What first attracted you to the period or periods you work in?
Roman writers were with me as an Essex teenager in the sixties and have stayed with me ever since. At sixteen I had two big passions, writing about jazz for The Daily Telegraph ( I had won a competition against very few entrants) and about Julius Caesar and Cleopatra for myself. At every period of my life the same Romans – Caesar, Catullus, Horace – have been different. So the attraction, if you like, is that they have always been there for me, not that Roman society tells us about our own society (though sometimes it does) or that Romans were especially good or bad (they weren’t). My memoir, Alexandria, has thoughts about that.
Can you tell us a little more about how you research? Has the process changed over the years?
Each book has been a bit different. On the Spartacus Road, in part about a narrow escape from a cancer death sentence, was written literally on the road, written into notebooks as I’d learnt to do as a foreign correspondent for The Times in the 1980s. Alexandria too. In an age before googling on phones the details of quotes and ancient dates had to be added when I got back home. The Senecans, a memoir of four men I knew who were fascinated by Margaret Thatcher and a Roman politician/playwright, could be researched only inside my own head. The Last Assassin came from a simple idea and a small number of Latin and Greek texts. It is a straightforward narrative history from a new perspective. A simple idea is for me always more important to a successful book than the research.
The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true?
In Roman history it is true to a very great extent. The first Emperor, Augustus, avenger of the assassination of Caesar, deliberately set out reshape Romans’ sense of their past. Rescuing the losers, like my Last Assassin, Cassius of Parma, can be a struggle. This almost unknown Cassius, not Shakespeare’s one with ‘the lean and hungry look’, saw the consequences of Caesar’s death as no other of the assassins did. It is always worth seeing events from the viewpoint of the vanquished where we can.
Are there any historians who helped shaped your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books which budding historians should read?
James Holladay of Trinity College, Oxford, an inspiring teacher over a few pints in the back bar (men only then!) of Oxford’s King’s Arms, expert on ancient plagues, artillery gunner at the Normandy landings. He never had a book published in his lifetime but in his day academics didn’t have to.
The Great Sea by David Abulafia (2011), a peerless guide to the only slowly changing Mediterranean.
SPQR, by Mary Beard (2015). How to take apart a history manufactured by some of its major subjects.
Rubicon by Tom Holland (2003), a surging narrative, worth studying not just for what it says but how it says it.
If you could meet any figure from history, who would it be and why? Also, if you could witness any event throughout history, what would it be?
Today it would have to be Cassius of Parma. I’ve lived with his traces for two years. I would love to know whether I was right in deciding what he was like. So ditto for the assassination of Caesar. I’m sure it was chaotic, maybe even more chaotic than I’ve described.
If you could add any period or subject to the history curriculum, what would it be?
I don’t know enough about what is on the curriculum. Too much Hitler and Stalin, I’m sure. I’m excited about the reappraisal of Britain’s profits from the Atlantic slave trade. Open our minds but keep them open: that is what learning should do. ‘Follow the money’ is a good lesson for historians as well as journalists: but journalists soon learn that the money does not always lead where you want it to.
If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, either as a student or when you first started out as a writer, what would it be?
For a classicist: learn more poetry and prose line by line. When I was young I was lucky enough to be able to read Catullus and Thucydides more fluently than I can now; but I understood what they were saying about love and power much less well before life (and editing The Times) left its lessons. So use your fluency while you can. And that is not just true for classics: any text you study for GCSE can be there for you for the rest of your life.
For a writer: think always of the reader. Journalism, despite all it changes, is still good for teaching that.
Can you tell us a little bit about the project you are currently working on?
I’m writing about Roman fathers and sons, a notorious flatterer, a notorious glutton, a dissatisfied tycoon and a tragic hero who died young. More than one book. More to come.
Peter Stothard is the author of The Last Assassin: The Hunt for the Killers of Julius Caesar.