Empires of Bronze: Son of Ishtar by Gordon Doherty

As a teenager with an increasing interest in historical fiction, I read The Assyrian by Nicholas Guild, and was amazed to discover this civilisation I knew next to nothing about apart from a mention in the Bible. I had the same feeling reading Empires of Bronze: Son of Ishtar, by Gordon Doherty. This is the first of a new series set in the Bronze Age over three thousand years ago. The Hittite Empire was situated in modern day Turkey, and was contemporaneous with the Ancient Egyptians, the Assyrians and Homer’s Greeks. Doherty has brought this civilisation brilliantly to life, with a combination of detailed research, speculation and imagination. The story follows Prince  Mattu, the youngest son of the King, who was considered cursed from birth, as he develops into a skilled warrior. Enemies from within and without threaten the empire, and the Kaskans from the north sack the capital city of Hattusa while the army are away. Prince Mattu joins the Hittite army in its campaign to restore pride and lost territory, and faces challenges from a fierce drill instructor, a distant father, a jealous brother and a ruthless foreign foe. 

The story is gripping and kept me wanting to know what happens next. The characters were interesting enough for me to care what happens to them. Conflict between brothers, as seen in Son of Ishtar, has been written about since time immemorial, whether it is in legend such as Cain and Abel or Romulus and Remus, or real life such as Caracalla and Geta, the Roman Emperors featuring in my Imperial Assassin series, or Liam and Noel Gallagher from Oasis. Sibling rivalry with its flavours of brotherly love coupled with jealousy of each others’ achievements always makes for a fascinating read. But Son of Ishtar is more than a tale about two brothers. It is a tale of an Empire almost lost to is in the mist of times, about the people that inhabited it, their daily life, their struggles, their hopes and fears. 

Great historical fiction should be based in solid research, with educated guesses filling in the gaps, and fantasy and imagination fleshing out the characters and the story. Doherty has achieved this magnificently, with an enthralling and thrilling novel. This is great historical fiction. 


Praetorian: The Great Game by SJA Turney

SJA Turney, writer of the well-loved and extensive Marius’ Mules series, has brought us the first in a new series, with a brand new hero and a new time period. Turney tells us in his author notes that he wanted to write a re-appraisal of an emperor that history has treated unkindly, and he settled on  Commodus, the nemesis of Russell Crowe’s Gladiator. In Turney’s hands, Commodus is a much more sympathetic character, trying hard to follow the class act that was his father, Marcus Aurelius, one of Rome’s greatest ever emperors.

The hero of the tale however is Rufinus, a tough, brave and most importantly loyal young legionary who is promoted to the Praetorian Guard as a reward for an act of bravery. He is quickly earmarked for more clandestine work than simply being the Emperor’s bodyguard, and has to infiltrate a plot against the unsuspecting Commodus. Various dangerous encounters complicate his task, and soon he is in a race against time to save the Emperor’s life.

Praetorian has all the hallmarks of a great Simon Turney novel, excellent research, great story-telling bringing the period to life, a fast pace and an interesting new hero to root for. Great read.

Blood Crows by Simon Scarrow

Blood Crows by Simon Scarrow This latest outing for Macro and Cato sees our two heroes return to Britannia. Hoping for honest soldiering, away from the skullduggery and politics or Rome, the veteran soldiers are sent to a unit in the territory of the Silures in Wales, where Caratacus still holds out against the invading Roman army. Here they face enemies from without and within, as Cato has to wrest command from the twisted Quertus while facing down Caratacus’ army. Fans of Scarrow will love this latest outing, but the subject matter is grim, and the tone feels darker than previous books. The historical note makes interesting comparisons between Claudius’ invasion of Britain and his rapid declaration of victory, and the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq and the rather premature “mission accomplished” announcement. Although reaching a satisfying conclusion, the book feels like the first part of a series, with at least a sequel being necessary to tie up the loose ends. For us Scarrow fans, I’m sure it will be worth the wait.

