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.