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Tuesday 26 March 2024

My Coffee Pot Book Club guest: Alison Morton- Exsilium

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About the Book
Book Title: EXSILIUM
Series: Roma Nova
Author: Alison Morton
Publication Date: 27 February 2024
Publisher: Pulcheria Press
Page Length: 364
Genre: Historical Fiction

Exile – Living death to a Roman
AD 395. In a Christian Roman Empire, the penalty for holding true to the traditional gods is execution. 

Maelia Mitela, her dead husband condemned as a pagan traitor, leaving her on the brink of ruin, grieves for her son lost to the Christians and is fearful of committing to another man.

Lucius Apulius, ex-military tribune, faithful to the old gods and fixed on his memories of his wife Julia’s homeland of Noricum, will risk everything to protect his children’s future.

Galla Apulia, loyal to her father and only too aware of not being the desired son, is desperate to escape Rome after the humiliation of betrayal by her feckless husband.

For all of them, the only way to survive is exile.

Secrets and surprises
by Alison Morton

Writing a historical novel is hard work as well as fun. But it’s also a chance to go down numerous metaphorical rabbit holes and learn some intriguing and unusual stuff – a huge reward for all the hours spent in research. Did you know there really is a place called Prosecco that was known for its excellent white wine in Roman times? Called Pucinum or Castellum Pucinum (sources argue about this!), it lies on the Adriatic coast north of the Italian port of Trieste (or Tergeste as the Romans called it). Empress Livia Drusilla was said to be very fond of this wine and made it famous. Although the bubbly version wasn’t invented until modern times, next time you raise a glass of prosecco to your lips, you could do worse than toast Rome’s first empress. Of course, my heroine in JULIA PRIMA had to taste the still version of the time. ;-)

Crossing rivers was another obstacle for people in historical times. We are so used to flyovers, modern road and rail bridges, viaducts, bridges across wide rivers and estuaries that we hardly give it a thought. Researching the journey in EXSILIUM, I couldn’t rely on the cliché of “Romans were great engineers – there were bound to be bridges everywhere.”  Yes, they did build a stupendous number of bridges, ferries, fords over hundreds of years, but we have to remember the passing of time.

While those on the main arteries of the empire were more or less maintained in AD 395, some bodged up, others missing the safety parapet in places but still passable, many had fallen into complete disrepair. So I became a history of bridges fanatic.

The important one over the Padus (River Po) at Hostilia was still intact at the end of the fourth century – it was on the main road north to the Danube frontier via Mutina and Verona. Others like the Pons Neronianus, part of the Triumphal Way into the city of Rome was a heap of rubble in the Tiber by AD 395.


Clothes always fascinate us as they are an expression of personality as well as social fashion and availability of fabrics, leather and jewellery. By AD 395, gone were togas for men and stolae for women. Another Roman cliché thrown out of the window… 

Elaborate belted tunics with much braiding, stripes called clavi and stitched roundels for prosperous men and simple braiding for poorer men plus (horrors!) trousers or leggings were very common by the end of the fourth century. Cloaks protected against weather for both sexes. Women wore belted long tunics again decorated with clavi and braiding with generous sleeves and, in cooler climates, narrow-sleeved underdresses. The choice of colour seems vast, for example, red, pink, orange, yellow, green, blue and white tunics are seen in mosaics, with clavi of black, red, brown, purple, white or gold. The belt, worn under the bust, was often just a tied cord, or could be of plain or decoratively woven cloth and could have a central jewel, perhaps a brooch. And from mosaics, we don’t see any form of veil or full hair covering; sometimes women wore a decorated cap or large hair ornament. 

4th CENTURY WOMEN (Piazza Amerina)

Units of money changed – no more sestertii or denarii, but solidi and nummi – and the number of coins in circulation diminished as did trade and the security of lesser routes where bandits and barbarians lurked.

