Conn Iggulden | When Historical Facts meet Fiction

This interview was conducted in February 2023 and has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Conn Iggulden cover photo: Emelie Asplund.

About Conn Iggulden
Conn Iggulden was born 1971 and is a British author known for his highly appreciated historical fiction books. Iggulden is best known for his series of historical novels, including the Emperor series, which tells the story of Julius Caesar and the rise of the Roman Empire. He also wrote the Conqueror series, which covers the life of Genghis Khan and the creation of the Mongol Empire. In addition to this, Iggulden has also written several non-fiction books, including The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Dangerous Book of Heroes. Iggulden’s books have been well received and have been translated into over 20 languages. He became the first person to ever top the UK fiction and non-fiction charts at the same time.

Becoming a historical fiction writer

How did your interest in history come about? 
– My mother was a teacher in history and English. Besides the impact that had, I also had access to history just through my parents existence. My father was born in 1923, and his father was born in 1850. That means that my father grew up with a Victorian. My mother grew up in a rural island that was unchanged for hundreds of years. Their backgrounds made a real difference to how I saw the past. Not only from the stories my father would tell, but also the attitudes to for example corporal punishment. It also had an impact on the books we had in the house that I now know were very unusual, because they were mostly Victorian books.

Conn Iggulden's Emperor series are a highly appreciated work in historical fiction that covers the life of Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire.

Conn Iggulden’s Emperor series, about the life of Julius Caesar.

– The fact that my mother taught history cannot be underestimated when we are talking about how my upbringing shaped me. To some extent I grew up on stories and that’s the big link. My mother would always say that history was a collection of stories with dates. She would tell me about Mary Queen of Scots for example, a great romantic figure she loved. She also loved Napoleon and would tell me the story about when he was on the road to Paris. The army came out to arrest him and he threw back his cloak, revealing the order of the emperor and all the great military awards on his chest, and said “would you arrest your emperor?”. This is how I was taught history. Fascinating stories about real people with real concerns. That was my biggest influence.

When you decided to start writing books, was it clear to you from the beginning that it would historical novels? 
– No, it wasn’t. My first memories are of me, making up stories for my little brother. Later on, I began to write them down and at the age of eleven, I produced a children’s book. Even though it was terrible, I sent it off to publishers. I wrote constantly from the age of very young childhood, into adulthood. It was always my intense desire to write and to get something published. I would send books off constantly to publishers, without any result. At that time, I wasn’t looking specifically for history. I probably tried every genre you can think of. In fact, at the time, I was reading a lot of historical fiction, without really being aware that it was a genre. I was enjoying stories like Tai-Pan by James Clavell, the Flashman books by George MacDonald Fraser or the works of Bernard Cornwell and C.S. Forester. I didn’t reflect on the genre istfelf, but I thought they were great stories and I enjoyed reading them.

“Just think of the scene when his uncle Marius marched into the Roman forum and ordered his soldiers to make room for their general, and they started to kill people around them, right in front of the Senate who were unable to do anything about it.”

– One day, working as an English teacher, I covered a history class as the history teacher was away. While the students were quietly working heads down at the desk. I had nothing to do for 40 minutes so I started reading the books on the table, and I came across one about Julius Caesar. One scene that really caught my attention was when Octavian, the great nephew of Caesar, after Caesar’s death, threw the heads of the assassins at the foot of his statue in Rome. I remember thinking what an extraordinary scene that is. What is the relationship that would make one man want to do that for another? I began to think about the psychology of it and the relationships between people. Without being aware of it back then, that is the absolute key to historical fiction. It’s about making the characters real again, doing your best to understand what they were thinking and therefore to explain events which are otherwise inexplicable.

– I went from that history classroom deeply affected by this extraordinary story. I decided to pick up the great scholarly work of Christian Meier, and it helped me to understand the young Julius Caesar. What I then realized was that everyone knows how the Titanic sinks but not how it got to that point. The same was true for Julius Caesar. We all know Julius Caesar was assassinated, the betrayal of Brutus and the rest of it. But we don’t know how he got there. Most of us have never heard of his uncle Marius for example. Just think of the scene when his uncle Marius marched into the Roman forum and ordered his soldiers to make room for their general, and they started to kill people around them, right in front of the Senate who were unable to do anything about it. It was an unbelievable demonstration of extraordinary power and fascinating to think about what effect it must have had on the teenage Julius Caesar who witnessed it. I carried on with my research and writing and it took me two years to finish the first book.

