bruce macbain
bruce macbain
bruce macbain

Bruce Macbain

Bruce Macbain was born in Chicago, Illinois, the only child of a chorus girl and a public relations man—a fact which had surprisingly little effect on his future calling. As a child, he squandered whole days (when other boys were at the playground working on their jump shot) in reading science fiction and history. Greek and Roman history held a special fascination for him and this led eventually to acquiring a master's degree in Classical Studies and a doctorate in Ancient History. As an assistant professor of Classics, he taught courses in Late Antiquity and Roman religion—which is a particular interest of his—and published a few impenetrable scholarly monographs, which almost no one read. He eventually left academe and turned to teaching English as a second language, a field he was trained in while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Borneo in the 60s.

Macbain has lately turned to writing historical mysteries set in ancient Rome, featuring the senatorial letter-writer Pliny the Younger as his protagonist, assisted by other literary figures such as the poet Martial and the biographer Suetonius. He also does a bit of book reviewing for the Historical Novels Review and Foreword magazine. You can read some of his reviews here.


You have an academic background.

Yes, I have degrees in Classics and Ancient History from the University of Pennsylvania and I taught those subjects at Vanderbilt and at Boston University.

So you've written both scholarly prose and fiction; which is harder?

Fiction without a doubt. Academic writing is allowed to be dull. With a historical novel you do all the same research and then have to turn it into an interesting story. Also, your audience is much wider. You need to give them the background information they need to enjoy the story in its historical context.

When you write fiction is your "inner academic" ever at war with your "inner novelist"?

Always. It's always a tug of war between adhering strictly to the known facts and shaping a dramatically satisfying plot. I think every historical novelist fights this battle and we all fall somewhere on a spectrum between factual and fanciful. Certainly, in my books, I've introduced some story elements which I can't justify from the sources. But I always try to describe events that could have happened and create characters who authentically reflect their time.

Then what do you think is the historical novelist's responsibility to the reader?

To confess his sins. I read historical novels both to be entertained and hopefully to learn something about a period or a character that I may know little about. I appreciate it when the author appends a note at the end telling me exactly what is true and what is invention. I don't think that detracts from one's enjoyment of the novel.

What about your tastes in reading. Have you always been a mystery lover?

As a kid, I was much more into science fiction. I cut my teeth on Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars and its many sequels. If nothing else, they enlarged my vocabulary. Greensward, escarpment—wonderful words, although I seldom find an opportunity to use them. As a teenager I began to read historical novels too—Scaramouche, Prince of Foxes, Captain from Castile (I know I'm dating myself here). I only came to mysteries later but these days they are a large part of what I read. And every time I read a good one I learn something new about the craft.

How do you account for the great popularity of the Roman mysteries in recent years?

Well, I think credit is due to Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor, who invented the genre back in the 1980s. Since then, many others have gotten on the bandwagon--all excellent writers. Perhaps their popularity is due to the fact that we readers think we understand the Romans and see a lot of ourselves in them. It's interesting that relatively few popular novels have been written about the ancient Greeks; the Greeks are much harder to "get."

Romans have always been popular with moviegoers from Quo Vadis to Ben Hur to Spartacus and right up through Ridley Scott's Gladiator. Does Hollywood get the Romans right?

No, not really, although I love all those movies. There is something that I call the "Hollywood Roman." There's a kind of metaculture of costumes, sets, stock scenes, gestures which has less to do with ancient reality than with newsreels of Nazi and Fascist rallies of the 30s and 40s. The stiff raised arm salute, for instance. Hollywood thought it was Roman because Mussolini and Hitler thought it was.

You have spent many years with the Romans both as scholar and author; do you like them?

The Romans are not an easy people to like. The Greeks hated them. They found them to be humorless, arrogant, cruel, corrupt, and utterly lacking in artistic taste. It's hard to argue with that verdict. The Romans are more to be admired than loved. That said, there are a few individual Romans—and Pliny the Younger is certainly one—who come across as genial, tolerant, and intellectually curious. The kind of person you would actually like to have had dinner with.

How would you describe Pliny's character?

We know more about Pliny as a person than we do about most figures from antiquity because he was a great letter writer. Through his letters, we see many facets of the man. He was a Roman senator and a lawyer with a successful, if not brilliant, career in the imperial administration. He was a landowner with a beautiful villa on the Italian coast. He was a literary dilettante. He was rather vain, rather fussy. At the same time, conscientious and honest. He was a very social animal with hundreds of friends and acquaintances across all classes. His most endearing qualities are his love for his young wife, Calpurnia, his generosity (he endowed a scholarship fund for the boys and girls of his home town), and his humanity towards his slaves and freedmen in an age when that was not common.