Alternate history stories - personal or grand scale?

The first of a series of pre-launch snippets in the run-up to the launch of AURELIA on 5 May.

607px-Jacques-Louis_David,_Le_Serment_des_HoracesRoman-themed stories and alternat(iv)e history stories could drive you to visualise a grand scale; empires lost and won, heroes and heroines fighting in their thousands, declaiming and sacrificing on battlefields and forum, unimagined tragedies and triumphs that turned the world’s, possibly the galaxy’s, history on its face. Epic events with epic challenges and epic poems to celebrate them down through the ages.

Not for me.

I rather like the small scale – individuals living ‘normal to them’ lives and who eat, sleep, make love and mistakes. The story of Karen Brown and her bid to escape Renschman, the government enforcer trying to destroy her in INCEPTIO, is the story of a mid-twenties something coming into her own rather than a big-scale national crisis. Of course, such individuals can make the vital difference to the bigger scale as Carina does in PERFIDITAS. But Carina has some very personal choices to make as she is caught between the love of two men who represent opposite existences for her future as well as for Roma Nova.

When we reach SUCCESSIO, the personal, professional and national crises are all mixed together! Readers have told me that although many of them would love to visit or even emigrate to the alternative country of Roma Nova, it’s the characters, their history and motivations, their strengths and flaws that pull them into that world.

The alternate history ‘what if’ framework is essential for stories set in an egalitarian-plus Roman society; sadly, the ancient empire collapsed before it could evolve to such an enlightened state of being. Its successor states haven’t got there either, but that’s another story! But through the stories of Carina and now Aurelia, we can get  a glimpse of what such an alternative timeline could have been like in reality…


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO. The fourth book, AURELIA, is due out on 5 May 2015.

Find out Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways by signing up for my free monthly email newsletter.

Roman forearm handshake - true gesture or Hollywood codswallop?

handshakeWhen two people meet formally for the first time, it’s customary to shake hands.  Similarly, it’s something you do on parting, offering congratulations, expressing gratitude, or completing an agreement. In sports or other competitive activities, it’s also done as a sign of good sportsmanship. Its purpose is to convey trust, balance, and equality.

Research at the Weizmann Institute shows that human handshakes serve as a mean of transferring social chemical signals between the shakers. Apparently, we tend to bring the shaken hands to somewhere near our noses and perform an olfactory sampling of it. This may serve an evolutionary need to learn about the person whose hand was shaken, replacing a more overt and less socially acceptable sniffing behaviour, as common in other animals like cats and especially dogs.

How long have we done it?

Hera and Athene (5th century  BC)

Hera and Athene (5th c. BC, Acropolis Museum, Athens)



Archaeological ruins and ancient texts show that handshaking was practiced in ancient Greece as far back as the 5th century BC. This is more of a full clasp, not just fingers – note the position of Athena’s thumbs on Hera’s wrist.







The handshakes on funerary reliefs or coins in Roman imperial times, the dextrarum iunctio (joining of  right hands), were mainly ceremonial, although expressing a strong bond, e.g. between man and woman on marriage (right), sometimes between patrons and freedmen, sometimes of an agreement between two communities or of a sign of peace.

The joined right hands were also used as a sign of friendship, hospitality and community. Perhaps the gesture was used when people greeted each other in formal situations rather than as an everyday gesture.

The ‘Roman’ forearm handshake

To my great disappointment, the forearm handshake is considered today to be pure Hollywood.

Instead of exchanging handgrips, the two clasp each others’ forearms, just below the elbow. It seems more martial and physical, something fitting with the audience’s expectations of a very physical and martial society like Rome. It’s a rather romantic, possibly nostalgic, idea of camaraderie.

However, there seem to be no Roman era depictions of this handshake. As we saw above, there is plenty of evidence of ordinary handshakes from the Roman era, so we have to conclude that it’s a later invention. It may originate from the theatre where actors wanted to make the handshake look dramatic and to emphasise comradeship and male bonding.

Roman handshake

The ‘Roman’ handshake  (Photo courtesy of Caroline Lawrence’s Pinterest account)

One interesting speculation is that the forearm handshake was taught to the actors by painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema in a 1898 staging of  Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. During this time, Alma-Tadema was very active with theatre design and production. His meticulous archaeological research, including research into Roman architecture (which was so thorough that every building featured in his canvases could have been built using Roman tools and methods) led to his paintings being used as source material by Hollywood directors in their vision of the ancient world for films such as D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), Ben Hur (1926) and Cleopatra (1934). The designers of the Oscar-winning Roman epic Gladiator used the paintings of Alma-Tadema as a central source of inspiration.

