Swedes and Romans

Anna  at the ABBA museum, Stockholm

Visiting Sweden on holiday recently was personally enormous fun, especially as my hostess was the ABBA singing historical fiction writer Anna Belfrage. But in a way it was spooky.

Something was missing – big time.

Sweden brims over with history and its impact on my home country can’t be underestimated; half of Britain has its DNA. I was impressed by beautiful buildings, hundreds of years of tradition, the rise of the Vasa dynasty, the Iron Age town of Uppåkra, the huge influence of the Hanseatic League and of course, the impressive conserved Vasa warship from 1628 (Sweden’s Mary Rose) .

The Vasa


But no Romans. This was what was troubling me.

We know that the northern lands of Britannia and Germania, and to an extent Batavia, were bothersome (and cold) so perhaps successive Roman senates and rulers didn’t want to chance their arm. But what about any non-conquest contact?

It’s all a bit sketchy. There are two sources from the 1st century AD that refer to the Suiones. The first one is Pliny the Elder who said that the Romans had rounded the Cimbric peninsula (Jutland) where there was the Codanian Gulf (possibly the Kattegat). (Let’s not talk about the Cimbric War (113–101 BC) – the Roman state nearly foundered before it had really got going.)

Anyway, in this Codanian Gulf there were several large islands among which the most famous was Scatinavia (Scandinavia). He said that the size of the island was unknown but in a part of it dwelt a tribe named the Hillevionum gens, in 500 villages, and they considered their country to be a world of its own.

Tacitus (Modern statue outside the Austrian Parliament)

Commentators find it striking that this large tribe is unknown to posterity, unless it was a simple misspelling or misreading of illa Svionum gente. (Typos happen to the best of us.) This would make sense, since a large Scandinavian tribe named the Suiones was known to the Romans.

Tacitus wrote in AD 98 in Germania (44, 45) that the Suiones were a powerful tribe distinguished not merely for their arms and men, but for their powerful fleets with ships that had a prow in both ends. He further mentions that they were much impressed by wealth, and the king was absolute. Further, he says the Suiones did not bear arms everyday, and that weapons were guarded by a slave.

After Tacitus’ mention of the Suiones, the sources are silent about them until the 6th century as Scandinavia was still in pre-historic times.

Europe 125 AD


The ‘Roman Iron Age’  is the name given to the period 1–400 AD in Scandinavia, reflecting the hold that the Roman Empire had begun to exert on the Germanic tribes of Northern Europe. Coins (more than 7,000) and vessels, bronze images, glass beakers, enameled buckles, weapons, etc. markedly Roman have been found in Scandinavia from that period. The main items of exports appear to have been slaves, furs and amber via Roman merchants. Through the 5th and 6th centuries, gold and silver become more and more common possibly not unconnected with the ransack of the Roman Empire by Germanic tribes, from which many Scandinavians returned with gold and silver.

On the island of Öland off Sweden’s south-eastern coast, two rings and a coin (below) were found in 2017, which confirmed a theory that the island was in close contact with the Roman Empire. Close by,  the team found pieces of Roman glass in an area which was once an important house. The coin was made in honour of Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III, who ruled between 425 and 455 AD. The emperor is depicted on one side of the coin, with his foot resting on the head of a barbarian – a common motif in coinage from the period. A similar coin commemorating Valentinian III was found three years ago.

In the 6th century Jordanes, 6th-century Eastern Roman bureaucrat turned historian of Gothic extraction, named two tribes he calls the Suehans and the Suetidi who lived in Scandza. They were famous for their fine horses. The Suehans were the suppliers of black fox skins for the Roman market. Then Jordanes names a tribe named Suetidi a name that is considered to refer to the Suiones as well and to be the Latin form of Sweþiuð. ‘The Suetidi are said to be the tallest of men together with the Dani who were of the same stock.’ (Tell that to the Swedes!)

