Sunday, August 1, 2021

Q&A with Adrian Goldsworthy




Adrian Goldsworthy is the author of the new historical novel The Fort, the first in his City of Victory series. A historian of Ancient Rome, he has written the Vindolanda historical fiction trilogy as well as many works of nonfiction. He lives in South Wales.


Q: The Fort is the first in a new series--what inspired you to write this book?


A: In the Vindolanda trilogy, I wrote about life on the northern frontier of Britannia around AD 100, and introduced Flavius Ferox, prince of the Silures (a tribe from the south west) turned Roman army officer as the embittered, cynical hero. 


They are basically Westerns set in Roman Britain, and follow many of the conventions of those stories - so he is the sheriff/gunfighter figure, with a mix of army scout thrown in, who straddles the different cultures forced together on the edge of the Roman world. 


Ferox returns in The Fort, but this time he and some of the other characters are sent off to the Danube and the border with Dacia (basically modern-day Romania). 


I wanted to think about uprooting not just Ferox, but a lot of Britons as well, and sending them to a far corner of the Roman empire as part of the Roman army, seeing how they react to the sheer scale and diversity of the empire. 


Underlying this and the other stories is all the different types of people who ended up being Roman, the many more who worked for the empire, and everyone else who found the massive Roman empire on their doorstep and how everyone interacted.


Apart from all of this, the character of Hadrian appears from time to time and is always there pulling strings behind the scenes. He is a fairly close relation to the current emperor, Trajan, who does not have a son or obvious heir. However, the history suggests that Trajan did not like Hadrian and never intended him to succeed, even though this is precisely what happened when Trajan died. 


The trilogy will try to trace how this happened. Hadrian has gone down in history as one of the “good” Romans, but was not popular during his lifetime and did not have the easiest of personalities. So we play around with ideas about who makes the best leader, whether you want a good one or it's more important to have a capable one, whatever his/her personality. 


The Hadrian in the stories is not the nicest of people, but I have tried to suggest the intelligence, periodic charm, and ruthlessness of the real man.


As the Vindolanda stories were Westerns, The Fort still has some of that feel, while also turning into a war story - with deliberately more than a touch of John Ford movie. 


It's told from both sides, and throughout this and the other novels I have not tried to present Romans or anyone else as straightforwardly good or bad. A lot of it is about the people caught up in conflict through no fault of their own. 


You don't have to have read the Vindolanda books to enjoy The Fort. Hopefully it works as a sequel for those who have read the earlier ones and already know some of the characters, but should be easy to follow for those who have not. 


All of these stories are adventures, meant as escapism. I have done my best to conjure up the world as accurately as possible, but really they are meant as entertainment rather than profound comments on human nature. 


Maybe I'm just frivolous by nature, but there is already enough out there in life, and indeed art, that's grim enough without wanting more as recreation.


Q: You've written fiction and nonfiction about the ancient world--do you have a preference?


A: Not really - it is fun to do both.  Nonfiction is my main job for three quarters of each year, before I take a break to write a novel. I have not taught for years, so these days I have the luxury of writing full-time. 


When you are near the end of any project you cannot wait to get it done and switch to something else. When I first started writing novels, I set the stories in Regency England and the Peninsular War in Portugal and Spain because it was nice to spend time reading about another period and dealing with different types of evidence. 


While I knew that someday I'd turn to the ancient world and set stories, it took a while for the germ to grow. I think a lot of writers are the same, but ideas for books can grow slowly until suddenly you just feel that you have to write them. 


The Vindolanda series were inspired by the Vindolanda writing tablets, found at the incredible site of this Roman army fort, just a couple of miles south of Hadrian's Wall. 


These texts written on wood give us glimpses of life around AD 100 in this outpost of the Roman army. Much of it is very normal, very human, the wife of one commander asking another over for a birthday party, etc. 


We glimpse the lives of people who would otherwise have gone unrecorded in the sources for the Roman world, and as a historian you just want to know more about them. 


Apart from anything else, it made absolutely clear that the bases we call forts were really full communities of soldiers, but also their families, much more like garrison towns or army bases today.


Q: How did you research this new book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised or fascinated you?


A: My doctoral thesis was on the Roman army, and for pretty much all my adult life I have been studying the Roman world, so in one sense the research has been a very long process. 


More immediately, I went to a lot of stuff about the reign of Trajan, the life of Hadrian, and then to Dacia and the Dacians, as well as the neighbouring peoples like the Getae, Sarmatians, and Bastarnae. 


It is always harder getting to the lives of peoples like these who left no written record and are seen through the writings of Greeks and Romans, and through archaeology. The Dacians were the most technically sophisticated people beyond Rome's frontiers in Europe, but in some ways also among the most mysterious. 


To add to that, the Roman side is not well documented, since most of the material, such as Trajan's own account of these wars, was lost in the Dark Ages or even before. Instead we have hundreds of sculpted scenes on Trajan's Column and other artistic records, but no real guide to the details of the story they are telling. 