Some things stayed more or less the same; houses, jobs and transport, behaviour, social conventions – what’s expected and what’s rude. It’s fascinating how people thought, what they valued, what they were afraid of and what they revered. We know Romans were family minded, for better or for worse, concerned about property and the majority were incredibly superstitious. Whichever class they came from, most were convinced the Roman way was the best way, especially if you came from the home country, Italia. The barbarians were there for the Romans to civilise, exploit and sneer at. Saying that, the Roman Empire was surprisingly multi-cultural and little account was paid to ethnicity; the Romans were much more concerned about class and social background throughout the centuries of their society’s long existence.

The most unknown unknown

The biggest trigger of change was the impact of Christianity on every aspect of life, reinforced by its adoption by the Roman state as the official and exclusive religion.

In our secular age, we find it very hard to understand how important religion was to people in the past. But this change brought about fundamental in customs, behaviour, dress, marriage, property and public service. The Roman system of administration changed irrevocably. Anybody wishing to join or advance in imperial service or the military had to convert or face being thrown out. By the end of the fourth century non-Christians were persecuted; temples were closed, their funds seized, priests imprisoned or worse, statues of the gods demolished, the sacred flame of the Vestals extinguished after a thousand years and the last Chief Vestal evicted. The penalties for practicing non-Christian ‘idolatrous’ worship could lead to fines, confiscation of property and ultimately execution. 

So, all research is fascinating, from fancy braided robes, white wine, chicken with apricots, Pannonian caps and even confiscation laws and repressive religion. Change runs through it all. Each thing you discover casts a light on human behaviour, whether positive or negative. And it’s often the hidden, unknown and surprising things that give the author the best gifts when on the research quest.


Read An Excerpt

[Lucius narrates as he organises preparations for their permanent departure from Rome.]

Spring AD 395

A week later, Quirinius was reporting how the stock was being moved to Virunum. I had to confess that although I’d supervised our farm for many years now, I hadn’t worked at the intense level Quirinius had. At heart, he was a countryman who had an instinctive affinity with his animals. He probably annoyed the Hades out of his staff but they would have remembered who paid their wages and thus always deferred to him. However, my stockman said that the senator knew what he was about and that his colleague on Quirinius’s estate had great respect for his master.

‘So you see, Lucius, I cannot move all the sheep at the same time, not until they’ve lambed. Your father-in-law’s people have been very accommodating about pens and grazing.’

‘You haven’t been there, have you?’ I wouldn’t have put it past him, the way he liked to have everything nailed down. But dangerous to go on his own with the bandits haunting the mountain passes.

‘Certainly not, but we exchange frequent letters as much as we can.’

‘How are the other landowners supporting you?’

‘They’ve sent lists in and some are sending an advance caravan of mixed stock next week. We have a good number of volunteers as guards against wolves and most of them have dogs to assist. But we’re bound to lose some cattle.’

‘It’s the two-legged wolves you have to watch out for. Make sure your men are armed and obviously so.’

‘Is that really necessary?’

‘Better to be over-cautious than lying in a ditch beaten and robbed… or dead.’

Quirinius looked at me with his mouth pulled down. He fiddled with the edge of his cloak, then scratched the side of his neck.

‘I was thinking of sending my son and daughter as they are both very good with the men and the animals.’

‘All the more reason to take maximum precautions. On a connected matter, have you been using Varus’s place at Arretium as a stopover?’

‘Yes, very helpful. He has excellent grazing, well fenced, as well as the lake for watering.’

‘Very good. Keep me informed and let me know as soon as you can if there are any difficulties. Now—’

My steward appeared at the door of the tablinum and coughed discreetly. 

‘The honourable Marcellus Varus has arrived to see you, domine.’

‘Could you ask him to wait a few minutes? We are nearly finished here.’ I smiled at Quirinius. ‘Unless there’s anything else?’

‘No, not at all.’

