Roman fantasy, not Medieval fantasy!
July 5, 2011 8:56 AM   Subscribe

Are there any genre fantasy books with a Roman setting?

Most fantasy novels are set in some generic Middle-Ages European equivalent, with occasional references to other cultures from the roughly AD 500-1500 era. But whether it's J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, Robert Jordan, or innumerable other pulp fantasy authors, we're looking at a lot of plate armor, knights, castles, landed aristocracy, etc. High fantasy, low fantasy, sword and sorcery, whatever. I'm looking for books that would generally fit in the borders of genre fantasy but set in an obvious analog to the Roman Republic/Empire instead of an obvious analog to medieval Britain, France, or Germany.

Some limitations: I'm not looking for historical fiction, i.e. books actually set in the Roman period. Also, an analog to the Roman pantheon is entirely optional, and indeed, a story whose analog to Rome is limited to the pantheon (e.g. Battlestar Galactica) isn't what I'm looking for either. Definitely not looking for speculative fiction and/or sci-fi (e.g. Foundation or other interplanetary empires modeled after Rome). Iron Age technology for the most part, please.

In short: are there fantasy books set in a time and place obviously inspired by the grandeur that was Rome without actually being set there?
posted by valkyryn to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
I was just thinking about this the other day. The term you may be looking for is "Sandalpunk" or "Ironpunk" (ugh!) if you're looking for the engineering type of fantasy-- but it doesn't seem to have gotten much beyond inventing the term; I don't think anyone has actually used it. As for wizards-and-swords fantasy, there doesn't appear to be many, if any, in the way of novels written set in an antiquity-esque. I imagine that this is due to the long shadow of Tolkien over the genre. Interestingly, the actual medievals wrote a lot of books about the supposed occult exploits of the ancients, although that doesn't fit your criteria.
posted by Electrius at 9:05 AM on July 5, 2011

Harry Turtledove has done a series of books about a Roman legion trapped in another dimension where magic is real, Videssos, and a story about a woman transported from our time to a Roman colony, amongst others that might fit your bill.
posted by nomisxid at 9:09 AM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's not quite what you're looking for, in fact it seems to be excluded by "not looking for speculative fiction and/or sci-fi," but are you aware of Robert Silverberg's Roma Eterna? I found many of the stories interesting reading when they were published in Asimov's.
posted by kindall at 9:10 AM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I haven't read them yet, although I'm a fan of his Harry Dresden books, but Jim Butcher's Codex Alera series is set in an alt-Rome.
posted by PussKillian at 9:13 AM on July 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Guy Gavriel Kay's Sailing to Sarantium perhaps?
posted by crocomancer at 9:13 AM on July 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

How about the Thomas Harlan Oath of Empire series?
posted by Perplexity at 9:14 AM on July 5, 2011

I wanted to say that the excellent Imperium by Robert Harris seems to fit the bill but it is set in imperial Rome. Likewise, I, Claudius.

I suspect that the reason that you may not find a huge amount of what you're looking for is that ancient Rome is so chronologically distant that in setting a story in that period, you're all but committing yourself to writing fantasy unless you bend over backwards to embrace period authenticity - which isn't necessarily a happy bedfellow with slick storytelling.
posted by dmt at 9:15 AM on July 5, 2011

Mary Stewart's excellent The Crystal Cave and its sequels are Arthurian retellings set just after the Romans left the British Isle. You might have luck looking into Arthurian retellings generally, as many have their roots in Roman history--however, I realize you might be looking for secondary world stuff, so my apologies if this answer isn't helpful..
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:19 AM on July 5, 2011

I read The Far Arena by Richard Sapir a while back and I loved it. Frozen gladiator defrosted into the 20th century struggles to understand our strange culture. It's (imho) one of the worst novels I've ever read, so if *good* fantasy is what you're after this may not be just the thing.
posted by zomg at 9:23 AM on July 5, 2011

Best answer: I'd highly recommed the Engineer Trilogy by (pseudonym) K.J. Parker. Whether it's the world-building that occurs in the series (a massive empire with technological and industrial superiority surrounded by little city-states it keeps 200-300 years behind) or even the names of the characters, which seem to be a good mix of Greek- and Roman-inspired surnames (Sphrantzes, Psellus, Vetuarius, Torquatus), you get your analog of Roman history.

It's a great story as well, with the mechanical workings of various devices, described in detail, used as an inspiration for one of the main characters design for a massive revenge scheme. All three can be acquired for pretty cheap used, from what I can see.
posted by Angulimala at 9:27 AM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thus far Butcher's Codex Alera books and Parker's Engineer trilogy seem to fit best. And yes, I am looking for secondary worlds, so the alternate history suggestions, while creative, aren't quite spot on.
posted by valkyryn at 9:43 AM on July 5, 2011

There is a short story in The Zombie Survival Guide that takes place in Ancient Rome. It's short but very enjoyable.

It looks like Brooks writes more about zombies in Ancient Rome in Recorded Attacks, but I haven't read it and the reviews look quite mixed.
posted by Jorus at 9:45 AM on July 5, 2011

Was coming in to recommend Guy Gavriel Kay also. The duology of "The Sarantine Mosaic" - Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors is more Byzantine than Roman - specifically the reign of Justinian and Theodora, but it actually begins in a city inspired by Ravenna, Italy, and ranges across the ancient world from there to Byzantium/Constantinople.

