It is such a pleasure to sit down with you again and discuss books and history. Could you tell us a little about your fabulous Augustus Series?
Thank you, Mary. Augustus: Son of Rome, originally published some years ago, was my breakthrough book. The novel topped various Amazon charts and was responsible for me writing several other books (including the Sword of Rome and Spies of Rome series) set during the same period, with some of the same characters. Having written a couple of more literary historical novels early in my career, I wanted to write something more commercial. I was tired of only being able to afford to order the house wine.
The Augustus series concerns itself with the emergence of Octavius, immediately after the death of Julius Caesar. The books track his trials and ascendency – and what he had to do and sacrifice to become Augustus. I also wanted the books to tell the story of Marcus Agrippa, the right-hand of Octavius Caesar – to bring him out of the shadows of history. Augustus: Son of Rome is a story about power and history – but also one of friendship.
I should say that, although there is the sequel – Augustus: Son of Caesar – and other titles relating to Augustus, I am still only halfway through completing the saga. I just seem to get continually side-tracked, which is both a curse and blessing.
“et tu brute” is perhaps one of the most recognisable quotes penned by William Shakespeare. Augustus: Son of Rome tells the story of Caesars’ assassination. What drew you towards this era and in particular, this story?
The books are influenced by a variety of things. I had worked with the likes of Conn Iggulden and Simon Scarrow as a publicist and enjoyed the pace and black, soldierly humour of their novels. But Augustus: Son of Rome is also the product of my reading of Plutarch, Suetonius and Shakespeare’s relevant plays. Also, the letters and life of Cicero shed light on the period and the people who shaped it.
Although the politics of ancient Rome are different to today’s world, they still relate and resonate in a way that, perhaps, other eras fail to. Caesar’s downfall is one of political hubris – and, unfortunately, political hubris never seems to go out of fashion.
The first half of the life of Octavius was shaped by Julius Caesar, both his rise and fall. As much as the Ides of March has been portrayed in books and film before, I still felt compelled to re-heat the old dish and put my spin on things. Julius Caesar plays a significant role in the novel, albeit the story of Octavius is also about him becoming his own man.
Also, from a trade point of view, there was no place like Rome in terms of book sales for historical fiction when I wrote the first Augustus book. As well as Conn Iggulden and Simon Scarrow riding high in the charts at the time, Ben Kane was breaking through and Robert Harris was publishing his trilogy about Cicero. The track record – and potential sales – attracted me to the era.
Gaius Octavius is a historical figure who is both celebrated and despised —depending if you are on Team Mark Antony or not! Why do you think the relationship between these two men broke down so dramatically, and do you explore this complicated relationship in your series?
There can be only one, to quote the phrase from Highlander. Both men were considered semi-divine. Gods prefer ruling to submitting, as actors like to be centre stage. Mark Antony was Caesar’s second-in-command. Octavius was his legal heir. Both men believed that they should be Caesar’s successor and the leader of the Caesarean faction. The shock was not perhaps that their relationship broke down, but that they managed to swallow their pride to become temporary allies.
Although I am not one to believe in historical inevitability, it was always likely that the two men would clash (despite being reasonably successful in their power sharing and defeating their mutual enemies). Both men needed to be the First Man of Rome. As accomplished and enigmatic a military commander as Mark Antony was, Octavius was a cannier statesman – who owned the added advantage of being able to employ Marcus Agrippa to fight his battles for him.
The first two books in the series sow the seed of the tension between the two men – and how Mark Antony initially underestimated his rival. But the detente and then war between the two great figures will be explored in subsequent novels.
Do you find it a challenge to balance the history of the era with the story that you want to tell?
Not really, partly because I try to pick stories from history which will naturally lend themselves to the demands and structures of fiction. There’s always a blend of fictional characters and historical personages in my novels, which hopefully strike a happy balance in the reader’s mind. I enjoy researching periods and writing about the likes of Augustus Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, Cicero, Henry V, and most recently, the noblemen involved in the First Crusade. But I am also, unashamedly, a novelist. I get to make stuff up.
Do you have any top tips for writers who are thinking about setting their story in the ancient world?
In general, whether writing about the ancient world or other eras, most first-time novelists fall into the seductive trap of over researching their books. They try to prove to themselves – and their readers – how much of a good historian they are. They should be proving to themselves – and their readers – that they a good historical novelist, however.
Another tip is to read other novels out there, set in the ancient world. Learn from the masters. More than any historian, Steven Saylor helped inform and inspire me whilst writing the Augustus books. The likes of Bernard Cornwell and Robert Harris sell for a reason.
One of the reasons why I have written this blog and put Augustus: Son of Rome on free promotion (and discounted numerous other titles) is that I am hoping other novelist will read the books and be inspired to write something similar (or have something already written and published) and submit to Sharpe Books to publish. Augustus: Son of Rome was a bestseller. If you have written something similar in style and tone, set in ancient Rome or a different period, then do get in touch. Similarly, I have just started to serve on the advisory board for the magazine and website Aspects of History and we are looking for authors to submit short stories. Should you be a writer working in the ancient world, or other eras, and have written something similar to Augustus: Son of Rome (or the stories contained in the HWA collections of Rubicon, Royal Blood, By the Sword, Victoriana) then please do get in touch via the magazine’s website.