Fiction Book of the Month: Richard Foreman on Augustus: Son of Rome

The novelist discusses his novel that started his Augustus series, featuring Julius Caesar and Cicero amongst others.
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Augustus: Son of Rome, about the young Octavius Caesar journeying to Rome after hearing of his great uncle’s assassination, was your breakthrough book. It was a huge hit on kindle, leading a wave of other novelists to score hits in the genre and period. Can you tell us more about when the book became a hit. Also, what was your reason for writing the novel?

There are plenty of Romans who had a reason for thanking Augustus Caesar for their living (albeit not all of them, especially those he tortured and murdered). I guess I should thank him too. Augustus: Son of Rome was indeed my breakthrough book, selling both sides of the Atlantic. Young and old seemed to enjoy the novel. Its success came as a pleasant surprise. Rather than lead the way in any wave of success, I think I caught the tale end of the boom from likes of Conn Iggulden, Steven Saylor, Simon Scarrow and others who had great success a couple of decades ago. I perhaps caught a wave of sales due to the kindle revolution, where readers, due to the low cost of books, would be willing to try out new writers. Timing’s important. Rather than a great general, I may have been a lucky one. As a result of the success of Augustus: Son of Rome I wrote a sequel, Augustus: Son of Caesar, as well as the spin-off series, concerning the campaigns of Julius Caesar and the character Lucius Oppius, Sword of Rome. I also wrote a series, Sword of Empire, centred around the life of Marcus Aurelius, which has just recently topped the US Ancient History chart again. At one point I think I had twenty titles in the UK Top 100 in Ancient History chart on Amazon. Augustus: Son of Rome got the ball rolling so, as I said, I am grateful to Octavius.

As to the reasons behind writing the book. Having penned a couple of more literary historical novels, set during WW2, I wanted to write something unashamedly commercial. I was tired of drinking acetum. I wanted to taste some Falernian, so to speak. I was not alone in loving Conn Iggulden’s Emperor series, and I wanted to write about what happened afterwards. I also wanted to showcase the great friendship between Octavius and Marcus Agrippa. Their partnership, which shaped history, has not been lost or forgotten. I just thought it was under-represented. I wanted to put Marcus Agrippa more centre-stage. His name isn’t in the title, but perhaps it should be. As much as Augustus, it was Agrippa, the soldier turned builder, who turned Rome into a city of marble.

I dare say I wanted to write something more fun too, having spent years researching and writing Warsaw, a novel about the Holocaust. There is plenty of action, comedy and even romance in the Augustus and Roman books. The characters are witty, philosophical and Shakespearean. Ultimately, the series may be seen as a morality tale as well. It is the story of a young man who gains the whole world (or at least the Mediterranean) and loses more than just a small part of his soul.

Writing the book was a great learning curve. It taught me about pace, how to juggle multiple characters, it gave me the confidence to write battle scenes and portray great figures and events in history.

I work as a publisher and a number of authors, writing historical fiction, have been in touch over the years having read my Roman books. I even publish several of them. Augustus: Son of Rome still has a legacy. Even now, I am helping to put together a series of short stories by historical novelists set in Ancient Rome – and my contribution will be a tale featuring Marcus Agrippa.

Although Augustus: Son of Rome includes a few fictional characters, the book was praised for sticking closely to history and including the great cast of real figures from the period, including Cicero, Julius Caesar, Marcus Brutus and Mark Antony. How much was it work, and how much was it fun, fashioning the world of the Roman Republic land its leading actors?

It was both a business and a pleasure. The story of the rise of Octavius has enough colour and drama, without me needing to add much more or embellish events. I have a lot to thank Suetonius and Plutarch for, as well as Augustus. The story of the Augustus Caesar is as much about the clash of personalities as it is the clash of arms.

It was important to include Julius Caesar in the story. Although largely absent in his day-to-day life, Caesar loomed large for Octavius. Caesar must have also seen something in his young nephew, to name him as his heir. For the figures of Marcus Brutus and Mark Antony I was inspired by Shakespeare, as well as history. There are worse writers one can choose as a source of inspiration.

I was also immensely fond of the fictional characters I created. The philosophy tutor, Cleanthes, has plenty of sage and sarcastic lines. In Lucius Oppius, I wanted to produce a Roman Richard Sharpe – a bastard of a soldier who knew how to wield a sword. Part of the story arc of the novel is how Oppius comes to respect Octavius. Such was my respect and affection for Oppius, I created a series for him in the form of the Sword of Rome books.

As proud as I am though about Augustus: Son of Rome, and as pleased as I have been with its success, it’s a book by a writer still finding his feet and voice. The novel brims with more enthusiasm than craft in places, but that may be why readers have found it so fresh and entertaining.

The sequel, Augustus: Son of Rome, was a critical and commercial hit too. Can you tell us a little about that?

The follow-up concerns itself with the arrival of Caesar in Rome – and events culminating in the Battle of Mutina. Octavius meets both Mark Antony and Cicero. Seeds are sown, relating to their future relations. It’s a story of power politics, factions and choosing a side. Octavius grows in stature. Cynicism trumps idealism. We also see Agrippa start to become a leader of men.

The story does not shy away from the darker shades of human nature, but it also contains plenty of humour, both bawdy and satirical. Historical fiction can be and should be fun.

As mentioned previously, the book starts to chart how Octavius compromise his morals. Conquest does not make a great bedfellow of a clean conscience. I cannot but help admire the achievements of Augustus, but I like to think that I am not wholly blind to his less admirable traits too.

Can you tell us about what you are working on now and will you ever return to the story of Augustus?

I have recently finished off a series of novels about Dick Turpin. I am currently flirting with the idea of a series based around the life and campaigns of the Black Prince. After writing so many books set in Ancient Rome, I got a bit Romed out some years ago, so to speak. But, in writing about seminal events and figures during the Medieval period, it has reminded me that the dream of Rome didn’t die with Augustus or Marcus Aurelius. Everyone wants to be a Caesar. As much as Boris Johnson recently name-checked Cincinnatus in a speech, I suspect that he has more than a sneaking admiration for Augustus.

There is enough material and scope to write a ten-book cycle about Octavius and Agrippa, but the plan was always to write four novels in a series. I have got side-tracked over the years, yet I still intend to keep that promise to myself. It just may take me some time. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Richard Foreman is a bestselling novelist and author of Augustus: Son of Rome.