I, Claudia by Marilyn Todd

I, Claudia By Marilyn Todd I came across this series after joining the Roman history reading group on Facebook (well worth joining if you are interested in Roman fiction, as I presume you are if you are on this site!). Marilyn Todd wrote this series back in the mid 90s, but the rise of the Kindle and e-book has given the series a new lease of life, and is now available on Amazon to download. I, Claudia is the first of a series following the eponymous heroine, Claudia Seferius through her adventures in Augustine Rome. Claudia is a fake, a liar, a swindler and a hopeless gambler, as well as intelligent, streetwise and sexy as hell. In this first book, Claudia, married to the wealthy Gaius, has to disguise from her husband the extent of her gambling debts, and her ruse to repay them by offering services as a dominatrix to the great and good of Roman society. When her clients start to die one by one, she attracts the attention of the authorities, and in particular Orbilius the investigator. Orbilius wants to solve the crime, which he knows Claudia is implicated in, but he can’t help falling for her too. I, Claudia is a funny, sizzling hot mystery, and Claudia is a great character. There is something of the Lindsay Davies/Falco about the book, with a similar setting, idea and sense of humour, but I, Claudia is dirtier and darker. I would recommend, and will be reading more.

Interview with Marilyn Todd

I recently discovered Marilyn Todd, author of the Claudia Seferius mystery series, on the Facebook Roman history readers group and read the first book, I, Claudia, in a very short space of time on holiday this summer. I, Claudia was published in the 90s in mainstream, but the series has been re-released with the help of the internet, and is well worth discovering. Marilyn agreed to an email interview with me, and so herewith, the full email she has just sent me.

Morning, Alex!

Bet you thought I’d forgotten about you. No such luck!!

First off, I want to say thank you the interview, and congratulations on the success of “Watchmen”, it’s very well deserved. I know exactly what you mean about time being too short, and strangely, writing gets harder, not easier, as it passes, where’s the justice in THAT??? Anyway, back to your list………!

The obvious question for anyone reading your Claudia Seferius books, is how much of Claudia do you see in yourself? How much of her is based on who you are or who you would like to be?

Claudia is devious, manipulative, a cheat and a liar — and those are just her good points. Remember, this is the girl who says “there’s no point in having double standards, if you don’t live up to both. I may have my faults, but being wrong isn’t one of them. And the best way to make a small fortune is to start with a large one”. Now I ask you, Alex. Does that sound like me….?

Having said that, Claudia and I do share a love of red wine. (Not for nothing did I put her in the wine trade). We both have a strong sense of justice, neither of us are pushovers, and we both like to travel. Again, no coincidence that the series is set amid some of the most beautiful sceney in Europe, and that, being thrillers, invariably climax in spectacular locations.

“Man Eater” ends at the unbelievably dramatic Marmora Falls in Umbria, which crash more than 500’ straight down and which were, wouldn’t you know it, created by the Romans when they diverted the river. In “Black Salamander”, retribution takes place within the largest ice cave in Europe. While much of the action in “Dark Horse” is in the Plitvice region of Croatia, where something like sixteen waterfalls tumble down the valley in a five kilometre long series of cascades, inspiring me to call it The Land of a Thousand Waterfalls in the book. Although in fairness, I may have been out by a couple.

And of course, is Orbilio your ideal man?

Orbilio is Claudia’s ideal man, I created him specifically for her, but he does share many of the traits I like and admire in a man. He’s honourable, honest, pragmatic, tough and unflappable. And of course as a couple, they are very, very funny.

How do you feel that Claudia has her own Wikipedia page and you don’t? Is it a strange feeling for the character you have created to find her way out into cyberspace on her own?

Until you mentioned it, I didn’t even know Claudia had her own page. I looked it up, and frankly, I’m impressed. It’s very well put together, but again, that’s absolutely typical of Claudia. “Too much of a good thing is wonderful”, she’d say. And naturally she’d have someone set it up for her. But me? Think I’ll stick to the website!!

Your books evoke the period well. Do you have a background in history, or like many historical fiction authors, have you done the research as an “amateur?”

