“I’ve always been drawn to periods of revolution and change, and the possibilities of viewing this very volatile era through the eyes of a man caught in the midst of it, not knowing what the future might bring, were compelling.”
When a treacherous act of murder throws the western provinces into turmoil, Aurelius Castus is ordered to take command of the military forces on the Rhine. But he soon discovers that the frontier is a place where the boundaries between civilisation and barbarism, freedom and slavery, honour and treason have little meaning.
At the very heart of the conflict are two vulnerable boys. One is Emperor Constantine’s young heir, Crispus. The other is Castus’s own beloved son, Sabinus. Only Castus stands between them and men who would kill them. With all that he loves in danger, Castus and a handful of loyal men must fight to defend the Roman Empire. But in the heat of battle, can he distinguish friend from enemy?.
Ian Ross was born in England, and studied painting before turning to writing fiction. After a year in Italy teaching English and exploring the ruins of empire reawakened his early love for ancient history, he returned to the UK with a growing fascination for the period known as late antiquity.
Ian has been researching and writing about the later Roman world and its army for over a decade. His interests combine an obsessive regard for accuracy and detail as well as a devotion to the craft of storytelling.
The Mask of Command (Twilight of Empire IV) (published by Head of Zeus, December 2016). To find out more click here.
Why the age of Constantine?
The Roman era is always going to attract the imagination, I think: perhaps it’s the combination of the recognisable and the very alien, or just the sheer scale of the empire and the drama of its history. The early fourth century is probably rather less familiar to many people, but it was a fascinating period, simultaneously gloomy and ornate, sophisticated and brutal. The empire had been through tremendous upheavals and was in a process of transformation; it was still a resolutely Roman culture and society, but the old certainties of the classical world were gone. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to sense the gathering storms of the empire’s collapse, so there’s a sort of background of darkness that makes the action stand out in even greater clarity.
I’ve always been drawn to periods of revolution and change, and the possibilities of viewing this very volatile era through the eyes of a man caught in the midst of it, not knowing what the future might bring, were compelling. We also have a reasonably good idea of the main events of the time, and a cast of extraordinary historical characters!
Did your research include much travel? Are there places where the visitor can catch a glimpse of the world your characters inhabit?
I’ve tried to visit all of the main sites I write about in the books, yes – an advantage, as I find travel sharpens the imagination greatly. My research so far has taken me from Scotland to Turkey, but this book is mainly set on the north-west frontier of the empire, along the lower Rhine and its hinterland. In Cologne (Colonia Agrippina in the novel, Castus’s centre of operations) you can see the remains of the Roman praetorium, or governor’s palace – and an extraordinary stretch of old sewer tunnel beneath it, which found its way unexpectedly into the novel! In Trier the audience hall of the imperial palace still stands, an enormously impressive building, while in nearby Mainz you can see full-size replicas of the smaller type of Roman river galley.
Downstream at Xanten there’s an entire Roman legionary fortress, with some excellent reconstructions. Often it’s the smaller finds that draw me, though – those glass cases in museums filled with everything from kitchen implements to dice, bits of armour to votive figurines; the things that people of the distant past would have handled in their everyday lives.
When did you first “meet” the hero of the novels, Aurelius Castus? When and how did he first appear in your mind’s eye in roughly the form he takes in the novels?
Castus appeared to me very quickly; I found I could picture him distinctly almost from the first moment I started thinking about the story. I wanted a protagonist who fitted with the era, rather than a sort of superhero figure, but someone with the depth to develop and remain central to the successive stories. Castus is a traditionalist, fiercely loyal to his own rather idealistic sense of the empire and the emperors, and he has a blunt and straightforward view of the world that often makes him clumsy in social situations. But he has a strong sense of ethics and honour, that throws him into conflict with the more duplicitous morality of the times.
The later Roman Empire was a complex and often murky place, with emperors rising and falling, and murderous conspiracies and treacheries on all sides; and I like having a central character who’s rather out of his depth among the intrigues, but with the willpower to battle through them. A just man in an unjust time, perhaps.
Where did Castus learn to fight i.e. where did you learn to write authentic battle accounts and war stories?
I’m glad you find them convincing! I would guess it’s safe to say that few, if any, people today know what the actual experience of fighting hand to hand in ancient battles would be like, so authenticity is hard to judge. We have accounts from the period, some very vivid, that can tell us how Roman soldiers fought, how their formations were arrayed, and how particular clashes developed. There are reconstructions and re-enactments that can tell us even more. But beyond that it’s a matter of imagination and a sense of empathy, I think: we all know what fear and shock feel like, what adrenaline does to us, and fiction can build on that knowledge and take it somewhere new.
