Are Historical Novels Literary? Not Really! The Robe & a List of Favorites

Marcellus (Richard Burton) and Demetrius (Victor Mature), his slave, in The Robe/

Marcellus (Richard Burton) and Demetrius (Victor Mature), his slave, in The Robe.

I do not read many historical novels.  Why?  Because they are genre books.   Yes, historical novels are respectable these days, every literary writer has to write one, and the Man Booker Prize has often gone to historical fiction in recent years.  Even I concede that Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a classic.  But when it comes right down to it, most historical novels are simply pop entertainments.  (The exception?  My favorite book, Tolstoy’s War and Peace.)

So if I’m such a snob, what was I doing today watching The Robe and perusing the best-selling novel by Lloyd C. Douglas?

It’s a nostalgia thing.

And they both turned out to be very good pop entertainments.

Every Easter when I was growing up, there was a choice of two old movies on TV:  The Robe, the story of a Roman tribune, Marcellus (Richard Burton), who carries out Pilate’s orders in the crucifixion of Jesus and, after winning Jesus’s robe in a dice game and trying the robe on, goes temporarily mad; or The Ten Commandments,  starring Charlton Heston as Moses.  Our Catholic family skipped The TEn Commandments but was glued to The Robe  and my husband reports that at Catholic school  they watched it more than once in the gym.  (Even nuns need a break.)

So how is The Robe?

The movie is actually very good:  too long, and the set looks fake, but the script is excellent and I enjoyed the (fake) scenes in Rome, where Marcellus (Richard Burton) alienates Gaius Caligula (Jay Robinson) and is banished to Palestine, and I also liked the scenes in (fake) Capri where Marcellus’s fiancée, Diana (Jean Simmons), pleads on his behalf to Tiberius, who brings him back. Filmed in a different time, but the Hollywood blockbuster is still fascinating, whether you are a Christian or not.  Richard Burton was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor and the film for Best Picture.

So how’s the book?

book TheRobe-01The Robe was the  first Roman historical novel I read:  I was 11 when I checked it out of the library (it is a decline of the Roman empire novel, with the Christians rising).  It was a page-turner then, and it is now.  All right, there are some stylistic problems, but it is an excellent story, once you get underway.

I was not hopeful at first. The beginning is contrived , there is too much frowning darkly and snapping, but somehow it becomes very interesting very, very fast.  Much information is presented in dialogue about the late emperor Augustus’s corruption, Tiberius henpecked by his wife Julia in retirement in Capri, and the mad emperor-to-be Gaius Caligula raising havoc in Rome.  I love the hero Marcellus’s father, Senator Gallio, who rants about the corruption of Rome.  The speeches sometimes go on for pages.  And they are effective.

But–look at our government!  A mere hollow shell!  It has no moral fibre! Content with its luxury, indolence, and profligacy, its extravagant pageants in honour of its silly gods; ruled by an insane dotard and a drunken nonentity!  So, my son, Rome is doomed!  I do not venture to predict when or how Nemesis will arrive–but it is on its way.  The Roman Empire is too weak and wicked to survive!

Anyway, I recommend it if you just want a really good pop read.

Below I have compiled a list of Literary and Pop Historical Novels set in the Ancient World

Top Ten Literary & Pop Novels Set in the Ancient World

1 Robert Grave’s I, Claudius (1934).  Written in the form of the autobiography of Claudius, it details the crippled, catarrh-riddern future empire’sh survival through the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula, and his own inadvertent succession to emperor.

I CLAUDIUS GRAVES 187652 Helen Dunmore’s Counting the Stars (2008).  A lyrical historical novel about the poet Catullus and his love affair with Clodia Metelli. Absolutely stunning.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t published in the U.S., so I had to order it from the UK.

COUNTING TH ESTARS DUNMORE $_353 Christoph Ransmayr’s The Last World (1990).  Translated from the German by John E. Woods, this brilliant novel is about the quest of a young poetry fan for Ovid, who has been exiled in 8 A.D. It’s been a while since I read it, but here’s an exceprt rom the jacket copy of the Grove Press edition:  “The poet Ovid, in his distress over his banishment from Rome, consigns the manuscript of his masterpiece, Metamorphoses, to the flames; years later, when rumors of his death reach Rome, his youthful admirer Cotta follows him to the remote Black Sea port of Tomi. Out of this story Christoph Ransmayr has fashioned an astonishing novel about a journey of adventure that has become Europe’s most recent critical and best-selling literary sensation.”

