Travel can be about place, but it can also be about time, and in this interview, I talk to Alison Morton about how the ancient Roman empire continues to inspire her alternate-history Roma Nova thrillers.
Alison Morton is the author of the Roma Nova series, Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with tough heroines.
- The early genesis of an idea for books about an alternative history based on Ancient Rome
- How the past and the present are connected by landscape
- Places that have inspired aspects of the Roma Nova books
- Bringing Alison’s personal military experience into fiction
- Language and how it can impact appreciation of a place and culture
- Recommended books about ancient Rome and some alt-history novels
You can find Alison Morton at Alison-Morton.com.
Transcript of the interview
Joanna: Alison Morton is the author of the Roma Nova series, Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with tough heroines. Welcome to the show, Alison.
Alison: Thanks very much, Joanna. It’s an absolute pleasure to be here.
Joanna: It’s great to talk to you about this because I know you’re such an expert on this.
What drives your fascination with ancient Rome?
Alison: How long have you got? It’s a lifelong fascination if you like. It started when I was 11. And I don’t know whether they still do it now but after each holiday, first thing back at school in September you had to do, ‘My holiday project.’
Although then photography wasn’t up to it, you had to do drawing. So I was drawing this mosaic. There’s this huge Greco-Roman port, Ampurias, which is northeast Spain. I was traveling, you see? And I was drawing all the pretty patterns of the mosaics and all that.
I asked my father, ‘Who are the people that lived here?’ We touched on Romans at school but touched. And he was a real Roman nut, and he told me all about the sailors and the senators and the slaves and the colonizers and all the rest.
I said to him, ‘What did the mummies do?’ My mother was a head of geography department; women worked. And he said, ‘Well, they stayed at home and looked after the children.’
So I went on drawing, and I turned around to him and said, ‘Well, what would it have been like if the mummies and the ladies had run Rome instead of the men?’
It was a good one. And he looked at me, now he’s clever. And he said, ‘Well, what do you think it would have been like?’ And that sort of went into the back of my brain at 11.
Joanna: Wow. So wait. At what age did you write the first of the Roma Novans?
Alison: Oh, many, many decades later.
Joanna: Seriously? Did you pursue that as you went through school and later?
Alison: Seriously. I’ve clambered over most of Roman Europe. We know they had a slave society like all the ancient societies. They were arch colonizers, they were exploiters. They were superstitious, but I’m going to end up like Monty Python now.
They gave us systems and organizations and roads and admin and you can’t but admire somebody that’s that organized, that cultural, that literary, that technological.
The more I found out about them, as I went through the decades and started reading sources, Pliny and Tacitus and all that, I came to admire them even more.
Yes, you have to take the fact that they would not have been entirely pleasant to have lived under unless you were white. Well, not so much white because they were very multi-ethnic. Unless you were a male of a senior family and then you were probably okay.
But because of their complexity, I was totally fascinated. You didn’t get that again until the Victorian periods. You didn’t get literacy and prosperity at the same level or city with a million people until the Victorians. How can you not be fascinated?
Joanna: No. I certainly did Latin GCSE and then I did classical civilization at A-Level, so and like you, traveled a lot. But what is interesting is, we know quite a lot about ancient Rome in there is a lot of evidence everywhere. But how do you use what we know of ancient Rome to write modern alternate history, which is what you’re writing?
What are some of the places or situations that have inspired you?
Alison: When you say we know a lot of stuff, but we know patchy bits. We know intensively about some things, and then there are great big gaps. And of course, it’s only coming from a certain number of people. But we do know enough.
The Romans left loads of stuff behind. So, we can get an insight into their minds to a certain extent. And I think the key is to look at their values, their attitudes, their motivations, and what landscapes they saw.
The thing is to use those things and the things that we know, things, ideas like the Praetorian Guard.
Everybody’s got a vague idea in their head because they’ve watched too many films or too much ‘I, Claudius.’ Things like the importance of tribes and families, their idea of personal unions, marriages for family reasons or property, their robust attitude, all that and their service to the state idea, of course, and their corruption.
But in Roma Nova we still have forums, we don’t have Roman Baths as such. We have gyms with spas, which is what everybody sort of generally expects in most towns. They still have the idea of curse tablets, they have public buildings, houses have an atrium and a tablinum vestibule, and that’s where my characters live.
