Guest Interview – Alison Morton

Christina here and today I’m very pleased to welcome my friend and fellow author Alison Morton to the blog. She writes alternative historical fiction based on the Roman Empire, and her novels are all impeccably researched. Her latest book, EXSILIUM, has just been published, and I loved it! It’s a sequel to JULIA PRIMA but can be read as a standalone. Both these novels are set in the 4th century AD and are the historical backstory/prequels to Alison’s modern Roma Nova series, which starts with INCEPTIO (which I also recommend).

Welcome to the blog, Alison!

Thank you so much for inviting me here, Christina.

You’ve been writing about the Romans for quite a while now – when did your fascination with them start?

Alison at Ampurias aged 11

When I was eleven! I was mesmerised by a Roman mosaic floor at Ampurias, a vast site of a former Greek and Roman city in north-east Spain. I couldn’t stop looking at the beauty of the black and white pattern and the tiny marble squares. I babbled questions at my father, the Senior Roman Nut in our family: who were the people who lived here, what were they called, what did they do, where have they gone? And I still haven’t shaken the obsession decades later.

We are lucky in that a lot of Roman ruins remain all over Europe. Do you always try to visit the sites you are writing about?

Yes! But sometimes I visit afterwards, such as the case with Carina’s New York in the 21st century INCEPTIO. I breathed a sigh of relief that what I had seen on Google Earth was 100% accurate. Nearer to home, I’ve been lucky enough to scramble over most of Roman Europe including ‘Roma Nova’ last summer. The regional capital of Virunum in Noricum – Julia’s hometown – was a real place as were the stops on the journeys in both books.

Alison at Virunum

Which is your favourite or the site that amazed you the most?

This is as difficult as being asked which is my favourite book! Of course, the spectacular sites like Rome, Pompeii, Nimes, Trier, Ampurias and the Pont du Gard are outstanding, but other smaller sites can be nearly as evocative. Standing by the bridge at Ambrusum on the Via Domitia running from Hispania across southern France, staring at the wheel ruts from countless vehicles, touching Roman concrete of the barracks at Caerleon or a marvelling at a Samian pot in the museum in Ljubljana bring home to us how deep and how widespread the Roman presence was in Europe.

In JULIA PRIMA and EXSILIUM you show us a very different side to the early Christians, one I must admit I’d never heard of. Why do we know so little about this period – the late 4th century.

Ah, yes. Up until recently, the conventional story was the beastly Romans persecuting the poor Christians, but the Christian religion ‘won’ and the Roman Empire became officially Christianised starting with Emperor Constantine. 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.

Edicts were issued in the 390s forbidding ‘pagan’ sacrifice, even a pinch of incense dropped on an 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.

It’s a complex and neglected part of history. It’s well-enough documented, but probably not a story that previous centuries’ church authorities would have liked highlighted. 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.

Your attention to detail is superb and when I read your stories I always feel as though I’m really there, in Ancient Rome (or the newer version, Roma Nova). How did you go about researching this specific period and is there a lot of material available? (Too much perhaps?)

Ha! The sources are inconsistent; plentiful at some times and gaping holes in other places and years. Most texts are written by high status, educated men such as Ammianus Marcellinus and by this time split into by firmly Christian or equally firmly non-Christian commentators. Taking this in mind, you have to tease out what really happened. Archaeology, coins and site visits all contribute. Funeral stones are particularly helpful as you often see images of how people dressed, what their occupations were, and the year they died. The main thing is to track down and keep up with a broad variety of work from scholars. I’ve subscribed to countless newsletters and journals!

I love the way you sprinkle Latin words and phrases into the text – is your Latin good or do you have to consult a specialist in order to get it right?

Luckily, I studied Latin at school, but I do keep a grammar book to hand to double check the case endings(!) plus I use a couple of dictionaries. It’s always a balance when using foreign language words between confusing the reader and giving a sense of time and place.

Alison in the military

Your stories always feature very strong women, and they’re not just mentally sharp, but they fight alongside their menfolk in battles. I know you were in the military yourself, so was it natural for you to make your heroines warriors as well?

I served in a mixed unit where every member, male or female, was trained in basic military skills, including weapons training and tactics, as well as specialist knowledge and techniques. Each person had individual abilities and skills which enhanced the unit as a whole. Accepting that often women have different physical strengths – it would be foolish to ignore that – they are nevertheless strong in other areas and develop different ways to get round problems. In RETALIO, Aurelia knows how physically strong her nemesis Caius is and knows she must not get within reach of his hands when opposing him in a fight. She just has to be more cunning!

