Historical Fiction 3000

Have you ever had the experience of reading a book when, suddenly, you realize you’re no longer doing it because you like it but rather to see just how bad it’s going to get? Ever talked back to a book the way MST3K‘s Tom Servo talks back to a bad movie?

I’ve had that experience recently reading Conn Iggulden’s Emperor: The Gates of Rome. The book purports to be “A Novel of Julius Caesar.” And it kind of is, in the sense that it features a protagonist of that name who lives in the vicinity of some ancient city called Rome. After that you kind of have to take Iggulden’s word for it that he’s writing about THE Julius Caesar because it reads more like Luke Skywalker meets Gladiator as pictured by Michael Bay. It decidedly does not read like the life of the historical man who conquered Gaul, bedded Cleopatra, and inspired Shakespeare to write a play about him sixteen centuries later. Which is not to say it lacks redeeming value. I place great value in laughter after all.

Let me give a big old word of warning to anyone who may consider reading this: Do not draw any – I mean any – lesson of actual history from this book, including whether or not there was ever actually a city called Rome (there was, but for gosh sake don’t take the word of this book for it). Iggulden’s history is so bad it defies easy characterization. It’s not just that he gets a few details wrong or pops in the occasional anachronism. It’s that he mangles things so profoundly that a reader unfamiliar with the real history upon which this story is ostensibly based would never begin to fathom how far it departs from reality. Allow me a short metaphor to illustrate…

Imagine a story set in Colonial America in which the young George Washington works in his father’s print shop in Philadelphia accompanied by his irascible young orphan companion, Benedict. One day the mysterious traveler Geronimo arrives from the West, making prophecies and teaching the boys to fight like Indians. After a fierce battle with British stormtroopers in which the boys’ Indian training barely allows them to survive, they part company promising to remain best friends forever despite their rival love for the forbidden tavern wench Betsy Ross. At the end of the story you learn that Benedict is actually Benedict Arnold, making you gasp as you ponder the betrayal that lays ahead.

That’s ridiculous, you say? You wouldn’t even know how to begin to untangle all the errors in that kind of story, you say? Then imagine page after page, plot twist after plot twist, character after character, ladled on in just that same fashion. Welcome to the very strange “historical fiction” world of Conn Iggulden.

Iggulden is perhaps better known for his more recent work of non-fiction, The Dangerous Book for Boys, which, according to Amazon.com is…

Equal parts droll and gorgeous nostalgia book and heartfelt plea for a renewed sense of adventure in the lives of boys and men…

It is with some irony that I note how this would make a far more fitting subtitle to Emperor: The Gates of Rome than “A novel of Julius Caesar” could possibly hope to be… though I might replace the words “droll” and “gorgeous” with “trite” and “action-packed.” In any case I don’t think Iggulden misses the mark on the “adventure” sense of the book, even if it does get a bit strained in places (i.e. You know what the youth of Julius Caesar could use to spice it up? Gladiator training!).

But the book is definitely “nostalgia” more than “history.” That’s not always a bad thing, but sometimes it can get pretty silly. After all, you don’t really get much of an idea of what life was like in the Renaissance by going to a Renaissance Festival (you knew that, right?). You don’t get much of a sense of what it was like to be a steerage passenger on the Titanic by watching Leonardo DiCaprio romance Kate Winslet on the big screen. And you definitely don’t get any idea what Julius Caesar’s life was like by reading Emperor: Gates of Rome.

On the plus side, rumor has it there’s talk of making a movie out of this thing. I hope these guys are ready for it.

5 thoughts on “Historical Fiction 3000

  1. Robt Graves Claudius books are the gold standard in Roman Historical fiction. He gets most of the history right, though his characters are modeled after the gossip of the period rather than hard historical research.
    Colleen McCullough’s First Man in Rome is readable, though a bit of a soap opera. It’s set in republican Rome, I can’t speak for its historical accuracy though she seems to get the themes right.
    The further we go into the past the stranger the mental landscape gets. If you go back further than the Enlightenment, I don’t think that there is a way for a book to both appeal to modern sensibilities and be an honest product of the times it portrays. Romans of the Early Empire were fascist, democratic (for the times), practical, sexist, hard-headed, cruel, and superstitious. They were pagans, of course, and in their case this meant that any worth a man achieved, he achieved in this world for the regard of this world. They had no philosophy that held that, in some greater sense, Caesar and slave were equal. Even modern atheists have absorbed enough of Christian culture to believe that all men are accountable to a greater power, even if that power is Death. The Caesars believed they had the authority, derived from their worldly power, to declare themselves immortal gods. The way they saw the world and their place in it has no modern parallel.

  2. I’m chewing through Steve Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series, and it’s pretty good. Like many series, you forgive its deficiencies once you’ve come to enjoy the characters, and most of the plots center around key events leading up to the civil war and the fall of the Republic. The main character is a detective, more or less – a clever idea that takes him all through Rome and Italy.

    I doubt Julius Caesar or Augustus thought themselves gods. Just very good at their job.

  3. I’ve read and enjoyed Graves, Claudius books, McCullough’s Masters of Rome series, and the first book of Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series. Also Robert Harris’ Imperium, and a couple others set around the same time, the names of which I forget. All of the above range from fantastic to decently entertaining, but none of them come close to the historical absurdity of Iggulden.

  4. Gotta go with Troy on this. Colleen McCullough’s series is pretty damn good. Especially The October Horse.

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