I really like Kay's approach to using actual historical settings and characters, only tweaked a little into a fantasy genre, but most of his works are definitely more Middle Ages/Renaissance period. I think my favorites are Tigana, which is sort of Medieval Italy, and The Lions of Al-Rassan which is Moorish Spain.
posted by dnash at 9:54 AM on July 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

Richard L. Tierney wrote a few stories about Simon Magus as a sort of Lovecraftian/Howardian hero. Most of them can be found in this collection, Scroll of Thoth: Simon Magus and the Great Old Ones.
posted by anansi at 10:38 AM on July 5, 2011

Just confirming that Codex Alera is along these lines, however Butcher is speculating as to where a civilization with Roman origins would go given many generations and the rules of the new world they're inhabiting, so it's Roman-inspired but not quite identical. It's a fun read as long as you don't mind keeping track of a lot of characters.
posted by waterlily at 10:39 AM on July 5, 2011

David Drake's Books of the Elements series, starting with the Legion of Fire are set in a Rome analogue. He's traditionally a sci-fi author, but these are definitely fantasy books if you're making that distinction. (And I think he has a pretty academic classics background to inform the Rome-like aspects of the society.)
posted by mercredi at 10:45 AM on July 5, 2011

They have a sci-fi starting point, but both Lest Darkness Fall and Household Gods are what-if stories set in Rome (LSD is ~500 AD, Houshold Gods is ~100 AD, but set in southern "Gaul").

Harry Turtledove has done a few things that might be of interest: His Hellenic Traders series is set ~400 BC and focusses more on the Hellens than the Romans, but is a similar level of technology. His Videssos Cycle is about a lost Roman legion in a world with magic, and a Roman commander who becomes an Emperor.

The GGK books are great (and I'd include Tigana as well), but he's written in the later periods than you're asking about. The Sarantine Mosaic is closest---it's Constantiople in the time of Justinian I/Theodora, about 600 AD or so.

Iron-age, but not quite Roman, includes the David Gemmel take on Philip of Macedon and Alexander. His unfinished trilogy on Troy is really worth the read too, but that's bronze age.

More in the fantasy realm are the Thraxas books by Martin Scott. It's a series of detective novels set in a High-fantasy (elves, dwarves, orcs, etc...) world in a city-state at the Roman level of technology. Not terribly great literature, but still fun reads. Broad comdey.

In a similar vein are the Garrett PI books by Glen Cook. These have basically the same description as the Thraxas books, but being Cook, they're both better written and more serious in tone. Garrett is heavily based on the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe books, but trust me, this all happens in what is essentially Villa Roma.

Even further back (sorry), but one of my all time favourites is the Soldier of the Mist, Soldier of Arete series by Gene Wolfe. It's an iron-age tour of mythic Grece meets Momento. There's a thrid book in the sequence as well, Soldier of Sidon. Very highly recommended, even if a bit outside your brief.

And, for a taste of a light entertainment from a more civilzed age: the Last Days of Pompeii by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (yes, that guy) while strictly not capital-F Fantasy has a lot of occult elements.
posted by bonehead at 11:47 AM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Avram Davidson's Vergil books (Phoenix and Mirror, Vergil in Averno, and The Scarlet Fig) are set in the fantastic memory that was the late medieval conception of Rome. You won't find so many of the trappings of Roman government per se, but the ambiance of the books is very classical: proud city states, wicked governors, waning but still-puissant gods and spirits, tension and interplay between citizens and barbarians. Infinitely recommended.
posted by Iridic at 11:48 AM on July 5, 2011

The Belisarius series is set in a alternate byzantine past, featuring General Belisarius.
posted by jefftang at 12:30 PM on July 5, 2011

Does Mists of Avalon fit into this? Yes, it's knights and witches/priestesses, and it deals with Authurian subject matter which most people group with "middle ages" stuff. Except that it actually takes place in late antiquity, somewhere in the period where paganism started to fade and Christianity started to take hold in Britain (so anywhere between the 3rd - 6th centuries?).

There are a few characters who are (loosely?) based on historical figures, but no, it doesn't really take place in actual Roman Britain.

That said, it's not quite as magical as, say, Tolkien.
posted by Sara C. at 3:08 PM on July 5, 2011

I, Claudius, is, as mentioned, not strictly fantasy genre, but if you haven't glanced at it yet, well, you oughtta get right on it, and soon.
posted by ovvl at 7:46 PM on July 5, 2011

Jacqueline Carey's novels aren't Roman per se, but they're set in a post-Roman, but non-feudal Europe analogue that you may find satisfying.
posted by psycheslamp at 5:14 PM on July 6, 2011

Marion Zimmer Bradley's 'The Forest House' is set in Roman Britain and deals with conflicts between the Romans and Celts. Boadicea is a tangential character, and the fantasy element centres mainly on Celtic mysticism.

Kara Dalkey's 'Euryale' is a fantasy/romance in which the gorgon seeks true love in order to break the curse, set in Rome.
posted by goo at 3:31 AM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Tanith Lee wrote a set of stories set in an imaginary fantasy empire clearly based on Rome. I think she called it "Remusa." Unfortunately I can't remember what they're called, but a few of them were collected in her best-of book Dreams of Dark and Light. One of the stories was "The Dry Season," about a Remusan soldier in the provinces trying to stop a virgin sacrifice to a pagan god, but I know there was at least one other one in the book, and probably more stories in the same world which didn't make the cut.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 1:28 AM on July 11, 2011

Also, Gene Wolf's Latro in the Mist comes to mind.
posted by anansi at 4:34 PM on July 12, 2011

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