You have to know history before you can 'alternate' it

Roma Novan heroines, ancient and modern

To write alternative history with authenticity, it’s helpful to be as well-versed and researched as an author writing a more conventional historical novel.

Let me unpick that…
Alternate (or alternative) history is based on the premise that the standard timeline diverged at a certain point and followed a different path. In my Roma Nova stories, this is 395 AD when Theodosius I (Flavius Theodosius Augustus, reigned 347-395 AD), the last emperor to rule over both the Eastern and the Western halves of the Roman Empire, issued the final edict banning all religious practice except Christian, on pain of death.

This gave me a baseline of the end of the fourth century so I researched the prevailing social, economic and political conditions. Rome changed significantly during its 1229 year existence in the West. By 395 AD, solidi had replaced sestertii and denarii, for instance. Regional government was localising with ‘barbarian’ warlords acting less like client kings of Rome and more like autonomous leaders with delegated powers and full control over their regions.

Another prime example is the Roman senate. It had lost much of its political power as well as its prestige when the Republic morphed into the Principate under Augustus. Following the constitutional reforms of Diocletian around 300 AD, although maintaining influence, it became politically irrelevant. When the seat of government was transferred out of Rome, the Senate was reduced to a purely municipal body. This decline in status was reinforced when the Constantine the Great created an additional senate in Constantinople.

The late 4th century was a long way from the ‘golden years’ of Vespasian’s or Trajan’s rule. The Apulius and Mitelus families were remnants of those earlier days and still served the much reduced empire as soldiers, magistrates and even senators while holding to their core values. Apulius’s family still had a house in Rome, servants, a large farm in Latium. But as we see in The Girl from the Market, as pagans professional opportunities were shutting in their faces. After Theodosius’s final edict in 395 AD, their lives were in danger unless they accepted Christian baptism and renounced their faith in the traditional Roman gods. So they trekked north into the mountains to escape.

Into the mountains

Into the mountains

Into the historical void…
For the Roma Novan colonists in those transitional times the most important things were security, food, shelter and hope – ultimately, survival. Their core Roman values would have bolstered them and formed a social glue while they struggled for existence. Even when forced by circumstances to change their social structure and call on women to fight alongside the men, they held to their intrinsic ‘Romanitas‘.

My mantra has been ‘follow historical logic’. Although our real history often hangs on little things or accidents, the historic dynamic generally points in one direction and one that it will return to, even if it goes ‘off piste’ from time to time.

In our own real timeline, Britain very nearly quashed the rebellion in its American colonies in 1776. In my imaginary world, British rule in the New World didn’t end until 1865, but end it definitely did. The North American colonies banded together as the Eastern United States (EUS). There was an early notion of forming the ‘Western United States’ located between the original colonies and the MIssissippi River, but it failed to become autonomous and was swallowed up by the EUS. The southern part of what we call North America – California, Texas, and New Mexico – were retained by the Spanish Empire. Louisiane and Québec stayed French to this day. All perfectly possible in an alternative timeline…

In Europe, there was only one Great War which lasted from 1925 to 1935 and afterwards the allied nations split Germany back into its constituent states. ‘Greater Germany’ had only been united for less than seventy years beforehand. Although sharing a common German language and culture (as in our timeline), it has  strong local and regional identities such as Prussia and Bavaria within it so in my imaginary world this splintering seemed logical.

Keeping it plausible and consistent
Writing and reading in an alternative setting is like stepping into the void, so I use familiar anchors to prevent readers becoming alienated and throwing the book on the floor for being totally unrealistic. Yes, some things will be different – hopefully providing an intriguing, possibly exotic feel to the book –  but many things, both for the characters themselves and their environment, will be the same or similar enough not to jolt them out of the story. For instance, a blue uniformed figure driving a car with door markings and a flashing blue roof light will almost inevitably suggest modern law enforcement to the reader.

