Guns n’ things in Roma Nova

This could be a tricky subject, but if your stories have spies, special forces, military and special police units with a robust Roman attitude, you are going to get weapons of one sort or another. Anything else would be unrealistic.

However, my books are about people, not a way of seeing how much technical research I can reproduce on the pages. The characters’ clothes, meals, equipment and weapons enrich their actions, set them in context and take their story forward. Weapons, correctly inserted into a story, indicate extreme tension, danger, seriousness of purpose or peril of life. But if any detail is not essential to the scene or story, that detail stays out.

As with any other aspect of world building in any genre, writers should research the area thoroughly, even if they discard 98% of it in their writing. I’m a fussy boots; I like to know how something feels, how heavy it is, what it looks and smells like, what I experience when holding, cleaning and, in the case of a gun, firing it.

Luckily, I’ve done this when I was was a member of a special communications regiment in the 1980s. Yes, it’s a long time ago, but it stays with you. The most important part of weapons handling is training, especially safety training. After that, practice, practice and more practice. Training in weapon use and handling is an essential element towards   competence, let alone proficiency.

My own experience includes Browning Hi Power 9mm pistol, SMG (Sterling Small Machine Gun), SLR (FN FAL L1A1 variant Self-Loading Rifle) – all a bit long in the tooth now, but good basic weapons. I trained mostly with the first two, but whether the user has the latest Glock, SIG Sauer, bullpup assault rifle or honeycomb-sighted sniper rifle, the basics are the same – safety first and, yes, training and practice. And woe betide any operative who doesn’t clean their weapon. Not only could it not work or even blow up in your face, you could be put on a charge; a terrifying prospect – just ask any soldier.

When I read all kinds of gung-ho stuff where people fire a weapon for the first time and succeed in killing a bad guy, then drop a pistol in the mud or sand in a desert and it fires first time, I tut and roll my eyes. Safe and clean – always. Have I mentioned that?

In Roma Nova – Carina
Carina’s favourite firearm is a Glock 17, one of a series of polymer-framed, short recoil-operated, locked-breech semi-automatic pistols. There are several variants and modified versions; I’m sure the Roma Novan Imperial Armoury Factory specified its own version when ordering from the New Austrian manufacturer Glock Ges.m.b.H.

However, I just use the term ‘Glock’ in the text as the essential thing is to convey the use of a handgun in a tense moment in a scene, not go on about the type and variant. But if she uses a compact sized version for a specific reason, I highlight it.

“I bent down to the freezer and pulled a pizza out of the middle drawer along with a plastic bundle of bubble wrap. Inside was a freezer baggie with my Glock. At the back of the next compartment, the ammunition clips. It was a compact but deadly 177 mm of firepower.” (CARINA)

Carina is tasked to use a sniper rifle in a containment operation, but competent as she is, in a novel we need to know how she feels about it:

“I clutched my new rifle and scope. I’d had five minutes to sight it as best I could with the help of an armoury sergeant from the air force base. If I hit anything, it would be a miracle. But none of the others was in any different place.” (INCEPTIO)

Up on the mountain, all I needed to write was that it was a rifle with a honeycombed sight because it was essential the Praetorian Guard team stay covert.

[Team leader to Carina] “Take a really slow sweep across an arc in front of the admin centre door. Get to know every mark on it, the handles, the rim, every detail. Don’t worry, the sight glass is honeycombed. It won’t reflect.” (INCEPTIO)

And how did she learn to use a rifle? Obviously, this was a skill developed during her military training, but it started a while before…

“While most of our group could fire pistols, only a few were used to rifles. I had the benefit of Uncle Brown’s homespun tuition over the years. He’d been granted a gun licence like most farmers; he’d insisted we all learned to shoot and practise weekly. Girls should be able to blast away any vermin, he’d said, especially on an isolated farm.

On the range, I hit the target with satisfactory clusters. I was surprised I could still dismantle, clean and reassemble the weapon without having any parts left over. I started forgiving my father’s cousin.” (INCEPTIO)

Aurelia and time periods
Like any historical detail, it’s wise to check what weapons are current. Glock pistols only entered service in 1982, so Aurelia in the 1960s uses a double-action service revolver, make not specified(!) and a (generic) rifle.

