Author Interview: Harry Sidebottom

Posted on: 29 August 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Author Dr Harry Sidebottom speaks to 50connect about his debut novel, Warrior of Rome: Fire in the East.

Fire in the East is set in AD255 and follows the life of a Roman officer called Marcus Clodius Ballista, who is sent east to defend the city of Arete from attack by religious fundamentalists, the Sassanid Persians.

It is an adventure thriller brimming with action, intrigue, love, and betrayal, set in the period known by historians as the 'Crisis of the Roman Empire.’ The novel also raises important contemporary questions about individual political and religious loyalties, and the realities of defending freedom.

The author, Dr Harry Sidebottom is a fellow of Ancient History at Oxford University.  His interest in all things classical was sparked whilst in his first year of A-levels, when his godfather gave him a copy of Robin Lane Fox’s biography of Alexander the Great. 

“I loved it and I decided I wanted to write books like it,” he says. 

An enduring fan of historical adventure fiction, he says that it seemed a natural progression to combine two of his life long passions and experiment with literary techniques in a novel - something forbidden in academic historical texts. 

He also wanted to write it in defiance to the prevailing Oxford establishment.

“I think there’s a nasty tendency in this country to mistrust scholars or intellectuals who write popular books.  They are tagged as selling out or dumbing down and I think that it very silly.  It should be much more like the Continent, where heavy weight intellectuals are encouraged to write playful books and reach out to a wide as possible readership.”

“You didn’t find Italians complaining when Umberto Eco wrote The Name Of The Rose; you didn’t find lots of Catalans up in arms when Manuel Vazquez Montalban created the fictional detective character, Pepe Carvalho.”

“So in essence, it is an attempt to popularise a subject I love, but it is also an ideological mission statement - against a certain form of scholarly elitism which suggests that only people who have learnt and can think in Latin and Greek should really be allowed to think or read about the classical world.” 

The history of Rome is very well-documented by the Romans themselves, however, Fire In The East is set in the 3rd Century, a period we know significantly less about, and the period Harry specialises in with his academic research.

“I picked the 3rd century because this is what is referred to by academics, in a rather a Freudian way as the dark tunnel, because there are less records.  I picked it quite deliberately because it is a mini Roman Dark Age.  The second and fourth centuries are very well known, but the third century isn’t and it was that relative lack of documentation that made me choose it, because it gave me more freedom to make up the stories.”

“The stories in the series of three books are fiction, but the stories rest on a historical background as real as I can make it.”

“What I have taken as my literary model is the work of Patrick O’Brien and Mary Renault.  Apart form the fact they were superb historians and wrote incredibly well, they also had the courage to dare to let their character’s be different from modern people.”

“Too many novelists have a modern person with modern values dressed up in a toga or a centurion’s outfit.  I wanted to get away form that and make my characters think and feel differently in different circumstances from the way we would today."

"So I hope a reader who reads it and knows nothing about Rome will have painlessly learnt a lot by the end, and I hope a  reader who knows a lot about Roman history will be provoked into questioning some of the things they thought they knew or took as a given.”

One cannot read the book without being immersed in the back-stabbing and violence that permeated the Roman Empire.  The battle scenes and sieges are described vividly, and contemporary accounts from the period are skilfully woven into the story.  Hearry obviously lives and breathes this period in history; he even talks about Rome in the present tense. 

Clearly his vast knowledge of the period comes into its own, and in some places, allows him to take his knowledge one step further.

“Rome is a very well documented ancient culture as we know it had a thriving literary culture. To have any hope of being accepted in the Empire wide elite or even the local elite you have to show that you have literary attainments, that you know Homer, in another part of the empire you had to know your Virgil, and these things were a badge of status.”

“Something I tried to bring out in the novel is that a lot of things remind the characters of poetry and they often quote poetry to each other."

"Now I don’t think this is me doing a scholarly affectation.  I think that poetry held a much more central part in the thought world of Rome than it does today, or at least to the elite of the empire than it does in the modern West.   We love poetry for funerals, christenings and weddings, where as they thought about poetry under any circumstance and almost anything could remind them of a line Homer.”

