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Much Medieval Mayhem – A Roman history enthusiast carves a new world from medieval chaos!

Today is the day I kick off the collaborative medieval event here on my blog. You, my dear lucky readers, will over the coming eight weeks or so have the opportunity to meet up with a number of writers who share the medieval bug with me–in one way or the other.

As I wrote in my post presenting More Medieval Mayhem last week, the medieval period is a long, long period, Usually, we see the fall of the Roman Empire as the catalyst that ushers in the Middle Ages, which is why I felt today’s guest would be ideal to start things off. Alison Morton has visited my blog before. Some of you may have read her fab books about Roma Nova (if not, please do so!) and if you have, at this moment you’re going “Qué?” because whatever else one can say about this alternate history series, it is deffo not set in the medieval period.

Thing is, though, that the Roma Nova world is constructed around the consequences of the fall of Rome. There, in the distant past where our chosen historical period is just beginning to kick itself alive, a small group of Roman survivors somehow manage to create a safeharbour, a place in which Roman values will survive despite the chaos that reigns beyond.

Anna: Hi Alison, and welcome to my blog. So. what’s your take on the medieval period?

Alison: It’s all about change, isn’t it? Transition and change are fascinating.  Classically, the Middle Ages/Medieval period stretched from the fifth to the fifteenth century, from the end of Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. The ‘official’ end of the Western Roman Empire may have been AD 476 when the last emperor, 16-year-old Romulus Augustulus surrendered to German king Odoacer, but it didn’t ‘fall’ in one day or week or even year, whatever Hollywood says.  ;-)

Roman life itself had changed considerably by the AD 390s, let alone by AD 476. No longer would you have seen the stereotypical Roman soldier in segmented armour with his classic rectangular shield and short gladius sword. By the fifth century, he’s in a chain mail shirt tunic and leggings and wielding the long spatha to deadly effect. Smaller military units, territorially based behind walled towns and cities, and often strong in cavalry, became the norm. Higher status Romans had mostly abandoned the toga and wore long robes with extravagant embroidery; the belted sleeved dalmatica was worn by men and women at all levels. Production became less industrial and specialised and more local with less choice. As trade network shrank and were even cut, fewer exotic goods reached Roman homes both in the city and in its wider provinces

Rome was melding into the early Middle Ages…

Clothes, tools, a number of farming methods, administration, pottery manufacture, vehicles, jewellery, hierarchy and cultural and legal values and the idea of literacy persisted. Even the famous Pont du Gard in France was still used to irrigate French farmland until the beginning of the 10th century. And then of course, there is the persistence of Latin and its Roman numerals which were used well into the 13th century. The religion established in the Roman period reached into every breath and atom of medieval life, not forgetting that a Roman monk Exiguus devised the AD/BC dating system.

One other thing endured – the imperial idea as begun by Augustus, carried through by Charlemagne and the Angevin empire.

Manorialism, the organisation of peasants into villages that owed rent and labour services to the nobles, doesn’t sound that different from the Roman latifundia (large rural estates) where both slaves and peasants worked the land for a higher status owner and lived on the estate bound by ownership or financial dependence.

Feudalism, the political structure where knights and lower-status nobles owed military service to their overlords in return for the right to rent from lands and manors, the other characteristic way society was organised in the High Middle Ages, has more than a hint of the client/patron system of Roman society. A high status patrician (or later, illustris) would require services and compliance from his lower status equites. And that patrician would often extend loans and rent property to his clients, binding them to him.

Anna: Fascinating, how the Romans continued to impact life long after their empire was no more. But then, I found out the other day that railway tracks are the width they are due to being designes to the specifications of Roman roads. Right: neither here nor there. Instead, tell us a bit about your books.

Alison: Nudged by writing friend Helen Hollick, I made a foray into the 11th century for the 1066 Turned Upside Down anthology about an alternative outcome for the Norman invasion of England. I’d been writing alternative history fiction stories for several years and Helen said I had to come on board as (her words) “the expert”. Much research followed but the similarities between late Roman and medieval I mentioned above were striking. I later published A Roman in 1066 as a Kindle Single.

