Ian Ross is the author of the Twilight of Empire series. The sixth and final novel in the series, Triumph in Dust, is out in hardback now.
After six books, and close to three quarters of a million words, the ‘Twilight of Empire’ series is at an end. The publication of the sixth and final novel, Triumph in Dust, brings to a conclusion the story of the series’ protagonist, Aurelius Castus, and his adventures in the Roman army of the 4th century AD. Needless to say, it’s a strange feeling.
I began writing the first book of the series, War at the Edge of the World, back in 2012. Back then I had no idea whether the series would continue, or even if the first story would be published. But I already knew very clearly what I wanted to write about; the germ of it had been in my mind for nearly a decade by that point, and I had been researching and planning it for almost that long before I set down the first words. The central character came to me first: an honest man in a corrupt world, battling his way upwards through the ranks of the army, against a multitude of foes. The historical setting followed soon afterwards: I wanted to begin in Britain, and the Emperor Constantine was first acclaimed at York following a campaign against the Pictish barbarians. Constantine’s rise to power had the epic sweep and geographical reach that I needed, and by hitching my fictional soldier Castus to the juggernaut of Constantine’s reign I had all the historical momentum my story would need.
Even so, I knew it would not be easy. Threading an individual life through the meshes of complicated historical facts – the later Roman Empire is not known for its simplicity! – and trying to create a picture of the past as true to life and to history as I could manage was often fantastically difficult, but the successes were all the more rewarding for that. And, most of the time, what I came up with was pretty close to what I’d intended in my original conception of the story.
Along the way I got to discover far more than I would have thought necessary, or even possible, about all kinds of aspects of the historical era, from naval warfare to battlefield surgery, toxicology to necromancy, dining customs to fortune-telling, and inheritance law to the grisly details of ancient torture techniques. Minor characters opened up new avenues: Castus’s long-standing assistant Diogenes gave me a chance to explore (often rather tongue-in-cheek) the strange world of late antique philosophy, while writing from the perspectives of Castus’s wives, Sabina and Marcellina, and the Empress Fausta opened a window to the experiences of women in the elite world of the imperial court. The rise of Christianity, while challenging for the resolutely traditionalist Castus, provided plenty of material to work with. My one regret is that I never found a reason to send Castus off to Egypt, which would have been fascinating to research, although I added a few Egyptian snippets to the backstory of another minor character, the eunuch Luxorius who appears in the fourth and fifth books.
Castus’s adventures have taken him from the far north-west of the Roman world to the furthest eastern frontiers, and from the wilds of the barbarian wilderness to the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates. In the course of the six books – covering over thirty years of history – he has risen from an ordinary footsoldier to one of the foremost generals of his age. It seems a fitting end. At one point, a year or two ago as I contemplated the approaching end of the series, I considered writing some prequel stories about Castus, covering some of the events of his early life mentioned in the novels: his troubled youth, and his escape from home to join the army, perhaps his early experiences of warfare in the east and on the Danube. But I decided that, in fact, I preferred Castus to begin as he first appears, in the opening pages of the Prologue of War at the Edge of the World, a ‘bull-necked young soldier of II Herculia’ standing in the reserve ranks before the Battle of Oxsa; one man among many, undifferentiated by name or character, like a figure in a frieze or a wall painting. I had always intended him to be representative of a certain sort of man, the unknown common soldiers who built the empire and raised the emperors into the spotlight of history, while remaining in the shadows themselves, and it seems fitting that he should spring into fictional life like this.
So I will not be revisiting Castus again (or so I tell myself…) Already I’m planning new books, featuring a cast of new characters and a new and slightly different historical setting (although it might be some time before I exhaust the enormous potentials of the ancient Roman world). But I like to think that the fictional people we write about, and read about, have a sort of life and resonance beyond the page, and beyond the stories in which they appear. So no doubt Aurelius Castus will stay with me, wherever my imagination might lead me next.