You couldn't do V Days of Rome without Sophia McDougall, the author of Romanitas and Rome Burning. Ms. McDougall's books have both been finalists for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History and have been re-issued in a new edition prior to the release of Savage City this May.
Rather inauspiciously, Ms. McDougall spoke with us on the Ides of March. The result was a far-ranging interview that we'll be sharing throughout the week. In the first part, below, we talk about Rome, writing alternate history and why I, Claudius is really a fantasy novel.
SM: I went to Rome in my impressionable youth and it duly made an impression - I fell in love with it. Even though I was studying the Greeks at the time, I guess the Romans felt closer to who we are. Every global superpower that’s come since has modelled itself on Rome in some way - has seen something of itself in Rome. It was difficult to find an image for the cover of Romanitas - or even a title - because there are so few images left that are distinctively Rome and not something else. All the other cultures have stolen them. I think “eagle” – it could be Russian or American or German. Even for EasterCon, the Illustrious symbol is an Eagle - that’s always going to come back to Rome – you don’t even think about it.
So Rome, it’s because it’s a mirror of every Western civilisation. And not only Western civilisation – every civilisation that’s defined itself as modern.
Also, Rome’s a very grand and beautiful backdrop to tell any story. It is intrinsically very dangerous, the stakes are high before you even start. The characters are in danger before anything even happens. I have characters who are slaves - so starting with a deck very much stacked against them. But I find it interesting to have these characters, like Varius, who is upper middle class and as he says “I am a Roman Citizen” which is a line I pinched from my Latin A-Levels and Cicero. Romans had all these rights - that’s sort of the model for subsequent civilisations, the Twelve Tables is at the beginning of a line leading to America’s Bill of Rights - but these rights could always be whisked away at a moment’s notice.
The line comes from the context of it really, really not working. The case of the Fifth Verrine is Cicero prosecuting a corrupt governor of Sicily. This citizen had tried to expose him and he ended up being crucified on the shore so so he could see Italy across the strait of Sicily. “Let him die within sight of justice and freedom!” All the while he was shouting, “I am a Roman citizen… Civis Romanus sum.” Which should never be ignored anywhere, but, yes… it was. That’s the point. In theory, you can say “I am a Roman citizen” and things should go right, but in practice, they don’t necessarily.
So, Rome made for a dangerous, dramatic world. At the same time, also a world that wasn’t a full dystopia. It wasn’t about everything being awful. I’ve been thinking lately about sci-fi and fantasy and various kinds of speculative fiction premises. The ones that I really don’t like – and you’ve seen the rant I did about the sci-fi elements in Cloud Atlas – if the answer to your “what if” question is just “it would be bad” then something’s not right. Rome is sort of a horrible world, but it’s a world of great achievements and massive potential. So that’s “why Rome”.
PK: Why an alternate history at all – as opposed to creating your own world or writing historical fiction? An alternate history would seem to be the tough middle ground between the two.
SM: It didn’t strike me that way at the time. Why alternative as opposed to historical fiction? It is because you can control everything, and the outcome is not known to the reader in advance. I can change the entire world, I can make my characters and events massively, historically significant and it’s as unclear to the reader as to the character where things are going and what’s going to happen. In a way, straight historical fiction strikes me as more distancing – you can never fully share the shock when you read a novel where Vesuvius erupts or the Arch-Duke of Austria-Hungary gets shot . In alternative history, you can. You’re not going, “Oh, Julius Caesar, making plans post the Ides of March… maybe not going to work out so well.” You’re not limited in that way. But you still maintain this sense of closeness to our world - you can see the connections. I was talking earlier about the ways in which Rome was a mirror, I wanted that. I wanted it to feel as familiar as it felt strange.
PK: And the difficult part… you say can do everything you want, but I can only imagine that with every alternate history there are 10,000 amateur historians sharpening their knives.
There is one quasi-deliberate mistake. A mistake that was a mistake, but I spotted it in time, and then chose to keep it there. I’ve been waiting for bated breath for someone to pick on me, and so far it hasn’t happened.
I have the palace being called Domus Aurea – which is obviously wrong. That was Nero’s name for his palace and that palace rather famously got destroyed. The palace should be called Domus Augustana, but I just like Domus Aurea – the Golden House – so much. It sounds so poetic and it is a lovely parallel to the White House.
“The Golden House.” That sums up so much about the grandeur and awfulness of Rome.
PK: And what about the additional, supernatural element?
SM: There are two answers to that. There’s one blunt, short, completely truthful answer. There’s also one longer answer, also true, but it’s the truth in a slightly more flattering light.
First answer – the short, completely true answer: I just wanted to. I thought it would be cool. I like that sort of thing, and I wanted to do it.
I thought it’d be fun to play with a character who had supernatural abilities. I always wanted to know more about what it would feel like to be able to do these things.
The longer, more flattering to me, answer is that the Romans were very superstitious. They had Sibyls and Oracles and I wanted to build that into the world. No one ever says “what about the supernatural elements in I, Claudius?”. It has supernatural prophecies that come true on the page. It has magical powers that are objectively real. No one ever calls I, Claudius fantasy – technically it is.
I also thought that deploying one major cheat on the characters’ part would allow me to maintain how formidable the opposition that they were facing really was. I wouldn’t be able to rely on the opposition being stupid or things being improbably easy – so this allows the characters to do things that they could do in no other way. It allows me to tell a story about extremely vulnerable, disenfranchised people who are up against an extraordinarily implacable set of enemies and a set of structures that are designed not to let them Pass Go. Yet, I can still have something happen rather than let them just die.
PK: What sort of safeguards do you have in place so that you maintain consistency within your own timeline?
SM: Most of it is in my head, actually. My memory for that kind of thing is generally good.
I wrote the timeline very early on, so I‘ve always had that to refer back to. That was something I was asked to do by my agent about 100 pages in. I had a general sense of what happened and how it wound up that way, but it was a bit daunting, having to rewrite two thousand years of world history over a weekend.
The second part of our interview, discussing Rome Burning and Savage City, goes up on Wednesday. For further encouragement to start the series, we suggest our reviews of Romanitas or Rome Burning. Your own answer to "Why Rome?" could win you a copy of Romanitas - just take part in the competition here. Finally, Sophia McDougall has shared "The Beasts in the Arena", a free short story on her site.