Historical Fiction set in Ancient Times

I had so many great comments on my post last week that I thought I’d share what I learned and give the commentators a little plug in the process. I started out intending to list them all, but there are too many for only one post, so I’ve decided to divide them chronologically, starting with those set in antiquity, maybe adding a few more as I go.

Barbara Monajem, who writes Regency romance, suggested the Lindsey Davis novels featuring Roman detective Marcus Didius Falco. I’ve read several of these myself and find them highly entertaining. The series is set in the first century of the Roman Empire, beginning in the reign of Vespasian, 70 A.D. Falco’s smart-alecky voice and lively first-person narration put these books in the great P.I. tradition. Think Elvis Cole transported to ancient Rome.

Joe De Marco, who writes the Marco Fontana P.I. series, mentioned Rosemary Sutcliff, who wrote several different historical series for children and young adults from the 1950s on. The Chronicles of Robin Hood, an Arthurian series, and one set in Roman Britain, beginning with THE EAGLE OF THE NINTH. Because my own historical mysteries are set in ancient Rome, I’m especially intrigued by this. I was also a huge King Arthur fan when I was young, courtesy of T.H. White, so the Arthurian ones sound great, too. So many books, so little time…

Among our commentators, Rome seems to hold pride of place, but I’m sure there are other fascinating historical mysteries set elsewhere in the ancient world. One recent series that’s been high on my TBR list is that by Gary Corby, set in ancient Athens. His narrator, like Falco, sounds like a cheeky fellow. My kind of literary guide.

Rather than ask you to add to this already perilously high TBR tower, I’ll ask: What do you look for in a novel set in antiquity? What kind of voice do you like? Since the author is writing in English rather than ancient Latin or Greek, how do you think she or he should approach the story’s language and dialogue? It’s quite different from looking at fiction set in an English-speaking milieu.


  1. May 10, 2012 at 7:05 pm

    I have read several of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books and loved them. I’m in the process of re-reading The Eagle of the Ninth and its sequels.:)

    I prefer it when stories set in both ancient and medieval times (even if in an English-speaking milieu) are told in a modern-sounding voice but without a vocabulary that pulls me out of the story, if that makes any sense. No obviously modern slang, but a modern cadence. Diana Norman/Ariana Franklin wrote a number of books that take place in Medieval and Elizabethan England/Ireland, and she did a truly fabulous job of it.

    • Nancy Adams said,

      May 11, 2012 at 8:31 am

      That’s my preference, too, Barbara, unless it’s very, very well done. Ariana Franklin is a wonderful writer, I agree, thanks for bringing her to mind.

      One example of historical fiction where the diction has a somewhat older feel, but still reads very smoothly are the Patrick O’Brian novels, set ca. 1800. His main characters are a ship’s captain and the ship’s doctor, a wonderful study in contrasting characters.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Georgia said,

    May 10, 2012 at 8:31 pm

    Excellent question and very helpful response. I have always been a fan of Anne Perry’s Victorian England and more recently Tasha Alexander. However I rarely select a novel with a setting in ancient times because I remember my struggle with Beowulf!

    • Nancy Adams said,

      May 11, 2012 at 8:37 am

      Beowulf–LOL! I don’t think anyone could get away with that, though I suspect some of the more formal-sounding passages in Lord of the Rings owe their cadence to Tolkien’s love of Anglo-Saxon epic.

      Not historical fiction, I know, but I’ve been rereading it at night, and as with Patrick O’Brian, I’m continually struck by how different the language of Book 5, where most of the epic battles occur, is from everyday and how despite its somewhat archaic tone, it still reads smoothly and keeps you turning the pages. He was a master stylist.

      I’ve read all of Ann Perry’s Monk series and really enjoyed it. Ditto the first book or two of Tasha Alexander’s. Both writers do such a good job.

      Please don’t think that historical fiction set in ancient times has to sound stilted! Try Steven Saylor or Lindsey Davis. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Thanks, Georgia, for stopping by.!

  3. Triss Stein said,

    May 11, 2012 at 7:12 am

    Rosemary Sutcliff was the epitome of a historical fiction writer. I honestly don’t think think anyone has ever done it better and her books -first read in library school a lifetime ago – have stayed with me all these years. Her vivid depiction of time and place is seamlessly joined to compelling stories that are very much OF their time and place. As the same time, her characters are familiar and human

    I am a big fan of Lindsey Davis too. Sometimes people say, ‘What about the anachronistic tone? Falco seems like a 20th century smart aleck in some ways” and I think “How do we know the turbulent great city of Rome didn’t produce any, just as NY did a milennium later?”

    • Nancy Adams said,

      May 11, 2012 at 8:41 am

      Thanks, Triss, for telling me more about Rosemary Sutcliff. She’s moving rapidly to the TBR top!

      And I completely agree with you about Falco. In fact, modern day Rome really has a similar feel to NY (to me, at least), and Latin literature is full of satire. Juvenile, Catullus, and Martial were all smart alecks in their day!

  4. May 11, 2012 at 7:51 am

    I’m sure Rome did produce plenty such! People are people, and the same types recur — the good, the bad, the outgoing, the shy, the clowns, the puddleglums, and so on.. A character like Falco brings Rome alive for me! Well, all Davis’ characters do, actually. Helena, his friends and family, his clients and persecutors… Ancient Rome feels much more alive to me because I see people I recognize there.

    • Nancy Adams said,

      May 11, 2012 at 8:42 am

      Barbara, I agree. And now you’ve inspired me to go out and catch up on this series. Falco is always so much fun!

      Thanks for stopping by to chat.

  5. Betty Gordon said,

    May 11, 2012 at 10:07 am

    I am so happy to read this material that is very timely for me. I had started a piece set in England during the late 1700s and had so many questions about the language. This is a tremendous help.

    • Nancy Adams said,

      May 11, 2012 at 2:25 pm

      So glad it helped, Betty! Best wishes for your novel. Writing historical fiction is nearly twice the work because you have to fact-check so many things and sometimes there is just no clear answer.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  6. August 30, 2012 at 8:48 pm

    I’ll be reading. So happy to have discovered your site.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: