Harry Sidebottom was brought up in racing stables in Newmarket where his father was a trainer. He had a basket saddle on a donkey before he could walk.
He was educated at various schools and universities, including Oxford, where he took his Doctorate in Ancient History at Corpus Christi College. In similar fashion he has taught at various universities including Oxford, where he is now Fellow and Director of Studies in Ancient History at St Benets Hall, and Lecturer in Ancient History at Lincoln College.
His main scholarly research interests are Greek culture under the Roman empire (thinking about the compromises and contradictions involved when an old and sophisticated culture is conquered and ruled by what it considers a younger and less civilised power) and warfare in classical antiquity (looking at how war was both done and thought about by Greeks and Romans). He has published numerous chapters in books, and articles and reviews in scholarly journals becoming an internationally recognised scholar in these fields.
His first book Ancient Warfare: A Very Short Introduction was published by OUP in 2004. It got excellent reviews. The Times Literary Supplement described it as “jam-packed with ideas and insight … a radical and fresh reading of Greek and Roman warfare that is both surprising and stimulating.” For The Guardian it was “a boot camp for the brain – a short, sharp shock to the presumptions.” The Contemporary Review dubbed it “a tour de force.” Robin Lane Fox described it in print as “outstandingly good.” It has been translated into Japanese (2006) and Chinese (2007). Translations into German and Greek are in progress.
Away from classical scholarship his other interests include fiction, travel, sport, booze, and women.
Since 2003 he has been a regular reviewer of fiction, especially historical novels, in the Times Literary Supplement. Here he has enthused about Robert Harris and Alan Massie, and probably made enemies for life of Erica Jong and Colleen McCullough.
Since 2006 he has been working on the Warrior of Rome series of novels featuring the Anglo-Saxon nobleman turned Roman army officer Ballista and his Familia which are set in the Roman Empire during the so-called `Great Crisis of the Third Century AD`.
He has travelled widely, especially around the Mediterranean. These trips have varied from the luxury of travelling as a guest speaker on a Cunard liner to a memorable solo journey into Albania not long after the fall of the dictator Enver Hoxha.
All his life he has gone racing, and played and watched rugby and cricket. He was a founder member of Woodstock Rugby Football Club. Recently he has discovered the pleasures of real tennis.
When and why did you begin writing?
Like all children, I wrote stories. Somehow I never grew out of it. Eventually I faced up to the fact that if I did not try to get some fiction published I would end up an embittered old man always beating myself up with `if only I had tried`.
What inspired you to write your first Ballista book?
I had tried all sorts of types of fiction, sub-Martin Amis/Jay Mcinerney/Bret Easton Ellis literary comedies, fantasy novels, thrillers, but one of my enduring loves has always been historical fiction. Researching a big history book, Fields of Mars: A Cultural History of Ancient Battle, I reached the chapter on siege warfare, and realised a besieged town provided an ideal setting for a novel; a unity of action and place, and individuals and society stretched far beyond their norms.
Fields of Mars remains about one third written. One day it will get finished. Meanwhile a version of the siege chapter is coming out in a book I am editing with Michael Whitby, The Encyclopaedia of Ancient Battles (Blackwell), and I published the chapter on naval battle in a collection of scholarly articles (in Portuguese!).
Is there a message in your novels that you want readers to grasp?
One thing that depresses me about bad historical fiction, and bad history books, is the ahistorical insistence that `people have always been the same/they were just like us`. Instead Mary Renault was right when she said something on the lines of the pleasure of reading and writing historical fiction comes from the tension between what is universal to humanity and what is specific to a time and place. In some ways the Romans were much like us, but in others completely alien.
What books have influenced your life most?
When I was at school my godfather gave me Alexander the Great by Robin Lane Fox. It converted me to Classical history, made me want to spend my life reading and hopefully writing similar books.
If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
For historical fiction it would have to be Patrick O`Brian. Few writers have taken the genre to such heights, and seldom over such a sustained series. Over the last few years I have read and reread Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. Both their, very different, styles show what can be done with the English language in a novel.
Do you have to travel much concerning your books?
Yes, but not as much as I would like. At first I was limited by lack of money, now by lack of time. Having said which, I try to get to all the major locations in the novels. I like to walk the routes taken by characters. It gives you a secure grasp of how the buildings and landscape fit together; history through the soles of your boots, as a review in the TLS was kind enough to say. This year for Throne of the Caesars I am going back to Rome, and hopefully to Carthage. No idea why my wife refers to them as holidays.
Did you learn anything from writing your books, and what was it?
Just how little I knew about the Classical world. Despite having taught the subject at five universities, and published lots of articles and one book, there were huge areas where my ignorance was almost total.
What was the inspiration for the new series?
Since I did my Masters thesis on the Greek historian Herodian, I have been fascinated by the years AD235-8. So many wars and revolts, plots and emperors, all compressed into just four years, the start of the crisis of the third century; it was crying out for a series like Throne of the Caesars.
And I wanted to write a slightly different type of novel from the Warrior of Rome, which was focused on the one central character of Ballista. The new series is constructed as a multiple point of view story. The first result is Iron and Rust.
So: free platform, you`ve been given a pitch at Oxford Market… sell your book to the crowd.
