Author Interview: Fiona Forsyth Rome's End
Born in Dover, UK, Fiona decided to study Classics as soon as she read her first Greek myth – Theseus and the Minotaur – at the age of seven. After studying Classics at Oxford, she taught Latin and Greek at The Manchester Grammar School, one of the UK’s top independent schools, for twenty-five years. Her family moved to the desert country of Qatar in 2016 where her husband works for Qatar Foundation and she enjoys the freedom to finally write those novels! She has daughter, two cats and a tortoise named after Cicero’s daughter, Tullia.
JMR- Hello Fiona and welcome to the Books Delight. Tell us where you’re from and where you live. What do you do for fun and what does the perfect day look like?
FF- I’m from the UK and taught Latin and Greek in a boys’ school there for twenty-five years before moving to Qatar with my family. I currently live in an expat compound in Doha and love my life here. My ideal day involves having breakfast with my friends then going back home to write – but Doha also offers great parks and architecture, excellent places to dine and the most beautiful public library I have ever seen! It is fascinating living in a city which visibly grows day by day. Just driving around is an adventure…! I am not good with heat but this place has air-conditioning nailed.
JMR-You have a classics degree from Oxford and have published two nonfiction books, what made you want to make the jump to fiction. What was the biggest challenge in writing your book?
FF- After reading and teaching Cicero’s speeches for years, I wanted to explore his world more. One of the men he defended really appealed to my imagination – he was not one of the “famous” Romans, and he had children who were in their twenties just as the civil wars began. How would a family like that face the turmoil? I also wanted to portray a Roman family who did not poison each other or hate one another, something quite different from I, Claudius. I was convinced that many Romans quite liked their families! The challenge then was how to portray that while not glossing over the +issues of slavery and the place of women in law and society. And the political violence was dreadful. How do you portray the society faithfully without putting off the reader?
JMR- Great point!
JMR- Is it fair to say that ancient Rome is your favorite historical era? Do you have a second time period that fascinates you? What and why.
FF- Rome is definitely my favourite. But I am also a sucker for anything with “Tudor” in the title. I had to give up History at school when I was thirteen and we had just got to the Tudors. So I’m making up for that now. Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” trilogy is brilliant but there is so much readable non-fiction out there too. I recommend Tracy Borman, Alison Weir and David Starkey. I am also an Anglican and can’t quite believe that I belong to a church that began because nearly five hundred years ago an aging king got fed up with his wife…
JMR- What is your favorite Roman site to visit? Why? If you stand there and close your eyes, do you imagine your characters walking next to you?
FF- Ostia – Rome’s port. It is very well-preserved, at least as good as Pompeii and far quieter. It is also built mainly out of brick and Roman brickwork is amazing. I walk along the road photographing different patterns in the brickwork and checking out the concrete. I realise that not many people do this but I love a good wall. In Ostia, when I shut my eyes I hear a town at work – there are bakeries and eateries and blocks of flats and a harbour with ships unloading and loading… It is a real town, not particularly glamourous but real. I can sit in the theatre, just like in many sites, but I can aslo climb the stairs to the top floor of an apartment block in which several families would have lived, normal people, neither rich nor poor. My novels’ hero gets the boat up the coast to his family estate from Ostia and selss some of the estate wine to the dealers in the market, but I don’t suppose for a moment that he really notices it. After all, I don’t really notice the supermarket when I go around it.
JMR- Has scholarship on Rome reached a plateau or do you think there are still things to learn about their civilization? Is ancient history just ancient history or are there lessons for today’s world?
FF- No, I don’t think we shall ever reach a plateau. Archaeology continues to inform us, and you never know what texts will be discovered in the future. But the evidence we have keeps scholars arguing for years and new interpretations arise all the time. Recently, The House of Augustus by Peter Wiseman was published just after I finished the first draft of The Emperor’s Servant, and his theory about the layout of the imperial houses at the top of the Palatine was very cool, so I had to go back and do some re-writing.
What do you mean JUST ancient history??? No history is JUST history, all history is the book of our story as human beings. We are the latest chapter - and I know it’s a cliché, but we shall only get things right for the future if we read and understand our own history so far. We observe and feel disturbed by slave-owning cultures in the past, for example: and then, hopefully, we turn our attention to the slavery that still exists all over the world and do something about it.
JMR- Who is your favorite historical female? Why?
FF- At the moment my favourite is Servilia, Julius Caesar’s top mistress. She was extremely highly-born, twice-married, ferociously intelligent and knew everything that was going on. Her son is the Brutus who assassinated Julius Caesar – can you imagine, your only son killing the man you love? And afterwards, she supported her son of course. She even “chaired” a meeting in which the men who killed Caesar discuss their options – and she undertook to get a senatorial decree passed in their favour. For a woman this should be extraordinary but the more I learn about her, the more I am not surprised by her. Susan Treggiari’s biography of her is well worth a read.
JMR-Fiona, tell us about your new book, Rome’s End.
FF- Rome’s End is the first in a series of books set around the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Empire – so Julius Caesar to the first Emperor, Augustus, the last century before the Common Era. By following a family, the Sestii, and in particular Lucius, the son of the family, I try to explore the dilemmas involved in surviving a series of civil wars with one’s principles intact. Of course, there has to be compromise, but for the individual this can be very difficult. Lucius at the start of the book is living under Caesar’s Dictatorship, but he still thinks that he will live the sort of life his ancestors lead. By the end of the book, Rome as a Republic is breaking down, and Lucius has to deal with that and make his own life. Lucius was a historical figure: he fought under Brutus after Caesar’s assassination, but he also more prosaically ran the mint making coins with which to pay the troops. I actually own a coin that Lucius minted for Brutus. I can’t describe to you how it feels to look at that scrap of silver and think of how it came to be.
JMR- What’s next. I believe Rome’s End is part of a trilogy?
FF- Well, in my research on Lucius Sestius, I found that twenty years after the events in Rome’s End, he became consul under Rome’s first Emperor Augustus (also known as Brian Blessed in I, Claudius). So from fighting against Augustus at the Battle of Philippi, he goes to being as high up as you can go in Augustus’ government. The Emperor’s Servant is the story of how Lucius deals with the consulship and being part of the establishment. I’ve just finished writing it and am now researching the third book, working title The Third Daughter, which will follow the life of Junia, third daughter of the Servilia I mentioned above. She was born at about the same time as Lucius Sestius, and lived not just through Julius Caesar’s years, the civil wars and Augustus, but on into the reign of Tiberius. She died in 22CE, probably in her early nineties, and would have seen it all! There is also just a chance that she was Caesar’s daughter: I’m still toying with that idea….
JMR- How can readers find and follow you on the web and social media?
FF- My blog can be found at www.luciussestius.com, and Rome’s End is currently available through Amazon (my Author Page is https://www.amazon.com/Fiona-Forsyth/e/B001KI2DEC?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1600785797&sr=8-1 ).
JMR-What were you hoping I’d ask but didn’t?
FF- “Would you like to meet my friend who is a top literary agent and has read your book and thinks it is fabulous?”
JMR- Very funny! Thank you Fiona for stopping by. This has been a great interview and I wish you luck with your writing! Readers I have included a link to Fiona's book in the Amazon button, if you'd like to see more.