Photo Alison Morton at Eboracum festival

Twisting history is fun, but you need to be immersed in the period before you attempt it. My world of Roma Nova supposes that in the late Roman period around AD 395 a group of families who followed the traditional gods trekked northwards out of Rome, out of Italy itself to found their own mini-state. Western Europe was in flux, transiting between the fading Roman world and the burgeoning early medieval world. Their trek became a legend for their descendants who still live in a 21st century Roma Nova that survived the grim times of those and later changes.

INCEPTIO, set in the 21st century, starts the first four of the series and AURELIA back in the late 1960s, a second group of books. All feature tough, passionate but very human heroines trying to make sense of their world and challenging those who would seek to destroy it. And their history is very important to them.

For Roma Nova, I built a whole alternative timeline and I’m pretty sure I will dip back into the medieval period again at some time. (Anna here: Can’t wait! )

Anna: What are you working on right now?

Alison: Currently, I’m back in AD 370 working on the story of that trek at the dusk of the Roman Empire. My plan is to take the story up to events of the AD430s when the proto-medieval age was beginning.

Anna: Alison is more than passionate about the Roman Empire, and also about creating a feasible historical time line for her Roma Nova world. She shares most of her musings on her excellent blog. Here are some of her posts I’d recommend:

Below is an excerpt from the first book in the Roma Nova series. Alison starts things off by giving us a brief insight into what INCEPTIO is about…
New Yorker Karen Brown is caught in a tangle of hot foreign agents, vicious maniacs and tough families. Running for her life, she flees into the alien culture of Roma Nova, the last outpost of the Roman Empire in modern Europe. Apart from dealing with an arrogant Praetorian captain, she must face a killer who wants to terminate her for a very personal reason.

Here, Carina, the heroine of INCEPTIO, is discovering more about the strange and mysterious land that’s going to give her shelter from the killer chasing her.

Gaia gave me a kids’ history book that illustrated how Apulius and his four daughters had founded Roma Nova at the end of the fourth century. I laughed at the heroic little cartoon characters waving their swords around, but Gaia took it all seriously. Descended from the Julii and Flavians, both tough political families, according to Gaia, Apulius had married a Celt from Noricum. Although Romanised for several generations, women in her family made decisions, fought in battles and managed property. Her daughters had inherited her qualities in spadefuls.

When they headed north into the mountains, the founders realised that to survive they had to make radical changes. So women took over social, economic and political life, and the men fought to ensure the colony survived. In the end, both sons and daughters put on armour and picked up blades in the struggle to defend their new homeland.
‘If a foreign man married into a woman’s family,’ Gaia said, ‘he followed the practice of born Roma Novans and took her name.’
‘Wait a minute. Non-Roma Novan men marrying in would have changed it, surely?’
‘Not at all. It’s well known that women transmit cultural values and cohesion in a society.’
‘They must have figured the threat was beyond serious to have decided that,’ I said.
‘Grim times, according to the records.’

The Roma Novans had toughed it out through centuries guarding their values, holding it all together. I was stunned but thrilled to have ancestors like these. Hundreds of years of surviving in these conditions made frontier America look like the class beginner.
‘Did the women get to choose who they married?’
She looked shocked. ‘Of course.’
‘So this is why I have my grandmother’s name. Who was my grandfather?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t know. It’ll be in your family record books.’
‘Can’t you look it up in a public register?’
‘No, only if you have an appropriate access code.’
‘Aren’t all marriages recorded?’
‘Yes, but if your grandmother didn’t marry then there won’t be an open access record. I’ll check.’ She started tapping at the keyboard.
‘Hold up a minute, Gaia,’ I said while she scrolled down tables of information on the screen. ‘Are you saying my grandmother wasn’t married?’ She seemed so respectable.
Gaia stared back, uncomprehending. After a few seconds, her face cleared as if something had clicked. ‘I forgot EUS laws were restrictive. The eldest daughter always inherits. Contracted fathers are optional.’