Conn Iggulden's Conqueror series are a highly appreciated work in historical fiction that covers the life of Genghis Khan and the rise of the Mongol Empire.

Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series, about the life of Genghis Khan and the rise of the Mongol Empire.

Facts vs. Fiction

The topic of historical accuracy is an interesting one. Storytelling is key for people to learn and historical fiction can be great for education, as long as it is clear what parts are fiction and what parts are facts. You end your books with a “historical note” in which you explain with full transparency what was true and what parts you guessed or completely made up. How do you reason about historical accuracy and deciding how much fiction to include?
– This is a huge subject because it comes up every time historical fiction is mentioned anywhere. For me, the idea of putting in a historical note at the back came from seeing others do it, like Stephen King and Isaac Asimov. They would explain things at the end of their book, how they had come up with the story for example. I found that author’s voice at the end of a book interesting. They’re letting you peek behind the curtain. They’re no longer telling you the story and the relationship to the reader is slightly different. Over the years, I’ve had that comment probably more than any other, that people enjoy the historical note at the back. The way it usually works is that I come across something that I think no one will ever believe, like the fact that in ancient Rome they had buckets of human urine on every street corner. I would put that in the historical note, just because I know people will want to have that confirmed.

– That said, however, the very essence of writing historical fiction is that you take history and then you make certain decisions. When I was covering the details of the Spartacus slave rebellion, I was rather surprised to find out that Spartacus and his army won all the way free. They got right to the north of Italy, and if they had left and crossed the Alps at that point, that would have been it. The Roman Empire would have lost them somewhere in Gaul. Spartacus was beaten only because he decided to try and go for Rome, and came south again. It was his huge tactical cockup that led to his defeat. But Stanley Kubrick’s film Spartacus never mentions this at all. You have to make choices for your story, and it’s of course a better story if you don’t show that your hero was an idiot.

“You have to fill in gaps of the histories that simply aren’t mentioned.”

– I have to make these choices all the time. It’s common when studying a line of events in history that you don’t know what happened, there’s just a gap. Julius Caesar famously was captured by pirates as a young man. He’s dropped off on the North Coast of Africa and then he suddenly appears about a 150 miles further east and no one knows what happened in between those two points. He never mentions it himself in any writings. Somehow he managed to collect enough young men to crew a ship and enough money to hire one. He then went out and crisscrossed the Mediterranean until he found those same pirates, destroyed them and crucified them. Now, there are gaps in that story. We don’t know how a 19-year-old could do that.

– First of all, the whole things seems rather impossible, but it’s fairly well attested from sources of the time. The question is therefore how he managed to find and recruit all those young men? Well, we know that the Romans used to give plots of land to retiring legionaries, and North Africa was one place that they did it. Therefore, if those men retired there for 20 years, their children would have been brought up on stories of the glories of Rome. However, they would never have actually traveled to Rome or seen any of it. And lo and behold, what if one day a young, charismatic Roman appears in the village and says he’s looking for young men to crew a ship. Would you like to go on an adventure with Julius Caesar? I would think that that’s roughly what went on, but as Caesar never described it, I had to make that up. So that’s a completely fictional sequence of many chapters that I had to write. I think it’s a pretty good guess, but I would need to mention in the historical notes that it’s no more than my best attempt. You have to fill in gaps of the histories that simply aren’t mentioned.

– Another type of gap to fill is the intimate thoughts and feelings of a character. Julius Caesar wrote his own commentaries in third person, distancing himself from it. It is brilliant psychological propaganda, but it does mean that he doesn’t explain why he does things and what his motivations were. It removes that personal element, which means I have to fill it in. Both the historical gaps in the timeline and the missing intimate thoughts allows for a certain creativity. It will however always result in people thinking you have made terrible mistakes. That is constantly a struggle in historical fiction.

The death of Julius Caesar was painted in 1806 by Camuccini. It is also part of the Empreror books by Conn Iggulden, historical fiction writer.

La mort de Cèsar (The Death of Julius Caesar) painted in 1806 by Vincenzo Camuccini.