Shaking hands could be seen as a relic of our ancient past. Whenever primitive tribes met under friendly conditions, they would hold their arms out with their palms exposed to show that no weapons were being held or concealed. Could it be that in Roman times the practice of carrying a concealed dagger in the sleeve was common so for protection the Romans developed forearm handshake as a common greeting?

We’ll never know.

But in a speculative departure from concrete knowledge, I’ve slipped it in here and there in my Roma Nova novels and female soldiers like Carina and Aurelia use this form when greeting their military colleagues.

Sorry, purists!


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO. The fourth book, AURELIA, is due out on 5 May 2015.

Find out Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways by signing up for my free monthly email newsletter.

AURELIA cover image!

Yesterday, I signed off this beautiful, beautiful cover for AURELIA, the fourth Roma Nova alternate history thriller. SilverWood Books have done it again! The sharp-eyed will see the new mosaic pattern in the inner shield echoed around the eagle itself. The silver lettering and eagle mark out a change: the next three books shift back in time, this first one to the late 1960s and feature a new heroine, Aurelia Mitela.

We first met her as a mature woman in INCEPTIO, then learnt a little more in PERFIDITAS, and her story became more urgent in SUCCESSIO as her granddaughter Carina struggled against an implacable enemy. Now it’s Aurelia’s time and on 5 May 2015 (publication day) we go back to 1968 Roma Nova when her story begins…


Read more about AURELIA


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO. The fourth book, AURELIA, (this one!) is due out on 5 May 2015.

Find out Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways by signing up for my free monthly email newsletter.

Governing Britain the Roman way

Roman governorEver since Julius Caesar had a pop at the northern isles in 55/54BC as part of his Gallic Wars campaign (and didn’t get very far), Britain has been difficult to govern. Whether wars of succession or civil wars, barons or peasants v. kings, Saxons v. post-Romans, constitutional government v. chartists, Fenians, suffragists, unions or agitators, it’s not been a quiet time. But somehow, in an urban mythical way, we’ve muddled through. Today, most of the political battles are verbal, but still tough.

So, as current political parties square up to each other for the forthcoming general election, it might be interesting to see how the Romans coped and whether today’s political leaders could hack it as Roman governors.

When Caesar landed, the Britons had been overrun or culturally assimilated by other Celtic tribes during the Iron Age. He veni, vidi, vici’d, extracted tribute, installed a Rome-friendly king over the Trinovantes, and returned to Gaul, job done. In AD43 Claudius (the one portrayed by Derek Jacobi) decided to play for real and sent four legions to invade and restore or set up client kings to rule on behalf of Rome. Conquest progressed despite rebellions; in the second century Hadrian built his wall in the far north. Britain was sub-divided into two provinces in AD 197 and into four at the end of the third century. But in the later part of the Roman occupation/settlement, barbarian invasions increased and the legions withdrew from the island around AD 410.

Map of Roman Roads in BritainThat’s a quick-fire history; but how was Britannia governed during this time?  Structured or omnishambles? Compared to today, there wasn’t a glimmer of universal public participation. Count yourself lucky you now have a vote in a representative democracy!

Under the Empire, the Senate retained nominal control of the peaceful (public) provinces. However, we’re talking about Britannia and its rambunctious tribes; it required permanent garrisons and was placed under the Emperor’s control. He appointed a resident governor with imperium or plenary powers.This administrator was a carefully selected, hardy and no-nonsense type, a senator and former consul with a proven record of military success. So the head of government was directly appointed from the emperor with full power of life and instant death and was, in today’s terms, a military dictator with absolutely no limits, checks or balances. Hm.

In Britain, a governor’s role was primarily military, but he was also responsible for maintaining diplomatic relations with local client kings (Ah! Glad-handing the regional party representatives and local government), building roads (running public transport infrastructure), ensuring the public courier system functioned (state owned postal service), supervising the urban centres and acting as a judge in important legal cases. When not campaigning (military not political), he would travel the province hearing complaints (listening to the people – well, a section of them) and recruiting new troops.

Roman civiliansTo assist him in legal matters he had an adviser, the legatus juridicus (attorney general); in Britannia  they were experienced lawyers perhaps because of the challenge of incorporating tribes into the imperial system (local government reorganisation). Financial administration was dealt with by a procurator (chief financial officer) working alongside, but not subordinate to, the governor and who had junior posts for each tax-raising power (HMRC). Each legion in Britain had a commander who answered to the governor and in time of war probably directly ruled troublesome districts. (Tact prevents me naming modern parts of Britain which are troublesome to the current administration.) Below these posts was a network of administrative managers covering intelligence gathering (Ah, the security services), sending reports to Rome (political superiors/international organisations), organising military supplies (defence procurement) and dealing with prisoners (Er, prisons).