Anna: Carina is a very hands-on, kick-ass woman who finds her place in life as a member of the elite Praetorian Guard. Alison’s own military background is evident throughout the narrative (it took me ages to work out what “Stat!” meant) and she has shared this litte tidbit from her past:

Many years ago, I was crawling around on frozen mud on the North German plain in a NATO exercise. We were very near the DDR (East German) border. It was cold, minus 15C cold, even in the daylight. Some shiny-arse back in Whitehall (London) had heard a rumour the Russians were coming over the border. So here we were.

We heard diesel vehicles from time to time, but after a while nothing. Several hours later around midnight, we had the order to withdraw. It was even colder, but at least we were still alive. That was my taste of the European crisis in 1983. As we crawled away, then walked, then rode in trucks, I vowed I would one day write about this. Well, I changed it into something else and let Carina and Aurelia have the adventures instead.

Huh. The above makes my own background in Finance look positively beige….

Author bio

Alison Morton writes the award-winning Roma Nova series featuring modern Praetorian heroines – “intelligent adventure thrillers with heart.” She puts this down to her deep love of Roman history, six years’ military service, an MA in history and an over-vivid imagination. She blogs, reads, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband.

All six full-length Roma Nova novels have been awarded the BRAG Medallion. SUCCESSIO, AURELIA and INSURRECTIO were selected as Historical Novel Society’s Indie Editor’s Choices.  AURELIA was a finalist in the 2016 HNS Indie Award. SUCCESSIO was selected as an Editor’s Choice in The Bookseller. Novellas CARINA and NEXUS and a collection of short stories – ROMA NOVA EXTRA – complete the series so far.

Social media links
Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova site:
Newsletter sign-up:
Facebook author page:
Twitter: @alison_morton
Alison’s Amazon page:

Buying links for INCEPTIO



I hope you enjoyed this post with Alison. Check out my introductory post and don’t miss Paula’s post next Tuesday!   

10 thoughts on “Much Medieval Mayhem – A Roman history enthusiast carves a new world from medieval chaos!”

  1. Hi Alison and Anna,
    Wow! What a spectacular post. I loved this! I was particularly interested to see how what the Roman soldiers, as Alison described, now wore by the 5th c. Fascinating, you can already see the developing warrior of the Dark Age.
    I love Alison’s Roma Nova books and have often wondered about the backstory and hope one day that she will write Carina’s ancestors’ story but I am definitely up for reading her WIP when it comes out!
    Good luck Alison!

    1. Thanks, Paula. Delighted you enjoyed it. Well, Carina’s ancestors have met, but in very unusual circumstances. It’s not an easy period of history and a lot of forces are conspiring against them personally. And then there’s the gradual implosion of the Roman Empire and the chaotic emergence of city states and barbarian migrations. All good fun…

      1. The axe hoard before last was dug in snow in February, so I have an idea of Alison’s ordeal – but at least there was no great consequence hanging over it, and I could go home to a whisky!

    1. It all ended up as a bit of an anti-climax which was a great relief all round, but great research for the Roma Nova stories decades later. It’s not something you forget…

  2. Christina Courtenay

    Fascinating post, Alison and Anna! I love the Roma Nova books but had never thought about the fact that the Roman systems influenced those who came after them to such an extent. A great way to kick off this blog series!

    1. Thanks, Christina. Really glad you enjoyed it!
      Yes, there was a great deal of carry-over and more so in some places than in others. Around the Mediterranean coast e.g. in Spain, many Roman systems of local government and administration stayed the same for a couple more centuries.
      We seem to guillotine one period of history from those before and after whereas the ‘creep’ of history can actually be more subtle than we may think.

  3. Hi Anna & Alison, such a fabulous interview – really interesting. Alison, I adore your book cover – so striking!

  4. Thanks, Mary Anne. Researching this post was very enjoyable following the mixing and melding the flows of the past as one way of living transitioned into the next.
    And thank you for your kind words about the cover – the clever work of Jessica Bell Design.

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