– One necessity for me is to investigate what is possible to do. For example, if I’m writing a scene with Julius Caesar and the action is happening a mile away, I have to pace out a mile and see what you can physically see. Is it possible to make out face expressions at four hundred meters? If I’m throwing a stone or a spear, how far does it go? I remember going to a museum that had a set of roman armor and I was allowed to put it on. My expectation was that it would be very heavy but the truth was that when I put it on, I felt invincible! I felt, wearing this with a decent piece of iron in my hand, I could wade through a crowd of enemies easily! Had I not put the armor on, I wouldn’t have experienced that feeling.

– My job as a historical fiction writer is always to come as close as I possibly can to the truth and realize that I will probably fail, but I will always do my best. I sometimes refer to something I call the Amalfi lemon problem. Since I was 17, I’ve been going to the Amalfi Coast, so I know it very well. Everyone there uses lemons in some way or other, so if you write about the Amalfi Coast and you omit to mention lemons, you would look like a fool who had not done his research. I have always feared to make a mistake of that kind. Let’s say every Roman walked with a pelican on a string and because I had never noticed that, I would not mention it. Meanwhile, everyone who knew Rome would know. The only mitigation to the risk of missing something crucial and vital is to read, to visit and to learn as much as you possibly can. Then you just wait for the e-mails to come from the people who say you’ve forgotten the pelican on the string. It’s frustrating when it happens because I do put a lot of time and work into trying to get it right. But it’s tricky to learn an entire society. You will make mistakes.

“I would say to anyone trying to write historical fiction that if at all possible, you have to go to the places involved.”

– Just as an example, when I was writing the Genghis Khan books, I couldn’t visualize any of it. I had just come off writing about Julius Caesar and since I’ve been to Rome endlessly throughout my life, I had a sense of the flowers, the colors and the smells. I didn’t have any of that for Genghis Khan. Nothing. I didn’t know what Mongolia looked like. So I decided to book a plane ticket and go out there. It was a lot harder than I realized, I must admit. Their second language is Russian and I don’t speak Mongolian, nor Russian. A little naively, I had assumed that I would just be able to communicate with people, but it was enormously difficult in some places.

– Nevertheless, it was an extraordinary experience that I learned a lot from. Without it, I would never have had the insights and the understanding that turned out to be absolutely crucial for how I saw Genghis Khan’s story. This is the reason I would say to anyone trying to write historical fiction that if at all possible, you have to go to the places involved. I know you’re not seeing it as it was, but it’s still valuable. When I went to Sparta, for example, I was looking at the mountains all around and thinking about Leonidas standing in this bowl. I’m looking at the same landscape. Even something like the fact that you have to climb up a hill to get to the Acropolis. It means that if I’m writing a scene with them heading towards Acropolis in times of an earthquake, then I have them going uphill, not downhill. Knowing the geography helps me to put it all together.

View of Acropolis in Greece.

The Acropolis in Athens, Greece.

History’s greatest legends

You have studied and written about amazing legends like Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan. Who would you pick as history ‘s greatest leader? 
– It has to be Julius Caesar. The man never lost a battle! Even Genghis Khan had ridiculous setbacks that embarrassed both him and his men. One of the stories about Genghis Khan I remember reading and laughing about was when he came across the first Chinese cities and discovered they were walled. He had no siege engines or catapults to smash through a wall. Instead, he had the bright idea of damming a river and attempting to flood the city. It went terribly wrong. He managed to flood the entire plain that his army was waiting on and suddenly they were all knee and waist deep in water and had to withdraw. Moments like that make me laugh!

– Julius Caesar stands out because the reason he won battles was often sheer genius. When he was fighting against Gnaeus Pompey, for example, he came up with a sort of psychological warfare where once he had defeated a group in battle, he would forgive them. He would extract an oath from them not to face him on the battlefield again and then, as opposed to being executed on the spot, they would be allowed to leave the battlefield. This upset Pompey enormously! He couldn’t understand what was happening. He would send out armies and then of course, as soon as this became established, they would lose and be allowed to leave the battlefield. It became an incredibly effective technique that no matter how many Pompey sent against Caesar, they would all surrender because they knew that they would be treated decently. It drove Pompey to absolute madness!

“His officers urge him to attack and slaughter the attackers, and if Pompey would have listened to their advice, he would have killed Julius Caesar.”

