'Hidden history' is fun, but sometimes deadly serious

Bronze of Constantine’s head, Capitoline Museum, Rome. (Author photo)

In JULIA PRIMA and EXSILIUM I’ve taken a risk. A big risk.  I’ve highlighted a very different side to the early Christians, one which many people may not have heard of. The late 4th century was a massive turning point, yet it’s pretty well ignored, even hidden. And it’s very unfashionable amongst publishers who commission Roman historical fiction. They can’t get enough of G. Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony, Hannibal and Vespasian. Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii are pretty popular as well along with ‘bad boys’ Nero, Caligula and Elagabalus.

I love all these stories, especially when they are written by some of my dear and much respected writing friends and colleagues. Most are an automatic buy as I know they will tell me an engaging and well-written story.

But… (You knew that was coming…)

Vast areas of the Roman period are neglected

From the founding (allegedly) by a pair of scruffs called Romulus and Remus on the official date of 21 April 753 BC until the last titular Roman emperor, a young boy called Romulus Augustulus, knelt before the barbarian warlord Odoacer in 476 AD, there were 1229 years of Ancient Rome. Surely other things happened during that period?

Of course, there are honourable exceptions such as Ursula K LeGuin’s Lavinia  where Aeneas, the last hero of Troy, alights on the Italian coast supposedly in the 12th century BC, and Elisabeth Storrs‘ A Tale of Ancient Rome trilogy starting in 406 BC. I must mention Gordon Doherty’s gritty hero, Pavo, fighting his way through the late 4th century AD in a whole series of novels.

So what am I uncovering?

Up until recently, the conventional story of Christianity was the beastly Romans persecuting the poor Christians, but due to the grace of the new eastern religion centred on a humble but charismatic carpenter, the Christian religion ‘won’. The Roman Empire became officially Christianised, starting with Emperor Constantine, and put the whole weight of the Roman state behind that decision. This narrative has been the accepted one as Christianity became the default, sometimes compulsory, religion in the West until the late 20th century. As Christianity spread rapidly in the 4th century, supported as the sole official state religion of the empire, all other religions were suppressed by the Roman authorities, violently where necessary.

The enforcement of Christianity

Edicts were issued during the 390s forbidding ‘pagan’ sacrifice – even a pinch of incense dropped on a private altar – and any worship of ‘pagan’ idols. Traditional temples were closed, the Vestal Virgins’ fire – a symbol for a thousand years – extinguished and their order disbanded. Denunciation of pagans was encouraged, temples destroyed and mob violence against people, statues of the gods and former religious buildings broke out in many places, especially in the eastern provinces.

No person could hope for advancement in any public office, civil or military, unless they were demonstrably Christian. But not everybody wanted to accept the new, exclusive religion. We can deduce this from the repeated issuing of edicts against paganism throughout the following decades in response to people still worshipping other gods rather than the Christian one.

Traditional Roman religion (Author photo in British Museum)

Previously in Rome…

In the past, Rome had absorbed most other religions such as the cults of Isis and Mithras as well as local centres of worship even at the edges of empire with the proviso that the Roman state was not disrespected. When Roman emperors were deified, then a small reverence to them was expected; most worshippers of other cults and religions had complied. The problem had arisen during the first to third centuries when other religions such as Judaism and Christianity required absolute exclusivity. This brought them into direct confrontation with the Roman state on the basis of treason. But from Constantine’s reign, the situation was reversed.

A complex and neglected part of history

This reversal and the enforcement of conversion, whether physical or societal, is well-enough documented, but was probably not a story that previous centuries’ church authorities would liked to have highlighted in any way. The norm was to be a Christian and unthinkable not to be. And different forms within the religion – Arian, Donatist, Coptic, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, not to mention countless sects – polarised continents, countries and families. Internal wars of religion, coupled with politics, racked Europe for centuries.

So the story of state ordered compulsory Christianity at the end of the 4th century slipped out of notice and became ‘hidden history’ for the majority of people. Peter Heather’s wonderful book Christendom: The Triumph of a Religion, AD 300-1300 and The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey are the two texts to read to discover all about it.


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,  Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, starts the Foundation stories. The sequel, EXSILIUM, 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.

The chaotic order of the Roma Nova series

During a recent lively digital chat with cozy mystery author Debbie Young challenged me to list the Roma Nova stories in chronological order according to events and in the order they were written.

As you may know, these sequences do not line up! I asked her if it was really necessary, but she gave me a glinty look back. Roma Nova’s story is, like any country’s, a mildly chaotic one.

I started listing them then decided the only way to display the horrible truth was to put it all in a table.