Thank you. My passion lies in Greek myths and legends, which spill over into Rome of course, but I’m certainly no historian, nor would I want to be. I’m a storyteller pure and simple, spinning tales across all time periods and genres, from crime to comic fantasy and all points in between. When I was asked to write the Cleopatra ‘exclusive’ for the Mammoth Book of Egyptian Whodunnits, I knew absolutely nothing about the woman, apart from “take your hand off my asp,” which probably doesn’t count. Even less about the life of Charles Dickens, when I was invited to contribute to the Dickensian collection, in which every story had to feature the man personally. And ”The Wickedest Town in the West” was set in Jerome, Arizona, during the gold rush. This won me an Ellery Queen Readers Award, of which I am very, very, very, very proud, the point being that all these needed to be thoroughly researched in order to bring the stories to life. Readers need to live the experience. Be part of it.

Orbilio works for the Security Police. Is this organisation based on a real historical group such as the Triumviri Nocturni, or the vigiles who were formed a little after your novel is set, or are they a fictional device to help with the plot?

Informants and spies were everywhere in Rome, and given the vast number of plots to assassinate, overthrow, rebel and reform, it stands to reason that someone would be charged with co-ordinating the intelligence. If the Spartans had the Krypteia, I thought…why not Rome? I call them the Security Police for the simple reason that I want to make my books easy to follow for readers who know nothing about Rome, but want a bloody good thriller with a bit of humour thrown in. Or to put it another way, I don’t want anything slowing them down!

The Claudia Seferius series is a new find for me, though it was written some time ago. Have you found that the likes of Amazon, e-books and the internet has brought new life to your older books?

Gosh, yes! The big difference was cracking the American market. US publishers didn’t believe that level of irony was suited to historical crime, indeed, dare I say it, many of them didn’t even realize it was funny. Luckily, Jay Hartman at Untreed Reads saw things differently, and now the series is really starting to take off. But the biggest bonus, at least for me, is the chance to interact with my readers. It’s brilliant. I love it.

How do you see the publishing world changing in the near future, and do you think you will stick with mainstream publishing, embrace independence and e-books, or some combination?

For me, it’s 100% mainstream publishing. I have a very successful career in the short story market, tons of projects in the pipeline, and an absolutely amazing agent. As for the industry as a whole, I suspect Indie publishing will slow down as it runs out of steam, but when it comes to predicting the future, I reckon we’ll have 3D printer babies before I know the answer to that.

What next for Claudia and for Marilyn?

I have a couple of short stories lined up for Claudia, as well as the outline for a 14th novel, “Whip Lash”. Several other short stories are also in the pipeline, including “Who Pays the Piper”, which is my take on the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and which will be published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine shortly. Meanwhile, a totally new departure for me – male protagonist, no humour, yikes! — is currently with my agent, in readiness to be touted around. An American publisher is putting out a collection of my short stories later this year, and if that’s not enough to keep me quiet, I’m putting the final touches to a contemporary novel which has absolutely no crime whatsoever, while putting together ideas for a new historical crime series.

Again, Alex, thank you for inviting me to contribute. (For some reason I can’t get the wretched margin to go back from indent!!) Look forward to reading your sequel,

With very best wishes,


How to manage your slaves by Marcus Sidonius Falx

How to Manage Your Slaves by Marcus Sidonius Falx, with Jerry Toner
Marcus Sidonius Falx is your typical Roman aristocrat, rich, arrogant and with dozens of slaves in his possession. In this essential guide, we are taught the basics of slave-owning, as well as what not to do. Learn how to acquire a decent slave from the market, and watch out for those tell-tale signs that may suggest ill health, or a tendency to run away or attempt suicide. Learn how to grow your slave household with homebreeding. Discover the best ways to incentivise the slave, using the carrot (money, sex, freedom) or the stick (well, the whip). There is advice too on how not to be seen by society as a bad or cruel owner, nor to fall foul of the laws, loose as they are, that protect slaves. Although Falx draws from his own experience as a slave owner, he also references extensively such authorities as Pliny the Younger, Cato the Elder and Columella. Jerry Toner adds learned commentary after each chapter, putting the Ancient Roman Falx’s writing into a modern context. How to Manage Your Slaves is an entertaining read, sometimes funny, often sad, always thought-provoking. It is easy to imagine from these pages the awful lot that was the life of most (though not all) Roman slaves.