So you bring these elements forward, but then you have modern ideas. Say a law enforcement person is going to be dressed in blue and have a car with a flashing streetlight, even though in Roma Nova obviously, he’ll be speaking in Latin which sounds weird.
Their currency is solidi as it was in the 4th Century when Roma Nova started, but they’ll have internet banking, electronic transfer, and cards. There will be international shops, but there’ll also be local shops selling stuff like semien, which is an ancient form of very high-status pottery, but it will be made in a modern way.
So you mix and you could have anchors that people understand, like bars and restaurants and stuff, but also bring in that Roman flavor, but particularly in the mental attitudes.
They’re tough. If they get threatened, they respond as Romans did. They have the same kind of technological and the engineering skill that their ancestors had. So they’re right at the forefront of the digital revolution.
All those kinds of characteristics I’ve brought forward into Roma Nova, yet with a modern touch. So it’s good fun.
Joanna: You mentioning restaurants there, we went to Herculaneum a couple of years ago now, and I was really struck by this area where they have all the restaurants where people would have gone off to work, to have a drink, to get some street food, to hang out.
It was so modern, as you say, that’s what we do now. It’s what people do all over the world. Herculaneum is obviously a buried city.
What are some of the specific places that you’ve traveled to that have inspired your story arcs?
Alison: There’s two or three things I was thinking about that. I suppose unless you’ve sat in arena somewhere like Nîmes, you don’t appreciate how big a crowd will be. So those kinds of things.
One thing particularly inspired me was this little tiny place in the south of France called Ambrussum, and which was a very important crossing point. And it’s where the Via Domitia split. One bit, went to Spain, one bit went to Italy and the third bit went north up through Gaul.
And you stand there, it was, unlike in Britain, when I say Roman road, it is almost complete, it’s everything. The whole thing’s there including wheel ruts, and they used these roads for centuries afterward.
But if you just stand there and think and breathe, people who traveled that road 2,000 years ago saw the same view across the valley. They didn’t see the A6 or the TGV, admittedly, but that’s what they saw.
And the other thing, I went to Caerleon back in the UK, and I was going to a conference and I went a day early. And I just sort of stood there and in the ruins of the barracks, there are huge barracks which looked after all a lot of West Wales and so on.
Those soldiers there would have seen the same sky, and again, the same landscape, and you just stand there, close your eyes and you can almost not quite feel people because that would be a bit spooky, but you can appreciate what they’re seeing and perhaps what they might feeling when there is a cold wind and a bit of drizzle falling on you.
I’m inspired by Roman concrete to be honest. I’m the saddo that feels stuff and starts looking at how much gravel there is in the concrete!
Joanna: As you’ve said, part of what made an empire was systems and engineering, and the culture and the thought might be one thing, but that’s not what conquers worlds.
You mentioned there Nimes, you mentioned southern France, you’ve mentioned Wales. For people listening, say you’re in the U.S., like many people when they think, when you’ve said Roma Nova and so people think Coliseum, they think Rome, they think Italy. So just give us a sense.
How wide was the Empire at the biggest point?
Alison: Oh, huge. Well, you went from Portugal, if you like. That was a bit of the wild, not quite as wild as Britannia mind you. And it goes into Turkey, Syria, Egypt, most of north of Africa, Morocco, Tunisia and coming back into Europe.
They did actually have quite a line of forts into Germania. In the end, they had to come back to the Rhine and the Danube but they did go forward that far. There was no other place in the ancient world.
Rome did rule the ancient world, the whole thing, West and East. So it’s a very difficult concept. I suppose the next nearest thing would be one of the 19th Century Empires, France or Britain, just how massive it was and how important it was. You really were a barbarian if you were outside.
Joanna: And of course, one of the other places modern-day Israel as such and…
Alison: Oh, totally.
Joanna: Roman religion before Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, it was quite different.
You’ve mentioned curse tablets and of course, I live in Bath in the UK where we have the Roman baths and we have curse tablets just down the road from where I am standing right now.
Any places that particularly have sparked the religious or faith aspect of the books?
Alison: It’s a very funny thing because if you like the Roman, as you say, Roman traditional religion, we think of all the gods, Jupiter and Minerva and all the rest of them and Juno, and they are found all over the Roman empire. In fact, emperors became gods in a way.
