Historian, author and self-confessed Roman nut, Alison Morton describes how and why she created Roma Nova, an imaginary remnant of the Roman Empire where she sets her six novels.
Roma Nova is a society where the women largely hold the power. As someone steeped in this alternative world, what do you think are the advantages of a non-patriarchal social structure?
As Roma Nova is my invention, I confess the values and philosophy reflect the ones I would wish to see in an ideal world. My mother was a feminist in that she saw no opportunity closed to her children, so I grew up in the late 1950s in a family bubble with no fixed idea of gender roles. The clash came at school when the ‘natural’ i.e. male order of things prevailed. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t be treated the same as the boys. As a student in the 1970s during the second wave of feminism, equality became non-negotiable for me and millions of other women. Standard Western society consciously and unconsciously sees the norm as male: it ‘allows’ women to pursue male-dominated careers, it ‘concedes’ we should have 50% parliamentary representation or board members, it ‘commiserates’ that women don’t want to strive for higher management or academic roles because of caring for their children. The language is of permission and protection.
My novels use the concept of gender mirroring to switch these attitudes. Of course, there are hierarchies and circles of power in Roma Nova, but the automatic assumption of one gender being superior is not present. Indeed, eyebrows would be raised if a woman used her gender as an excuse for anything. In the desperate early times of Roma Nova, ignoring the contribution of a competent, intelligent and courageous half of the population ready to heft a sword alongside their brothers would have led to the collapse of their fledgling state.
Children in Roma Nova belong to a mother’s family and descent is through the female line; it’s obvious who a child’s mother is, while in a patriarchy it isn’t always. Looking at history, wars have been fought over this. Children are valued both for themselves and for the continuation of Roma Nova. Their rights are protected not only in law, but also by custom. Although Roma Novan women take a robust attitude to anything that crosses their values or threatens their tiny state, they generally solve disputes by negotiation.
Inceptio deals with a woman in contemporary New York, a slightly altered version of the one we know, fleeing dangers at home and adapting to a new society. You convey the cultural assimilation and its difficulties well. Does that come from personal experience?
It does. I’ve lived, studied and worked in different European countries. The keys to a successful transfer include accepting the differences and having an open, positive attitude and an eagerness to learn. ‘Social integration’ is a term bandied about as if it can happen after a six-week language course and applying for a residence permit. Where values are dissimilar, it can take an enormous effort over years to fully understand the psyche of a new country, society and culture. My heroine had attended Latin classes for several years when young so she had a grounding that helped smooth her way. I played on beaches with French kids since the age of five. Language is the door to culture, but stepping through it into the mind of a country is an active decision essential to settling into a new society.
Our theme this issue is Waves. Both of your trilogies explore waves of political change. The first three novels are set in the early part of the 21st century, but in the second trilogy, you go back in time to the 1960s. What drove that decision?
A purely functional reason! When I was drafting the last book in the first trilogy, I became ever more fascinated by a secondary character, Aurelia. She played the role of ‘wise counsellor’ to the heroine who was her granddaughter. I wanted to know what Aurelia’s allegedly ambiguous role had been in the Great Rebellion in Roma Nova’s recent past, why she was so afraid of the shadow of the deposed dictator of that time haunting the present, and who was the unknown great love of her life. To uncover these secrets, I needed to tell the story of the younger Aurelia, a woman in her late twenties, which consequentially brought the start of the second trilogy back to the late 1960s.
It was fascinating to visit the world of telex, characters smoking and casual sexism! And, of course, no mobile phones.
The women of Roma Nova are powerful and well-organised with strong alliances, but the army is regarded as a peacekeeper rather than warmonger. How do you see the role of the military in today’s world?
My own time in the military was in the 1980s when our main threat was that of the Soviets pouring over the East German frontier. And then the Argentine invasion of the Falklands Islands happened! That aside, although vigorous in its attitude, NATO was set up as a defence organisation. It has no interest in warmongering. Individual members choose to involve themselves in separate operations that can become controversial. Even the operations started with the best of intentions can go awry. However, intervention by invitation is often valued by other states that have defence needs but do not have trained military, organisation or firepower. For me, a peacekeeping principle is paramount, but when required, reaction should be prompt, targeted, decisive and robust.
Roma Nova feels familiar and although you never state its exact location, it bears a striking similarity to Switzerland in terms of its size relative to power, neutrality, federalism and geography. Is that intentional?
I have deliberately located Roma Nova in ‘Mitteleuropa’ as an alpine country with a small population (1.5 million). It exerts more influence than its size would suggest and is at the forefront of the digital revolution. Ancient Romans enjoyed a fearsome reputation as excellent engineers and technologists, and their descendants are no less so. Centralist rather than federal and independent, apart from belonging to the European Economic Area, Roma Nova resembles Switzerland in some ways, but is very different in others.
While you have completed six Roma Nova novels, the concept still feels fresh and relevant. Might there be more to come?
Absolutely! As a rest from producing long-form fiction, I’m experimenting with a novella set between Books 1 and 2, as well as some character-based short stories. And the epic story of Roma Nova’s foundation at the end of the fourth century beckons …
Alison Morton writes the acclaimed Roma Nova thriller series featuring modern Praetorian heroines. She blends her deep love of Roman history with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, adventure and thriller fiction. The first five books 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. The sixth, RETALIO, came out in April 2017. A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, Alison has misspent decades clambering over Roman sites throughout Europe. She holds a MA History, blogs about Romans and writing. Now she continues to write, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband of 30 years.