ransmayr the last world51F4BFNEdHL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_4 Linda Ferri’s Cecilia (2010). Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein (translator of Ferrante’s books) and  published by Europa Editions, this beautifully-written novel is loosely based on the life of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. It unfolds in a series of vignettes, some realistic, some dream-like. Ferri’s delicate, meditative style is more reminiscent of Marguerite Yourcenar than Robert Graves, but it’s safe to say that fans of both Memoirs of Hadrian and I, Claudius will enjoy it. If you’re familiar with Roman literature, you will especially love this novel, full of allusions to Virgil, Ovid, Martial, Lucretius, and others. And the well-educated Cecilia, who is also a musician, is a delightful character in her own right.

cecelia ferri 51GiNbQ8rVL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_5 Mary Renault’s Renault’s  Alexander the Great triology: Fire From Heaven, The Persian Boy, and Funeral Games.  Beautifully written, well-researached, and stupendous! Renault’s best-sellers are now near-classics:  the TLS went so far as to publish the itnroduciton to the Folo Society edition’ a few years ago.

renault alexandria trilogy 51H-HDA++UL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_5 David Wishart’s Marcus Corvinus mysteries.  Fun historical mysteries, solved by witty Patrician slueth Marcus Corvinus, set during Augustus’ reign.  They’re all good:  the latest one is Trade Secrets.

trade-secrets-by-david-wishart6 Evelyn Waugh’s Helena (1950). Said to be the favorite of his books, it is a slight, spare, comical fable about the life of Saint Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine and a Catholic convert who searched in her later years for the true cross on which Christ was crucified.

helena-waugh-cover7 Lindsey Davis’s Marcus Didius Falcus mysteries.  This witty sleuth solves mysteries in Rome and elsewhere in the empire.  Great fun!

lindsey davis body in the bathhouse 97800995151808 Michelle Moran’s Cleopatra’s Daughter (2009).  The orphaned children of Cleopatra are brought to  Rome in chains after the death of their parents and must learn to survive.  Tense, exciting, lots of historical detail, and fun!  Moran is a versatile writer of pop, but well-researched, historical novels.

9 Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s  Mara Daughter of the Nile. It gave us Egypt fever when we were nine.  There were no sphinxes in Iowa City.  Darn!  In this brilliant children’s novel, Mara, a slave, must  live by her wits to survive in ancient Egypt.  She becomes a double agent, and unfortunately cannot eradicate herself from the double dealings even when she falls in love.

mara daughter of the nile magraw 006211

David Malouf’s Ransom (2009)  This poetic novel inspired by the Iliad focuses on the Trojan king Priam’s visit to Achilles in the Greek camp after the deaths of Patroclus and Hector. A beautiful book that should have won awards for this celebrated author.

ransom david malouf 41Nabzt9kIL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_


Let me know your favorite historical novels, whether they be literary or junk!

13 thoughts on “Are Historical Novels Literary? Not Really! The Robe & a List of Favorites

  1. An interesting list! However, I would struggle with the film of The Robe as I just can’t bear to watch anything with Victor Mature in it…..


  2. I join you in recommending anything Mary Renault wrote about ancient Greece. I have a particular liking for The Last of the Wine.

    Ransom and I, Claudius are excellent. I didn’t know Waugh wrote a historical novel — must look for it.

    To the list, please add Augustus by John Williams.


  3. I’m not all that keen on historical novels, but years ago I read Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean, published in 1885, but set in 2nd century Rome. It’s about the early Christians and their persecution but focuses on a young man — homoerotic undertones. Exquisitely written.


  4. Over the years, I avoided Helena thinking it must be one of his lesser works. I did not know it was Evelyn Waugh’s own personal favorite. Since I’ve read just about everything else that Waugh wrote, I now must read Helena.


  5. Pingback: Helena on List of Recommended Historical Novels | The Evelyn Waugh Society

  6. We have to agree to differ. Nowadays the reality of historical novels is some of them are among the finest and deepest and truest texts written and others hark back to the early 20th century degradation of the form to boys’ adventure-stories, swashbuckling; pubescent bodice-rippers; regional romance. I recommend Jerome de Groot: The Historical Novelor his Consuming History (about historical films too); even better some of the recent powerfully self-reflexive ones. I’d like to study Mantel’s Wolf Hall the way I once did Byatt’s Possession. By chance in the paper I’m giving at a conference at the end of this week I attribute the difference between film adaptations/historical of the 1970s and today an enormous change in the attitude towards the historical past.


    • I do love Wolf Hall and the ones on my list! And I’m sure your paper will be fascinating. The historical novel is not my favorite genre, but all genres are more accepted now than they used to be. And Robert Graves really is one of the best writers of the 20th century, though perhaps he doesn’t get the credit he should.


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