But Christianity came in. And although we know a lot about, or we understand a lot about the Romans persecuting early Christians, it turned the other way by the end of the 4th Century. It was a capital offense to be anything else but a Christian.
So, my Roma Nova because of that, because they were true to the traditional gods, trekked north and founded their own little part of the Roman colony up in the mountains. So, the Roma Novan’s faith came from traditional Roman thoughts and observance.
But of course, in the 20th and 21st Century, it’s a bit like anybody else with a religion that’s established. Some believe, some are indifferent, some are just plain cynical. So I think a lot of people will connect with those different points of view, but they see the festivals as a framework to their life. They’re important.
It’s like we all think Christmas and Easter and the rest of it, they will see things like Saturnalia as very important and all the other various festivals. So they observe that as a framework to their values and social ideas if you like.
And it’s very useful because two things, you can tack on something like the wildness of Floralia, which did get a bit wild because all the spirits and a lot of booze on the street, and I put a young daughter of one of the heroines in danger and it’s great because you’ve got that backdrop.
So you bring in the thriller and the danger side, plus also you are bringing the Roman side. And another character is exiled, which is, as you probably know, you’ve done Latin studies, that is a fate almost worse than death to be exiled from Rome. And she’s missing Saturnalia, which she spent every single year with her family.
So you can bring all that in. How much anybody believes is up to the personal character I think.
The other fantastic thing about having lots and lots of Roman gods, they can swear by them, and I don’t run foul of any current religious names that may offend readers. We can swear by Jupiter and all that without having to get into anything blasphemous.
Joanna: I was just trying to think of some of the ancient Roman religious sites that still are inspirational. None are springing to mind.
Alison: What about Nimes? The Maison Carree down in Nimes?
Joanna: I haven’t been there. Tell us a bit more about that.
Alison: You must go. It is intact. It is absolutely intact. And it’s magnificent. You are like a little ant on the steps leading up to the temple.
I think if you go to Nimes, it’s the famous one, it’s in all the pictures. But go in and just have a little quiet moment if you can find a quiet moment, and you realize just how much effort and how much symbolism it had.
The other thing is there is, everybody’s heard of the Pont du Gard, but there are springs and rivers and they are very important to Romans, especially Gallo-Romans because the local people were very aware of the rhythms of nature.
But Nimes does give you a sense, a spiritual sense, I would say.
Joanna: Again in Bath, it’s the natural spring that became the center of Bath and a lot of people worshipping Minerva here but originally Aquae Sulis and other things.
I find that side really interesting in terms of certainly here, and the places that were holy, again, it’s like you say, looking back into the past and future we’ve got in Bath, the Roman baths next to Bath Abbey which is of medieval origin.
People still worship in the same places.
Alison: I think so, yes. A lot of the Christian churches were built over pagan sites. Very much so.
I will say something, when I was last in Bath, I looked at the baths and all the rest of it, and then there’s a big pool, like a frigidarium. And I must admit, I did feel impelled to throw an offering in.
I did throw money into it, and sat, stood there and just had a little think. I don’t think it was as heavy as a prayer, but it definitely has an effect on you. You feel a connection.
Joanna: I think so. And I’ve talked about this on this podcast before, the feeling that when a lot of human emotion becomes imbued in the same place, it does leave some kind of impression on the landscape.
I don’t mean ghosts, I mean just some kind of emotional resonance.
In Herculaneum, I found that incredibly moving because those people died so fast and just so many of them, totally covered in lava.
Alison: Yeah. It wasn’t always quick but there they were. You knew you were dying, you knew you would not survive. And what on earth went through those people’s heads? They must have prayed to the gods to protect them.
Joanna: Vulcan? Do we pray to Vulcan?
Alison: Anybody basically, and they didn’t come through.
Joanna: It’s crazy.
Alison: But it was seen perhaps as retribution. We have completely different ideas. When a volcano goes up, we just think, ‘Oh, dear, we must go and rescue people,’ and it was really sad those people a few weeks ago in New Zealand didn’t get off the island, and we feel as fellow human beings. But I don’t think we think that was God’s revenge.