” ‘On my mark,’ I whispered into my radio, hoping our quarry couldn’t hear through the snow. I unslung my rifle, counted to three and stood up.”(AURELIA)

But by the early 1980s when INSURRECTIO and RETALIO are set, Aurelia is cleaning a pistol, not a revolver. It’s a quiet time before action when she and the other members of the liberating forces are focusing their thoughts on the battle ahead. Here, you can integrate some technical detail in with Aurelia’s feelings:

“She handed me a pistol without a word. I was surprised how strange it felt as I began to strip it. But my fingers and some deep memory remembered how to pull the slider off the frame and release the barrel. The methodical cleaning and wiping was soothing, the smell of the cleaning lubricant sharp but not disturbing. Although surrounded by others carrying out the same task I felt a moment of isolation, of quiet. Nobody spoke; it seemed as if they were gathering in their personal strength. Once done, I carried out a function check and pushed the magazine in. A satisfying clunk. Yes, it was ready and so was I. (RETALIO)

Knives – the ‘softer’ option?
Knives are ‘softer’ in a way and Carina’s preferred weapon, although no less deadly. But they produce a closer and more physical encounter than a firearm:

“He raised his assault rifle. In the second before he could steady it to aim, I whipped out one of my carbon knives and sprang at him, slamming him down. The rifle crashed to the ground and rolled away. I shoved the blade up through his chest, aiming for the heart but his breast bone deflected it, jarring my wrist. I threw my knife down, crooked my elbow to drive it into his neck. As I shifted my weight to make the jab, he freed his arm enough to grab his pistol.” (PERFIDITAS)

But Carina and especially Aurelia are fully aware that knives represent something terrifying to ‘normal’ people who wouldn’t have experience with knives other than in the kitchen. When Aurelia, her security chief, and and her daughter Marina are clandestinely approaching Aurelia’s farm which has been taken over by Aurelia’s enemy’s thugs, Aurelia has to arm Marina, just in case:

“I fished in my backpack and held a black plastic handle, about fifteen centimetres long, in Marina’s direction. I pressed on the depression at one end and a steel blade sprang out.

She flinched.

‘Here, take this.’ I folded the blade back into its handle. ‘I don’t expect you to fight aggressively – leave that to Callixtus and me. But you have to be able to defend yourself.’

She nodded slowly, her eyes staring at the thing I’d laid in her hand.

‘I know it’s frightening, darling, but you have to make this one last effort. We might be a little busy once we get into the farm.’

And Aurelia’s knife in the 1980s is stainless steel, while Carina’s in the 21st century is carbon steel. Technology moves on…

Photo courtesy of Britannia

Roman stuff?
Of course!At the beginning of SUCCESSIO, Carina’s Praetorian Guard unit is demonstrating some legacy gladius skills to their British host unit:

“Not practised these days outside the professional games arena except by the military, training with a sharp, double-edged fifty centimetre carbon steel blade tended to concentrate the mind as well as honing reaction skills. Not mandatory – we used state of the art weaponry as normal – but all members of the unit were encouraged to become proficient with a gladius, if only to get used to close physical combat with an opponent. If you got cut, you got cut, then chewed out for being careless. Contrary to popular belief, the Roman short sword was more than fine for cutting and chopping motions as well as for thrusting. Not much had changed in shape since the Pompeii pattern used in the fourth century which had been spectacularly successful.” (SUCCESSIO)

And when facing her lifelong enemy, Aurelia put on modern caesti, modelled on Ancient Roman hand protectors used by boxers:

Juno, I was a wreck. I’d refused Numerus’s offer of a service revolver. If Marina was anywhere near Caius, I couldn’t risk her being caught in crossfire or by a ricochet. I’d kept it simple; a knife in a back waist holster along with a set of handcuffs. I clipped caesti around my hands. Unlike the ancient clumsy boxing gloves, these were chain-link mittens designed to protect your hands as well as deepen any blow. (AURELIA)

So, when using weapons in a writing sense the guiding principals are research and context. As with gratuitous sex or violence, superfluous and laborious weapons descriptions detract from pace and ultimately from the reading experience.

Would you agree?


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, is available now.  Audiobooks are available for the first four of the series.

Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, for FREE when you sign up to Alison’s free monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

INSURRECTIO – a powerful thriller speaks to our times

I was thrilled to receive a very thoughtful review of INSURRECTIO this week.

BookBabe blog headed the review as “Meeting the challenge of keeping a prequel trilogy thrilling”, which is a writing technique, and a trick I’m delighted to see that she says I’ve pulled off!

However, it became clear as I read through her review that she’d also see the political theme that underlay the adventure. INSURRECTIO channels the rise of fascism in our Europe in the 1930s. I write my books to entertain, but always with a more serious theme which readers may take or not.

INSURRECTIO was an emotionally draining book to write as it dealt with a very dark episode in the Roma Nova’s history, and the younger Aurelia Mitela’s (sometimes ambivalent) part in it. It wasn’t intentionally written to reflect the rise of populism today, the impact of demagoguery and alternative facts, but if I’ve sparked some thoughts about these subjects, then I am content.

