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When exile was the only option – Alison Morton paints the background to EXSILIUM

Since years back, I have been a Roma Nova fan, somewhat addicted to Alison Morton’s books set in an alternate history world, where a small remnant of “true Rome” has survived through the centuries. In the first few books, the story is set in contemporary times, a delicious mix of fast-paced action and great world-building. I mean, Roma Novans still speak Latin! And they celebrate Saturnalia and hold to the ancient Roman traditions in almost everything.

In her new release, EXSILIUM, Alison gives us the backstory to Roma Nova. And today, I am happy to post her guest post about her historical setting – and my review!

But first things first: let us start with 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.

Buying links for EXSILIUM:

Amazon: https://mybook.to/EXSILIUM (universal link)

Other retailers: https://books2read.com/EXSILIUM

And now, onto the guest post: Alison, take it away!

***

“Location, location, location,” the estate agents declaim. For authors, perhaps it should be “Setting, setting, setting.” Well-developed characters and a cracking plot are essential for any story, but the setting, be it in a galaxy far, far away, on a pirate ship in the 17th century or Rome at the dusk of the ancient empire, is the crucial factor. It meshes the characters – this is where they’ve grown up, where they’ve worked, loved and cried. Setting gives characters their awareness of other people and their education (or lack of it), their values and the law they should obey (or not!).

So how do we pick that setting for our books? For historical novelists, the added dimension of time both complicates and simplifies the writing. For most of history, there has been no electricity, no freedom of movement, no easy and cheap travel and certainly no mobile phones. Hooray! We can spatter our stories with lack of information, missed encounters, indefinite separation and arbitrary detention.

However… the most challenging aspect for historical fiction writers is the mentality of people in the past. Leaving aside the difficulty of sources and the fact that they’re human beings like us, although subject to illness, ever-present fear, unremitting hard work, poor diet and only simple pleasures, we don’t really know what went on in their heads. When we do have accounts in diaries, letters, transaction records, taxation rolls, wax tablet frames, and archaeology, we have to imagine how their environment impacted on them.

Closing my eyes and imagining walking down the street in their shoes is one method I use. Ancient Rome smelt, it was noisy and crowded. Pickpockets, beggars and criminal gangs abounded, but so did magnificent buildings, a strong legal system, complex trading, an unimaginable range of fabrics, leather goods, food and consumer goods, especially glass, pottery and tools. Literacy was high among the general population, theatres, plays, poetry, painting, arts and crafts of every type were second nature. Cultural and community life was rich, but brutality was widespread. Riots were put down with ferocity by a powerful military, but the fire service guarded property, and pipes, drains and water fountains were everywhere. Some sewage systems like the cloaca maxima from ancient Rome are still in use today.

But one aspect that pervaded Roman life that we struggle with in the 21st century is religion. The Romans thought of themselves as highly religious and attributed their success as a world power to their collective piety (pietas) in maintaining good relations with the gods. For ordinary Romans, religion was a part of daily life. Each home had a household shrine at which prayers and libations to the family’s domestic deities were offered. Neighbourhood shrines and sacred places such as springs and groves dotted the city. The Roman calendar was structured around religious observances. Roman religion was practical and contractual, based on the principle of do ut des, “I give [to the gods] that you [Jupiter, Juno, Mars, Minerva] might give to me”.

Religion depended on knowledge and the correct practice of prayer, rite, and sacrifice, rather than on faith or dogma, although sources show speculation on the nature of the divine and its relation to human affairs. But even the most sceptical among Rome’s intellectual elite such as Cicero, who was an augur, saw religion as a source of social order. As the Roman Empire expanded, migrants to the capital brought their local cults, such as that of Isis, many of which became popular among Italians. In brief, there was a deity for everybody and everything. When the emperors were transformed into gods on their death, they too were revered and referred to as the Divine Augustus, the Divine Vespasian, and so on.

When a Middle Eastern cult following a Galilean prophet called Jesus demanded complete exclusivity and rejected all other deities as blasphemous, trouble was bound to follow. This conflict lies behind the origin of Roma Nova as related in EXSILIUM whose characters wanted to keep to the traditional gods. Unfortunately for Maelia, Lucius, Galla and friends, such worship was outlawed on pain of death by the end of the fourth century. So, Lucius Apulius decided to leave Rome rather than give up his religion and values. Did I mention that Romans were stubborn?

But Romans hated exile. It was a serious punishment cutting them off from friends, family, culture, society and comfort. It was more akin to ostracism or being cancelled in today’s terms. Lucius had a connection, though, in the province of Noricum. His wife had been the daughter of the local ruler who had no truck with Christians and needed people to cultivate his land. But in AD395, we’re only eighty years from the final collapse of Western Rome. The last (rather pathetic) young emperor, Romulus Augustulus, will be kneeling before the Germanic King Odoacer in September 476.  Brigands, local warlords, tribespeople and the poor and hungry are all fighting it out for survival. Somehow, Roman administration still worked and even barbarians respected it. But many people took to the hills – literally.