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.”

Carbo the Thief and Other Tales of Ancient Rome

Carbo and the Thief

Carbo the Thief and Other Tales of Ancient Rome is now available here

Six short stories for 75p, or $1.30 on Amazon.com. The first two stories, Carbo and the Thief, and Carbo and the Gladiator, relate adventures Carbo had when he left the legions, on his journey back to Rome. Two further tales expand the backstories of Vespillo, Carbo’s stalwart friend, and Elissa, the evil priestess of Ba’al and Tanit. The Battlefield tells the story of a young boy’s first encounter with the ugly truth of war, and the Wall describes the life of a new recruit on Hadrian’s Wall. I hope you enjoy, feedback always welcome. Now back to working on the sequel to Watchmen of Rome, working title Bandits of Rome.


So Watchmen of Rome has been number one in the amazon.co.uk Ancient history charts for nearly two weeks now! Thanks everyone for buying. Please leave a review if you feel motivated to.
In other news, I have 10,000 words of the sequel written now, starting to get into the meat of the story. A few people have asked when the next one is coming out. I’m on it! Hopefully will get Bandits of Rome out this year. I also have the sequel plotted and 15,000 words of it written, so Furies of Rome might not be too far behind.
in the meantime, Carbo and the Thief, and Other Tales of Ancient Rome, a collection of 6 Roman short stories, four of them from Carbo’s world, will be hitting Amazon soon at a bargain price. Watch this space!

Watchmen of Rome – Sources

Sources for Watchmen of Rome

In addition to numerous websites, the Journal of Roman Studies and a big dollop of inspiration from a wide range of Roman historical fiction authors, below is a list of some of the sources I consulted while researching and writing Watchmen of Rome.

Adkins, L. & Adkins, R. A., (1994) Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome
Alcock. J. P., (2001) Food in Roman Britain
Alcock, J. P., (2010) Life in Ancient Rome
Baillie Reynolds, P. K., (1926) The Vigiles of Imperial Rome
Bowden, H., (2010) Mystery Cults in the Ancient World
Bradley, K. R., (1984) Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire
Butterworth, A. & Laurence, R. (2005) Pompeii, the Living City
Coulston, J., & Dodge, H., (2000) Ancient Rome: The Archaeology of the Eternal City
Crompton, D., (2010) A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Cumont, F., (1912) Astrology and Religion Among the Greeks and Romans
de la Bedoyere, G., (2000) Voices of Imperial Rome
Guhl, E. & Koner, W.. (1994) The Romans: Their Life and Customs
Grubbs, J. E., (2002) Women and the Law in the Roman Empire
Harries, J. (2007) Law and Crime in the Roman World
Kiefer, O., (1934) Sexual Life in Ancient Rome
Knapp, R., (2011) Invisible Romans
Joshel, S. R., (2010) Slavery in the Roman World
Laurence, R., (2008) Traveller’s Guide to the Ancient World
Laurence, R., (2009) Roman Passions
Lefkowritz, M. R. & Fant, M. B., (2005) Women’s life in Greece and Rome
Leon, V., (2007) Orgy Planner Wanted
Lindsay, J., (1961) Ribaldry of Rome
Liversidge, J., (1976) Everyday Life in the Roman Empire
Matyszak, P., (2009) Classical Compendium
McKeown, J. C., (2010) A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities
Nippel, W., (1995) Public Order in Ancient Rome
Orlin, E. M., (2010) Foreign Cults in Rome
Pomeroy, S. B., (1975) Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves
Scarre, C., (1995) The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome
Toner, J., (2009) Popular Culture in Ancient Rome
Veyne, P., (1987) A History of Private Life From Pagan Rome to Byzantium