I had a burning urge to write a series of novels about Ancient Rome long before I actually did so, but for some years I was too cautious to pick up a pen. The spectre of Robert Graves’ novel, ‘I Claudius’, written in 1930, hung over me like a sword. It’s a brilliant work, as is the BBC television drama adapted from it in 1976 – and with such a strong story of Julio-Claudian Rome already told, who was I to attempt another? Added to that was Colleen McCullough’s ‘Masters of Rome’ series – equally brilliant, and another hanging sword. Who was I, another Australian writer, to encroach on her territory? But in January 2004, exhausted after a year’s hard slog writing for TV, I spent my summer holiday on Rottnest Island, off the coast of Perth – an idyllic place – and there found the courage to listen to my inner voice. I had brought two books to read on the beach with me: the Penguin Classics translation of ‘The Annals of Imperial Rome’ by Tacitus; and a long forgotten pot-boiler from 1960, ‘Messalina’ by Jack Olek. Tacitus’s work gripped me like the page-turning bestseller it no doubt was when it first appeared on parchment scrolls, nearly two thousand years ago – it’s riveting. Olek’s forgotten paperback delighted me like the sordid sex-and-blood fest it was no doubt intended to be when it appeared a mere fifty years ago. I finished both books and let their stories fill me. Then I felt the stirrings of inspiration.
'The Annals of Imperial Rome’ is packed with compelling detail, but equally compelling are the bits that are missing. Some chapters have simply been lost to the mists of time – but other omissions seem quite deliberate on the author’s part. When it comes to the lives of the great women of 1st Century Rome, Tacitus is frustratingly obtuse. Certainly the more notorious actions of these women are described – and condemned – but their motivations are vague. What was the “sexual spell” that bound Octavian to Livia? What led Julia to fall so far from grace? Who or what was the “witch” Martina? What motive did Plancina have for poisoning Germanicus? How could Tiberius have been so blind to Sejanus and Livilla? To read Tacitus is to be left with many questions unanswered.
Jack Olek’s ‘Messalina’ was one of a number of paperbacks that were popular in the 1960s; books that were unashamedly lurid – and great fun. I later unearthed a couple of others that immediately became favourites too: ‘Child of the Sun’ by Kyle Onstott, and ‘Rogue Roman’ by Lance Horner. I discovered that this little historical fiction niche had all but disappeared by about 1970, and, while fiction about Ancient Rome continued to appear, writers shifted in their focus. Conquest and politics were celebrated; good old fashioned depravity had been forgotten. As lay on the beach at Rottnest I thought about the modern authors whose books about Rome I had enjoyed, including Colleen McCullough, Conn Iggulden, Robert Harris, Massimo Manfredi and Steven Saylor. All had written terrific novels about Roman life, but none had given me quite the same vicarious glee as Nero wringing Poppaea’s neck in the last reel of ‘Quo Vadis’ – or every last lust-sodden page of ‘Messalina’. This made me realise that there existed a gap in the market that I could possibly fill. I called it the “swords, sandals, sex and sin” novel. It was an old niche, a forgotten niche, but if people had enjoyed submerging themselves in it once, perhaps they would again? So I threw caution to the wind and started writing.
To pick up any non-fiction book concerning Ancient Roman history is to be bludgeoned with enough shocks to leave you reeling. Although it’s considered a precursor to the civilisation we call Western, Roman society was as starkly different to modern life as could be. Above all else, the world of Rome was devoid of compassion; lives could be bought and sold – and taken without censure. Corporal punishment was horrific – and so was public entertainment. Death was everywhere and ever-present; domestic murder was an accepted political tool. Sexuality was unfettered by shame; the streets of Rome were bedecked with genitalia. Women married at thirteen; children worked the Forum as prostitutes.
To read about Rome is to feel the hair rise at the back of your neck – but you’re compelled to know more. To write about Rome, at least to me, is to provide the same experience. I looked to the works of those writers I admired for their ability to employ shocks with aplomb, and they were my inspiration on how to approach the writing style of ‘Den of Wolves’ and 'Nest of Vipers'. I wanted it to feel like an ancient world ‘Hollywood Wives’. I wanted it to excite like a 1st Century ‘Once is Never Enough’. I wanted it to titillate like a swords and sandals ‘The Other Side of Midnight’. I hope I’ve succeeded – and I hope you enjoy them.
Den of Wolves published in Australia and New Zealand by Penguin Random House
Nest of Vipers published in Australia and New Zealand by Penguin Random House
Listen to Luke Devenish talking about his Empress of Rome novels on ABC Radio National's Off the Shelf here.
Listen to Luke Devenish talking about his Empress of Rome novels on Jon Faine's Conversation Hour, along with Felicity Ward and Adam Zwar, ABC Radio 774 Melbourne, here. (Jump forward 20 minutes for Luke.)
EMPRESS OF ROME BOOKS:
Den of Wolves &
Nest of Vipers
“…a unique and compelling storyline, and a new view of power in Rome…”
Sunday Canberra Times
“…a thrilling tale of sex, murder and corruption…”
Sydney Star Observer
“…each chapter leaves you teetering at the edge of a precipice.”
“…each page seems to bleed colour… Devenish knows how to hook his readers with the plot and dishes out spectacle after spectacle of murder, betrayal, sexual excess…”
“With an incredible narrative power and his distinguished storytelling talent at full strength, Devenish delivers a breathtaking debut novel that is both grand in scope and vivid in detail. Violent, sensual and insanely sordid, the Julio-Claudian tale sweeps the reader into a whirlpool of murder, betrayal, passion, splendour and chaotic mayhem that defined ancient Rome.”
The Independent Weekly
“The cover really does tell it like it is… Roman villainy, lust and betrayal…”
“...scheming, murdering and sexual shenanigans...”
“…the most diabolical characters in Ancient Rome were women, as you will discover…”
“Devenish has built an incredibly detailed, rich version of Ancient Rome, an astounding place, populated by an equally astounding number of quite unpleasant characters… This is a no holds barred use of sex, violence, manipulation, cruelty and intrigue… The Empress of Rome series would definitely be a set of books for any reader who loves this period of time.”
“An entertaining read!”