Joanna: Well, it’s interesting though, because the land and the Maori heritage side, there are some spiritual sides to the volcano. But again, it brings it back to you how you can write alternate history.
There’s not that much separating us from ancient Romans.
Alison: No. People are still people. I do try and stick as loyal to history. If you want to go completely bonkers, you could write silly stuff, but I try to stick to the historical and make it plausible if you like.
People don’t change. People are just as scared. A bit more modern attitude if you like, but they still worry about the same things and they fear the same things.
Joanna: Which is why, I guess, we still like the same stories at the end of the day.
You’ve mentioned the military. Of course, you have experience with the armed forces.
Tell us a bit more about that and also a bit more about women in the armed forces and how this has shaped your books and your travels.
Alison: I’ve always been fascinated by the role of women in the armed force. I did my Masters dissertation on that so I sort of really got heavily into it.
I served in the mixed unit, let’s just say in a special communications role, and that was fun. And gender didn’t really count. Obviously, there are physical differences between us, but really, you were there to carry out the task you were there to carry out.
I’ve crawled over many training grounds and taken part in NATO exercises. In fact, I met my husband when I was on exercise in Cyprus.
Rome was a very military society, and Roma Novas in my books have always had to use every single resource to survive throughout the century. So their young women, as well as their young men, had to take up arms to defend their rather small country.
I can bring direct military experience into the books. Not just the technical side but the things like the camaraderie and the hard training, their dependence on each other.
You really do have to depend on each other. Things like structures and permissions and little ways of doing things. There’s no research necessary there. And as we know, it’s the small details that make things plausible and credible and resonate with people.
I’ve chuted on a north German plane very near the East German border.
Joanna: You mentioned Cyprus there. I feel like Cyprus is one of these places people don’t quite understand how complicated that is geographically.
Can you explain about Cyprus?
Alison: It’s a very ancient civilization but I think it was the ’70s wasn’t it? They’re always, always having political crises there.
The UK has two, three sovereign bases there, which, if you like, not quite a bit of Britain but as if they were. But between the Greek community and the Turkish community, things got to such a state that Turkey invaded in, and took over the northern part, and it’s been a pariah state ever since.
If you go to Nicosia, you can still, it was very sudden. If you go to Nicosia, which was divided, you still see 1970s cars in the old showrooms covered in dust. And there was an aeroplane, a European Airways plane got caught and sat on the runway for years and years and years. I think they’ve taken it away now.
But as a southern Cyprus, as the proper Cyprus, if you like, or the one that’s accepted, is a member of the EU, and Northern Cyprus is still very much part of the Turkish influence and a lot of countries still don’t have diplomatic relations with it and they said they won’t until the Turkish troops leave. So it’s very awkward.
Joanna: It is, and it’s fascinating because it’s such a tiny place, and it brings up with what you’re saying about, well if we think about the Roman Empire kind of moving into these other areas, and the borders and the struggles that that happened pretty much all the time. They were either pushing out to new places or being attacked.
Alison: That’s right.
Joanna: It seems to me that Cyprus would be one of the places in the world, a very small place, where you can go and you’ve got these different cultures still divided over a very small border.
Alison: The Romans just went in and sorted it out. Britain was made up of tribes who often fought each other, and so you’ve got the local thing and different cultures, although they may have but all been from Celtic backgrounds, they used to beat each other up and pinch horses and generally raid each other.
The Romans just walked in and said, either you accept Roman rule and behave yourselves or we will come and punish you. So they were much more of an overstretching organization if you like, that didn’t stand any truck with rebels at all. What they would have done, well I know what they’ve done in Cyprus. That easy.
Joanna: Yes, just sort it out. Exactly. Which is quite interesting. The American shock-and-awe tactics might have been on a par.
Alison: Although now they don’t like doing that in case they get involved and there are body bags. Rome wasn’t quite so squeamish.
Joanna: Yes, they didn’t have social media, so things are quite different now.
I wanted to ask, you speak several languages and you live in France.
When you travel, what difference does language make to your understanding of places?
Alison: Oh much, a great deal. Because when you study a language, you study the systems, the literature, the politics, stuff that goes on films, music, whatever. And language particularly is a window into the culture.