What are you working on next? Will there be more prequels to the Roma Nova series or will you continue that in the present? (I must admit I would love at least a novella where Galla, one of the heroines of EXSILIUM, finds a decent man to fall in love with since she was so unlucky in her first choice of husband!)

Poor Galla! I don’t have any plans for her at present as I’m working on my next French contemporary thriller featuring Mélisende and her partner Jeff McCracken. But you never know …

Can you share a short excerpt from EXSILIUM with us please?

Senator Lucius Apulius is speaking to Maelia Mitela and her aunt Honorina:-

‘We can’t deny the relentless drive from Constantinople – Theodosius’s will in other words. His subtle and not so subtle exercise of power has one aim – the complete elimination of all traditional religious practice. Coupled with that is the Christians’ hostile and often contemptuous language toward those of us who follow the gods. If we don’t convert and are thus “saved”, in their parlance, we are all corrupt and on the direct route to hell. It’s becoming more and more oppressive. Doors are closing and Theodosius is providing the locks.’

‘Yes, Gaius experienced that first hand when he was deprived of his command.’ I gave Lucius a steady look. ‘But you experienced it all those years ago when you were posted to Noricum.’

‘It’s getting worse, Maelia, much worse. I’m wondering whether to retreat from Rome altogether and take the girls to live out at the farm.’

‘No, you can’t,’ Honorina snapped. ‘You are one of the few sane voices left in the Senate. Well, now that Symmachus has fled to the south.’

‘So, I am to sacrifice the safety of my family in an effort to save an empire not only crumbling at the edges, but also in the middle? What a conundrum you set me, Honorina Mitela.’

What’s EXSILIUM about? Here’s the blurb:-

Exile – Living death to a Roman

AD 395. In a Christian Roman Empire, the penalty for holding true to the traditional gods is execution.

Maelia Mitela, her dead husband condemned as a pagan traitor, leaving her on the brink of ruin, grieves for her son lost to the Christians and is fearful of committing to another man.

Lucius Apulius, ex-military tribune, faithful to the old gods and fixed on his memories of his wife Julia’s homeland of Noricum, will risk everything to protect his children’s future.

Galla Apulia, loyal to her father and only too aware of not being the desired son, is desperate to escape Rome after the humiliation of betrayal by her feckless husband.

For all of them, the only way to survive is exile.

[Note: EXSILIUM is the sequel to JULIA PRIMA and the two books make up the Foundation strand in the Roma Nova series. You can find out more about Alison on her website here]

Alison will be giving away a copy of the book to one of our readers who will be selected at random from those of you who comment below and/or answer the following question:-

Suppose a small part of the Ancient Roman Empire had survived until now … If you went there on holiday what would you be most curious about?


23 thoughts on “Guest Interview – Alison Morton”

    • It was my pleasure! It’s such a great story set in a truly fascinating era which I loved learning more about. Thank you for being our guest!

  1. Thanks so much for visiting the Wenches, Alison! I’ve read and really enjoyed your Melisande books, but clearly it’s time I dived into your Roman stories as well. It’s fascinating history I don’t know enough about. (Though I did study Latin, it’s been a while.

    • I always like visiting the Word Wenches! I’m so pleased you’ve enjoyed Mel’s adventures. I’d been wanting to write stories about a heroine who comes from my neck of the woods. This year’s writing project is the third book in the series.

      Not too much Latin in EXSILIUM, you’ll be pleased to hear! Each of the Roma Nova stories is a standalone – I’m not a fan of cliffhangers – but there are strong connections between them, even over several centuries.

  2. If a parcel of the Roman Empire existed I’d be curious about their form of government and their religion, including religious holidays. Then that would segue to do they have a military? And then onto baths and mosaics. And I would just keep going!

  3. Welcome to the word wenches, Alison — and thanks for organizing the interview, Christina. I found it very interesting. Alison, I’ve read and enjoyed a number of Roman-set novels and am looking forward to diving into yours. I do like discovering a new-to-me author with a good solid backlist. I’m a binge-reader.

  4. I would love to see the Roman cities and marketplaces, and the architecture as it was were people lived there, not just the ruins,
    I’ve discovered several new authors through the Wenches, and now I have another one to check out!

    • The did have some spectacular architecture and it would be great to see it intact, wouldn’t it! It’s almost complete in Herculaneum, but not quite.

    • We have tiny glimpses here and there such as the Colosseum in Rome, aqueducts like the Pont du Gard in France and amphitheatres and theatres all over Europe of what the whole built environment might possibly have looked like. We can but dream…

  5. I love books set in this era but I don’t see too many. I guess they’re not well publicized. Now I see I again have some to read! If part of the Roman Empire had survived, I’d have to explore all of it.


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