So… Back to fiction which is actually based on fact. Noricum – a Roman province for centuries but with local client kings and princes – had large deposits of iron ore and supplied the Roman armies with some of the highest-grade weapons. Prince Bacausus, who rules part of it, is fictional as is his daughter Julia, but he’s not unauthentic. As the prince’s son-in-law, Lucius is welcome to settle on the prince’s land along with his fellow Romans.

Why Noricum? Today it covers a large part of Austria and a little bit of northern Slovenia. And this means mountains, defensible valleys and fertile valleys. You can find more about how they managed their new settlement in the epilogue of EXILIUM. Our pioneer settlers needed security as well as freedom to live their lives in a Roman way. I was lucky enough to visit the entire area last summer and saw it was a beautiful, clean and clear place, guarded by mountains. Inhabitants would have to be industrious, tough and willing to defend themselves. Well, that would suit Romans very well.

***

Thank you, Alison – as always very interesting!

 

Seeing as I am a self-confessed Roma Nova fan, I threw myself over EXSILIUM, and here is my REVIEW:

We are late in the 4th century, and the formerly so strong Roman empire is cracking at the edges.

In Rome, traditional Roman values are under siege—the Christian faction grows ever stronger, and we all know just how the Christians, throughout history, have excelled at persecuting those who do not share their beliefs. But it isn’t only about faith: it is about a rise in crime and violence, a collapse of hitherto functioning infrastructure, all of this overlaid by complex political machinations. At times, the parallels between the Rome Ms Morton depicts and out own time is somewhat disconcerting. . .

Lucius Apulius is a Roman of the traditional sort. He is also a grieving widower and the father to four daughters, and the uncertainties of the time have him worried. He is not the only one to be concerned, and when he suggests that maybe it is time to move elsewhere to a group of friends, he suddenly finds himself the leader of an expedition that will transport well over 400 people from Rome to Noricum (present day Austria/Slovenia) where his father-in-law can offer them all land. A lot of land.

Told through the POVs of Lucius, of Maelia,a contemporary to Lucius’ dead wife, and of Lucius’ eldest daughter, Galla, Exsilium presents us with a vivid depiction of a decaying state—and of the determined men and women who have every intention of salvaging their values, no matter at what cost.

Exsilium is a foundation story for Ms Morton’s fabulous Roma Nova series—eventually, Lucius and the twelve families who accompany him will found a colony called Roma Nova, and in Ms Morton’s alternative world this little colony will flourish through the centuries. But in Exsilium, that future state Roma Nova is as yet only a dream, and our protagonists have multiple challenges to overcome along the way.

Ms Morton’s depiction of everything Roman is vivid and detailed, and I particularly enjoy the insights she offers into the troubled political situation and the intricacies of Roman law. Her characters are well-rounded—I am especially fond of Galla—and Exsilium offers recurring moments of tension. There is a lot of travelling in Exsilium—it sort of comes with the territory—but Ms Morton definitely enlivens the long treck north from Rome..

All in all, Exsilium is a gripping and engaging read that effectively reminds us of the fact that nothing is really new under the sun: the concerns and fears we experience today as our “safe” world disintegrates into populism and open conflict are very much those of Lucius Apulius and his companions. Yet another great read from Ms Morton!

***

Alison Morton writes award-winning thrillers featuring tough but compassionate heroines. Her ten-book Roma Nova series is set in an imaginary European country where a remnant of the Roman Empire has survived into the 21st century and is ruled by women who face conspiracy, revolution and heartache but use a sharp line in dialogue. The latest, EXSILIUM, plunges us back to the late 4th century, to the very foundation of Roma Nova.

She blends her fascination for Ancient Rome with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, historical and thriller fiction. On the way, she collected a BA in modern languages and an MA in history.

Alison now lives in Poitou in France, the home of Mélisende, the heroine of her two contemporary thrillers, Double Identity and Double Pursuit.

Social media links

Connect with Alison on her thriller site: https://alison-morton.com

Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/AlisonMortonAuthor

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1 thought on “When exile was the only option – Alison Morton paints the background to EXSILIUM”

  1. Goodness! What a wonderful review. Thank you so much, Anna. And thank you for letting me burble on about Roma Nova.
    More seriously, I very much enjoyed writing about this period in the later part of the Roman Empire – it was such a time of upheaval and transition.
    Of course, I had to fit the story round the legend that the modern Roma Novans are always referring to in INCEPTIO, AURELIA and the other six books. Sometimes, we writers lay traps for ourselves! But even ten years ago, I picked AD 395 exactly because of the upheaval of that time.

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