Guide: The Philosophical Historical Novel

Margaret Donsbach

The Ancients

Philosophers of the past so aroused the societies they lived in that they were often persecuted, executed, or hired to teach scions of the ruling class. Socrates drank hemlock. Cicero was declared Rome’s enemy and murdered. Aristotle taught Alexander the Great.

Some fine historical novels revolve around these ancient philosophers: Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine and The Mask of Apollo, about Socrates and his student Plato; Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean, about Aristotle and Alexander; and Imperium by Robert Harris, first in a trilogy about Cicero, are among them.


The seeds of the Renaissance lay in philosophy. A philosopher taught Lorenzo de’ Medici, who became ruler of fifteenth-century Florence. His tutor Marsilio Ficino translated Plato and other pagan scholars, reintroducing them to the Christian world and creating controversies that led to a heresy accusation and, ultimately, the German Reformation. Linda Proud’s trilogy beginning with A Tabernacle for the Sun brings Ficino’s ideas, some of them startling even in our own time, to life. Ficino also plays a role in Nonna’s Book of Mysteries, a young-adult novel by Mary Osborne which revolves around the philosophical roots of alchemy.


The American and French Revolutions originated with ideas inspired by philosophers like John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau. Novelists rarely treat these philosophers’ lives directly, although the intricately philosophical mystery An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears is set in the Oxford of Locke’s time, and Lion Feuchtwanger’s ‘Tis Folly to Be Wise features the dying Rousseau eleven years before the outbreak of the French Revolution.

Novels about these revolutions can hardly avoid the philosophical ideas that ignited them. Two of many are Jeff Shaara’s Rise to Rebellion, about the early events of the American Revolution, and Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, about the infamous trio of French revolutionaries, Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins.

Beyond Europe

Philosophy has never been an exclusively European phenomenon. The Gardens of Light by Amin Maalouf is about third-century Mesopotamian prophet Mani, whose philosophy came to the West in a distorted form as Manichaeism. Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, set in ancient India, illustrates the origins of Buddhist philosophy.

by Margaret Donsbach of

In This Section

About our Articles

Our features are original articles from our print magazines (these will say where they were originally published) or original articles commissioned for this site. If you would like to contribute an article for the magazine and/or site, please contact us. While our articles are usually written by members, this is not obligatory. No features are paid for.