He stood up, gave me a quick nod and ambled off in the direction of the vestibule. Despite his solid patrician lineage, he had the slow, sure walk of a countryman. He would do well in our new settlement.

I heard Varus and Quirinius exchanging greetings and then a few more words before Varus appeared shortly afterwards at the entrance of the tablinum. He paused, leant his arm against the pillar to the side of the archway.

‘Have you heard the latest?’

‘Probably not. I have no time to gossip.’

He grinned back. ‘It’s a good thing one of us is sharp.’ He looked round. ‘Gods, it’s dark in here. You can hardly see the paintings on the walls. Why are the curtains drawn to the peristyle?’

‘Because it’s cold!’ I stood and rang the bell. A boy appeared – the cook’s son. ‘Fetch some more lights, including the tall candelabra.’

He scurried off and returned shortly after followed by two older servants, each carrying tall stands with lamps on top and two tripod lamps. I waited while they lit them, then, ushering Varus in, pulled a screen across.

‘What is this latest you’re boiling to tell me?’

‘The palace at Mediolanum – which means Stilicho – has reissued the law brought in by Theodosius against heretics. These Christos followers know how to fight amongst themselves and that’s no mistake. However, they’ve renewed all the penalties and punishments previously set out in formal law against so-called heretics who are nevertheless also Christos followers. Pagans, as they call us, are not specifically mentioned, but I bet we would be on the losing end of any prosecution. I don’t know how stringently these new measures will be applied, given that even now some provincial governors still pray to the old gods, but it’s only a matter of time.’  He sat up in his chair. ‘So have you worked out a final day of departure?’

‘Prince Bacausus would like us to arrive in stages, so I’m sending the slow transports ahead. Gaius is riding with some of them to train his troops and give them experience of guard duties and defensive tactics. By horse and on good roads, it only takes sixteen days not counting rest days, so around three weeks, but with stock and oxcarts it can be two months or so. Even a good carriage could take nearly a month.’

‘I had no idea it would take as long.’ He looked into the distance as if trying to calculate something. ‘I’d better tell my steward to start packing.’

‘What about your sister?’

‘Plenty of time to tell her.’

His sister was the most awkward woman I’d ever met. Maelia said she had a temper like the Furies.

‘She’s not going to be a problem, is she?’

‘Absolutely not,’ Varus replied a little too smoothly. Silently, I wished him luck.

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About the Author 

Alison Morton writes award-winning thrillers featuring tough but compassionate heroines. Her ten-book Roma Nova series is set in an imaginary European country where a remnant of the Roman Empire has survived into the 21st century and is ruled by women who face conspiracy, revolution and heartache but use a sharp line in dialogue. The latest, EXSILIUM, plunges us back to the late 4th century, to the very foundation of Roma Nova.

She blends her fascination for Ancient Rome with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, historical and thriller fiction. On the way, she collected a BA in modern languages and an MA in history.  

Alison now lives in Poitou in France, the home of Mélisende, the heroine of her two contemporary thrillers, Double Identity and Double Pursuit. 

Connect with Alison on her World of Thrillers site: 
Facebook author page: 
X/Twitter:     @alison_morton
Alison’s writing blog: 
Alison’s Amazon page: 
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Hashtags: #RomaNovaSeries #EXSILIUM #AlternativeHistoricalFiction #HistoricalFiction #BlogTour #TheCoffeePotBookClub

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Historical Stories of Exile by 13 popular authors 
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  1. Thank you so much, Helen, for highlighting EXSILIUM. I hope your readers enjoyed the excerpt and in particular the connection it has to my contribution to "Historical Stories of Exile" in our recent collection. Poor Marcellus Varus - he really does have a problem with his sister!

  2. Thanks so much for hosting Alison Morton today, Helen. Such a fascinating insight into the novel and the changing world it is set in.

    Take care,
    Cathie xx
    The Coffee Pot Book Club

    1. always happy to support the Coffee Pot Book Club Cathie!


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