Praetorian Guards, old style

Another technique is to mine elements from the historical record. In my books, the heroine becomes a spy/special forces operative, so I reached back into history and plucked the Praetorian Guard forward into the 21st century. Not only does this build on the thoughts of toughness, a dash of ruthlessness, a sense of duty and glamour that we may already have about them, it uses their historical name to anchor them as archetype Romans guarding the ruler and the state. I’m aware they became corrupt in real history and eventually disbanded but as in all historical writing, in alternative history you can bend the rules a little. 😉

Things will have progressed through the alternative historical timeline, and you can use elements harking back to the original culture. My 21st century Roma Novans stand at the forefront of the digital technical revolution as an echo of their engineering, craft and organisational expertise in ancient times.

Having established anchors, then you can introduce your own speculative ideas such as given the unstable, dangerous times in Roma Nova’s first few hundred years, the daughters as well as sons had to put on armour and carry 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.

While the younger part of the population defended their state, older women ran families, kept farming and food supplies and trade going as well as raising the next generation. Inevitably, they had to organise systems, structures and governance. So it’s not too far a stretch for women to have developed leadership roles in all parts of Roma Novan life over the next sixteen centuries…

In essence, the characters must live in their world naturally. To them, their world is normal, just as ours is to us. Neither they nor the readers know what could happen next, which is part of the fun…


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s 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.

NEXUS – Book of the Month!

Well, reviews have been coming in for NEXUS in a very satisfactory way, including from Discovering Diamonds Reviews which specialises in reviewing historical fiction. If you love historical fiction and are looking for good reads by new voices, you’ll find a treasure cave there. Everything is read by well-vetted and, frankly, tough reviewers, so you will only get good quality stories.

I was delighted when Discovering Diamonds emailed me to say that NEXUS had been shortlisted for Book of the Month. Given the competition around, that’s very satisfying.

But today I discovered that NEXUS has made it – honoured as Book of the Month! Bubbly tonight, I think…

The award is shared with Lucienne Boyce’s Death Makes No Distinction and M.J.Logue’s A Deceitful Subtlety – both excellent reads.

Bookbloggers and their review teams are saints. I know they get a book free of charge, but they take the time and trouble to read it thoroughly and then write up their thoughts in a detailed and coherent manner. This all takes time, so their reviews are precious.
Let’s raise a glass to these heroes!

And here’s the Discovering Diamonds Review in full:
“I rarely get time to become so engrossed in a novel that I read it from start to finish in one go. I made the time for Nexus; even if it had been a full-length novel, not a quick-read novella I would have done so. I confess I know Alison Morton, she is a friend, but that has no significance when it comes to reading a very good, very absorbing and very interesting story.

Set between the novels Aurelia and Insurrectio in the Aurelia Mitela section of Ms Morton’s series of thriller adventures, Nexus is an entirely stand-alone read and is as superb, gripping and thoroughly believable as is the rest of the series.

‘Believable’ is the key word here. The whole background concept for the series is entirely imaginative fiction: there is no such place as Roma Nova, its construction, its history, its people its politics – it’s trials and tribulations do not exist. Apart from ‘What did Rome do for us?’ (roads, sewers, baths, etc.) Rome, the Rome of the past did not survive much beyond the fifth century AD, but Ms Morton has turned that fact totally on its head by creating an alternative present-day world with its people, politics and events. Roma Nova, is a small patch of ancient Rome snugly fitted into today’s modern world, complete with its traditional language and customs. A world that is so utterly believable and convincing, I defy anyone to not go looking on a modern map to see where Roma Nova is located.

It is the preciseness of detail that puts the icing on the cake for these novels, and Nexus in particular. From the very first sentence, with her immaculate research and knowledge of army intelligence and tactics, the author brings every scene, every character, every word of dialogue to very real and very vivid life. From the way they dress and speak to the way they fight, every scene is immersed in believability: the training of a young horse, self-defence in a sticky situation, the lurch in the stomach as a helicopter takes off… beautifully written.