Title and date published Time story set Chronological order
INCEPTIO – March, 2013 Approx 2010 7
PERFIDITAS – October 2013 2016 9
SUCCESSIO – May 2014 2023/4 10
AURELIA – May 2015 1968/9 3
INSURRECTIO – April 2016 1984/5 5
RETALIO – April 2017 1986/7 6
CARINA  (novella) – November 2017 2013 8
ROMA NOVA EXTRA (stories) – October 2018 AD370-2029 Mixed
NEXUS  (novella) – September 2019 Mid 1970s 4
JULIA PRIMA – August 2022 AD 370 1
EXSILIUM – February 2024 AD 383-395 2

Totally chaotic and unplanned!

In late 2009, I set out to write a book to express ideas I’d had bubbling in my head for decades – Romans, woman hero, military, thrilling story with a dollop of romance. That was INCEPTIO. Before it was even polished up and when I was ignorant of the publishing and book world, I had written the manuscript of PERFIDITAS. The characters were starting to push me to write the ‘what happened next?’ story and I thought that was it. SUCCESSIO followed.

Trilogy done. Books written. Job done.

Then Aurelia, the elder stateswoman mentor of Carina, the heroine of my trilogy, started nagging me. What were the secrets of her younger self? So I went back to 1968 and the series time anomaly opened… I wrote her story, straightforwardly titled AURELIA, which recounted the start of a bitter rivalry set against a crime thriller, but always in Roma Nova. But what had Aurelia done in the Great Rebellion the other characters kept going on about?

I ended up writing about the Great Rebellion in INSURRECTIO and the resolution in RETALIO. Right, that was it! No more. Then every one of my writer friends started writing novellas. I had a nagging feeling there were gaps in my trilogies when we knew nothing of the lives the Roma Novans were living between the books.

Why didn’t I have a go at some short fiction for a change?

CARINA in 2017 filled in a gap between INCEPTIO and PERFIDITAS and highlighted the conflict of duty, love and loyalty and NEXUS in 2018 filled the fourteen-year gap between AURELIA and INSURRECTIO and set up a few things for RETALIO. Both were short at 38,000 words. In between, I put together eight short stories that really blasted the time continuum apart, varying between AD 370 to 2029 in the future!

Why did I go back into the deep past of the late 4th century with JULIA PRIMA and now EXSILIUM? Because the fans kept on asking me. And it was fun to write straight historical fiction.

Still, it doesn’t really matter where readers start as each story is complete in itself.

But those reading from start to finish of the series will discover I’ve woven in references between all the books and will perhaps enjoy little ‘Easter eggs’ (and possibly go aha!) when they see the connections.

Perhaps the four Carina books set in the present – INCEPTIO, CARINA, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO – could be read in succession as could the 1960s/80s group of AURELIA, NEXUS, INSURRECTIO and RETALIO. Historical fiction fans might like to start with JULIA PRIMA and EXSILIUM.

Debbie commented that the Roma Nova novels seem to bend and blend genres.  I agreed that some are purely historical novels, and others are alternative history (or alternate history, as our American friends term it) although, of course, all althist must at least be founded on historical fact.

What are the challenges of mixing up the genres within a single series? 

I had to confess that when I began, I had no idea whatsoever that the standard approach was writing in a set genre. I just wanted to write my story. It dawned on me later that the book world, especially for marketing and selling, ran on strict structural lines. I discovered that my first stories, although thrillers in many ways, could be slotted in as alternative history, a sub-genre of historical fiction. So far so good, but it turned out that it was a hard to sell area 1. there was not a lot of it about 2. publishers were shy about taking it on as it was ‘weird’.

But once people read one in the series, they very often go on to buy all the others and I’ve had some very heart-warming emails and letters from readers expressing their love for Roma Nova. Some want to go on holiday there, or even go to live there.

That I’ve touched people, and sometimes inspired them, works for me.

Possible advice for aspiring authors planning to write series?

I don’t recommend this chaotic way of writing series. I draw strength from the fact that CS Lewis did. (Think of The Magician’s Nephew plonked in the middle of the Narnia series.) But if you do intend to write a series, here are a few hints!

  • Plan! I say this with no irony 😉 I don’t mean a hard and fast structure for your series, but work out a setting/book world that can absorb a lot of different stories.
  • Don’t write one book, then go slightly more outrageous in the next one, and by Book 10, you’re over the limits of probability and into space cowboys.
  • Interlink the books in some way apart from ‘what happened next’
  • NEVER finish one book in a series on a cliff-hanger. It’s not fair on the reader and many will never read another book in your series.

Read Debbie’s original interview here: https://authordebbieyoung.com/2024/02/28/in-conversation-with-thriller-writer-alison-morton/


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,  Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, starts the Foundation stories. The sequel, EXSILIUM, 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.

Power grabs and dictators

A post from 2017 but updated for 2024

The Death of Caesar, Vincenzo Camuccini, 1798 (public domain)

Updated text: It’s 2024 and today is the ides of March in the Roman calendar. It’s the day the Russian (read Soviet) leader seeks reelection, a travesty which will be the continuation of his initial power grab. This year will also see elections in France, UK and the US. Let’s all try and use our precious vote and elect people of staute and integrity, not wannabee and ignorant narcissists. Otherwise we might really get a power grab as a reward.


