A Fresh Lens on the Romans: A Winter War by Tim Leach
The first in an exciting new trilogy, A Winter War (Head of Zeus, 2021) is set in the later days of the Roman Empire when the Sarmatians unite to fight the legions. Author Tim Leach shared some thoughts on his latest novel with Justin Lindsay.
A Winter War is set in an unusual location compared to many other Roman novels. What inspired you with this choice?
So much has been written about Rome itself – its politics and culture and famous individuals – that I knew I wanted to do something a little different. So I found myself drawn to the borderlands of the Danube and the Rhine instead, that strange liminal space between one world and another. I was very much inspired by writers such as Wallace Breem (whose Eagle in the Snow was a big influence) and the wonderful Rosemary Sutcliff, who had a similar interest in the borderlands far from the heart of the Empire. The crossing of a hostile border poses both practical challenges and philosophical questions for characters in a novel, and so it lends itself very well to dramatic storytelling!
One of the main themes is Kai’s disgrace. What prompted you to explore this in your book?
Partly this came straight out of the research, when I found that the Alans (a related people to the Sarmatians) were reputed to have sons kill their fathers when their fathers were too old to fight in the warband. This immediately prompted the narrative question – ‘What would happen if someone doesn’t want to kill their father and so can’t go through with it?’ – and out of that question a whole character suddenly sprang to life.
It also tied in neatly with some of the themes that I knew that I wanted to explore in the book. The question of when you keep a promise and abide by a code of honour and when you choose to break from it, and what price an individual has to pay to remain part of a collective society (and whether that’s a price that they are willing to pay).
What was it about the Sarmatians that led you to write about them?
They are a culture about which we know tantalisingly and frustratingly little – since they were a nomadic people without a written language, all we have left of them are a few grave sites, archaeological fragments, and stories that were told about them by their enemies. So I was intrigued by the challenge of extrapolating a people and a culture out the scanty materials that we have, and depicting a nomadic way of life that is almost lost in the modern world.
I also wanted a viewpoint to examine the Romans from, a lens under which the Romans would seem strange and hostile and unusual (in a mirror of the way that the Romans regarded the ‘barbarian’ world beyond their borders).
Marcus Aurelius is most often known for his writings and stoicism. But you portray him very successfully as a more brutal and cunning conqueror. What led you to write him in such a way?
Interesting things often come in fiction when the writer takes something they strongly believe in and try to break it. I’ve always been a big fan of the Stoics in general and Marcus Aurelius’s The Meditations in particular, so I thought that I’d challenge myself by constructing a kind of fictional counter argument to that philosophy and that Emperor.
Like many historical fiction readers, I was delighted by the fun that Hilary Mantel had with Thomas More in Wolf Hall, taking a figure traditionally regarded as being saintly and virtuous and turning that image on its head. And while The Meditations is a beautiful book, lines such as “You should always look on human life as short and cheap” and “Just as you see your bath – all soap, sweat, grime, greasy water, the whole thing disgusting – so is every part of life and every object in it” hinted at a darker, more nihilistic mentality that I thought would be very interesting to explore in the book.
What were some key takeaways you learned in writing A Winter War, and how do you intend to work those into future novels?
I always like to set myself a new practical challenge in every book that I write. For my previous book, The Smile of the Wolf, it was tackling first person. This book, the challenge was in handling multiple narrators, and focusing much more on trying to bring a collective group to life as opposed to just a few individuals as I have done previously. These challenges continue in the sequels (and get even more complex!).