The Isca Augusta was once a Roman legionary fortress and settlement.
Why is it that over the centuries historians, from Edward Gibbon to Adrian Goldsworthy, have been enchanted or inspired by ancient Rome ? I dare to say it is likely because we love the theatre and drama of gladiators spilling blood with their swords to the quaint daily lives of Rome’s citizens. Some of us too, like the idea of walking along side the giants of history like Augustus, who was the architect that transformed Rome from a republic to an empire or Constantine, who arguably through two decisions adopting Christianity and shift the Roman empire’s heart east to Constantinople transformed the Roman world. There are others too, who stir the imagination across the breadth of history, like Hannibal, Anthony and Cleopatra through to Napoleon. I am mesmerised by all of them. In fact I cannot see the day where we will stop being intrigued by all those I have mentioned thus far. I guess that is why we continually read, research and write about Rome and history in general.
Every generation produces historians or writers who find something new and interesting about Roman History. This leads me to introduce, Dr. Adrian Goldsworthy, as my next guest in my Great Writers series. Dr. Goldsworthy and I are roughly the same age. Why I mention this is because both of us are relatively young (40’s) but share a passion for something so ancient. Though I have to admit I am a little envious of Adrian. While I read about Roman history in my youth, Adrian lived it often scrambling over Roman ruins in South Wales. From there he went on to study Ancient and Modern History at St. John’s College, Oxford University. In time he became a teacher at King’s College but his real love was writing. Over the past ten years as a prolific writer, with a great attention to detail, he has written some of the best works on the Roman army and its warlords. Not only has he covered great individuals like Caesar and Hannibal, he is also quite apt at historical fiction. With a wealth of insight on all things Rome, Adrian was kind enough to give up his time to be interview by me.
Roman history is one of those subjects that has been covered from post to pillar for centuries. Why do you believe we are all so fascinated by it?
“The Romans – and the Greeks – continue to fascinate us because they played such a profound role in shaping our own culture. Up until fairly recently, this influence was open and direct. Think of the number of artworks inspired by Classical scenes or myths, or of the references in drama. Even though this is now less obvious because few people get a classical education these days, it is still there in the background.”
I fell in love with Rome, in particular, the later Roman empire (Byzantium) about twenty years ago and have not stopped reading about it since. How did you first discover your passion for Rome? (You didn’t do a Gibbon, did you?)
“I have always found history exciting and can readily get interested in almost any topic through reading something or visiting a place. However, the Romans have always been special. Some of that has to do with watching old epic movies on TV – in Britain they tend to show one or two of these every Bank Holiday – and a lot came from growing up near Roman sites. The remains of the legionary base at Caerleon – Isca Silurum home of Legio II Augusta – is twenty miles or so away from where I grew up and I was always pestering my parents to take me there. Being able to clamber over Roman remains near my home made the Roman era very much part of my history and not some distant thing from a far away place like Greece of Egypt.”
As a historian, how do you know what is the best balance to strike between telling a good story and informing the reader simply about historical facts?
“You always try to do both. Writing is about communication, just like teaching or indeed chatting to an individual. You need to make it interesting. My aim is always to involve anyone who is interested enough to pick the book up in the first place. It’s best to assume that the reader comes with no prior knowledge. Then you need to strike a balance so that there are also new ideas or ways of thinking about familiar things to the reader who has read a bit already.”
There are so many interesting histories and manuscripts around the world, except we struggle to gain access to them, partly because there are no reliable translations and/or publishers who are willing to bring those books to us. I read somewhere that only a very small percentage of books around the world are translated into English. Is there anything we can do about it? Or what I should be asking is how much out there has not yet been decoded by academics?
“We are lucky for the Greek and Roman periods that most of the main sources exist in readily available translations. So as soon as you get interested you can start reading Jospehus or Cicero. Obviously if you want to study them seriously you will need to gain at least some knowledge of the original Greek and Latin, but you can go quite a long way simply with the translations. What tends to be less available is the sub-literary texts – from writing tablets and papyri. There are some collections of these – e.g. Fink’s Roman Military Records on Papyrus – but a lot of material is either only available in academic journals hard to obtain unless you have access top a good university library. Others are still in the process of being prepared. The same is true of inscriptions, many of which can be very important – and more generally of archaeology as a whole.”
Who are your literary ‘heroes’ and how have they shaped the way you view and write about history?
“It will sound pretentious, but I would have to list Julius Caesar. I always liked his comment that a good orator – or author for that matter – should avoid a difficult word or sentence just as the helmsman of a ship avoids a reef. I try to write simply and clearly. However, I would also add that coming from a background of military history as well as ancient history there tend to be more good writers. At the least it encourages a clear narrative structure. You also cannot help admire the scholarship and eloquence of Gibbon or Syme in the more modern era. Yet all in all there is a lot of history out there that is good and well written, even if not as much as there should be.”
‘In the Name of Rome’ focuses on Rome’s military might. Belisarius (above) is one of my favourite Roman/Byzantine generals. Thwarted at almost every turn by his own emperor, his wife, other generals and officers under his command, this guy didn’t really stand a chance in becoming a truly great, maybe even the greatest Roman general. If only, he had usurped the throne and did things his own way. But we will never know. In your opinion where does Belisarius rank amongst the greatest generals of Rome?