Rome, of course, has always held a popular fascination, as the BBC drama of the same name proved last year.  Harry thinks there are two reasons for this.

“The first is essentially very trite, but that is the huge critical and commercial success of Gladiator.  I was a Don at Warwick at the time, and I noticed our applications to read ancient history went up by a significant percentage the following year in 2001.” 

“The other reason is rather more profound, in that the Roman Empire is a very good comparison to think through contemporary issues."

"Rome in the last 2 centuries BC and the first 3 centuries AD was the one superpower in the known world, in the West.  It had the divine right to humble the crowds and scare the vanquished; it had the divine right to impose regime change or conquer any other people it wanted.  It basically policed the world - and there’s an obvious compare and contrast to be done with the USA since the fall of the Soviet Block, and I think that is one of the more profound reasons why it is so popular at the minute.” 

Fire in the East can be read as a fast-paced exciting thriller, but it also works on many other level, raising issues that are pertinent in today’s political climate

“The hero Ballista goes to the city Arete in the East to defend it from attack from a religious fundamentalist power - Christianity,” Harry explains. 

“When he gets there, he systematically sets about destroying the city; he knocks down everything in site, tombs, temples and homes.  He curtails all civil liberties, imposes marshal law and strip searches at the gates.  So the basic question being raised is how far the West can go to defend its freedoms before it actually ends up destroying the very thing it is trying to defend.  There’s a moral warning that we have to be very careful about what we do in order to protect our freedom.”

“Another level to the book is issue of cultural and personal identity. None of the main characters are Roman; the hero is an Anglo Saxon, his body guards are Hibernian Irish men, his ally is a Caledonian, basically a Scotsman, and his secretary is Greek.”

“I am playing around with this idea that identity is not something given at birth but something you reinvent as you go along.  I’m exploring how Romanised the various people sucked into the Empire were.”

“The scholarly answer used to be, when I was an undergraduate, that you were totally Romanised, you put on a toga, you learn how to speak Latin, you give up all traces of your former identity and you become Roman.  Today, there are scholars who say this just isn’t true.”

“The Greeks are the best documented example of this.  As more of them get Roman citizenship and can speak Latin, they become more touchily and self-consciously Greek.  They endlessly hark back to an idealised Greek-past before Rome appeared.  The upper classes all speak and write to each in Attic Greek which is absolutely bizarre because Attic Greek hadn’t been spoken on the streets for centuries.  It’s interesting that in a post-colonial world, that they were doing this.”

And other historical truths will be revealed throughout the subsequent two books in the series.  Harry is in the middle of writing the sequel, King of Kings, in which he explores early Christianity. 

“In the central section of the next one we see a whole new side of the Roman Empire because Ballista is ordered to act as a persecutor of the Christians in the province of Asia Minor, which is now in modern Turkey.  In the first novel we have only seen this man as a war leader, whilst in the sequel it is in a completely civilian context, which hopefully brings out new aspects to his character and a greater sensitivity.”  

“The key moral question raised, is what drives a man to become a religious zealot? And what are the appropriate actions of a not terribly religious man when he is put in the position of becoming a religious persecutor.  This is something I a having a lot of fun with, and it does involved a lot of research because I am not a specialist in early Christianity.”

“What I have learnt about early Christianity is that it seemed to be regarded by outsiders, by pagans, as a subversive cult of the superstitious and lower classes.  One of the more interesting things the Romans were concerned about was how it devalues the family.  Ballista is suddenly confronted with this bizarre concept of having brothers and sisters of Christ, that are happily ripping their own family to shreds and informing against each other.  All of the Christian martyrdom in King of Kings is taken direct from contemporary texts, and some of them Christian.  One reads: Those of you who value your father, brother, mother, daughter, above the Lord will burn in hell forever." 

Warrior Of Rome: Fire In The East“It’s been a very shocking learning process seeing what early Christianity was like.”

You can purchase Warrior of Rome: Fire In The East from all good bookshops priced £12.99.  Alternatively you can purcahse it from Amazon for £8.44.

Interview: By Rachael Hannan

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