Here’s the review:

“Insurrectio  by Alison Morton is the middle book of a prequel trilogy in the alternate history Roma Nova series which deal with an ancient Roman colony that survived as an independent nation in modern times.  It’s of particular interest to me that Roma Nova is a matriarchy, and that the books are neither utopias nor dystopias.  They attempt to portray this society realistically with all its strengths and weaknesses.  This is why I have been reviewing books in the Roma Nova series on this blog.  Here are the links to my reviews of  books focusing on the 21st century protagonist Carina Mitela Inceptio, Carina and Perfiditas.  I have also reviewed the first book in a 20th century trilogy about Carina’s grandmother Aurelia hereInsurrectio is the sequel to Aurelia.

I was gifted with a copy of Insurrectio by the author via Book Funnel in return for this honest review.

Those who have read the Carina books have seen references to the events of this novel.   So I pretty much knew what would happen in a general way.  Readers will wonder how a prequel in a thriller series can be suspenseful.

Believe me, nothing in the Carina books can prepare you for Insurrectio.   This was a true catastrophe for Roma Nova as a society and for Aurelia as an individual.   I realized that the endangerment to the matriarchy in  Perfiditas was less severe precisely because of  the calamity that had occurred in the 20th century.   Relatively few people were willing to allow Roma Nova  to go there again.  For women  like Aurelia, having lived through Insurrectio must have functioned like an inoculation against a deadly plague.  It stiffened their resolve in Perfiditas because they were very aware of the potential consequences.

There was no World War II in Alison Morton’s alternate timeline but the vicious ideology of fascism was nevertheless percolating through the continent of Europe.  As we see in our 21st century, fascism can emerge and spill across borders in any time of crisis.   Insurrectio can be viewed as a timely warning to the complacent that it can indeed happen in your country. For those of us who are currently experiencing an outbreak of fascism, the intensity of  the narrative may be magnified.

In this novel Aurelia’s courage and fitness to lead are questioned.   Since those who judged Aurelia hadn’t been through any similar ordeal, none of them could know how they themselves would react in those circumstances.  In my view, Aurelia did what she felt she needed to do in order to protect the Mitela clan.  I considered the situation traumatic, and was impressed that Aurelia managed to come through it and recover from the associated PTSD.

Insurrectio may be taking place in the 20th century, but I feel that this powerful thriller speaks to our times, and that Aurelia is a strong survivor who can inspire us all.”


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, is available now.  Audiobooks are available for the first four of the series.

Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, for FREE when you sign up to Alison’s free monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

Reconciling 'real' Romans and Roma Novans

Family of Drusus, Museum of Roman Civilisation, Rome (Author photo)

I’ve been fascinated by all things Roman since I walked on my first mosaic in northern Spain. At age eleven, I wanted to know who the people were who had lived in houses with such beautiful floors: what did they eat, what did they work at, what were the children and parents like? As I grew older and studied the Romans more formally, I appreciated what a complex, clever and determined society they had made. “Rome” in the West lasted for 1229 years – that’s the equivalent of from AD 789 to today.

Rome passed from mud hut tribal subsistence farming to the heights of the Pax Romana with its rule of law, art and literature, trade, engineering, and ability to learn; Romans set the template for the western nations that emerged over the next centuries.

I don’t want to sound too much like the John Cleese in the Monty Python video “What have the Romans done for us“, but you get the idea I’m impressed! However, we do well to remember not everybody lived well, especially at the lower end of the social spectrum as a slave, but the vast majority of the population had a standard of living that wasn’t achieved again until the nineteenth century.

In my thriller novels, Roma Nova is governed by women. The Ancient (“real”) Romans had a very interesting way of viewing women: they were granted the  status and respect, but had no public rights or say in their world. In law, women were viewed more or less as disposable property belonging to the family. How then do I reconcile the view of the “real” Romans with the Romans in my alternative timeline?

Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi, 1785 (Angelica Kaufmann 1741-1807)

If they were free-born, women in ancient Rome were citizens – an important status in a world where a hefty proportion of the population was slave. Towards the later Imperial period women gained much more freedom to act, trade, own property and run businesses of all types. But they still held no direct political power. Producing the next generation, running complex households and contributing to social, religious and cultural life were not activities as valued as in the twenty-first century (and that’s a contentious point!)

Nevertheless, women from wealthy or powerful Roman families could and did exert influence throughout Rome’s history: Cornelia Africana, mother of the Gracchi; the Julio-Claudian Livia Drusilla, wife and councillor of Augustus; the later Severan Julias; and Galla Placidia towards the end of the Roman Empire.

In my novels, women rule, but men are not disadvantaged; life is much more nuanced than that. Roma Nova survived by changing its social structure; as men constantly fought to defend the new colony, women took over the social, political and economic roles, weaving new power and influence networks based on family structures.

