Historical fiction is a broad church; a re-telling real events, quasi-biographical fiction, romantic, adventure, fantastical and detective stories, tales from the cave through to the 1960s and set in every country and social situation you can imagine. And within that mix are counter-factual, alternative history stories, the ‘what ifs’ which project a possible different timeline from our own. Suppose the Spanish Armada had succeeded (Pavane, Keith Roberts)? Perhaps Napoleon had escaped from St Helena (Napoléon in America, Shannon Selin)? Or Germany had won the Second World War as in Robert Harris’s gripping Fatherland?
These are grand scale events, but historical fiction is also about ‘small people’. Ever since I walked on my first Roman mosaic at age eleven, I’ve been mesmerised by the complex, powerful and technological civilisation that was Rome. But even at eleven I wasn’t content with the part played by women in their society: influencers, eminences grises, heiresses and mothers, but de facto as well as de jure powerless. Enter Roma Nova, a modern, alternate version of a Roman society where women play the prominent role. (More about how this evolved.)
Is it historical fiction? Alternate (or alternative) history has two parents: history and speculative fiction. Alternate historical fiction can sit anywhere along a sliding scale from the well-researched counter-factual following historical logic and methodology to the completely bonkers story designed only to be cool. I explain the types in full detail here; I stand at the historical end because I’m a historian.
Alternate history is nothing new – Roman historian Livy speculates on the idea that the Romans would have eventually beaten Alexander the Great if he had lived longer and turned west to attack them (Book IX, sections 17-19 Ab urbe condita libri (The History of Rome), Titus Livius).
The basic characteristics of alternate history are three-fold: firstly, the event that turned history from the path we know – the point of divergence – must be in the past. Secondly, the new timeline follows a different path forever – there is no going back. Thirdly, stories should show the ramifications of the divergence and how the new reality functions.
But isn’t alternate history all invention? Yes and no. Plausibility and consistency are, as in all historical fiction, the key guidelines so that the reader is not lost or alienated. Local colour and period detail are essential, but only where necessary and when relevant.
The foundation step is to identify the point of divergence and make it a logical point where history could split and cause an alternative time line to emerge. My books are set in Roma Nova in the 20th and 21st centuries, but the country’s origin stretches back to a divergence point in AD 395 when the Roma Nova founders fled Rome after the Christian Roman emperor Theodosius issued the final edict outlawing all pagan religions.
Everyday life in the Roman Empire was significantly different in AD 395 from how it had been in 200 BC. A tiny instance: the sestertius, the archetypal silver Roman coin, had disappeared by the late fourth century. The gold solidus served as the standard unit at that time, so my modern Roma Novans use solidi.
Roma Novans hold their culture and history very dear and see it as both a purpose and method of survival. The urbs, or city of Roma Nova has a forum and a decumanus maximus, or main street; the senate, people’s assembly and a family based social system run the state and are ruled by an imperatrix. The military elite is called the Praetorian Guard and service to the state is valued before personal pleasure or gain. Well, in theory! Roman homes are based around an atrium with a set of ancestor busts and statues (imagines) in the hallway. Although Latin is the official language, naming conventions have evolved along with the social system and people now use first name and family name, with cognomen only in formal documentation.
However, there’s a twist in this alternate society… With the collapse of the Roman system and the Great Migrations of peoples across Europe, the new colony of Roma Nova, established in 395 CE, struggled to survive. At first, women ran the families, worked the land and traded while the men defended the colony. But in the end, there weren’t enough fighters so sisters and daughters had to put on armour and wield swords along with their brothers and fathers, thus earning them the famed equality of Roma Nova.
Of course, as with all historical fiction, my characters must act, think and feel like real people. The most credible ones live naturally within their world, i.e. consistently reflecting their unique environment and the prevailing social attitudes. Thus, Roma Novans are tough and ingenious and their language, including slang and cursing, reflects this. Of course, it makes a stronger story if the permissions and constraints of their world conflict with their personal wishes and aims. But that’s what happens in good fiction!
There are five books so far in the Roma Nova thriller series: INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO, AURELIA and the latest, published on 12 April, INSURRECTIO, which tells of the Great Rebellion, a power grab by a charismatic leader of a brutal nationalist movement. I confess, I used my masters’ research on women in Third Reich Germany to parallel the rise of the amoral Caius Tellus in INSURRECTIO which goes to show historical research is never wasted! Whether heroine Aurelia Mitela can stop Caius is another question…
‘The second fall of Rome?’
Aurelia Mitela, ex-Praetorian and imperial councillor in Roma Nova, scoffs at her intelligence chief when he throws a red file on her desk.
But early 1980s Roma Nova, the last province of the Roman Empire that has survived into the twentieth century, has problems – a ruler frightened of governing, a centuries-old bureaucracy creaking for reform and, worst of all, a rising nationalist movement with a charismatic leader who wants to destroy Aurelia.
Horrified when her daughter is brutally attacked in a demonstration turned riot, Aurelia tries to rally resistance to the growing fear and instability. But it may already be too late to save Roma Nova from meltdown and herself from entrapment and destruction by her lifelong enemy.…
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Even before she pulled on her first set of fatigues, Alison Morton was fascinated by the idea of women soldiers. Brought up by a feminist mother and an ex-military father, it never occurred to her that women couldn’t serve their country in the armed forces.
Busy in her day job, Alison joined the Territorial Army in a special communications regiment and left as a captain, having done all sorts of interesting and exciting things no civilian would ever know or see. Or that she can talk about, even now…
But something else fuels her writing… Fascinated by the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain), at their creation by the complex, power and value-driven Roman civilisation she started wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by strong women.
Alison lives in France with her husband and writes Roman-themed thrillers with tough heroines, tends her Roman herb garden and drinks wine.