There are few things I would less like to do. Although I have done loads of lecturing and public speaking, I still get stage fright. But, if I went through with it, I might say something like:- “Iron and Rust: creates a world both sophisticated and brutal, yet firmly rooted in history; a world of intrigue, murder, passion and war; a world where men will kill to sit in the Throne of the Caesars”
(Yes, I know the line is from the publicity, but I wrote it, and can’t think of anything better).
Finally after all the hard work and skill you have put in do you have any advice for other writers?
Read lots of authors, but don’t copy them slavishly. Write lots of different things in different styles until you find what suits you. Persevere – it is hard work – treat it as a job. Get a good agent. Hope for a lucky break.
Iron and Rust:
Date Available: 22 May 2014
From the bestselling author of WARRIOR OF ROME comes the first book in a new series set in third century Rome; a dramatic era of murder, coup, counter-rebellions and civil war.
In a single year six Emperors will lay claim to the Throne of the Caesars…
Dawn on the Rhine. A surprise attack and the brutal murder of the Emperor Alexander and his mother ends the Severan dynasty and shatters four decades of Roman certainty.
Military hero Maximinus Thrax is the first Caesar risen from the barracks. A simple man of steel and violence, he will fight for Rome.
The Senators praise the new Emperor with elaborate oratory, but will any of them accept a Caesar who was once a shepherd boy? And in the streets of the eternal city, others merely pray to escape imperial notice.
In the north, as the merciless war against the barbarians consumes men and treasure, rebellion and personal tragedy drive Maximinus to desperate extremes, bloody revenge and the borders of sanity.
Iron & Rust, the first book in a major new series, creates a world both sophisticated and brutal, yet firmly rooted in history; a world of intrigue, murder, passion and war, a world where men will kill to sit on the Throne of the Caesars.
As a fan of historical fiction I’d be a bit remiss if I had not heard of or read Harry Sidebottom, I have to admit to being a bit of a fan of his writing (Warrior of Rome series). When I read the first book Fire in the East I did so with no preconceptions, I read a review copy before most readers of the genre so could do so without any opinions colouring my view. My immediate view at the time was that here was someone a bit different, the writing style skewed more to the educational than the entertainment side of a read, but it has plenty of both. Since that date I have read many opinions of other readers about the writing being “a lecture”, “a bit too Dry” etc.. and each person should be able to form their own view. Mine was always that Ballista was a highly complex and entertaining character, and the books taxed my knowledge of the Roman world, they taught me something. It meant I had to make sure I read them at the right time, to ensure my mood suited that read. Doing it this way led me to give each and every book between 4 and 5 stars, and to read knowing that Harry had done the research, that what I was reading was educational as well as blooming good fun.
Iron and Rust is a departure from the time of Ballista, and a bit to my surprise a departure in style. If this had been my first experience of Harry I might have been a bit more concerned, I might be leaning a bit more towards those people who use the term “Lecture”. The book is highly informative, packed with detail of the Roman world of AD235, it brings to life (piece by piece) many of the major players in the Roman hierarchy of the time. It’s when you persevere with the detail that Iron and Rust starts to pay dividends, the complexity and the detail resolves itself into a detailed plot with many players and many shifting alliances, like a complex multi-layered game of chess. Nasty back stabbing politics, rumour and denouncements and the old evil of greed and gold.
As the book progressed and I adapted to this style I found myself enjoying the story more, and the characters depths and idiosyncrasies became more and more apparent, I found myself finally sinking into the roman world rather than being swept along by the events of history. Ultimately this book and many more this year will suffer in comparison to Giles Kristian and God of Vengeance, which is my 2014 bench mark, and has reset my use of 5 star read. That said this is still an entertaining read, and highly educational, what I think made me struggle is the lack of a central character, a hero… and as soon as that thought popped into my head…so did bonnie tyler…(sorry Harry)
I need a hero
I’m holding on for a hero ‘til the end of the night
He’s gotta be strong
And he’s gotta be fast
And he’s gotta be fresh from the fight
I need a hero
I’m holding on for a hero ‘til the morning light
He’s gotta be sure
And it’s gotta be soon
And he’s gotta be larger than life (larger than life)
Deep down I’m a simple man, I need my battles, I need the fighting, the blood and a little gore, I need the anticipation of battle more than I need politics, I need that larger than life character who will carry me through the world of the book and the events swirling around him/her. But that said this is a book you should read, If I apply the Amazon review model:
1 Star: I hate it
2 Stars: I don’t like it
3 Stars: Its okay
4 Stars: I like it
5 Stars: I love it.
By the end of the book I was firmly in the 4 stars, Harry as ever had won me around, mainly with Maximinus, the Roman Emperor, with his blunt heroic hard charging ways, I just wish he had been a bigger player in the book, or we could have seen the story through the eyes of a consistent character. Harry remains on my must read list and I am looking forward to his next book, I feel the next one will start stronger and faster, first books in a series have to set the scene and the character base, that’s now been done… bring on the battles Harry, but also keep your amazing eye for detail, intrigue and authenticity.
Warrior of Rome
1. Fire in the East (2008)
2. King of Kings (2009)
3. Lion of the Sun (2010)
4. The Caspian Gates (2011)
5. The Wolves of the North (2012)
6. The Amber Road (2013)