University of Lund

The University of Lund, one of Sweden’s most prestigious, offers a short part-time course ‘Barbarians and Romans’:

This course studies the relationship between the Roman Empire and other cultures, especially Germanic and Celtic tribes, outside the realm of the Empire during the period 100 B.C to 400 A.D. We discuss the how the meeting between Romans and their neighbours took place materially and culturally and problematize central concepts like imperialism, civilization, ethnicity, social identity, Romanization and hybridity. Parts of the teaching will take place at the Historical Museum in Lund and at the National Museum and Glyptoteket in Copenhagen.

Looks like it’s on again next year as well…

But here’s a connection to the Romans, carved on the prow of the Vasa. Like the Turks, the Romans were universally acknowledged as tough and fearsome warriors and often used as symbols to frighten away enemies. This figure would have been holding a sword in his raised right hand. The lion and dog at his feet symbolise the clemency of the strong towards the weak.

Teasing out differences and connections between the Roman and Scandinavian worlds will fascinate forever and doubtless be fertile ground for historical novelists for some time to come. 😉


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, FREE 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.

A tale of another Aurelia – the mother of Julius Caesar

(Possibly) Aurelia Cotta, unattributed

Many of you will be familiar with Aurelia Mitela, the elder stateswoman of INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO and the heroine in her own trilogy set in her younger days –  AURELIA, INSURRECTIO and RETALIO. Although an honourable name in Roma Nova, it was one with a long history in the Roman past.

One of the most famous was Aurelia Cotta, the mother of Julius Caesar. Born in 120 BC, she came from a top drawer family with consuls, senators and generals in every generation in her distinguished family tree. Her father was consul in 119 BC and her paternal grandfather in 144 BC. Ditto three of her bothers: Gaius Aurelius Cotta in 75 BC, Marcus Aurelius Cotta in 74 BC and Lucius Aurelius Cotta in 65 BC.

Aurelia married Gaius Julius Caesar (not that one, his father) and had three children:
– Julia Major (102 – 68 BC), wife of Pinarius and grandmother of Lucius Pinarius;
– Julia Minor (101 – 51 BC), wife of Marcus Atius and grandmother of emperor Augustus;
– Gaius Julius Caesar (100 – 44 BC), the dictator.

Caesar senior’s progress through the cursus honorum, the Roman career path, is recorded although the specific dates are a bit wobbly. According to two elogia erected in Rome long after his death, Caesar senior was at some time commissioner in the colony at Cercina, military tribune, quaestor, praetor and proconsul of Asia. He died suddenly in 85 BC, in Rome, while putting on his shoes one morning. (Dangerous things, shoes). His father, who had had him educated by Marcus Antonius Gnipho, one of the best orators in Rome, left Caesar senior the bulk of his estate, but after Marius’s faction had been defeated in the civil war of the 80s BC, this inheritance was confiscated by the dictator Sulla. This is probably why young Julius Caesar was always strapped for cash.

That’s the official stuff, but what was Aurelia like?
The historian Tacitus considered her an ideal Roman matron and thought highly of her (Dialogus de oratoribus, section xxviii).

“Thus it was, as tradition says, that the mothers of the Gracchi, of Cæsar, of Augustus, Cornelia, Aurelia, Atia, directed their children’s education and reared the greatest of sons. The strictness of the discipline tended to form in each case a pure and virtuous nature which no vices could warp, and which would at once with the whole heart seize on every noble lesson.” 

Plutarch described her as a “strict and respectable” woman (Plutarch’s Lives: Caesar). Highly intelligent, independent and renowned for her beauty and common sense, Aurelia was held in high regard throughout Rome.

Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589), ‘Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum’

Caesar senior was often away so the task of raising their son fell mostly on Aurelia and her influential family’s shoulders. They lived in the Subura, a working class district in Rome, unusual for a patrician family. When the young Julius Caesar was about eighteen, he was ordered by the then dictator of Rome, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, to divorce his young wife Cornelia Cinna, Cinna’s daughter. Young Caesar firmly refused and put himself at risk of execution by Sulla who was not exactly unknown for knocking off anybody who displeased or opposed him. Aurelia headed a petition to Sulla that succeeded in saving her son’s life.

