An interview with Harry Sidebottom

Dr Harry Sidebottom, an expert on ancient warfare, classical art and the cultural history of the Roman Empire, teaches classical history at the University of Oxford, where he is a Fellow of St Benet's Hall and a lecturer at Lincoln College. Since 2006 he has been writing the Warrior of Rome series of historical novels, featuring the Anglo-Saxon nobleman turned Roman army officer Ballista. We caught up with Dr. Sidebottom in October 2011, shortly after the publication of The Caspian Gates, the fourth novel in the series, and asked him a few questions.

Are those who attend your lectures and classes treated to a style of delivery similar to that found in your historical fiction books?

In the main, yes. History is meant to be fun. Maybe there is a bit less swearing.

As the Warrior of Rome series progresses, Ballista becomes less and less the “hero” and increasingly shows himself as fallible and, above all, human. Is this how you have always seen his development?

Right from the start I thought of Ballista as a bit like the Humphrey Bogart character in Key Largo. He does not want to be a hero, but circumstances and something in his inner nature make him step up. His life as a hostage has made him quite reserved. As the novels go on the reader gets to see more of his personality.

The Caspian Gates was the fourth instalment in the Warrior of Rome series and I believe you are hard at work at book five. How many books will there be in total when the series ends?

I planned out four trilogies. But, if I am still enjoying researching and writing them, and people are still enjoying reading them, I may write more. To keep fresh, and just because I really want to, after the sixth Warrior novel, The Amber Road, I am going to write one set in First World War.

I have read and reviewed all four Warrior of Rome novels and have also read many reviews from other online sources. Whilst readers in general really like the books, the use of Latin asides seems to divide opinions, with some relishing their inclusion but others finding them a distraction. Is this feedback useful to you as an author and is the use of Latin within your novels something you have looked at in response to reader comments?

The Latin (and Greek and Persian) words, like the swearing, were something I though a lot about. I wanted them included for historical verisimilitude, although I realised it might put some readers off. Latin words often have very different connotations from their English translations: Res Publica evoked different things to Romans from those summoned up in English by Republic. In the first novel, Fire in the East, I put the translation straight after the foreign word. Now I make sure the meaning is clear from the context, if the reader is prepared to think about it.

If, just for an hour, a time-machine was able to take you back to Rome during the Great Crisis of the Third Century AD, what would you do and more importantly where would you visit in the time allowed?

A wood outside Athens just after the Goths have sacked the city. This is the subject of a fragment of the historian Dexippus. It has always intrigued me. It would be good if I could get there before I write the tenth Warrior novel.

What should those of us living today be most grateful to the Romans for? Which Roman discoveries or inventions make our lives more comfortable and enjoyable (or simply longer)?

I am not good at `utility` questions. Maybe concrete that sets under water. or – a lot more controversially - if you live in Western Europe, the eastern Roman (Byzantine) empire holding back Islamic armies for so long.

What does the remainder of 2011 and 2012 hold for Dr. Harry Sidebottom?

The rest of 2011 is finishing novel five, working title The Nomad Sea.

In 2012 I am going to edit, with Michael Whitby, The Encyclopaedia of Ancient Battles, write an article on the `Third century Crisis`, and research and write Warrior number six, The Amber Road.

You can read our reviews of Dr. Harry Sidebottom's Warrior of Rome novels here: