Accuracy in historical fiction

Does it matter that Commodus was killed in the bath rather than in the arena, the story told in Gladiator (sorry for spoilers, but the film is rather old now)? Does it matter that according to Tacitus, Nero wasn’t in Rome while it burned, contrary to Peter Ustinov’s portrayal in Quo Vadis? Does it matter if Brutus was more likely to be Caesar’s illegitimate son than his childhood companion, as told in Conn Iggulden’s Emperor:Gates of Rome (or indeed that Caesar, the subject of the Emperor series of books, was never Emperor)? Maybe it doesn’t. I chose the above three examples because they are all great pieces of fiction that I love. Gladiator is probably the best film about Ancient Rome that I have seen, Quo Vadis was a great piece of cinema for its era, and Conn Iggulden seems never to put a foot wrong when it comes to fine, keep-the-page turning action packed blockbusters. I know little about the Mongols or the War of the Roses, but have read all of Iggulden’s books on the series, and thoroughly enjoyed them (when is the sequel to Stormbringer coming Conn? Write faster!). And yet, I haven’t read the whole series of Emperor. I read the first book and loved it, but when I realised the big rewrite of history, I stopped. I still want to read the rest of the series, and I’m sure I will enjoy them because I love the writing and I love the period. But I also read historical novels to be informed about a period. I feel there is an unspoken compact between author and reader to tell the truth about a period, and when that compact is broken, it takes you out of the moment, and spoils your ability to suspend disbelief.
I read some fantasy books. Not as many as I used to, but I am currently on book eight out of ten of the enormous Malazan Book of the Fallen Series by Steven Erikson. Dragons, Crippled Gods, magic swords, ghosts. I can suspend my disbelief and enter this realm, because it is internally consistent, and is not trying to tell me that this is what really happened (at least not on earth. In the multiverse, who knows?). But in writing historical fiction, the author is writing about a place and time that is known and is real. And when the story contradicts the known facts, that can upset the readers. I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m not even saying I’m right about this. As a writer, I know why authors do it. They feel that the story, the entertainment, comes first. After all, this is fiction, right? If the story works better, because the hero uses a type of helmet that wasn’t invented for another hundred years, that’s worth it isn’t it?
The sales figures would seem to agree. In Hollywood, historical accuracy has always seemed to come a poor second to a storming plot, and yet it doesn’t stop films like U-521 becoming a blockbuster (it was the British not the Americans that captured the Enigma machine dammit!). Or Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (you land at the White Cliffs of Dover, and in a day you have walked to Nottingham via Hadrian’s Wall?) And Conn Iggulden is one of the most exciting and bestselling authors of Ancient Roman fiction out there.
So, maybe most people would rather the story and characters worked, than every historical fact was accurate. But can’t we be greedy? Can’t we have both? Okay, so it might need a little work to make your plot fit the known facts. But isn’t it worth it, to keep everyone happy, both the crowd that don’t know their Catullus from their Cato, and the know-it-alls who will point out that *that* style of pottery wasn’t prevalent in that region for at least another 150 years?
Mistakes will happen. Some fiction authors, like Harry Sidebottom, are authorities on the era they are writing about. Most, like me, are enthusiastic amateurs, and despite their best intentions, errors may find their way in. Furthermore, historical fiction authors can and should flesh out the known facts with conjecture to make the period come alive. That’s the great advantage historical fiction has over historical non-fiction.
There may also be more than one interpretation of the historical record, and I am fine with simply picking your favourite. What I am arguing against is the deliberate alteration of facts to fit the story. To alter the facts for effect risks the sort of scene that happened when I went to see the recent film Pompeii (I had mistakenly thought it was based on the excellent Robert Harris novel). There were only five of us in the cinema, two friends that I had dragged along, myself and two other elderly gentleman, who were sitting in different parts of the cinema. One of my friends decided to have some fun and addressed the other cinema goers: “My friend here is an author of Roman fiction, are you?” Both the others nodded that they were in fact Roman authors. Hmm, not such an elite breed, then. The film was a strange affair, with pieces pinched from Gladiator and some rather odd decision-making by the heroine. But what made it for me was when the film ended, and one of the gentleman in the audience proclaimed, “Well that was a load of bollocks. There were no pyroclastic flows at Pompeii. They should have called it Herculaneum!”
So, here is a stick to beat me with in the future. In Watchmen of Rome, no doubt I have made mistakes in the historical facts. Some may be lack of research on my part, some may be because these things are simply unknown by anyone. But what I will pledge is that in Watchmen, and all my future historical fiction, I have and will stick to the facts as I understand them. Of course, I reserve the right to completely change my position on this. Especially if a producer from Hollywood calls me, cheque book in hand, with the words, “Al, I love what you have done there. But our focus groups say the whole thing would play much better with the audiences if Sejanus was a lesbian.”