After Cornelia Cinna’s death in childbirth, Aurelia raised her young granddaughter Julia in her stead and presided over her son’s household. Young Caesar subsequently married Pompeia Sulla. During the Bona Dea festival held at young Julius Caesar’s house, Aurelia’s maid discovered Publius Clodius disguised as a woman, ostensibly in order to start or continue an affair with her second daughter-in-law Pompeia. Although young Julius Caesar himself admitted Pompeia’s possible innocence, he divorced her shortly afterwards stating that his wife must be above suspicion.

Not much more is known about Aurelia. She must have had a rather conventional though formidable personality. In her Masters of Rome series, Colleen McCullough breathes life into her as a young landlady of a large insula, as one who has to become mother and father of her children during her husband’s long absences, and later on through a rather murky but basically platonic relationship with Sulla.

Did Aurelia have the first C-Section?
Speculation that young Julius Caesar was born by Caesarian section doesn’t seem to be true.

Although Caesarean sections were performed in Roman times, no classical source records a mother surviving such a delivery. The term has may have derived from the verb caedere, to cut, with children delivered this way referred to as caesones. Pliny the Elder refers to a certain Julius Caesar (an ancestor of the our Julius Caesar) as ab utero caeso, ‘cut from the womb’, giving this as an explanation for the cognomen ‘Caesar’ which was then carried by his descendants.

However, linking Caesarean section to Julius Caesar has been widely believed down the ages. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary defines Caesarean birth as “the delivery of a child by cutting through the walls of the abdomen when delivery cannot take place in the natural way, as was done in the case of Julius Caesar”. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition) states a little more hesitantly, ‘from the legendary association of such a delivery with the Roman cognomen Caesar.’

Can you imagine it, with no anaesthetic or antibiotics? I think we’ll leave it in the realm of folklore.

As for Aurelia Cotta, she died around 54 BC at the respectable age of 65, so I think we can safely say she wasn’t the mother of the C-section.


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 now.  Audiobooks are available for the first four of the series.

Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, FREE 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.

Serious stuff - GDPR and your data

You’ve probably been getting a load of ‘We’re changing our privacy setting/terms of service‘ type emails recently as today, 25 May 2018, is the deadline for the new EU General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) coming into force. Some organisations ask you to re-subscribe, some ask for confirmation, some advise you of the new regulations and their updated privacy policies. There’s a fair amount of confusion out there, but I conclude that what you have to do as somebody who holds data on other people depends on how you collected the email addresses in the first place.

Now, I approve of these new regulations. I’ve had a privacy policy on my business websites since I started my translation business in 1994. For too long, and especially in today’s universal digital universe, our data have been thrown around willy-nilly, monetised and merchandised by any website we’ve signed up to. Of course, it’s on us to be careful about what we post on social media and what we sign up to, but tightening up regulation was needed.

But it affects the little people like me as well as giants like Facebook, hence this post.

Anybody joining the Roma Nova newsletter/email list (http://eepurl.com/ckNeFL) or subscribing to my two blogsites (https://alison-morton.com and https://alisonmortonauthor.com) has always been asked to confirm by email that they really, really want to subscribe – the ‘double opt-in’ which now has a link to my privacy policy. An ‘Unsubscribe’ link is at the bottom of each blogpost notification email.

If you want to continue following the blogs, you don’t need to do anything, but I want to draw your attention to my revised privacy policy which outlines how I collect your name and email address, how I store it and how I use it.

I know it only applies to subscribers in the EU, but it’s really good business practice to be transparent with your clients, readers, colleagues and anybody you have a business or professional relationship with.

Right, that’s out the way. Let’s get back to Roma Nova!

If you have any questions, email me at hello@alison-morton.com

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 now.  Audiobooks are available for the first four of the series.

Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, FREE 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.

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 www.durolitum.co.uk

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.

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