Researching The Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom
The Last Hour is the first novel that came to me almost fully formed in one image. The hero, Ballista, was standing on top of the Mausoleum of Hadrian. The sun was setting behind him. Far below his feet, the Tiber was in flood. The city of Rome was spread out before him on the far bank. The bad guys were pounding up the stairs. I knew straight away that he had until sunset the next day to get across the city and save the Emperor from assassination. Should Ballista fail, his family would die.
For some time I had been thinking about writing a fast-paced, stripped-down thriller. Here was my plot. Despite Rome being one of the most evocative locations in the world, I could find no novel, and no film or TV series, that had used the city as the setting for a race against time. The way was clear to start the research.
Historical novelists are the gatekeepers of history. We have a duty to get things right. As an ancient history don at Oxford, I take my research very seriously. First there was much work to be done in the library. I wanted to summon up for the reader an immersive and accurate portrait of Rome. As Ballista is hunted both by the City Watch, who have orders for his arrest, and other, more sinister figures, who want him dead, he visits many of the neighbourhoods of Rome, and encounters inhabitants from all walks of life. Rome: A Living Portrait of an Ancient City by S.L. Dyson (2010) was a great place to start, and was the first of innumerable scholarly books and articles that I read. Invaluable for planning the route of Ballista were A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome by L. Richardson (1992), Rome and Environs: An Archaeological Guide by F. Coarelli (2007), and Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide by A. Claridge (2nd ed., 2010). Had The Atlas of Ancient Rome by A. Carandini (2017) already been published it would have provided much inspiration, and saved me a lot of work!
With much of the reading done, it was time for the research trip. I have been fortunate enough to visit Rome many times, and have a deep love for the city. It is always my aim, if it all possible, to go to every location in my novels. Nothing beats `boots on the ground`, actually looking for yourself. New material appears every time. Following Ballista`s route, I was struck yet again by how compact is the heart of the ancient city.
Readers of The Last Hour can walk in Ballista`s footsteps across the eternal city. There is a good map in the book. They can go down many of the same streets, visit the same monuments. Although it might be best if they do not try to recreate the rooftop chase over the Markets of Trajan, or re-enact the final scene in the Colosseum!
(c) Harry Sidebottom
Harry Sidebottom took his Doctorate in Ancient History at Oxford and has taught at various universities including Oxford, where he lectures in Ancient History.
His first book Ancient Warfare: A Very Short Introduction was published in 2004 to critical acclaim and he has published numerous chapters in books, and articles and reviews in scholarly journals. His foray into fiction began with Fire in the East, the first of his six-novel ‘Warrior of Rome’ series, which has sold over half a million copies worldwide. His next series, Throne of the Caesars, was equally acclaimed. The Last Hour, his tenth novel, introduces us once again to Marcus Clodius Ballista, hero of the ‘Warrior of Rome’ books.
Find out more here.
About The Last Hour:
For readers of Bernard Cornwell, Ben Kane, Simon Scarrow and Conn Iggulden, this is a thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
A lone figure stands silhouetted atop the Mausoleum of Hadrian. Behind him, the sun is setting over the centre of the known world. Far below, the river is in full flood. The City of Rome lies spread out before him on the far bank.
Footsteps pound up the stairs. He’s been set up. An enemy is closing in; he is cornered. He jumps.
Bruised and battered, he crawls out of the raging river. He is alone and unarmed, without money or friends, trapped in a deadly conspiracy at the heart of the Empire. The City Watch has orders to take him alive; other, more sinister, forces want him dead. As the day dies, he realises he has only 24 hours to expose the conspirators, and save the leader of the world. If the Emperor dies, chaos and violence will ensue. If the Emperor dies, every single person he loves will die.
He must run, bluff, hide and fight his way across the Seven Hills.
He must reach the Colosseum, and the Emperor.
He must make it to The Last Hour.
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