– When things went badly wrong for Julius Caesar, as they did once or twice against Pompey, his previous would save him. He once tried to stage a night attack against Pompey. A night attack is always difficult because you can’t communicate very well and you can’t see what’s happening. Caesar arranged a pincer attack on one of Pompey’s positions, meaning attacking from two sides at the same time. Julius Caesar was leading one group and the other would come across a river to meet up at Pompey’s camp. However, the soldiers couldn’t cross the river and as a result, Julius Caesar finds himself assaulting a Roman camp that they can’t possibly take without the support of the second group. They are quickly losing and are made to run away. Julius Caesar is so aghast and horrified by what’s happening that he grabs the Legion flag and waves it to try and rally his men. Pompey sees this happening but he doesn’t know it’s Julius Caesar holding the flag. His officers urge him to attack and slaughter the attackers, and if Pompey would have listened to their advice, he would have killed Julius Caesar. He would have become emperor and that would have been the end of Julius Caesar’s story. But because Gnaeus Pompey had dealt with Julius Caesar for so long, he said no, convinced that it was a trap. As a result, at the moment of perfect opportunity, he didn’t move. That was down to Julius Caesar having established a reputation for utter mastery on the battlefield. It saved his life!

An interesting dilemma is how to depict these historical legends. Is it wrong to glorify them and paint them as great heroes given how they brutully killed thousands of people? Or is it rather wrong to judge them by today’s moral standards? Are they heroes or villains?
– Well, I think the simple answer is that yes, it is wrong to judge them by today’s standards. It’s also worth pointing out that the Romans wrote their own history, which is the main reason they became heroic. Julius Caesar became the great hero, partly because he documented his achievements himself. He became the voice that judged his successes or failures which is absolutely brilliant. It’s like Churchill said: “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it”. That is a good idea if you have the ability. Genghis Khan was famously illiterate and his history was mostly written by his enemies. So he became synonymous with savage destruction of civilization.

In Iggulden's historical fiction books about Genghis Khan, the reader gets to learn a lot about the Mongol Empire.

The Mongol Empire, about a decade after the death of Genghis Khan.
Credit: World History Encyclopedia.

– At the same time, it’s important to realize that in the past if someone like Julius Caesar or Genghis Khan were waging war and conquering, they were simply better at it than everybody else. If they weren’t doing it, then other people would have done it to them. It’s important to remember that civilization as such, is spread with the sword. If you destroy some villages with fire and sword and the civilization that arises from that invents for example oil lamps, then that’s something that wouldn’t have existed before. Yet, it came about in a very unpleasant way. To be honest, that’s the story of humanity. It has always been a violent process, and one way to not be conquered is to conquer others. That’s not surprising at all, it’s expected.

– When I write about a character like Julius Caesar, I live with him. I suppose I like him. You end up liking them all actually. That is the thing about writing historical fiction. If you live with the characters, you get access to their internal thoughts, feelings and relationships to imagine and discern as best you can. That includes accepting their errors, their cruelties and their mistakes. It’s the main reason I could never be comfortable writing about somebody like Hitler. I don’t want to establish that level of empathy with a character like him. My dad fought against Hitler in World War II and it would be tricky in his memory for me to handle that. Although I will say that Genghis Khan was a difficult sell to some people. The name is synonymous with utter destruction, and that is true, obviously. But I tried to find the difference between Genghis the father, Genghis the brother and in particular Genghis the son, the husband and the absolutely ruthless war lord.

The Spartans

In some of your latest books about Ancient Greece, you write about the Spartans and how unique and extraordinary they were. How do you think they became so different and is there any people throughout history worthy of comparison, you think? 
– There have always been elite groups of soldiers. The Persians had their immortals, a unit of ten thousand. I believe they were called immortals because when a hundred of them died they were always replaced so it never fell below ten thousand in number. They were considered elite troops until they met the Spartans and discovered that they weren’t immortal after all. But if we analyze the Spartans by today’s morality, they were not that admirable. It was a slave culture. They had seven slaves – the Helots – to every Spartan warrior. The Helots were a beaten people who had lived in that part of Greece and been conquered and made into a slave society. In Athens and particularly in Rome, the freedom from slavery could come about in different ways. A slave could buy his way free or be freed when the owner died. But in Sparta, the slaves were never freed. They lived and died as slaves, and their children would live and die as slaves.

“if you had a professional boxer up against six or seven guys, they might land a blow or two, but on the whole he would be the one I’d put my money on. It was the same with the Spartans.”

