Biography vs Historical Fiction

An upcoming Roman History book chat will cover one of Allan Massie’s novels about Roman emperors. Based on previous chats, Massie’s attention to historical detail will be presumed and any deviations we note will be mentioned.
Massie represents one type of historical fiction, the well-researched biographical novel. This is not my favorite type of historical fiction. I like my fiction to tell a made-up story. I particularly enjoy the format of a mystery.
In the area of Roman history, when it’s made up, but not a mystery and is about individuals, it warrants the label biographical fiction; not popular history.
I’m on the last few chapters of Diana Preston’s fast-paced account of Cleopatra and Antony, and have yet to figure out why it’s not labeled fiction. An inventory of the night clothes Octavia wore on the night she married Antony details a loincloth, probably based on the famous Pompeiian female ball players, rather than quoteable evidence. The Roman historical fiction standard, the dormouse, appears on p. 168. Preston describes the feeding and breeding of dormice in the context of postulating a sumptuous meal Antony and Cleopatra might have enjoyed. Preston suggests a good stiff drink might have been necessary on some occasion.

Cleopatra and Antony is intended as popular history. This label is thought to cover its shortage of references, its excited clip through events, and the author’s inventions. I suppose it covers its oddball factual errors (like dating the first medical treatise to the time of Cleopatra), as well. I don’t understand, though, why Massie is fiction and Preston, history.

I wrote my review at Diana Preston’s Cleopatra and Antony.


1 Comment

  1. If you are willing to consider some totally made-up biographical fiction with a bit of suspense and mystery within, but set much more recently, try Dangerous Days: The Autobiography of a Photojournalist, by J. William Turner. This is a four-part novel set in Australia and England, primarily in the early-1980's. A long way from Ancient Rome but worth considering. The publisher is Eloquent Books/AEG Publishing.


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