The Ancient World in Fiction: A Brief List

Here’s the original Guardian article which spurred this. The Twitter response has been interesting if not always fair (It’s a brief list guys! It can’t get all our favourites in!). Reading the article has only served to remind me how poorly I’ve fulfilled my promise to produce more book reviews (I have three almost done, I swear…). Well maybe this will help, I’m producing several in one post in order to demonstrate the kind of books available on the ancient world.

If we take the ancient world to have extended from the rise of the palatial societies to the loss of Rome’s eastern territories to the Arabs, that’s some significant temporal distance. While there are a lot of historical novels out there, most tend to fall into a handful of categories: Late Roman Republic to Early Empire, Christianisation under Constantine, or Classical Athens. Many tend to focus in a few geographical areas, such as Rome herself or Britannia.

Most, incidentally, are shit.

I’m not here to debate the literary qualities of the historical novel. I’m taking it for read that most are pulpy and not worth a second reading. The few I’m recommending have more in common with literary fiction than your typical genre novel, for no other reason than that’s my taste. Whilst, needless to say, these aren’t going to be replacing Tolstoy on your bookshelf, they’re edifying and enjoyable.

If you are interested in the literary merits of historical fiction then see this discussion in the New Republic and/or this controversial LitHub piece arguing against the label.

Ancient Greece

The Praise Singer – Mary Renault

Unlike many, I was never truly captivated by Renault’s Alexander saga as a boy. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I remember it finding it flighty. When I went to university my reading list on Alexander was made up of the ‘three B’s’ (Badian, Borza, Bosworth), which only served to confirm my impression of Renault’s characterisation as highly unlikely.

The less said about the Graves’ inspired ‘The King Must Die’, the better.

I was prompted to return to her by none other than Simon Hornblower, who suggested that in many ways her ‘The Praise Singer’ would flesh out some of my research interests in novelistic form. Surprisingly, I fell in love. This is much the best novel on the list.

It follows the life of Simonides – with wonderful cameos from Anakreon, Peisistratos et al – and is the single best depiction of a Greek singer in novel form. Renault was a sensitive reader of Greek poetry and every other page is imbued with something from the Classics.

Tyrant/The Long War – Christian Cameron

I’m surprised I ever read this, the cover alone was enough to put me off, but I’m terribly glad that I did. Billed originally as a military adventure, Cameron’s ‘Tyrant’ is incredibly evocative of the early Hellenistic age.

Athenians seethe with resentment at being cast aside by Alexander or writhe in confusion at their admiration. Phokion and his realpolitik are an important part of the background. The genius of the novel is to cast in periphery, not centre, by focusing on the black sea region.

A wonderful depiction of Greek military practice, gentlemanly culture, and the Greek religious Weltanschauung. This latter aspect really shines through, almost unique amongst historical novels.

I do not care for the sequels.

His second series, ‘The Long War’, follows Herodotus and is a fun read. That’s unfair actually as Cameron is a judicious reader of Herodotus and seems to share my love of the archaic period. If you have time and inclination, I suggest you read them too.

The Last King of Lydia – Tim Leach

Herodotus has always been an excellent font of stories and in his debut novel, Tim Leach taps into that rich vein with profit.

Leaving aside the story, surely known to all readers of this blog, Leach employs a rich and reflective prose style throughout which make this worth re-reading. There’s something quasi-Aristotlean about the way he has rooting for Croesus despite mistake after mistake.

Warrior in Bronze – George Shipway

I’m including this in part for @e-pe-me-ri, but it’s very good.

An almost sympathetic depiction of Agamemnon, who is more wily than wise and more calculating than compassionate. Shipway is rather creative with his historical sources be they literary, mythological, or archaeological. Yes, the depiction of the bronze age Aegean and Mycenaean palatial society may well be antiquated, but it has an air of antiquarian learning I find enjoyable and the human portraits therein are realistic and engrossing.

Clytemnestra steals the show. That’s all I’ll say without spoiling it.

Throughout, Shipway employs a muscular prose which matches Agamemnon’s voice and is sadly disappearing from modern fiction.


Cast Not the Day – Paul Waters

Imagine being Macrobius. He couldn’t have had all the data we have now about the twilight of the Roman Empire: Cows are shorter at the haunches, spices are rarer and more expensive, the army gradually shrinking, tax revenues depleting never to be restored etc etc, but any Roman with a classical education could have sensed the decay.

Waters captures this sense delicately; the book feels like iron fixings rusting on marble columns, all drawn in a concise and strong prose style.

This is probably the best depiction of homosexual relationships in antiquity (yes, better than Renault’s ‘Last of the Wine’), is reasonably even handed about the rising power of the church, and a great depiction of provincial life.

Eagle in the Snow – Wallace Breem

By far the best novel ever written on the Romans. I’ve heard Gladiator was based on this, which makes no sense because that film is rubbish.

‘Behind me I left my youth, my middle age, my wife and my happiness. I was a general now and I had only defeat or victory to look forward to. There was no middle way any longer, and I did not care.’

How can you not be hooked? One of the things I loved about this novel was the way Maximus changed as narrator throughout, each shock and setback making his description just a little more gravid. The few instances of joyous reminiscence therefore shine all the brighter. It may be an odd comparison, but I think fans of Sutcliffe may enjoy this.

This is another book set towards the end of empire and (originally) in a province.  and successfully alternatives suspense (the novel starts with Ammianus’ conspiratio barbarica) and forlorn sadness.

East of Rome…

One the great things about Classics is the tendency to situate Greco-Roman antiquity in a wider, global, context. At its worst, this impulse is typified by middle class monoglot morons yelling about ‘Eurocentrism!’ as if that will make their parents love them. At its best, this results in contextually grounded comparative work that truly elucidates and is a pleasure to read.

Why not throw a few books from elsewhere around the world in tribute to this?

The Assyrian – Nicholas Guild

There are tangible links to Greece (and Cyprus) here, sure, and I’m sure others will have spoken disapprovingly about any ‘orientalist’ tropes such as harem politics. Nonetheless, this is an example of a great book not always being a great evil.

Golden Fire – Jonathan Fast

The Gupta era is often considered to be India’s second classical age (after the Mauryan). Much of what we associate with Indian culture was either born or codified in this time, and philologists have much to thank the scholars of the Gupta court for when it comes to Sanskrit texts (especially that of the Mahabharata).

Fast’s evocative novel is full of detailed ritual and court ceremonial that really bring India alive at times, even if the novel doesn’t quite hit its literary aspirations passim.

The Egyptian – Mika Waltari

If you read only one novel on ancient Egypt (and fair enough), make it this one. There is a reason it has lasted for so many decades.

The parallels with the story of Sinuhe only serve to make the book feel more Egyptian. The clash of idealism and pragmatism forms a central theme in the book and its very, very, easy to just get lost.

Further Reading

Obviously brief lists like this could be extended ad nauseam, but if you have any suggestions, let me know below or on Twitter.

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