So far, only a few steps away from the traditional Roman cultural pattern…

But given the unstable, dangerous times in Roma Nova’s first few hundred years, especially during the Great Migrations in Europe, Roma Nova ran out of young and older men to put in the front line. Fit and tough as pioneers tend to be, daughters and sisters put on armour and hefted weapons to defend their homeland and their way of life. Fighting danger side by side with brothers and fathers reinforced women’s roles. And they never allowed the incursion of monotheistic paternalistic religions. So I don’t think that it’s too far a stretch for women to have developed leadership roles in all parts of Roma Novan life over the next sixteen centuries.

Karen/Carina in her new role as a Roma Novan custos?

My female protagonist Karen’s story starts in INCEPTIO in a standard Western society. When she is compelled to flee to her dead mother’s homeland in Europe, she finds the Roman-infused culture unnerving; Roma Novans live to a tough ethic of self-sufficiency, and an ingrained sense of duty to their state – core Roman values which have been crucial to their survival down the centuries. The strong female characters surrounding Karen – her grandmother, cousin, female colleagues and friends – are the result of this and form the pattern for her.

And the biggest challenge when writing about strong women? Plausibility.

You can’t jump from a passive, protected fragile flower to super-heroine, even if she passes through a formative traumatic event. Writers need to give hints about resilience, integrity and an ability to develop confidence as well as physical abilities. Undoubtedly, a strong female character has to have an equally strong will and a passion to drive through what she believes in.

Although Karen starts in INCEPTIO as an office worker, we see from the first page that she’s prepare to stand her ground against people doing wrong, even knocking them to the ground when they’ve attacked her. We know she’s outdoorsy and sporty, has learned to protect herself emotionally and to question everything. She demonstrates signs of mental and physical toughness and resilience even when living in a ‘normal’ existence. So when she becomes an undercover operative, she already has many latent characteristics required. She’s not without doubts, though – she’s no Lara Croft!

A second, related challenge is not falling into the trap of making a strong character have moments of unbelievable weakness. Doubt, a temper, love for movies, a penchant for butter beans or brandy help to round a character out, but writers must not go too far and over-compensate for the toughness. A military type will drink and swear – it’s the pressure of the job – but she will have the normal emotions of any other woman, although expressed differently. While Aurelia’s political and military skills are well developed, she’s very aware of her lack of easy social chit-chat. She’s unable to connect with her daughter and her cousin Severina when they talk and laugh about films and fashion. But she does love her roses, and of course, the restless Miklós…


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, is available now.  Audiobooks are available for the first four of the series.

Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, for FREE when you sign up to Alison’s free monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

Slaves, damnati and freedmen in ancient Rome

In 161 BC, the Roman jurist Gaius wrote:
Slavery is a human invention and not found in nature. Indeed, it was that other human invention, war, which provided the bulk of slaves, but they were also the bounty of piracy … or the product of breeding.” (Institutiones)

A cold, yet trenchant statement. As in many early societies, slavery in ancient Rome was a mixture of debt-slavery, slavery as a punishment for crime, born slavery and by far the enslavement of prisoners of war especially during the Republican period.

Trajan accepting the surrender of the Dacians – many would go into slavery

An estimated 30 to 40% of the population of Italy were slaves in the 1st century BC, an estimated two to three million people. For the Empire as a whole, slaves numbered just under five million, representing 8-10% of the total population of a 50-60 million. Roman slavery was not based on race; slaves originated from all parts of Europe and the Mediterranean, including Gaul, Hispania, Germany, Britannia, the Balkans and Greece.

Legal status
The Twelve Tables, Rome’s oldest legal code, promulgated in 449 BC, makes brief references to slavery, indicating that the institution was of long standing. Slaves were considered property under Roman law and had no legal personhood. Unlike Roman citizens, they could be subjected to corporal punishment, sexual exploitation (prostitutes were often slaves), torture, and summary execution. The testimony of a slave could not be accepted in a court of law unless the slave was tortured – a practice based on the belief that slaves in a position to be privy to their masters’ affairs would be too virtuously loyal to reveal damaging evidence unless coerced. Over time, however, slaves gained increased legal protection.

Vernae were slaves born within a household (familia) or on a family farm. There was a stronger social obligation to care for vernae; many would have been the children of free males of the household. Often, but not always, they were freed on the master’s death.

Roman slaves could hold property which, although it technically belonged to their masters, they were allowed to use as if it was their own. Skilled or educated slaves were allowed to earn their own money, possibly saving enough to buy their freedom. Otherwise, slaves could be freed in their master’s will, or for services rendered. A notable example of a high-status slave was Cicero’s secretary, Tiro, who was freed before his master’s death. Tiro was successful enough to retire on his own country estate, where he died at the age of 99.