– What the slave culture allowed was that, since the Helots did all of the manual labor, the Spartans could train. That’s how they could be such an unprecedented elite force. It was common in history that when people were not called up to battle, they would be expected to farm or be manual laborers. They would occasionally be called upon to pick up a weapon, but they were not professional soldiers. The Spartans were in a sense, the world’s first professional soldiers, because they did nothing but train in the skills of warfare. This meant, of course, that when they came up against ordinary men, the difference was night and day. It would be like me attempting to beat up a professional boxer. It would be absolutely ludicrous. To build on that comparison, if you had a professional boxer up against six or seven guys, they might land a blow or two, but on the whole he would be the one I’d put my money on. It was the same with the Spartans.

– Then combine those professional elite fighting skills with the most extreme personal discipline. Famously, the boys were never fed enough so they had to steal food. If they were caught, they were punished for getting caught, not for stealing. They had an unusual moral set up. The Spartans created a force so terrifying that the Athenians knew the only possible way they could defend against them was to build walls and remain behind them. They knew that if they ever sallied out and attempted to take on the Spartans on the field of battle, they would have lost. The best evidence of the Spartan formidability is that when Persia invaded with a number of men so vast we don’t know, but probably hundreds of thousands, it was the Spartans on the field of battle who could not be broken. They were a stone in the flood and no matter how many came against them, their discipline held and their armour was of excellent quality.

Statue of a Spartan warrior in Greece. The Spartans were an extremely fascinating people and are covered in several of Iggulden's historical fiction books.

Spartan warrior statue in Greece.

– A fascinating detail about the Spartan army’s organization is the fact that they stood in lines of the same age. Basically, all the men of 34 would be standing in a line, so that they could look left and right and know who ever stood there because they had grown up together. More importantly, the men in front of them were the 35-year-olds that they had looked up to during childhood, and the men behind them were the 33-year-olds who looked up to them. This made it impossible to run away or give up. We know for example, that one man at Thermopylae was blinded in the crush of Persian soldiers and lost his sight. He was released by Leonidas and sent to go home. God knows how he made it all the way back to Sparta without seeing, but he did. When arriving he was mocked and humiliated by everybody for leaving the battlefield. The shame became so heavy to bear that he demanded the right to stand with the Spartan forces again in the front rank when they faced the Persians again at Plataea. So he did and he was one of the first people killed of course, because he couldn’t see, but he was nonetheless rushing at the enemy, determined to undo the shame.

– Because they had this vast force of slaves in Sparta, they would rarely leave for more than two weeks at a time, and always in small numbers. To leave Sparta was considered extremely dangerous because if the slaves revolted while the army was away, they could come back to full destruction. The Spartan army could decide in the middle of batteling the Persian armies, that they needed to return home and no one could stop them. They could move at will anywhere in the battle against any forces brought against them. This is a level of elite soldiering that I don’t think we’ve ever seen. Of course, it all disappears with the invention of missile weapons. Once you have anything like a gun, everything else goes out of the window. It doesn’t matter how skilled you are, you are going to take a bullet through the eyes the same as everyone else.  

“But as soon as I had given up on expecting it to be historically accurate, then I could enjoy it as a good film.”

Speaking of the Spartans, I have to ask you what you thought about the movie 300 when you saw it the first time?
– To start with, the Persian king is about eight or nine feet tall, there are rhinos and all sorts of weird things. But as soon as I had given up on expecting it to be historically accurate, then I could enjoy it as a good film. It had its moments. I quite liked the kicking the Persian into the well, and also the “we’ll fight in the shade” moment. Those sort of things were terrific. Leonidas was an interesting king and it’s a great story.

If you could pick any time and place in history to visit for a day, what would it be?   
– The obvious answer would be the crucifixion of Jesus. But I think I’d go back and see some of the battles, as long as I could be safe doing it because I did not want to get some maniac to come running at me with a huge bill hook. I’d also love to see Julius Caesar in real life. He actually went bald but all of his statues had hair, these luxurious locks. The man clearly understood propaganda. I don’t think I’d go anywhere near Genghis Khan, to be perfectly honest. That’s just too dangerous. Kublai Khan was interesting. He grew too fat at the end of his life to hunt, but he had a trained leopard would attack for him whenever he pointed at something. I would love to see that. Those are interesting moments, but then, there are hundreds. History is full of these extraordinary events!

What book would you like to recommend?  
– If I was going to recommend one in terms of sheer reading pleasure, I’m going with Tai-Pan by James Clavell. I absolutely loved that book.

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