One of the difficulties with writing historical fiction is the line between fact and fiction. Ancient Rome was so full of conspiracy and intrigue and fascinating characters and shocking events that even its non-fiction is captivating. When the time comes to fictionalize events, however, a writer must decide which facts must stay and which must go, in order to make her story work. This sounds very strange, but I’ll use the movie Gladiator as an example. That story was SOOOO out and away from true events. The same with the movies Braveheart and Elizabeth, which do not take place in Roman times but my point holds. Major characters who are deeply involved with each other in the movies were in actuality so far apart in age in real life that the stories become impossible. But look at the success of the three movies I’ve mentioned. All three are award winning box office hits. Sure, people scoff at the accuracy, but they still watch them (I know I do!). Which brings me to the problem. How does one know where to draw the line? Looking at the examples above, one could almost say there is no problem with embellishment, that one could take as many liberties as one chose. But when one loves the subject about which she writes, when the subject in itself is perfect in her heart, how can one take such liberties?
Enter the fictional hero. Gaius Maximus was so endearing as a hero, so worthy of our belief, that we allowed the historical issues to slide. And the inaccuracies that exist in the movie work for him, to make him even more so. The movie writers made the history work for the movie, not the movie work for the history. When a writer loves his hero, that is the thing that matters most. The history will fall to the wayside in order to glorify that hero even more.
A favorite historical novel of mine is called “A Slave of Catiline.” If you look at the sidebar of this blog, you’ll see that I have recently re-read it. It was written in 1930, and is intended for a teenage audience. My high school Latin teacher, Miss Jean Waddell, lent it to me in my junior year when I was translating Cicero’s orations against Catiline. One reason I like it so much is because it was the first book that brought ancient Rome alive for me, and made the words of Cicero really mean something. Suddenly, I found myself translating in order to find out what Cicero was saying, and trying to do it justice in English, rather than just to complete the assignment. It inspired me to translate more Cicero, and eventually take Cicero in college, translating the Tusculan Disputations, which is another story entirely. Another reason I like “A Slave of Catiline” is because even though the author is very obviously against Catiline’s planned revolt, he makes Catiline out to be a likable character, as likable as a usurper and planned assassin could possibly be. And the author, in his note, says: “Unquestionably, he was a traitor to the State, but an unsuccessful rebel against constituted authority is always a traitor; if successful, he becomes in the eyes of history a noble and high-minded patriot.” Catiline was an eloquent and charming man. Anderson reflects this in his book. When one thinks about it, Gaius Julius Caesar did exactly the same thing as Catiline did, only he succeeded. Caesar is seen as a hero and a genius. A martyr even. He was a tyrant and usurper and murderer as well. What a good novel (or even non-fictional work, and perhaps it is both harder and more rewarding for a non-fiction writer) accomplishes is getting the audience to look at things in a way they hadn’t before. Write a book from King John I of England’s POV, and you can make him out to be a sympathetic character. You could do this with almost anyone. Thus the power of words and imagination. The key is to write in such a way that a reader lives in the story rather than just reads it. They become the character in the novel, whether it be a slave or a king.