Evolution of status
Slaves were granted more rights as the empire grew; Claudius announced that if a slave was abandoned by his master, he became free. Nero granted slaves the right to complain against their masters in a court. And under Antoninus Pius, a master who killed a slave without just cause could be tried for homicide. It became common throughout the mid to late 2nd century AD to allow slaves to make complaints to officials about cruel or unfair treatment by their owners.

Work – not all slaves were equal
Slaves worked in roughly five categories: household/domestic, imperial/public, urban crafts and services, agriculture, and mining.

Household (familia): Epitaphs record at least fifty different jobs a household slave might perform including barber, butler, cook, hairdresser, handmaid (ancilla), wet nurse or nursery attendant, teacher, secretary, seamstress, accountant or physician. A large elite household might be supported by a staff of hundreds.

Although inferior to those of the free persons they served, the living conditions of slaves attached to an urban household were often superior to those of many free urban poor in Rome. Indoor household slaves likely enjoyed the highest standard of living among Roman slaves, next to publicly owned slaves.

Imperial slaves were  attached to the emperor’s household, the familia Caesaris. As in any Roman household, the senior male, the pater familias, held full rights over his slaves as over his family, and women slaves were frequently used for sexual services as a matter of course.

In urban workplaces, the occupations of slaves included fullers, engravers, shoemakers, bakers, seamstresses, mule drivers, and waitresses/prostitutes. Farm slaves (familia rustica) probably lived in a healthier environment, but their work was heavy and manual. The workforce of a farm would have been mostly slave, managed by a vilicus, often a slave himself.

Ploughman with a team of oxen, bronze 1st-3rdC Piercebridge, Durham (British Museum)

Tens of thousands of slaves condemned to work in the mines or quarries (damnati in metallum), worked in notoriously brutal conditions; they were convicts who as a consequence lost their freedom as citizens (libertas), forfeited their property (bona) to the state, and became servi poenae, slaves by legal sanction. Their legal status was different from that of other slaves; they could not buy their freedom, be sold, or be set free. They were expected to live and die in the mines.

In the Late Republic, around half the gladiators who fought in Roman arenas were slaves, the remainder free volunteers. Successful slave gladiators were occasionally rewarded with freedom. However, trained gladiators with access to weapons were potentially the most dangerous slaves as demonstrated by Spartacus, who led the great slave rebellion of 73-71 BC.

A servus publicus was a slave owned not by a private individual, but by the Roman people and worked in temples and other public buildings as servants to the College of Pontiffs, magistrates, and other officials. Some well-qualified public slaves carried out skilled office work such as accounting and secretarial services and were permitted to earn money for their personal use. During the Republic, a public slave could be freed by a magistrate’s declaration, with the prior authorisation of the senate; in the Imperial era, manumission would be granted by the emperor.

Runaways and rebellion
Romans were preoccupied, if not paranoid, by the thought of slave revolt which had more than once seriously threatened the republic; in 135-132 BCE (the First Servile War), in 104-100 BCE (the Second Servile War), and in 73-71 BCE (the Third Servile War).

Rome forbade harbouring fugitive slaves; professional slave-catchers were hired to hunt down runaways. Owners or hired slave-catchers would post advertisements with precise descriptions of escaped slaves, and offered rewards. If caught, fugitives could be whipped, burnt with iron, or killed. Those who lived were branded on the forehead with the letters FUG, for fugitivus and sometimes had a metal collar with the owner’s name riveted around the neck.

“I have run away; hold me. When you shall have returned me to my master, Zoninus, you will receive a gold coin.”

Masters could manumit, or free, slaves and in many cases such freedmen went on to rise to positions of power and accumulate great wealth. Manumissio, which literally means “sending out from the hand”, could be a public ceremony, performed before a public official, usually a judge. The owner touched the slave on the head with a staff and he was free to go. Simpler methods were sometimes used, with the owner proclaiming a slave’s freedom in front of friends and family, or just a simple invitation to recline with the family at dinner, a sign of possessing free citizen status.

Slaves were freed for a variety of reasons; for a particularly good deed toward the slave’s owner, or out of friendship or respect. Sometimes, a slave had earned and saved enough money could buy his freedom and the freedom of a fellow slave, frequently a spouse. Slaves could also freed by a provision in an owner’s will at his death. Augustus restricted such manumissions to a maximum of a hundred slaves, and proportionately fewer in a small household. Educated and skilled slaves were regularly freed and the practice became so common that Augustus decreed that no Roman slave could be freed under the age of 30.

Rome differed from Greek city-states in allowing freed slaves to become Roman citizens. After manumission, a former slave enjoyed political and public freedom (libertas), including the right to vote, though he could not hold elected public office, state priesthoods, nor attain senatorial rank. A freed slave who had acquired libertas became a libertus (feminine liberta) in relation to his former master, who then became his patron (patronus).