France has never been a strange place to me. I started learning French at age seven as a kid, and I can go through France without a map. I can’t do that in England. The middle bit of the UK is all a bit of a mystery to me. I have to use the GPS or a map.
But I see it a lot when new people come over here to France, and they haven’t got a clue how to deal with the French administration which operates still on Napoleonic lines. And you say, yeah, ‘Well, you have to do this, this, this and this.’ ‘But do you need all that?’
I say, ‘Yeah. You go to an interview with a civil servant about your residence permit or whatever, you take everything, and then you take some more. They’ll only asked for a 10th of it but you’ve just got to show that you’ve made an effort.’
Now, in England, it’s completely different. But if you don’t get the language and the mentality, we’re back into people’s heads again.
If you don’t get the language and the mentality, you lose out so much. You don’t understand why things happen.
Cultural diversity is one of my favorite topics really. And if you can understand how things work in, say in France, it’s very centralist, and it comes down from the top, and everything goes back to the revolution, all systems, and organization.
If you can understand that, you’re halfway there, and you will make better friendships, you’ll get on better. You will know more.
With Germany, it’s a completely different way of going. Germany’s got a federal mindset and a federal way of doing things, and the whole language reflects how people think.
When I’m speaking French, my friends and my husband say, ‘You change personality.’
Joanna: In what way?
Alison: I start using different gestures. I use different tones in my voice, it’s much more polarized. I use more down and more up tones, and I can hear myself because you’re not translating, you’re just saying something in a different language.
It’s a difference between translating each word, trying to work out what stuff is, and just expressing a thought or asking for something or taking part in a discussion. I’m not conscious of it but I’ve been told about it, and I start looking for it now.
Joanna: Does that shape how you write with Latin, because, of course, Latin is technically a dead language. There are aspects of Latin in lots of other languages.
Do you take that understanding of the culture or how does using Latin make a difference?
Alison: Latin is succinct and direct, yet it can be very subtle. It depends which sort of Latin you’re looking at if you like.
It did shape because of the, how can you say, not the hardness of Latin but the positive, there’s nothing hidden. Every letter and every syllable and every consonant is pronounced. There’s nothing hidden there.
That does give you a directness and a succinctness. I don’t think I consciously used it. I tend to write in that kind of style anyway.
Now you’re making me think, Joanna, you’re making me think here. This is not good, not in the afternoon! So I think the whole directness helps. That’s probably the one thing I can put my finger on.
Joanna: I feel like Mary Beard has brought in a renaissance in interest in Rome and Roman history and also women, and I like watching her when she translates slang and swear words. That’s, again, another sense that they were the same as us. Do you incorporate that?
Alison: Oh, no.
Joanna: Do you think about that in a kind of much broader way?
Alison: You have to. I don’t know whether in your Latin studies you came across the poet Catullus.
Joanna: Yes. I think we got to read some rude stuff at one point!
Allison: We did the lyrical stuff and sparrow and all that stuff. But then our Latin teacher says, ‘We aren’t going to the next bit because that’s unsuitable for you girls.’ Well, of course, what did we do?
Joanna: That was probably extra homework. They were like, we know how to make you translate this.
Alison: We all sat around the 6th Form block with dictionaries, ‘What the hell? Oh my God. Is that possible?’ I think it was part of our let’s call it a sentimental education.
So yes, again, here we are and direct and be incredibly rude. I write a lot of military people and they are Romans, they will they won’t say drat when they drop something or something happens.
Hence we’re back to using the Roman gods’ names because if I wrote it in English, it will be unprintable.
The Romans could be incredibly lyrical and incredibly obscene, so you have to reflect that all the way through. And usually, when I start drafting, I will have read a bit of probably in translation, I have to admit now, some stuff just to get me into the zone, into the mindset.
Joanna: Fantastic. I am going to ask about some other books, but just tell us, if people who are going to start with Roma Nova, do they start with book one?
Tell us about that or anything else you want to mention about Roma Nova.
Alison: What I’ve done now as the series has developed is split it into two strands if you like.
So you’ve got two main heroines, Carina and Aurelia. Carina was brought up in New York, which is great because she is the outsider that comes in. Her mother was Roma Novan. And as descent goes through the female line, she’s obviously a Roman Novan.
And then the reader finds out about Roma Nova as Carina does, so that that’s quite useful. So that’s a good starting point.
