You have to know history before you can 'alternate' it

Roma Novan heroines, ancient and modern

To write alternative history with authenticity, it’s helpful to be as well-versed and researched as an author writing a more conventional historical novel.

Let me unpick that…
Alternate (or alternative) history is based on the premise that the standard timeline diverged at a certain point and followed a different path. In my Roma Nova stories, this is 395 AD when Theodosius I (Flavius Theodosius Augustus, reigned 347-395 AD), the last emperor to rule over both the Eastern and the Western halves of the Roman Empire, issued the final edict banning all religious practice except Christian, on pain of death.

This gave me a baseline of the end of the fourth century so I researched the prevailing social, economic and political conditions. Rome changed significantly during its 1229 year existence in the West. By 395 AD, solidi had replaced sestertii and denarii, for instance. Regional government was localising with ‘barbarian’ warlords acting less like client kings of Rome and more like autonomous leaders with delegated powers and full control over their regions.

Another prime example is the Roman senate. It had lost much of its political power as well as its prestige when the Republic morphed into the Principate under Augustus. Following the constitutional reforms of Diocletian around 300 AD, although maintaining influence, it became politically irrelevant. When the seat of government was transferred out of Rome, the Senate was reduced to a purely municipal body. This decline in status was reinforced when the Constantine the Great created an additional senate in Constantinople.

The late 4th century was a long way from the ‘golden years’ of Vespasian’s or Trajan’s rule. The Apulius and Mitelus families were remnants of those earlier days and still served the much reduced empire as soldiers, magistrates and even senators while holding to their core values. Apulius’s family still had a house in Rome, servants, a large farm in Latium. But as we see in The Girl from the Market, as pagans professional opportunities were shutting in their faces. After Theodosius’s final edict in 395 AD, their lives were in danger unless they accepted Christian baptism and renounced their faith in the traditional Roman gods. So they trekked north into the mountains to escape.

Into the mountains

Into the mountains

Into the historical void…
For the Roma Novan colonists in those transitional times the most important things were security, food, shelter and hope – ultimately, survival. Their core Roman values would have bolstered them and formed a social glue while they struggled for existence. Even when forced by circumstances to change their social structure and call on women to fight alongside the men, they held to their intrinsic ‘Romanitas‘.

My mantra has been ‘follow historical logic’. Although our real history often hangs on little things or accidents, the historic dynamic generally points in one direction and one that it will return to, even if it goes ‘off piste’ from time to time.

In our own real timeline, Britain very nearly quashed the rebellion in its American colonies in 1776. In my imaginary world, British rule in the New World didn’t end until 1865, but end it definitely did. The North American colonies banded together as the Eastern United States (EUS). There was an early notion of forming the ‘Western United States’ located between the original colonies and the MIssissippi River, but it failed to become autonomous and was swallowed up by the EUS. The southern part of what we call North America – California, Texas, and New Mexico – were retained by the Spanish Empire. Louisiane and Québec stayed French to this day. All perfectly possible in an alternative timeline…

In Europe, there was only one Great War which lasted from 1925 to 1935 and afterwards the allied nations split Germany back into its constituent states. ‘Greater Germany’ had only been united for less than seventy years beforehand. Although sharing a common German language and culture (as in our timeline), it has  strong local and regional identities such as Prussia and Bavaria within it so in my imaginary world this splintering seemed logical.

Keeping it plausible and consistent
Writing and reading in an alternative setting is like stepping into the void, so I use familiar anchors to prevent readers becoming alienated and throwing the book on the floor for being totally unrealistic. Yes, some things will be different – hopefully providing an intriguing, possibly exotic feel to the book –  but many things, both for the characters themselves and their environment, will be the same or similar enough not to jolt them out of the story. For instance, a blue uniformed figure driving a car with door markings and a flashing blue roof light will almost inevitably suggest modern law enforcement to the reader.

Praetorian Guards, old style

Another technique is to mine elements from the historical record. In my books, the heroine becomes a spy/special forces operative, so I reached back into history and plucked the Praetorian Guard forward into the 21st century. Not only does this build on the thoughts of toughness, a dash of ruthlessness, a sense of duty and glamour that we may already have about them, it uses their historical name to anchor them as archetype Romans guarding the ruler and the state. I’m aware they became corrupt in real history and eventually disbanded but as in all historical writing, in alternative history you can bend the rules a little. 😉

Things will have progressed through the alternative historical timeline, and you can use elements harking back to the original culture. My 21st century Roma Novans stand at the forefront of the digital technical revolution as an echo of their engineering, craft and organisational expertise in ancient times.

Having established anchors, then you can introduce your own speculative ideas such as given the unstable, dangerous times in Roma Nova’s first few hundred years, the daughters as well as sons had to put on armour and carry weapons to defend their homeland and their way of life. Fighting danger side by side with brothers and fathers reinforced women’s roles. And they never allowed the incursion of monotheistic paternalistic religions.

While the younger part of the population defended their state, older women ran families, kept farming and food supplies and trade going as well as raising the next generation. Inevitably, they had to organise systems, structures and governance. So it’s not too far a stretch for women to have developed leadership roles in all parts of Roma Novan life over the next sixteen centuries…

In essence, the characters must live in their world naturally. To them, their world is normal, just as ours is to us. Neither they nor the readers know what could happen next, which is part of the fun…


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, is now out.

Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email update. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

4 comments to You have to know history before you can ‘alternate’ it

  • Alexey Shiro

    “Having established anchors, then you can introduce your own speculative ideas such as given the unstable, dangerous times in Roma Nova’s first few hundred years, the daughters as well as sons had to put on armour and carry weapons to defend their homeland and their way of life. Fighting danger side by side with brothers and fathers reinforced women’s roles. And they never allowed the incursion of monotheistic paternalistic religions.”

    No. Wouldn’t work. The last thing that small, besieged holdout could afford, is to risk its child-bearers – basically their future generations. Pre-industrial times aren’t exactly the era, when you could easily replenish the population: infant mortality is high, child-bearing age is rather short, and considering the holdout conditions (i.e. limited food supply, limited reserves, high probability of famines), the idea “hey, let’s put women on frontlines” is Exactly Wrong Thing To Do.

    Some token, small groups – a unit of female praetorian’s, for example – yes, it is possible. Not very probable, because pre-Christianity Romans were VERY patriarchal (and any holdout would probably cling to such mindset as tight as possible), but possible.

    But large numbers of females on battlefield in Middle Age – is a planned demographic catastrophe. Male is replaceable. Male losses did not significantly affect the reproduction potential of population. But females, for small population, are not easy to replace.

    • Alison

      Thanks for taking the trouble to reply in such detail.
      As you probably realise, this is a speculative framework for my stories and as such is a ‘what if’ scenario.
      Have you read Richard Evans’ analysis of the genre of alternative and counterfactual history “Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History” ( He’s an eminent historian and I admire his work very much especially on the Third Reich, so I read it with respect. He concludes that none of them would probably work.I would probably agree with him 50%.

      But the essential of ‘what if’ especially in fiction, whether counterfactual, alternative or speculative history is that we can imagine other possibilities without limit. And starting from a definite recorded point of divergence requires a lot of research of that time which was really the point of my post. 😉

  • Intesting and invaluable, Alison. I’m slowly working in an AH where Leif Ericsson settled Canada and the Viking Age never ended, merely grew. Plus, with another ‘timeslip’ or two – the survival of the North Sea Empire – I can change history. But as you suggest keep it possible and recognisable. But I remain a couch historian.

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