Original text: In ancient Rome, grabbing power was the default way to become emperor. Even in the Republic, achieving consulship required some serious bribery and corruption, subverting the process, whipping up the emotions of the people with simplistic slogans and the like. Power rarely passed cleanly or without disruption. Even my favourite emperor, Vespasian, seized power, although he was one of the ‘good guys’.

In the modern era, we had seemed to have learnt at last from world wars and politically totalitarian regimes that consensus and moderation are the preferred, if imperfect, way. I’m not a political scientist, but a translator/historian-turned-novel writer. My MA  in history examined German women in the armed services during the Third Reich and demanded a fair amount of background research on how such a regime came to power. Richard Evans’ trilogy on the Third Reich is brilliant on the minutiae, but his first, The Coming of the Third Reich: How the Nazis Destroyed Democracy and Seized Power in Germany should be required reading for any modern historian or would be democratic politician. The essential takeaway is that Hitler was elected to power. His movement grew in a period of anger, instability and uncertainty. His promise was national pride, Germany first and doing away with ‘foreign’ influences.

I really hope I’m not drawing facile parallels, but in 2016, I saw populist emotion, backed rationally or irrationally by fear and fuelled by misconceptions, half-truths, platitudes, and downright lies come to the fore and produce some very strange outcomes, albeit through the electoral systems. Of course, excitement, challenging the establishment, a desire for change that will “solve all problems” or take us back to a (completely mythological) golden past are much more alluring than boring old plodding in a forward direction slowly making incremental improvements. It’s only when such  “slow” progress is threatened or cut lose that we see how far we have come and what is in danger of disappearing.

And once an incumbent is in power, we naturally risk-averse human beings are very adaptable and try to ignore the things we know either intellectually or instinctively wrong. It takes a great deal of courage to make a stand in such circumstances.

If you want a really scary political thriller about subverting a presidential election, read Ted Allbeury’s The Twentieth Day of January… 

A spookily prescient espionage thriller from one of the masters of the genre. What if the Soviet Union gained control over the US Presidency? SIS agent James Mackay fears that this may already be happening when he realises the newly elected president’s press secretary is a former communist radical with links to the KGB. When the witnesses who support his suspicions are systematically eliminated, MacKay must race against time to prove that the President-Elect is not his own man before Inauguration Day and avoid a national catastrophe.

Pointing no fingers, it did look like a lot of coincidences in 2016. Or The Twentieth of January could just be a made up ‘what if’ story…

When I was drafting my first four Roma Nova thrillers, I referred to the main character’s love interest’s background when he had been brutalised by a cousin who had grabbed power twenty-three years before the start of the first book. It was a writerly technique to round out that character as a damaged soul behind a very tough exterior. And that cousin was the ‘bogeyman’ who reached out from the past to exert more and more influence in my character’s inner life.

Of course, I then had to write that story. I began drafting the rise of this power grabber at the end  of 2015, charting the rise of a nationalist and populist movement complete with marches, simplistic slogans, a charismatic leader with a gift of communication and a will of iron. He attracted people uncertain under a weak ruler, and one night he seized power in the Roman way, by coup d’état. Although repressive, the new regime favoured one section of the population who were very pleased and things seemed to settle down on the surface, although internal repression was severe.

I confess I was modelling this regime on the Third Reich, but as political and national decisions developed in 2016,  I felt slightly uneasy. We know better than to have people seize power by waving guns as in stories. The electoral system is so much less disruptive and appears more legitimate.

2021 Updated section…
In 2017, there was another 51% populist ‘power grab’ in Turkey. It was all legal, of course, as other ones have been. The Netherlands stepped back from the temptation. Here in France, the extreme right wing Front National candidate Marine Le Pen was defeated by centrist Emmanuel Macron. Trump was ousted by Joe Biden in the 2020 US election. France elects a new president in May 2022 with another right wing extremist (Zemmour) attempting to oust Macron who is seeking a fresh 5 year term.

Ukraine 2022
But much more atrocious is the invasion by brute force of a large armed force directed by a long term repressive dictator into a democratically elected (if imperfect) European Western-facing country on its border. Tyrants don’t care; people, property, livelihoods and aspirations are there to be crushed for the sake of a warmonger’s spurious and egotistical dreams. Their only ‘stability’ and order is engineered by fear and bloodshed. Heroic deeds, true belief and persistence can win, despite sacrifice and endured misery, even if it takes time. But the sooner the better.


Warning – commercial content follows. If after all my opinionating, you are interested in the Roma Novan power grabber’s story and his personal vendetta against my heroine, here’s the trailer:

Kindle: https://myBook.to/INSURRECTIO
Paperback: https://myBook.to/INSURRECTIO_paperback
Other retailers: https://www.alison-morton.com/books-2/insurrectio/where-to-buy-insurrectio/


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,  Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, starts the Foundation stories. The sequel, EXSILIUM, 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.