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Living with Historical Fiction

Richard Cole. University of Bristol. UK.

Living with Historical Fiction

Richard Cole. University of Bristol. UK.


It goes without saying that our cultural memory is saturated with images of antiquity drawn from historical fiction. Over the last few centuries, the classical world has enjoyed a renaissance in popular culture, with appearances in historical novels, silent film, historical epics, and more recently, TV-series, blockbusters, and videogames. From Edward Bulwer Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and the Total War phenomena, audiences across the world have accessed the classical past via a form of historical fiction. But what sort of classical past is being remembered? With an ever-increasing number of historical fictions repackaging antiquity for popular consumption, what effect does living with historical fiction have on our cultural memory and imagination?


To answer these questions, I believe we must focus on the framing devices that surround historical fictions. By framing devices, I mean titles, front covers, contents pages, prefaces, footnotes, afterwords, and reviews, to name but a few. These so-called paratexts contain the most condensed, readily accessible, widely distributed memories of the classical past, and act to frame both the work itself, and the historical period in question. Genette spoke of paratexts as ‘thresholds’, ‘vestibules’, or ‘undefined zones’ that we must pass through to access a work.[1] More recently, scholars have developed Genette’s theory to argue that ‘paratexts are not simply add-ons ... they create texts, they manage them, and they fill them with many of the meanings that we associate with them.’[2] Thus, when no less than five historical novels set in Late Antiquity written by five different authors all share the title Emperor, this paratext does more than simply introduce the works; it declares that Rome is knowable and accessible predominantly via the concept, actions, and form of an Emperor. What apparently matters most in this period, and to the audience, are the ‘great’ figures who changed – or tried to change – the world. Remembering Rome via its emperors has widespread historical precedent, but it is through such paratextual repetitions, and their familiarity, that we perpetuate long-standing cultural memories, cementing imperial authority as a benchmark against which it remains possible to compare current politicians.


Whether we look at maps, titles, or cover art, it is within the frame that the overall complexity of history is reduced by the revival and/or creation of a specific set of culturally resilient tropes that become stand-ins for both the work and the past it claims to represent. We know the Roman Empire from its maps, we associate it with gladiators, and we are not surprised to see cover art promoting legionaries, eagles, or busts of emperors. Scholarship on historical fiction has rarely focused on the frame, predominately acting as an apology for the genre, striving to vindicate it from claims of inaccuracy while regretfully acknowledging the supposed inconsistency/paradox in its very title. My paper will instead look at how the frame becomes a locus for the creation of powerful, historically-orientated memories, which, far from being inaccurate, focus attention on specific elements of the past that in turn come to dominate our cultural memory and imagination.

[1] Genette, G. (1997), Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (Cambridge University Press), 1.

[2] Gray, J. (2010), Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (New York University Press), 6.

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