The March of the Legions
by Edward James
An Interview with authors Nick Brown & Anthony Riches
The camp fires of the Roman legions have long since died away, but they march on through historical fiction. In the last five years Historical Novels Review has covered over a dozen Roman ‘militaries’, all but two written from the Roman side.
Two of the latest authors in this genre are Anthony Riches and Nick Brown. Anthony is now well into his Empire series and Nick launched his Agent of Rome series last year. I asked if either had a military background.
AR: Not personally. Three generations of my family all served – a Boer War SNCO, an infantryman at Passchendaele and a tank crewman in Normandy. I was determined to be a Marine, but a stomach ulcer got in the way and then I found myself married with two kids. It’s impossible to come from that sort of family and not take an interest.
NB: I’m not at all military, although I’ve always enjoyed Alistair Maclean and Tom Clancy.
EJ: What brought you to write about the Roman army?
AR: It wasn’t a conscious decision. I went to Hadrian’s Wall and the idea just came to me. The Wall had to be the Roman army’s equivalent of the Eastern Front, and it flowed from there. I carry no more of a candle for the Romans than for any other all-conquering civilisation.
NB: I’ve been writing since university, initially film scripts – but always with HF in mind. It was C J Sansom’s Dissolution that really inspired me – not that it has much in common with what I do now.
EJ: Tell me about your heroes.
AR: Marcus is based on a true story I found when looking for a period of Roman history that worked for me. Why Marcus? He needed a privileged but tough upbringing to be a centurion without serving ten years in the ranks and his quest to find his father’s killers provided plenty of variety for a series.
NB: I wanted a more cerebral type of hero – I may have had Lt Chard (the engineer officer in Zulu) in mind. When Cassius takes charge of Alaurin [in The Siege] he uses diplomacy, organisation and wit to turn the fort around.
EJ: Do you find writing a series constricting?
AR: Publishers won’t take you for HF without a series. I originally envisaged 15 books – now it’s more likely 25. I’m writing Book 6 right now and the series is contracted to Book 9. The period 180-211 is crammed with battles, fantastic for a writer of HF. I’ll be writing Empire for the next ten years, if the readers keep buying the books.
NB: It’s far from constricting – quite the opposite. There are endless story opportunities. Book 2, The Imperial Banner, is out in June. It’s more focussed on espionage and introduces a major new character. I’m working on Book 3 and have tons of new ideas.
EJ: How did you first get published?
AR: Having sat on the script for ten years I re-wrote it one more time and sent it to six agents. The last to reply picked it up and the last of six publishers went for it. It was very much the last throw of the dice. It’s a lottery, so keep buying the tickets by writing and submitting. Don’t stop!
NB: Over a couple of years I sent off lots of letters to agents and eventually got lucky. My agent then secured a deal from Hodder & Stoughton. It’s vital to research your subject as widely as possible. You might use only a fraction, but the gems you unearth will be invaluable.
Clearly the stamina and discipline of Roman legionaries serves HF authors equally well. Both these authors are in for the long march, although I’m sure that their stories will never plod.
About the contributor: Edward James is a HNR review editor. He has had a varied career as a university lecturer, official of the European Commission in Brussels, and government consultant. He has also written three books, none of them historical fiction.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 61, August 2012