of this book has been provided in exchange for a review.

Smyrna (modern name: Izmir) is one of the oldest cities in the world. Located on the Anatolian coast of present-day Turkey, Smyrna traces its history back 5,000 years, making it a contemporary to the fabled city of Troy, located not far away. Smyrna is mentioned in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation when Jesus tells the book’s supposed author, John of Patmos, to send messages to the Seven Churches of Asia.

Destroyed in the 7th century BCE, Smyrna was reestablished in the 4th century BCE by none other than Alexander the Great. Over the centuries, Smyrna grew to experience prosperity, tragedy, conquest, and liberation all the way to the early 20th century when the Greco-Turkish War, fought in 1919–1922 as a result of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, caused excessive damage to the city and forced a large part of its population to flee and never return.

Book cover of Defne Suman's novel The Silence of Scheherazade showing a the blue profile of a woman behind green vines and against a yellow background.

The events of the Greco-Turkish War and their impact on the city of Smyrna serves as the backdrop to Defne Suman’s novel, The Silence of Scheherazade (Head of Zeus, 2021), translated into English by Betsy Göksel. Told in hindsight by a mysterious woman given the name of Scheherazade as a child, the story focuses on four families and their lives leading up to the disaster. Among these many individuals, Scheherazade pays particular attention to her mother, a woman she never knew. Born out of wedlock, Scheherazade was given to another family, and as a result the girl became mute, her new name a cruel historical joke.

Time and again, Scheherazade describes the city where she was born–Smyrna. She wants to convey the magic and mystery of this ancient place, to share what she experienced and what she remembers. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Smyrna was still a multicultural and multiethnic city where the inhabitants spoke several languages out of necessity, where the three Abrahamic religions and their subdivisions rubbed elbows in neighbourly relations going back centuries. Scheherazade mentions streets, buildings, and squares by name. She describes people as they go about their daily business.

And still, the novel’s city of Smyrna is as mute as Scheherazade. It doesn’t reply when she calls on it. The crowds are without faces, characteristics, and names. The Jewish community–one of the largest in the Ottoman Empire–is conspicuously absent. The four families blend in with each other, and turn into people who come and go without leaving an impression. An attempt at magical realism when toads rain from the sky only elicits a shrug from the characters. Violence in the streets as Smyrna is drawn into the armed conflict becomes a nuisance rather than the disaster it actually was.

It feels as if the novel, and Scheherazade inside it, are reaching for something. There is something the novel, the woman, and the city want to communicate, but their voices refuse to make a sound. Is it because Scheherazade herself is not present in the stories she is telling? Is it because Smyrna of the past millennia no longer exists? Renamed Izmir in 1930, the ties to history, shattered by the disasters of the war, were severed. How to speak of the trauma you have experienced if every time you bring it up first need to explain who you used to be? It renders you mute, whether you are a city or a woman.

There is beauty in this novel. There is history. There is grief and loss. Independence, strength, love, and happiness. But in the end it is difficult to say whose story is being told. Smyrna and Scheherazade both reach for their past and for a knowledge of who they are. Perhaps that is where the story lies.

Sources:
Defne Suman, The Silence of Scheherazade (Head of Zeus, 2021).
Britannica Online, Izmir (page accessed October 1, 2021).
ANU Museum of the Jewish People, The Jewish Community of Izmir (page accessed October 1, 2021).
Wikipedia, The Seven Churches of Asia (page accessed October 1, 2021).

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Review of Priya Satia’s TIME’S MONSTER. HOW HISTORY MAKES HISTORY.

The more I learn about the human activities in the past we choose to label as history, the more interested I become in the epistemology and historiography of history as an academic field of study. Epistemology is the study of knowledge and how knowledge is created, or How We Know What We Know and Why This Is What We Think We Know. Historiography is a term that carries two meanings. It means the study of the history that has been published by historians and the history of history. I find both the epistemology and the historiography of history endlessly fascinating. How It’s Made: History Edition.

My fascination for how history is made is why I am happy to have been able to publish my second book review for the International Network for the Theory of History, an international community of scholars and web hosted by the University of Ghent in Belgium. This time I have reviewed TIME’S MONSTER. HOW HISTORY MAKES HISTORY (Belknap Press, 2020) by Priya Satia, Professor of History at Stanford University. In her book, Satia takes a closer look at how British historians were complicit in rationalizing and making legitimate the actions of the British Empire, particularly in India.

To read my review in full, please click here.

Enjoy!

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Interview with Dr. Jen Gunter for Foreword Reviews

Source: Foreword Reviews.

I interviewed Dr. Jen Gunter for Foreword Reviews about her new book The Menopause Manifesto. Among the things that we talked about are how the medical profession discriminates against menopausal women and grandmothers as the unsung heroes of human survival.

To access the interview, please click here.

To access my review of The Menopause Manifesto, please click here.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

A New Dawn

Today for the first time since August 13, 2017, I have changed the header photo here on The Boomerang. The previous photo showed three concrete pillars from World War II built to stop the advance of Nazi-German tanks. I posted that photo in defiance of the white supremacy march on Charlottesville, VA, the pillars representing indestructibility in the face of totalitarianism. I promised myself that I would keep that header photo until there had been a change of executive power, no matter how long it would take.

Today, that day has come.

The new image is a photo I took of the sunrise from my patio. We have much work to do now and in the future, but today marks a new dawn.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.