History Weekend 2014 preview: 5 minutes with… Harry Sidebottom

The murder of the Roman emperor Alexander Severus in AD235 sparked political chaos, civil war, and foreign disaster, bringing to an end nearly 300 years of imperial stability in the Roman Empire. At this year’s History Weekend in Malmesbury, novelist and historian Harry Sidebottom will explore what had gone so very wrong

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A lecturer in ancient history at the University of Oxford, Sidebottom is widely known as the author of two series of historical novels, Warrior of Rome and Throne of the Caesars.

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Here, he gives a taste of his Malmesbury lecture, and explains why he believes we are enjoying “a golden age of history writing”…

Q: How and when did you first realise you had a passion for history?

A: I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by history. As a boy it was all about wars: the English Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars, the First and Second World Wars.

Maybe it was the books my father gave me: Conan Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard stories and Biggles. When I was at sixth form my godfather gave me Robin Lane Fox’s Alexander the Great. I loved it, and decided I wanted to spend my time reading, and hopefully writing similar books. It made me an ancient historian. Books can change your life.

Q: What’s the best thing about being a historian?

A: The thing that most excites me as a historian is when you have done enough reading and thinking about a new period or theme so that new patterns begin to emerge in your mind; new explanations that perhaps no one previously had seen.

Q: Are you reading any exciting history books at the moment?

A: Research involves a lot of re-reading. For my next novel in the Throne of the Caesars series I am revisiting (for the umpteenth time) the Augustan History (an extraordinary series of Latin biographies of the emperors) and (for the third time) Karen Haegmans’ Imperial Authority and Dissent: The Roman Empire in AD235-238 (an exemplary piece of modern scholarship).

Q: Why do you love ancient history, and are there any other periods in history that excite you?

A: What I love about ancient history is the tension between what is universal in the human condition and what is specific to a time and place. In some ways the Greeks and Romans were just like us, but in others totally alien.

There are loads of other periods that interest me. Recently I have been reading lots of memoirs from the Spanish Civil War. Last year I was into Elizabethan politics, especially espionage. Stephen Alford’s The Watchers and John Cooper’s The Queen’s Agent show how serious scholarship can be written to appeal to a wide audience. We are in a golden age of history writing.

Q: What can we expect from your talk at Malmesbury?

A: A broad, sweeping talk in which I will try out various explanations as to why, after nearly three centuries of imperial stability, the Roman empire suffered 50 years of political and military turmoil and disaster between AD235 and AD284.

To find out more about the History Weekend, and to buy tickets, visit www.historyweekend.com

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To buy tickets for Harry Sidebottom’s talk, click here.