Listen to me talking about Den of Wolves on ABC Melbourne's Conversation Hour with Jon Faine, here. (Jump forward 20 minutes.)
I had a burning urge to write a series of novels about Ancient Rome long before I actually did, but for some years I was too cautious to pick up a pen. The memory of Robert Graves’ novel, I Claudius, written in 1930, hung over me like a sword. It’s such a brilliant work, as is the BBC television drama adapted from it in 1976, and with such a strong story of Julio-Claudian Rome already told, who was I to attempt another? Added to that was Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series of novels—equally brilliant, and another hanging sword for being the work of a fellow Australian. Who was I to encroach on her territory? But in January 2004, exhausted by a year’s hard slog writing for TV, I spent my summer holiday on Rottnest Island, off the coast of Perth, an idyllic place, and there found the courage to listen to my inner voice. I had brought two books to read on the beach with me: the Penguin Classics translation of The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus; and a long forgotten pot-boiler from 1960, Messalina, by Jack Olek. Tacitus’s work gripped me like the page-turning bestseller it no doubt was when it first appeared on parchment scrolls nearly two thousand years ago—it’s riveting. Olek’s forgotten paperback delighted me like the sordid sex-and-blood fest it was no doubt intended to be when it appeared a mere sixty years ago. I finished both books and let their stories fill me. Then I felt the stirrings of inspiration.
The Annals of Imperial Rome is packed with compelling detail, but equally compelling are the bits that are missing. Some chapters have simply been lost to the mists of time, but other omissions seem quite deliberate on the author’s part. When it comes to the lives of the great women of 1st Century Rome, Tacitus is frustratingly obtuse. Certainly, the more notorious actions of these women are described, but their motivations are vague. What was the “sexual spell” that bound Octavian to Livia? What led Julia to fall so far from grace? Who or what was the “witch” Martina? What motive did Plancina have for poisoning Germanicus? How could Tiberius have been so blind to Sejanus and Livilla? To read Tacitus is to be left with so many questions unanswered.
Jack Olek’s Messalina was one of a series of paperbacks about Ancient Rome that were popular in the 1960s; books that were unashamedly lurid and great fun. I later unearthed a couple of others that became favourites, too: Child of the Sun by Kyle Onstott, and Rogue Roman by Lance Horner. I discovered that this little historical fiction niche had all but disappeared by 1970, and while fiction about Ancient Rome continued to appear, writers shifted their focus. Conquest and politics were celebrated, while good old-fashioned depravity was forgotten. As I lay on the beach at Rottnest I thought about the modern authors whose books about Rome I had enjoyed, including Colleen McCullough, Conn Iggulden and Robert Harris. All had written terrific novels about Roman life, but none had given me quite the same vicarious glee as Nero wringing Poppaea’s neck in the last reel of Quo Vadis. This made me think there was a gap in the market I could possibly fill. I called it the “swords, sandals, sex and sin” novel. It was an old niche, a forgotten niche, but if people had enjoyed submerging themselves in it once, perhaps they would again? So, I threw caution to the wind and started writing. From the outset I gave myself a very clear goal: I would tell the story that Tacitus didn’t tell. I would answer those unanswered questions…
To continue reading about the impulses behind my Empress of Rome books, go on the Nest of Vipers page.
“…a unique and compelling storyline, and a new view of power in Rome…”
Sunday Canberra Times
“…a thrilling tale of sex, murder and corruption…”
Sydney Star Observer
“…each chapter leaves you teetering at the edge of a precipice.”
“…each page seems to bleed colour… Devenish knows how to hook his readers with the plot and dishes out spectacle after spectacle of murder, betrayal, sexual excess…”
“With an incredible narrative power and his distinguished storytelling talent at full strength, Devenish delivers a breathtaking debut novel that is both grand in scope and vivid in detail. Violent, sensual and insanely sordid, the Julio-Claudian tale sweeps the reader into a whirlpool of murder, betrayal, passion, splendour and chaotic mayhem that defined ancient Rome.”
The Independent Weekly
Readers' reviews on GoodReads:
'A deliciously debauched and bitchy romp through ancient Rome. I've gifted this book to all my friends, and I hope to reread it many times.'
'A shocking tale of the extremes women will go to, to make sure their prophecies ring true. Full of twists and turns, this book is like an Ancient Roman roller-coaster, which doesn't stop until you scream for more! Then there's Nest of Vipers... A deliciously wicked read, I loved every page.'
'Someone is actually writing fiction about Ancient Rome and we ladies are loving it!'