Marble cinerary urn provided by Vitalis, a former slave of the Emperor and Scribe of the Bedchamber, for his wife Vernasia Cyclas,. On the last line, AUG.L denotes he was a former imperial slave (British Museum).

Children born to former slaves enjoyed the full privileges of Roman citizenship, for example, the Latin poet Horace was the son of a freedman, and served as an officer in the army of Marcus Junius Brutus.

Freedmen of the Imperial families often filled key positions in the Roman government bureaucracy. Some rose to positions of great influence, such as Narcissus, a former slave of the Emperor Claudius.

Other freedmen became wealthy. The brothers who owned House of the Vettii, one of the biggest and most magnificent houses in Pompeii, are thought to have been freedmen. A freedman is recorded with having designed the amphitheatre in Pompeii. But a freedman who became rich and influential might still be looked down on by the traditional aristocracy as a vulgar nouveau riche as shown by Trimalchio, a caricature of such a freedman in the Satyricon.

For an excellent historical fiction around household slaves in the first century AD you can do no better than Lindsey Davis’s Enemies at Home; a mystery but an impeccably researched one which is clever and poignant at the same time.

And in Roma Nova?
When Apulius led the Twelve Families out of Rome in AD 395, he asked for volunteers only. Most of his household accompanied him as freed men and women, the remainder, he manumitted before he left. In practical terms, Rome at the end of the fourth century was inherently unstable and being freed urban poor was a life-endangering status so most went with Apulius.

From its earliest days, slavery did not exist  in Roma Nova, although the structure of household and family units was to endure. Everybody worked, regardless of status; Roma Nova started as a subsistence society in harsh times.The aim at that time was to stay alive.


The Roma Nova thriller series

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, is available for download now.  Audiobooks are available for the first four of the series.

Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, for FREE when you sign up to Alison’s free monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

Women as heroines - speculation?

Diana, goddess of the hunt, Capitoline Museum

All fictional characters are, er, fictional. We borrow, mine, or lift characteristics from Real Life, but unless we want to get sued, the finally moulded form is a construct. We can gender mirror (I love using that expression – also made up), we can speculate, we can imagine.

Ditto the setting. Even if your thriller story is set in a gritty suburb, a private tropical island, a galaxy far, far away, or grounded by finding a parking space at Waitrose, your book world is fictional.

If you draw on fairy tales, legends or myths, the whole world is a  piece of an individual’s or a collective people’s imagination.

And time… Are you in Ancient Rome, today’s London or 30,000 years in the future? It’s not real time; it’s fictional time that often passes differently to our own perception of time.

Opening any book opens you to a new world and releases you from the confines of your place and time, whether as reader or writer. And this is a perfect way into speculating about the “what if”, especially for women. In Real Life, women see fewer aspirational patterns and models than men do. Perhaps this is why there are significantly more women writers and women readers than men; women are seeking an alternative..

Sian Phillips as Livia in I, Claudius (BBC)

Sian Phillips as Livia in I, Claudius (BBC)

In many works, especially Roman fiction, male heroes are outspoken, forthright, taking leadership, leading the action, making decisions; women are secondary – the wife, girlfriend, assistant, the rape victim, the soft contrast to the hero. If they do take a leading role, they are uncomfortable, unhappy or unfulfilled as women or, stereotypically, the “evil one” even in childhood reading such as the Narnia series. And as for Livia as portrayed in I, Claudius – don’t get me started!

Women with power and agency, i.e. who can and do act, seem to be seen as a threat, so they are slotted in as angels or demons, nurses or harlots. What a shame.

Enter science fiction, fantasy and its subgenres, including alternative history.  SFF (for short) has long served as a platform for social criticism and commentary. George Orwell, Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Attwood are obvious examples. But it too has been crammed chock full of reduced or neglected female figures. We’ve been a long time waiting for Wonder Woman to go mainstream.

But an ever increasing number of authors in speculative genres are using their stories to question the central issue of gender roles. Readers travel to places far removed from their current social reality where the givens are not only questioned but tipped upside down. All constraints are down and the result may be welcome or reflect real fears. And once an idea has entered somebody’s head, it can rarely be dislodged. The synapses are firing…

Resolution, loyalty, serving the state are not exclusively male qualities. Caring, empathy, supporting are not exclusively female ones. All genders can express love, hurt, self-doubt but also happiness, acceptance and friendship. Mix all that together and bake in different tins until well done.

My Roma Nova novels aim to do just that. It took a feminist mother, a Roman nut father, voracious reading of the weird and wonderful, six years in the military and a bad film to trigger this for me, but I remembered everything and once sparked, the Roma Nova world with its courageous and complex heroines has never left my mind.

Engaging with concepts, worlds and characters that seem impossible or unrealistic lets us play with a hidden, secret or yearned for adventure we couldn’t take in real life, not least due to our gender. Science fiction and fantasy novelists can show readers a radically different worldview and cultures through stories of astounding adventures in alternative realms.

