icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

About the Romans

Seneca said that "Wherever the Roman conquers, there he dwells," and for that reason the Roman Empire's provinces have always held my interest. Those who retired following their enlistment in the provinces where they served are in the blood of their descendants; their houses and markets and roads surface practically whenever someone puts a spade to their back garden. I was born in the U.S. but almost all of my ancestors came from the British Isles in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and so the Romans in Britain hold a particular fascination for me, and I have made Faustus, hero of Shadow of the Eagle and the following books in The Borderlands series, the son of a Roman father and a British mother who was bought as a slave and then freed and married, as often happened. What would that do, I wondered, to a soldier posted to Britain precisely because of that blood tie, as a result of which he speaks his mother's language? On the one hand, an officer in Julius Agricola's campaign to conquer the whole of the island; on the other a man drawn progressively closer to his mother's kin?


My first introduction to the Romans and the start of my fascination with them was in college when a friend gave me Rosemary Sutcliff's young adult novels of Roman Britain, and her adult novel Sword at Sunset which is still one of the best books about the (possible) historical Arthur that I have read. My high school ancient history course had concentrated on wars and dates and famous men, with a brief survey of archaeological finds, and no sense at all of those old bones as having been actual people. I remembered something about Romans in Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill and went back and read that too, and they started to come alive.


What I like about the Romans is how wonderfully and appallingly like us they are. They are the template for Western government but also for western colonialism, with their self-assured conviction that Roman civilization was a boon to any conquered territory. They had an appreciation for art and the wonders of earlier civilizations, and supported a thriving tourist industry to visit them and appropriate their antiques. They practiced the slavery that was common across the ancient world, although it was economically and not ethnically based, a slave might buy his or her freedom, and freedmen often rose to great power. Their taste for bloody games has only been tamped down in us, not extinguished, despite Seneca's conviction that watching violent death ate away a man's soul, and rotted it. And yet they survived, Republic and Empire, for a thousand years, through mad or bloodthirsty leaders, civil conflict, plagues, and endless wars.


My first novel was about the disappearance of the Ninth Legion somewhere in Britain, inspired by Rosemary Sutcliff's account of the same events. I have written a lot of books since, mainly historical fiction, but I seem always to come back to the Romans, and it always seems to be the provinces that hold my interest: how the ones who settled in the far-flung edges of the Empire, most often time-expired soldiers, married in, settled in, bred in, until they were part of the foundation of what that country became when Rome finally fell.


And then there's research, an endless source of delight and aggravation as new information is dug up, most often literally. You find that a fact you cheerfully used in a previous book is not accurate after all. A town whose Roman name you used liberally because a key scene was set there, is now, as you write a sequel, held to have been called something else entirely. But then you discover... the Roman tourist industry offering dubious souvenirs even before pieces of the True Cross have begun to circulate: A cyclops skull, Senator, only three sesterces!... an auxiliary ala in Syria mounted on camels... conspiracy theories circulating after Nero's death that he wasn't really dead, false Neros popping up like Elvis sightings. This is the kind of thing that makes me love the Romans.


In the perpetually weird world of publishing, I wrote my first book, The Legions of the Mist, under my own name, and the next three, The Centurions series, under the pseudonym Damion Hunter because they were done for a book packager who insisted on pseudonyms in case a writer got tired of a successful series and wanted to quit. In that event it could be given to another writer. Of course, what happened to me was that three books into a four-book series, my publisher was bought by another house which promptly cancelled all the original house's contracts. But when Canelo Publishing wanted to revive them, we kept the pseudonym for all because in the interim Damion Hunter had acquired a small and devoted following among Roman reenactors, to whom I will always be grateful. 


Since then I have also written The Border Wolves, the fourth and final volume in The Centurions series, and The Wall at the Edge of the World, a sequel of sorts to The Legions of the Mist, the Ninth Legion tale. This one opened up a new window for me: the weirdly counterintuitive world of Roman medicine. The Romans knew a lot but because they were forbidden to conduct autopsies, they knew how to operate for cataracts, for instance, but didn't recognize cancer or appendicitis. The Roman army was probably the best medical school in the empire, primarily because the only way to see someone's insides was if they had already been opened up for you by an enemy spear. Regarding the pharmaceutical remedies contained in this novel, I don't recommend trying any of them but they are all genuine, and I attempted to use mainly the ones that might have actually worked.


As a bonus, there is a short story, "The West Pasture," about a descendant of those characters in the e-book version of The Wall at the Edge of the World, inspired by an aerial photo of a long-gone Roman camp, shown through crop marks. The boundary of a local field still follows that old camp perimeter.