It's a bit like trying to understand 1066 and the Norman Conquest with only the Bayeux Tapestry (but with its captions removed) and almost nothing else - or I guess watching a silent movie without any captions and no real idea of who the characters are and where they are, except what you can guess. 


In one way this gives a novelist plenty of freedom to invent, but that also means trying to invent things that make sense and fit together coherently.


The biggest difference between nonfiction and fiction is that in the nonfiction it is important - I would say vital - that as the author you admit what we do not know and say where we are guessing. 


With the ancient world that is actually often a lot of the time. So much material hasn't survived or was never even recorded in the first place. The more you study, the more you realise how much there is that we simply do not know. 


In a novel it is different. A character can't open a door and step into a blank space - at least not in my sort of novel. So you have to invent and guess to fill in the gaps. 


In my case I start with everything we do know, and then try to build onto that with guesswork in a way that is plausible. So the world we see is how it might have been and how people might have behaved. 


I've always loved historical novels and read a lot of them, and see many of them as a kind of historical tourism - in your mind's eye you visit these places and these eras. I do my best to make it feel as real as possible, and have drawn heavily on other eras and cultures to flesh out what we actually know.


One thing that surprised me is how much writing fiction made me ask new questions of the evidence. 


For a biography of Caesar or Cleopatra or a study of Rome's fall or the success of its empire, you don't spend too much time wondering about what people ate and drank, and how they prepared and served it - or for that matter what they wore, especially the dull stuff like socks and underwear, travel clothes etc. 


Yet in the story your characters will be doing lots of mundane tasks and you need to be able to describe them. So it has meant that I have thought about lots of things that had not really occurred to me before. 


In fact, I would recommend that any historian would benefit for thinking about or writing a story in their era, because it reminds us that history is about lots of individuals living their lives. 


As with everything else, guesswork has to come in. We don't really know how the Romans spoke, let alone swore. There are glimpses of conversational Latin and Greek for the aristocracy, but you cannot be sure how realistic this is, and for the bulk of the population there is almost nothing. So you have to create a style for dialogue that works for the story.


Q: What do you find noteworthy about this particular period in Roman history?


A: Whatever you feel about the Romans - and they could be nasty, cruel and stupid just like most cultures - they were seldom dull. Roman history still enthralls me after all these years studying them. 


This was the height of the Roman Empire, when its wealth, population, and sophistication peaked and the time when many of the great monuments were built. You cannot wander along Hadrian's Wall, or stand in front of the Pantheon at Rome, sit in the sand by the aqueduct at Caesarea or visit a host of other sites without wondering what life was like at the time. 


What makes it both even more interesting and especially frustrating, is that few narratives of the period survive, compared to the late Republic. So history of this period tends to be written more from inscriptions, much later sources, and by excavation. 


These tell us different sorts of things. A series of monuments at Admaklissi in Romania includes fragments of a cenotaph, commemorating some 3,000 or so Roman soldiers who died during a conflict. 


Another monument has scenes - cruder, but somehow more immediate than the elegant figures on Trajan's Column - of battle, parade, and enemy captives. We don't know the details, or even the order in which they go which would shape the story. 


It's clearly part of the conflicts with the Dacians, but about one disaster or all the dead for an entire campaign? It's a remarkable place, and well worth visiting, but there is so much we don't know about the Roman side of things, let alone their opponents.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have just finished the sequel to The Fort, which is called The City and takes Ferox and some of the others beyond the Euphrates to one of the kingdoms lying uneasily between the Roman and Parthian empires. Once again, Hadrian has plans for him. 


With that done, I'm back to nonfiction, and the main project at the moment is called The Eagle and the Lion which recounts the 700-year confrontation between the Romans and Parthians and latter Sassanid Persians. So that's a book about peace and war, about great power confrontations, about trade and exchange of ideas, as well as all the people caught up in it. 


Given that The City is set in the area, this is the closest I have ever come to writing fiction and nonfiction about an almost identical setting. Still, it's an intimate story, whereas the history book is about the great sweep of events.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: This is probably true of all authors, but I write books that I would like to read, which don't quite exist in that precise form. This is true of the conventional history and the novels. You just hope that other people will also enjoy them. 


My style is very different in the two types of book - or at least I think it is - and I know a lot of people who like one, but not the other, and probably a minority who like both. 


In the novels a lot of my characters are soldiers, and it is important to me that there is a vein of humour running through the stories. All the soldiers I have ever known have joked a lot, partly as a way of coping with so many appalling situations - all I hear about ER rooms in hospitals suggests the same thing. 


The humour can be grim or very dark or crude or all of those things, but it is a way of keeping going. I have tried to put this into the books because otherwise I don't think it would come across as real. 


Like everything else, it's about trying to the best of my ability to make the world of the stories real enough to enjoy. Hopefully others will feel the same.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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