“Belisarius operated in a very different world to many of the others chosen in the book. Indeed the main theme of it was to show how the relationship changed between commander and state and something of the development of the army. Choice of subjects had as much to do with availability of decent sources than necessarily a judgement on their skill. The title wasn’t dreamt up by the publishers until after I had written the book. Belisarius was clearly a very able man operating in a difficult environment, but I do not see any useful way of ranking him in comparison to say Pompey, Caesar or Titus.”
Rome has had many watershed moment throughout its long history. From the psychological scare inflicted upon Rome by Hannibal at Cannae, Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon to Constantine’s alleged vision of the cross. Is there another moment for you that stands out as one of the most significant?
“Maybe the murder of Caracalla and the elevation of the equestrian Macrinus in AD 217 and the subsequent claim made on behalf of Elagabalus as the supposed illegitimate son of Caracalla. Familiarity with later power struggles makes us forget how strange this was – a man not from a senatorial family accepted by the army and the Senate and then a claim based on illegitimacy. It is hard to imagine any of this before Severus & yet it is very much in character for the next few centuries.”
Bust of Macrinus, from the Capitoline Museum. Dr. Goldsworthy suggest that his elevation as emperor is arguably one of the significant moments in Roman history.
Julius Caesar is one of Rome’s leading characters . He is arguably as you put it in the preface of ‘The Fall of the West’ “…the most famous Roman”. Can you tell us a very little known fact about the man?
“Well, fact is always a difficult thing when we are dealing with ancient sources. If we want a big thing, then perhaps it is worth pointing out how little military experience he had when he arrived in his province in 58 BC, taking over an army of four legions raised by someone else. It’s doubtful many people expected him to go on to be so spectacularly successful.”
Without Caesar, the Roman republic may not have evolved into an Empire. Is it possible that an individual or tyrant may have stepped up and set Rome down that path anyway ? Do you as an historian think about the alternative or is it a historians duty to adhere to the facts?
“You have to stick with the facts and explain them, although you do need to remind people that little was inevitable. What is especially important is to remember that people live their lives without the benefit of hindsight. As far as they are concerned the future could go in all sorts of directions. Counter-factual scenarios can be a lot of fun – a bit like ranking the greatest generals this sort of thing makes for good after dinner conversation for enthusiasts, but in the end will simply reflect your own prejudices – whether you feel the role of individuals and their decisions and deeds is always less important than deep underlying trends etc.”
Where did the inspiration for writing historical fiction come from?
“For both non fiction and fiction I write the sort of books that I would like to read. I enjoy historical fiction, although I find I can’t read a lot of the stuff set in the ancient world because it does not ring true to me. My own interest in the Napoleonic era and the Peninsular War in particular – the setting for my stories – originated with reading the first of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series of stories – Sharpe’s Eagle which came out when I was at school. I read each one as it was released and from them went on to read more and more non fiction about the period, both by modern historians and the wealth of personal accounts and records. So I wanted to explore that world, but also knew that if I tried to copy the Sharpe stories then anything I wrote would not be a patch on the original. Instead I wanted something with more period feel, drawing heavily on the first hand accounts of the era. I didn’t want a hero who was too perfect, so instead have a group of characters who together make up the attributes of a hero. I also wanted the army and my own fictional regiment of the line to be effectively an extra character. The aim is to give a lot of period feel and not simply to write stories that could really be set anywhere or at any time.”
Having spent much of your profession career writing about ancient history from the Punic Wars to the fall of Rome, who are your five favourite historical figures? Can you elaborate on one?
“I have just spent three years with Augustus so have developed a – slightly grudging – admiration for him. He does not quite have the style of Caesar, with whom I have also spent a lot of my time. The latter has been pretty good to me as well – it’s my bestselling book so far! Yet you cannot read Cicero without developing at least a fondness for the man. His letters and all the other sources do make that era something special, when you really feel that you can get to know the characters of a lot of the key players. Sometimes though it is the observers and historians that you get to like – the wealth of detail in Josephus, Ammianus and Procopius all make you think differently about the world they describe. That looks like six rather than five – sorry!”
Finally, can you indulge the reader on anything you are working on at the moment? (New book?)
“My biography of Augustus has just come out, so I am still at the fairly early stages of the next non fiction project. This is called Pax Romana and looks at how life changed when the Romans arrived and asks the bigger question of just how peaceful the Roman empire was. There is also a novel to write before I can finish this – Whose business is to die, the sixth in the series.”
A huge thank you to Dr. Adrian Goldsworthy for his patience, time and contribution. You can visit or contact him via his website or you can read the many wonderful books he has written from The Fall of Rome: The Death of a Roman Superpower to his Napoleonic fictions which includes the likes of True Soldier Gentlemen.
Photo Credit All images are in the public domain except the photo of the Isca Augusta fortress is used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License. The aureus coin of Marrinus and the statue of Augustus of Prima Porta are both used under the Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license. Portrait of Dr. Adrian Goldsworthy is courtesy of the author.