Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your readers. So what did the Romans ever do for us? The senatorial Simon Scarrow knows the answer.
They have made him a best selling author at home and abroad – each book more eagerly awaited than the last.
Scarrow scares up a storm with each sword and sandals saga. It’s won him a big following in Lancashire.
As ever fans have got Kirkham’s Silverdell to thank for their hero heading for this corner of the old Roman Empire.
Not that the Romans made much impression here. Too boggy for their tastes.
But appropriately enough, given the Silverdell bookshop link, a Roman fort stood at Kirkham. The remains of a small Roman bath were found there.
And a Roman road ran from Preston through Kirkham towards Fleetwood. There’s speculation that the Roman port Portus Setantiorurn, mentioned by Roman geographer Ptolemy, was near Lune Deeps off the coast of Fleetwood or Knott End, where coin hoards have been found.
Either way, it appears Roman interest in our neck of the woods petered out pretty much at Kirkham – which could explain why Preston has a far better road system to this day than Blackpool’s.
And, let’s face it, it took them about 25 years to get this far North from Kent.
That’s the not so horrible history bit out of the way. It’s taken a fair bit of time for Scarrow to get here from Norfolk too. At Silverdell’s behest he’s at County Hall, Preston, on Thursday at 7pm. It means his fans on the Fylde coast and further afield can get their hands on signed copies of his latest book on the very day it’s published. He’s also romping through Roman history. His books have sold more than 2.5m copies in the UK alone. His novels are in translation all around the world.
Now the Sunday Times No 1 best selling author is back in print with another unputdownable Roman adventure – The Blood Crows (Headline, £18.99) and the first featuring soldiers Macro and Cato who started the series two years ago.
Praetorian, The Legion, The Gladiator – the titles ring out with action which is just how Scarrow likes it. He learned Latin at school but Ancient Rome, and the spread of the Empire, only came home to him when he started touring the Med.
“You keep bumping into Roman remains – even in our own countryside – and the whole series kicked off after I kept coming across these incredible feats of engineering. There was something about the extremes of the culture – all that marvellously clever stuff combined with a bunch of bloodthirsty barbarians, the gladiator types who would take the sword to pretty much everyone they came across - that captured my imagination.
“Today my favourite spot in the whole world is Capri and it’s so easy to see why Tiberius loved it. You visit the Villa Jovis and look out upon the Bay of Naples, a steep drop down, and the view hasn’t changed since those days - bar the shape of Vesuvius after the eruption.
“Then you come to Britain and look at Hadrian’s Wall, for example, and apart from everything else it’s fabulous work. The audacity of building a wall across England – it’s mad. And across such a lush but unforgiving landscape.
“I loved the film Gladiator, for all the historical inaccuracies, but I wanted to redress the balance in my books, show readers the Roman army from the ground up, switch the emphasis from the generals and leaders and look at the squaddies.
“It’s hard to get into the minds of people who lived so long ago – I’ve struggled enough to understand the mentality of my parents and grandparents!
“But I tried to imagine how they would look at a British posting. On the one hand the Romans laboured under the idea that Britain was this wild place with wild people – and in a way it was – right at the end of the civilised world.
“All the archaeological evidence suggests they had quite a grim time of it here – the lack of sunshine and the different diet caused problems, such as rickets. Lots of troops were garrisoned here and the leaders realised that they had to come from similar climates. They also had to fight a different kind of warfare in very hostile terrain.
“Britain was a just a geographical entity and that was it, divided into warring tribes. The Romans managed to quite a few deals before they even set foot in the land. There wasn’t some groundswell of indigenous opposition. It was more a loose coalition that existed.
“I’m looking at the period when, the Roman Empire has fought to strengthen its hold over Britannia. Ruthless warrior Caractus is threatening to take it all back. He knew he couldn’t take them on in the battlefield, but had the sense to use guerilla tactics.
“He was fairly successful in that and that’s where I’ve set Blood Crows, showing how the Romans had to adapt and cope with it.”
Scarrow is passionate about getting history into schools. “There are so many misconceptions about history. A friend of mine from a Viking re-enactment society was telling me how a teacher was telling pupils how the Viking settlements were all sorted out when the Romans invaded. The timeline was totally out.
“I come across these misconceptions all the time. It’s important to know our history because it’s the story of how we came to be the way we are. It helps us understand how things change and it’s important they change. It helps us understand the shape of things.”
Scarrow is keen to spread the word to politicians too. “Just look at our history in Afghanistan. I was talking to a politician the other day about Syria and you would kind of think politicians would know enough about history to learn from the past.”
It’s a far cry from Scarrow’s first experience of Rome - when at four-years-old he visited the Coliseum in Rome with his parents.
“I remember my parents trying to excite me about it and I said ‘it’s just stones’.
“I got more into it at school. I was never particularly good at Latin but once they stopped talking about the language and got more into the history and culture that’s when it got really interesting.”
And the pivotal point came with I Claudius being shown on telly.
“There was that, and Cleopatra, and Spartacus and umpteen variations on the fall of the Roman empire. Swords and sandals movies, they call them.”
But what is it about the ancient Romans which continues the romance to this day?
“Another turning point came with Gladiator which was a pretty duff film but exciting.
“And Rome on TV was a brilliant series. I think the appeal rests in the fact Rome seems to shimmer between a sense of the familiar and strangeness.”
Scarrow admits he despairs of historians.
“I love it when historians get on their high horses and question accuracy,” he added.
“I’m writing a story. I’m not out to bridge all the gaps in knowledge of that culture.
“History differs with each observer. You only have to look at any politician’s version of what is happening now to appreciate that.
“And books are there to be enjoyed. I find books much better than films. Films may be visually exciting but when you read a book you take part in the creation of what is going on, you create your own unique experience and pictures. That’s why books are always better than films based on books.
“It’s also much better value. Look at the price of Blood Crows – £18.99. And it’s free at the library. If you go out to the cinema you’re lucky to get change from £15. And it’s all over at one sitting. Give me a book rather than a film any day.”
Scarrow’s also written a novel about the 1956 Seige of Malta and four more about the lives of the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon Bonaparte.
But who would top his toga party list? “It would have to be Caesar – Julius – because he’s one of those stand out politicians, and from an idealistic point of view, Spartacus, from when the rebellion is building up, rather than his mean and surly gladiator stage.
Like Caesar he had ambition and could inspire people.
“If I could opt for any period I’d invite Napoleon too because that was from a period of history which was a crucial turning point.”
As for what the Romans did for us?
Scarrow responds: “They did so much.
“They gave us a language framework, a legal framework, a cultural framework.
“We’ve slipped back a hell of a long way since. After the fall of the Roman Empire Europe never really recovered to the same level.
“The next time the population stood at the same level was at the end of the 19th century – even in the Renaissance it never really regained its lost glory.
“We are living in what was once a corner of that giant empire, that lost civilisation, and it’s astonishing how much we gained.
“Augustus managed to hold it all together, and Vespasian was the first of the middle class emperors who ruled fairly well and efficiently although ab it of a prig.
“If I’d been around back then I’d love to have been a senator although it was a bit risky.
“But I’d probably have been a peasant.”