RomanAlthough some of this is very familiar – tax, roads, administration –  the tone of governorship was very different from today. In an awkward Britannia, more or less revolting somewhere, there was no policing by consent. Reprisals against those resisting Roman rule were heavy and ruthless with high body counts. But for those areas whose free populations and local rulers were content to accept Roman rule, there was structure, order, prosperity unseen to date, good communications, possible employment and advancement in the Roman administration and almost unlimited opportunities to trade.

Roman regulations were practical but not stifling. There were, of course, no health services (apart from in the military), no social care, no unemployment benefit, no free education, etc. Slavery was institutionalised and women completely without status or political presence. (Oh, that possibly has some resonance…)

Personally, I doubt any of today’s party leaders would be able to act like a Roman governor.

David_Cameron_portrait_2013 Ed_Miliband Nick_Clegg
 David Cameron
Conservative Party
Ed Milliband
Labour Party
Nick Clegg
Liberal Democrat Party

Although well-educated, none of them has any experience at general staff level commanding thousands of soldiers in the field nor years spent acting as local magistrates, representatives and administrators in several countries. Government today is massively complex, a huge machine that has a life of its own and thus thousands of civil servants to run it. A Roman governor’s life was much simpler despite the breadth of responsibilities. None of the modern elected leaders needs or has a transnational family power structure to leverage favour at a centralised imperial court, although they all have their networks. Modern British political leaders seem to project confidence and have no doubt had to be tough to have fought their way to the top of their parties, but none has had opponents executed summarily by his personal military staff, or condemned a beaten opponent to the arena, strangler or ‘voluntary’ suicide – a harsh decision requiring a ruthlessness no longer accepted in this society. And any attempt to act in this autocratic way would, I hope, be stopped by a combination of high idealism, ridicule and British bloodymindedness.

A final thought – one way the current main national party leaders resemble the Romans…  they’re all men.


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO. The fourth book, AURELIA, is due out in May 2015.

Find out Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways by signing up for my free monthly email newsletter.

SilverWood Selection Box - A selection of tantalising tasters

3rd April logoBelonging to a group of authors not only means you enjoy the company of colleagues, but it improves your writing. I belong to several groups and associations – you’ll see some of the logos below – but one I treasure is the community of SilverWood Books authors.

The genius of Helen Hart and her team at SilverWood Books of fostering the community is remarkable, especially in a commercial business in the independent publishing sector. And now in support of their authors, they’ve brought out the first of their selection boxes – a real ‘try before you buy’.

Of course, it showcases SilverWood Books, but for authors, it highlights their work in a compact, easily accessible way – ‘A blend of fiction and non-fiction to introduce the reader to new “good reads”.’

The extract from INCEPTIO is when Karen realises something very powerful is ranged against her:

I stared at the screen. I felt like I’d been struck in the face. This couldn’t be happening. I wasn’t a terrorist or criminal. Sure, my mother had been born abroad, but she’d been dead for twenty-one years. My father was born in England but had been a naturalised American for nearly two-thirds of his life. He’d even been decorated for war service in North Africa. That kid being pissed at me couldn’t have gone this far, could it?

I started shaking.
God. What else could these people do to me?

I’m proud to share this new ebook of delicious tasters with fellow authors including:
Anna Belfrage, Helen Hollick, David Ebsworth, Lucienne Boyce, Edward Hancox, Adrian Churchward, Sandy Osborne, Michael Brown and Harvey Black.

Where can you obtain this box of tantalising tasters?
You can buy it on Amazon for 99 pence/cents, or you can download the .Mobi file for Kindle (12Mb) for FREE!
iTunes UK, iTunes US – Free
Kobo  – Free
Or download the EPub file here (8Mb) FREE

SilverWood Books February 2015

Now in the true SilverWood tradition, some of us who have written the books featured in the selection box are having a shared blog hop on 3 April to showcase it:

Alison Morton:
Helen Hollick:
Anna Belfrage:
David Ebsworth:
Lucienne Boyce:
Michael Brown:
Adrian Churchward:
Edward Hancox:


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO. The fourth book, AURELIA, is due out in May 2015.

Find out Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways by signing up for my free monthly email newsletter.

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