Saturday, October 10, 2009


All right, I admit it. I have neglected my blog of late but I have a good reason in that I was writing away on my third book in the Eagles and Dragons series. And so, I am reminded of how many sources I have relied on in my research for this series. Just as in writing an historical paper, writing historical fiction also involves a good deal of research and every writer has his or her favourite sources. So, I thought I would go over just a few of the very many books that I have made use of over the last few years in researching the Imperial Roman Army, Roman life and the Severan period in general.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot in the way of primary sources when it comes to the Severan period (roughly A.D. 193 onward to the late 3rd century). This is sad because at this time, especially the reign of Septimius Severus himself (A.D. 193-211), the Empire was at its greatest extent ever and the Parthian Empire had finally been defeated after failed attempts by both Crassus and Mark Antony. In addition, some of the most powerful women in the history of the Roman Empire lived at this time and had gathered learned men from around the world (the Syrian woman, including Empress Julia Domna) to come to the imperial court, there were great changes made to the army and the Praetorian Guard and an all out invasion of Caledonia (Scotland) was undertaken by Severus.

As I said, there are not many primary sources available but the most obvious one is Cassius Dio. Although much of what Dio writes must be taken with the proverbial grain of salt, he does provide good fodder for the historical novelist.

As far as secondary sources, there are many on the Roman army and some of those that have proved useful are: Adrian Goldsworthy's The Complete Roman Army; Yann Le Bohec's The Imperial Roman Army; and Lawrence Keppie's The Making of the Roman Army. A series that is also extremely useful is the Osprey Military series of books which give brief overviews of very specific topics with magnificent, historically accurate illustrations. These are just a few in a veritable sea of books on the Roman army and Roman warfare.

Just as there are scant primary sources about Septimius Severus and his successors, there are also few secondary sources. However, one of the few that does stand out is Michael Grant's The Severans: The Changed Roman Empire. Grant's book is a great glimpse of this crucial period in the history of the Roman Empire, a time that was truly a turning point in Rome's history and in hindsight the beginning of the end for the Empire. Pat Southern's The Roman Empire: From Severus to Constantine also provides useful information.

When it comes to every day life in ancient Rome, from religious festivals and money to amusements and pastimes, the Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome by Adkins and Adkins is a wonderful resource that every writer of fiction set in this period should have. There is also a Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece and a Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt. I should note that these books are now difficult to find so, if you see one, grab it right away. Another aspect of the every day is clothing and one book that I found particularly useful was Roman Clothing and Fashion by A.T. Croom. After all, despite later views of ancient Rome and Romans, the people of the pre-Christian empire did wear clothing most of the time.

Finally, geography and terrain are also important for historical novelists. One must have a good (or several) map of the area about which you are writing. It might seem odd but some of the best maps that I have seen and used are the historical National Geographic maps of the Roman Empire and Ancient Greece; not only are they beautiful to look at, but they are easy to read and have little snippets of history dotted about. If your story is set in Britain, your best bet would be the historical maps put out by Ordnance Survey. There are maps of Roman and Medieval Britain as well as historical maps of ancient and medieval cities like London and York etc. Very useful!

As I said at the outset, these are but a few of the helpful sources that I have come across. The task of naming all good books on this subject is far too titanic for a blog entry. Every writer has his or her own favourites which they will go back to again and again. The above are just a few of my own. Hope you enjoy. Now, back to writing!
Above photo: altar inscription at the Sanctuary of Apollo outside of Sparta.
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