What inspired Roma Nova?

I’m often asked this when I do interviews, talks or simply chatting to readers, but I don’t think I’ve ever put it all in one place on this my own blog.

Well, three things!

Ampurias mosaic

Ampurias mosaic

The first was when I was on holiday in north-east Spain one summer. Here’s the story…

A small child, curls bobbing on a head she’s forgotten to cover with the sunhat her mother insists on, crouched down on a Roman mosaic floor in north-east Spain. Mesmerised by the purity of the black and white pattern, the craftsmanship and the tiny marble squares, she almost didn’t hear her father calling her to the next one.

Jumping up, she eagerly ran to him, babbling questions like many eleven year olds do: who were the people who lived here, what were they called, what did they do, where have they gone?

The father, a numismatist and senior ‘Roman nut’, started telling her about the Greek town of Emporion founded 575 BC which became Roman Emporiæ in 218 BC, where traders sailed in and out with their cargoes of olive oil, wine, textiles, glass and metals; where people lived in higgledy-piggledy houses, traded from little shops; where the Roman army based its operations; where money was minted. And the people came from every corner of the Roman Empire to live and work. Boys went to schools and girls learnt to be good wives and mothers.

The little girl listened carefully to every word, sifting the information. Her hand in his, she turned as they leave, looked back at the mosaics and asked her father a final question.

“What would it be like if Roman women were in charge, instead of the men?”

Maybe it was the fierce sun boiling my brain that day, maybe I was just a precocious kid asking a smartass question. But clever man, my father replied:

“What do you think it would be like?”

I thought about it for several decades…

Lieut Alison

Lieutenant Alison on exercise ‘somewhere in Germany’

Real life intervened (school, university, career, military, marriage, parenthood, business ownership, move to France), but the idea bubbled away in my mind and the INCEPTIO story slowly took shape. My mind was morphing the setting of ancient Rome into a new type of Rome, a state that survived the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire into the 21st century, but retaining its Roman identity. And one where the social structure changed; women were going to be leading society.

By that time, I’d played with words much of my life; playwright (aged 7!), article writer, local magazine editor, dissertation writer and professional translator.

The second piece of the jigsaw was when I picked up Robert Harris’ Fatherland in my local independent bookshop in 1992. The emotional high of the breaching and tumbling down of the Berlin Wall was only three years before. Germany, and Europe, was redefining itself. Into this whirling pot was thrown the concept of ‘what if Nazi Germany had won the war?’. Others had tackled it before; I had a vague memory of watching ‘An Englishman’s Castle’ starring Kenneth More when I was younger, but it hadn’t clicked then.

Reading Fatherland, I started to speculate on what would have been the alternate path of history? Suppose Elizabeth I had married and had children? Suppose Julius Caesar hadn’t been assassinated? Suppose women had got the vote in Britain when New Zealand women did in 1893? Suppose, suppose, suppose…

Until then, I hadn’t realised you really could project history forward in a different line, but in a non-fantasy logical progression. Revelation!

But the third thing, the trigger that  made me sit down and wear my fingers out for the next few months writing INCEPTIO?

Ewan McGregor

Ewan McGregor

In 2010 my husband and I were sitting in a darkened cinema theatre, waiting for the movie to start. We picked this film, based on a popular novel, as it was the least worst on offer at the local multiplex. And it had Ewan McGregor in a key role… The film started; exciting music, great cinematography, but thirty minutes in, we realise the plot is dire and narration hacked and chopped so many times the story is unintelligible.

I could do better than that,’ I whispered to my husband.

So why don’t you?

We drove home, my brain bursting with an idea I’d had forty years ago in Spain, fuelled by Robert Harris’s alternative history and tempered by the feminism of my student days. Ninety days  and 96,000 words later, I typed ‘The End’ on page 306 of the first draft of INCEPTIO, the first of the Roma Nova series.

And that, citizens, is how Roma Nova sprang into the world.


Updated 2022: Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. JULIA PRIMA, a new Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, will be out on 23 August.

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