Finding inspiration in the ancient world – Conn Iggulden on writing his bestselling historical fiction
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Stories and myths from the ancient world have transcended millennia, and it’s from these that author Conn Iggulden draws inspiration for his bestselling historical fiction.

‘”They shall not grow old, as we grow old.” It is why we still look to cultures of Greece and Rome, why we take inspiration from them.’

Each year I go to watch wreaths laid at the Cenotaph in London. The word is Greek for ‘empty tomb’ – a symbol of those who could not come home. Old Prime Ministers line up there, shrunken somehow, reduced by age or the loss of power.

The inspiration was an empty tomb in Sparta, for a king who fell at Thermopylae. Leonidas gave his life to delay the Persian invasion. When he fell at last, he was hacked to pieces. Sparta had no body to bury, so made an empty tomb in his name, a place people could visit to honour his memory.

In Athens too, there was a need to remember those who gave their lives on distant fields. Many were brought home, wrapped and laid out on carts. They were adorned with garlands and taken through the city to a cemetery beyond the walls. One cart was left empty – to represent the unknown dead.

Over time, it became a tradition each year for a speaker to address grieving families. When Pericles gave the oration, his words moved the crowd to tears. As a result, his speech was written down – a rare and precious record. I used those lines when I wrote Empire, the last of four Athenian books.

My quartet opened with those who stood at Marathon in 490BC. Empire is the story of the birth of a nation and the sons who brought it about – Pericles above all. I only hope I did some kind of justice to an extraordinary life. Here is part of what he said:

In the past, many have praised the tradition to honour the fallen. I disagree. Mere words cannot gild that service. These men made themselves noble. Their sacrifice is proof: this democracy of ours is worth a life.

This is who we are: every one of us is equal before the law. When we raise a man, it is for quality, not class or family. Those with talent can rise. We obey those in authority. We keep the law, and when we rest from labours, we strive in sport, in plays and love, in beauty – and works of the mind. It does not make us soft! No, it gives us purpose. Spartans break children to make warriors, but we are willing to die for something greater than ourselves …

In Athens, we are concerned with politics. If a man takes no part in debate, we don’t say, ‘He minds his own business’, we say: ‘He has no business here!’

That is the city for which these men fought and died. I say to you: remember their sacrifice. Make it noble through your lives, in how you raise your families. Fall in love with Athens once again with their example. Fix your eyes on her, for there is nothing like her in the world.

There are no better men than these. In years ahead, they will wonder at us, at our spirit and our courage. We have forced an entry in every land, every sea. We go out – and some of us return to the earth too soon. Perhaps they had faults, these men, but if they had, they are wiped away like tears tonight. Let your hearts lift at the fame of the dead. Their honour will not grow old. Where valour is given in love, that is where you will find our people.

I cannot read those words without hearing echoes. ‘They shall not grow old, as we grow old.’ It is why we still look to cultures of Greece and Rome, why we take inspiration from them. As Tennyson put it: ‘Tho we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and Heav’n, that which we are, we are, One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will, To strive, to seek, to find … and not to yield.’

All things end, but stories – and values – remain.

Empire is out now.


This article was originally published in The Penguin Post, a magazine about books for book lovers from Penguin Random House South Africa.   

Categories Fiction International

Tags Conn Iggulden Empire Penguin Random House SA The Penguin Post

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