And who knows? Perhaps speculative stories, with their heroic women and their derring-do have the potential to provoke change in the real world.



Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIOAURELIAINSURRECTIO and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, is available for download now. Audiobooks are available for the first four of the series.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines… Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, for FREE when you sign up to Alison’s free monthly email newsletter

Our friends(?) the Praetorians

Inventing a military unit like the 21st century Praetorian Guard Special Forces in my Roma Nova books was an interesting challenge!

I chose to use the old Roman name because, although later corrupt and power broking, they were the courageous, battle-hardened elite who guarded the Ancient Roman emperor’s life with theirs. And service to the imperatrix and the state is today the core value of the Roma Novan Praetorians.

Who were the original Praetorians?
The cohortes praetoriae were first mentioned around 275 BC during the Roman Republic as a guard for the command HQ – the praetorium – and served on an ad hoc basis as a small escort force for high-ranking officials such as army generals or provincial governors. Usually war leaders wore a distinguishing garment or headdress; perfect for showing your own troops who they should rally round, but also tending to act as a big fat target sign to the enemy. For this reason, during the Siege of Numantia, Scipio Aemilianus formed a troop of 500 men for his personal protection.

The Praetorian Relief, from a triumphal arch. Creative Commons, Louvre-Lens Museum


As Roman generals occupied their positions for longer periods of time the name cohors prætoria emerged. (Cohors means one armed unit, cohortes more than one. Strangely enough, cohors means attendants, retinue, staff as you might expect, but also enclosure/yard/pen or farmyard!)

By the end of 40 BC, Octavian (Julius Caesar’s great-nephew, adopted son and heir, and future Roman emperor Augustus) and his rival Mark Antony both operated Praetorian units during their civil wars. Mark Antony commanded three cohorts in the East and even issued coins in honour of his Praetorians in 32 BC. Octavian is said to have commanded five cohorts at the Battle of Actium. Following this victory, Octavian merged his forces with those of the defeated Mark Antony in a symbolic reunification of the former army of Julius Caesar. And the Praetorians melded into his personal security detail.

Hand-picked veterans, the accompanied the emperor on active campaign, serving as the last reserve in battle. In more peaceful times, they functioned as secret police and enforcers protecting the civic administration and rule of law as defined by (sometimes) the Senate and (ultimately and more often) the emperor.

Service in the Praetorian Guard
As Praetorians represented the elite soldiers from the legions a man had to be in excellent physical condition, of good moral character, and come from a respectable family if he wished to be be admitted to the Guard. In addition, he had to obtain letters of recommendations from higher status members of society; this is where good connections counted! Once past the recruitment procedure, he was designated as probatus, and assigned as a miles (soldier) to one of the centuries of a cohort. After two years, he could be considered for the post of immunis (roughly equivalent to a corporal), perhaps as a commis (junior chief) at general headquarters or as a technician. This first promotion exempted him from daily basic tasks (hence our word immune). After another two years, he could be promoted to principalis, with salary doubled, and in charge of delivering messages (tesserarius), as an assistant centurion (optio) or standard bearer (signifer) at the corps of the century. If literate and numerate, he could join the administrative staff of the prefect.

A Praetorian soldier from the 2nd century AD – retrieved in Pozzuoli (1800). Pergamon Museum, Berlin

Praetorians’ mandatory service was shorter in duration than for soldiers in the legions; twelve years instead of sixteen starting in year 13 BC, then from AD5 sixteen instead of twenty years. Under Nero, the pay of a Praetorian was three and a half times that of a legionary, augmented by donativum, a ‘donation’ a.k.a. bribe) granted by each new emperor. This additional pay was often repeated at significant events including birthdays, births and marriages of the imperial family.

In order not to alienate the population of Rome, while conserving Republican civilian traditions, the Praetorians did not wear their armour while in the heart of the city. Instead they often dressed in a formal toga, which distinguished them from civilians but remained the mark of a Roman citizen. Augustus, conscious of the risk of maintaining a military force in an obvious way within the city, imposed this dress code.

Major monetary distributions or food subsidies rewarded/bought the fidelity of the Praetorians following each failed plot (such as that of Messalina against Claudius in AD 48 or Piso against Nero in AD 65).

Patrick Stewart as Sejanus, Patricia Quinn as Livilla in the BBC adaptation of I, Claudius (Robert Graves)

Bad apples
Efficient and generally feared as they were, becoming their leader (praefectus) was a springboard to immense power. One of the most infamous prefects was Sejanus (acted by a younger Patrick Stewart in the television series I, Claudius). Lucius Aelius Seianus rose to power under Tiberius and was one of the first prefects to exploit his position in order to pursue his own ambitions. He concentrated all the Praetorians under his personal command and made himself indispensable to the new emperor Tiberius, who tried in vain to persuade the Senate to share the responsibility of governing the Empire. Tiberius became an absentee emperor, a recluse on Capri, and left everything to his energetic prefect.