Add in the thriller element of the bad guys, the menace of dark shadows, murder and mystery and you get a page-turner of the very highest exceptional quality.”



Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s 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.

NEXUS starts in (Roman) London...

At the beginning of NEXUS, Aurelia Mitela is filling in as interim London nuncia (ambassador) for the Roma Nova government. She’s got the connections, she knows how to navigate the diplomatic and political waters, she’s served in London before as political officer. The most dangerous thing is getting ‘volunteered’ to host a diplomatic corps family day in the big garden behind the Roma Nova legation.

London Roma Nova Legation
London in the Roma Nova timeline is a little different from our London… Roma Nova has had a legation there for several centuries, specifically up in the northwest corner of the original castrum or military fort of Londinium. And they expanded it by buying the unclaimed next door plot after the Great Fire of London in 1666. Being Romans, they maintained the wall and two towers on the boundary of the legation and when the developers in the late 1950s wanted to push an inner ring road through what was hallowed soil for Roma Nova, they said ‘no.’

Map extract from Heritage Daily showing Roman London walls outline

Map extract from Heritage Daily

So the City of London London Wall inner ring road in Aurelia’s timeline has to divert north of the old castrum line! I used to work in the City many years ago and often wondered how drilling through the old castrum had been allowed. Putting the Roma Nova legion there in NEXUS is my ‘revenge’!

Is there any trace today of the castrum?
Yes, but not much. The stone-built fort covered five acres (20,230 square metres). You can see from the inset map above that some of the street patterns reflect the layout of a typical Roman camp, e.g. Wood Street, but not quite. Little bits of fortress wall, sometimes reinforced in later times but before the modern era, pop up in between the modern sleek offices and the occasional older building that’s sometimes survived. Like medieval York, medieval and pre-Fire London, although preserving some of the footprint of thoroughfares, was more concerned with trade and growth than preserving old stones from a defunct past. Later walls were built up on the ruins of or along the line of the original Roman fortifications.

Drawing of London castrum, Alan Sorrell/Museum of London

London castrum, Alan Sorrell/Museum of London

The Museum of London does an excellent job of re-imagining Roman London despite the relatively small amount of material it has to work with; I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting the Roman galleries. But how to get a feel of the fort? I traipsed round in and out of City buildings, green spaces, courtyards and gardens, none of which is very big and some of which you have to observe from behind locked gates. Here’s a selection of the results.

Marina’s school
Now this school is fictional and absolutely nothing to do with the real very respectable and highly successful independent girls’ school located north of the castrum wall. Marina’s school lies  a short way away from the legation, and was founded for daughters of artisans and merchants initially in the late 1700s (earlier than in our timeline!). Funded by the guilds and companies in London for the next two and a half centuries, it charges no fees. The only criterion is to live within the walls of London. When Marina attends, it’s a mix of girls born there and those from international families whose parents have moved there either temporarily or permanently, mostly for work reasons.

City Police
This force in NEXUS parallels the real City of London Police which is separate from the rest of London law enforcement, the Metropolitan Police, informally called ‘the Met’. Policing in the City of London has existed since Roman times and Wood Street police station, the headquarters of the City of London Police, is built on part of the site of the Roman castrum.

From the medieval period, policing in the City was divided between day and night City Watches under the two sheriffs (Shades of the vigiles under tribunes). Responsibilities were shared with the aldermen’s officers – the ward beadles – who are now purely ceremonial. In 1838, the Day Police and Night Watch were merged into a single organisation. The City of London Police Act 1839 gave statutory approval to the force as an independent police body, heading off attempts to merge it with the Metropolitan Police.

And in London, we also have what Aurelia calls the British Foreign Ministry (or Foreign Office), and the genial but tragic Harry Carter, one of its rising stars who becomes Aurelia’s long-term friend. NEXUS is the story of how this came about and why he helped her in RETALIO. But that’s another story!

NEXUS now out! Ebook link  Paperback

Read about how this London setting is essential to the story of great evil and great courage.

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s 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.