All novels are about empathy in that sense, about imagining the experiences of somebody else doing something entirely unfamiliar, and when that person is living in an historical era the imagination has to stretch that bit further. So when I’m writing these scenes I’m trying to evoke the sense of action and speed, the sense of danger, but keep everything focussed on the experiences of the individual man, Castus himself, who actually feels quite at home in the violent world of the battlefield!
Castus is the hero, but he is not the narrator. Did you ever consider telling the story in the first person?
I didn’t really, no – Castus is a man of relatively few words, and his taciturn nature wouldn’t really suit a narrator’s role. He’s always going to be at the centre of the story, although I have increasingly used other character’s perspectives alongside his own. In this book, there are viewpoints from Fausta, the emperor’s wife, and a certain rather dangerous eunuch as well; I often find it appealing to write from the perspective of people very dissimilar to myself.
You’ve been researching the period for over a decade. What’s the greatest liberty you have taken with your sources in order to tell the story?
I’ve always tried to take as few liberties as possible with the historical facts – which isn’t actually all that difficult, as our sources tend to be pretty scanty for this period, and there’s plenty of leeway for interpretation! But I haven’t deliberately changed anything so far, and only start inventing things once I reach the furthest borders of the evidence. With the new book, The Mask of Command, I’ve had to be a lot more inventive though: the historical record tends to follow Constantine quite exclusively, and in this book my story leaves him in the eastern provinces and heads back west to the turbulent Rhine frontier.
We know there was some sort of war with the barbarians, and the emperor’s son Crispus claimed a victory, but beyond that things get a bit hazy. So my reconstruction of events is necessarily speculative, although almost everything that happens is at least based on something recorded from the surrounding era. More generally, though, I’ve never found the facts of history – or what we can establish of them – to be a hindrance in storytelling. It’s a lot more fruitful, I find, to try and build a story around the surviving fragments of the past, with all their awkward gaps and contradictions, rather than trying to bend history into a new shape that fits the ideas I already have.
Which novelist of the Roman Empire have you most tried to emulate, or is there one you’ve tried hard to avoid?
There are plenty of great writers around at the moment producing stories set in the ancient world, but I think with my own books I was trying consciously to reach back to works from a previous generation, the sort of thing I read when I was younger, and perhaps more impressionable! Rosemary Sutcliff would be obvious choice – mainly her novel for adults, The Flowers of Adonis, which is fabulous. Also Mary Renault, Wallace Breem and Alfred Duggan, and Robert Graves of course. I’ve tried to capture something of the subtlety and detail of those writers, and combine it with the more action-driven sort of narratives that we’re familiar with today.
If you could meet one of the historical personalities featured in the Twilight of Empire series who would it be?
There are quite a few! Fascinating as it might be to meet Constantine himself, I doubt he’d reveal much beyond his public persona. Actually, it would be more interesting to meet his wife: Fausta plays a significant role in the novels, but she’s a shadowy historical figure, the daughter, mother, and wife of emperors, but perhaps very conflicted in her allegiances. No doubt she could give an illuminating insider’s view on what was really happening in the imperial court! Maxentius, who appears in the third book, would be fascinating too, I’m sure: the pro-Constantine propaganda portrays him as a monstrous tyrant, but he was very popular at the time, and I suspect he was a lot more sympathetic than he often appears.
The Mask of Command is the 4th book of the series. What’s next?
There are going to be six books in The Twilight of Empire series, covering a period of about thirty years. I planned them, rather roughly, before I started work on the first, and I’ve just finished the fifth. Despite all the planning – I try to plot everything out in as much detail as I can before I start a new project – things do always change once I’m into the writing process, so the story can always develop in unexpected ways. But you can expect further challenges for Castus, a lot more conflict and imperial intrigue, and some dramatic new locations too.
What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading Twilight of Empire IV The Mask of Command?
I never listen to music when I’m actually working, as it’s too distracting, although when I’m in the planning and preparation stages I sometimes do: anything from Holst to medieval Sicilian music, whatever helps to summon a certain mood. But if anyone wanted a musical accompaniment to reading the book, I’m sure the soundtrack to Gladiator would be quite suitable!