However, Sejanus alienated Drusus, Tiberius’s son, and when Germanicus, the heir to the throne, died in AD 19, Sejanus feared that Drusus would become the next emperor. So he poisoned Drusus with the help of the latter’s wife, Livilla, and immediately launched a ruthless elimination programme against all potential competitors. He even persuaded Tiberius to make him his heir apparent.

Sejanus nearly succeeded in grabbing power, but his plot was discovered in AD 31. Using the vigiles and the cohortes urbanae (together effectively Rome’s civilian police), Tiberius manoeuvred Sejanus into a position of weakness from which he fell from power and was executed.

Decline and fall
Later, the Guard intrigued and interfered in Roman politics to the point of overthrowing emperors and proclaiming their successors even before they were ratified by the Senate and the legions stationed in the provinces. After AD 238, literary and epigraphic sources dry up, and information on the Praetorian Guard becomes scarce during the following fifty years, a period in which the Roman Empire nearly collapsed under the combined pressures of invasion, civil war, plague, and economic depression, known as the Crisis of the Third Century

In AD 284, Diocletian reduced their status; they were no longer to be part of palace life. After all, Diocletian lived in Nicomedia, modern Turkey, 60 miles from Byzantium. Two new corps, the Ioviani and Herculiani (named after the gods Jupiter and Hercules), replaced the Praetorians as the personal protectors of the emperors, a practice that remained intact with the Tetrarchy. By the time Diocletian retired in May AD 305, their Castra Praetoria seems to have housed only a minor garrison in Rome.

The Battle of the Milvian Bridge by (Giulio Romano,1524, Vatican Museum)

During the early 4th century, Caesar Flavius Valerius Severus attempted to disband the Praetorian Guard. In response, the Praetorians turned to Maxentius, the son of the retired emperor Maximian, and proclaimed him their emperor in October AD 306. By AD 312, however, Constantine the Great marched on Rome with an army in order to eliminate Maxentius and gain control of the Western Roman Empire, resulting in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Ultimately, Constantine’s army achieved a decisive victory against the Praetorians, whose emperor, Maxentius, was killed during the fighting. Constantine definitively disbanded the remnants of the Praetorian Guard, sending remaining soldiers out to various corners of the empire. The Castra Praetoria was dismantled in a grand gesture inaugurating a new age in Roman history, ending that of the original Praetorians.

Why haven’t the Roma Novan Praetorians ‘gone bad’?
Firstly, they have the shining example of the ancients; overstep the mark and you will be abolished.
Secondly, the Twelve Families, the imperatrix‘s council of advisers drawn from the original families settling Roma Nova, are closer to the ruler than any Praetorian would be and thus form a buffer.
Thirdly, although the Praetorians’ function is to protect the ruler, act as her intelligence service and special forces, they are employed soldiers like others in the Roma Novan military and like other citizens are subject to the law. That’s the theory…

Women Praetorians?
As Ancient Rome was a patriarchal society, Praetorians were, like all military, uniquely male.

Photo courtesy of Britannia

The original guard had been finally disbanded nearly a hundred years before the small group of senatorial families were to trek north and found the Roma Nova in my books in AD 395. Perhaps the ‘new Romans’ felt the negative connotations about Praetorians had faded or perhaps they were desperate to hang on to their deepest traditions ­– Romans were proud of their history and traditional cultural values – but when a bodyguard was formed for the first ruler, Apulius, they called it the cohors praetoria or Praetorian Guard.

Women became members of the fighting units defending Roma Nova alongside their brothers and fathers. They had no choice; the new settlers were numerically so few that they didn’t have enough male fighters. As the units evolved into legions over the years, women were eligible to transfer from the regular forces into the Praetorian units along with their male colleagues. The requirements for every Praetorian down the ages were (and still are) strength, a very high level of physical fitness, intelligence and skills levels, irrespective of gender.

The ancients were permitted to bear arms inside the city of Rome, so my modern Praetorians are allowed to carry side arms inside the Golden Palace, the home of Roma Nova’s imperatrix.

The Praetorian Guard in my Roma Nova books protect the imperatrix (ruler) and also form an elite tactical military force as they did in ancient Rome. This is how Aurelia and Carina Mitela have ended up serving in the Praetorian Guard Special Forces – an ‘odd job’ for women in history, especially when until recently in the real world, too, such a role would normally have been associated exclusively with men.



The Roma Nova thriller series

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, is available for download now.  Audiobooks are available for the first four of the series.

Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, for FREE when you sign up to Alison’s free monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.