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Revising history

Sunday, September 20th, 2009 | Posted by Theo

I finished the four-book “Emperor” series by Conn Iggulden last week. It’s technically fantasy or alternate history, but a better description would be mild historical revisionism. I have to confess that I don’t quite understand the point of exploring a historical character, but modifying historical events in order to make the story flow more smoothly. The transformation of Julius Caesar’s sexual persona from the individual who inspired the following verse to a monkish ascetic uncommonly faithful to his best friend’s mother, who happens to be a whore, is simply bizarre.

“Look to your wives, ye citizens, a lecher bald we bring.
In Gaul adultery cost thee gold, here ’tis but borrowing.”

That being said, the book is an interesting exploration relationship between Caesar and Brutus, even if the greater part of it is clearly invented. Instead of the father-son relationship that Plutarch suggests, they are presented as having a David-and-Jonathan relationship, albeit one that obviously goes bad. It’s clear that Iggulden read the relevant historians and his revisionism is a conscious and deliberate choice; this won’t harm the story for those innocent of Roman history but may prove a minor irritation to those familiar with it.

But the battle scenes are gripping and the story is based on one of history’s great dramas, so the books will probably be worth reading for the average adventure fantasy fan.


  1. Hi Theo,

    That does sound intriguing. I’m with you – the chief question that nags at me is, “Um… why?” But it sounds like the historical revisions were made for the same reason that most writers do things – in service of the story.

    Is this a recent publication, or is it something older?


    Comment by John ONeill - September 21, 2009 10:07 am

  2. It’s relatively recent. The first book in the series, The Gates of Rome, was published in 2003. It looks like he’s moved on to revising the story of Genghis Khan now.

    I have to say that I really don’t approve. I’ve written a bit of historical fiction myself, although I haven’t published it, and it’s just not necessary to have Sulla personally killing Marius or changing the nature of the relationship between Caesar and Brutus in order to make what has been a great story for centuries work. Colleen McCullough stuck much closer to the facts and the first books in her Rome series were much better.

    Revising history is only necessary to tell a different story than the real one. But then, if you want to tell a different story, make up your own bloody characters!

    Comment by Theo - September 21, 2009 11:09 am

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