Then there’s a novella and two other full-length books which are like snapshots into her life for the next 16, 17 years.
The other strand, Aurelia, starts in the late ’60s and goes through to the early ’80s, and Aurelia was in fact, Carina’s grandmother, but I’ve written these stories of her younger life.
She’s a Roma Novan, what they call a ‘blood and bone’ Roma Novan, born there, and she does different stuff and she has a different outlook. So, we’ve got two separate strands, but I wrote each book as a standalone anyway. I hate cliffhangers. I really hate cliffhangers.
Joanna: Me too.
Alison: I never write cliffhangers because it’s horrible. But obviously, if you read either each of the four or all eight, they connect.
And then I’ve done a book of short stories, which are smaller stories but enhanced, if you like, but little things I wanted to write.
Joanna: Apart from your books, what books would you recommend about ancient Rome or even modern books that also resonate with your alternate history?
Alison: You mentioned Mary Beard, and of course, her recent one, Pompeii, was great. I’d read that before I went to Pompeii, which was really useful.
Her SPQR is the one that has been her bestseller I think now. That was really, really good because she gets into normal life. She talks about bakers and slaves and traders and the people rather than the emperors and the generals.
She gives you an awful lot of information, but it’s never ever indigestible. And she points out, ‘Well we know about this, so we can surmise that. We don’t know much about this, but this would indicate that X, Y, Z,’ plus she uses what we actually do know.
And of course, the thing about Rome is people keep digging stuff up. It was one of the most prolific civilizations for stuff. So there’s always developments going on. So yeah, she’s brought it in those.
Whenever she comes on the TV, all or us fangirls just fall on her and have to watch it or read it, whichever. So that’s that.
Recommended alternate history novels
Alternate history is a very strange genre. I do blog incessantly about it because it’s not secret history or fantasy. It’s where time divided, and once it’s divided and gone off on a different line, you can’t go back.
There’s no ‘Doctor Who’ effect. There’s no time forward or jumping back or waking up and it’s all a dream. So the thing that really got me going and working out that actually that’s what I was writing was Robert Harris’s Fatherland. Now, alternate history is not all about Nazis.
Joanna: You’d think it was!
Alison: Yes. You’d think it was. But even Livy started an alternate history wondering about with Alexander had turned west and met the Romans who would have won, you know? So it’s been going on forever. Yes. One thing I blog incessantly about, it’s not just the Nazis.
Joanna: I think with the Man In The High Castle, on Amazon as well, which is good and is about Nazis.
Alison: It’s great. The story it came from a sort of, I mean, John Smith is not a character in the original story, but anyway. So Fatherland, that’s definitely because it’s, the thing is it’s a thriller, and it’s the alternative history. So the two.
Another one I’d really recommend is Michael Chabon’s, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. And that’s another thriller, but with a different twist. But that’s where the Jews were given Alaska as a homeland, not Israel.
Joanna: Sucks to be that cold.
Alison: Very cold. And the lease is running out. And he writes very, very cleverly. He’s a clever writer.
But if you want some couple more in the UK, Pavane by Keith Roberts. And that’s as if the Spanish Catholics had invaded and won in England and, in Armada. And that there they take sort of episodes.
Again, he’s quite a deep writer, a writer on moods, and you’re getting glimpses of little episodes in people’s lives, but it does all come out to a conclusion.
Then the other one is good old Kingsley Amis, which people don’t realize he wrote an alternate history. And that’s called The Alteration, which is a play on words and quite a lot of funny little political ironies in it as well. That’s quite good.
Joanna: Fantastic. I think it’s surprising when you start thinking about it. I love the idea. It’s something that I have thought about. I do think it’s so interesting, and definitely people should check out Roma Nova if they want to see how your mind has taken history and turned into a story.
Where can people find you and your books and everything you do online?
Alison: I’ve got two blogs. One is for writing and writers and odd stuff, but my main Roma Nova blog is at alison-morton.com.
Alison: That’s got a blog attached to it. And I’m on Twitter at @alison_morton, so and Facebook of course, like everybody else, is.
Joanna: Okay. Well, thanks so much for your time, Alison. That was great.
Alison: I’ve had a great time chatting. Thank you so much.