Harry Sidebottom Interview
October 12, 2010
the author of King of Kings
On October 12, 2010, we interviewed historian and novelist Harry Sidebottom. His novel King of Kings, #2 in his Warrior of Rome trilogy, is set in a particularly interesting period that few novelists have written about: the Roman world of the third century.
Of all the historical figures in this era you might have picked to write about, what made you choose Ballista?
A mix of reasons. I liked the name. Our main source for Ballista, the Augustan History, is one of my all time favourite classical texts. As Ballista`s biography in the Augustan History essentially is fiction, it gave me room for invention; to adapt ancient fiction to modern.
Ballista`s cultural background is strikingly different from that of the Romans around him, yet with so many different peoples absorbed into the Roman world, you could easily have given him a different background - Greek, for instance, as with his slave Demetrius. What led you to make him Germanic?
I wanted him not to be Roman because outsiders comment more naturally on the world around them. For example writing about the Roman empire, Polybius the Greek historian explicitly explains and analyses far more than does the Roman historian Tacitus. Making Ballista Germanic allowed me to play with two brilliant pieces of literature; Tacitus' Germania, and Beowulf. Also it let me challenge the dominant scholarly interpretation that northern barbarians promoted to high command in the Roman army became totally 'Romanised', that they jettisoned all of their previous cultural identity.
Archaeology reveals a fascinating story about Dura-Europos (Arete in the novel). Is there a particular detail that most impressed you?
When I began to think about the novels, I was researching a chapter on siege warfare for a history book called Fields of Mars: A Cultural History of Greek and Roman Battle (one day I must make the time to finish it). I came across an incredibly evocative photograph taken by one of the original excavators. It is a skeleton entombed in a siege tunnel. Sword out of reach, helmet fallen off, his mail shirt has been pulled up under his armpits for the killing blow. It made me imagine what it would be like fighting in the cramped, claustrophobic dark; how it might feel lying down there waiting for death.
Review of King of Kings by Harry Sidebottom
See listing for King of Kings at Powell's Books
See listing for King of Kings at Amazon.com.
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