Oct 16 2013 10:00am

Old But Good: Romance Novels Set in Ancient Times

A Voice in the Wind by Francine RiversIn the days of our ancestors, when historical romance as we know it was a brash young genre, ancient world romances freely roamed the bookstore shelves. Authors wrote tales of love set before the age of knights and ladies, and readers read them.

Over time, these settings fell out of use. “Too barbaric,” cried some, and they had a point. In an age when legends tell of mothers bidding their sons to come home with their shields or on them, things could indeed get bloody for Spartan heroes and perhaps too bloody for some readers. “Too inaccessible,” said others, preferring their stories set in times closer to our own. For many years, most historical romances did not employ more ancient settings, and for readers and writers whose imaginations play most happily in the distant past, those were dark ages indeed.

Then, on the horizon of a new age, a new, electronic sun rose, shining light once again on the pageantry, danger, and adventure of earlier ages. Readers and writers who craved these stories looked up and called it good. Inspirational publishers smiled. “Yes,” they said, “we knew this all along.” Stories like Francine Rivers’s A Voice in the Wind have been mainstays of the inspirational genre from the start, but those are only the beginning. Inspirational is only one flavor of ancient world romance.

Defy the Eagle by Lynn BartlettAt its height, the Roman Empire stretched from the British Isles to northern Africa. Imagine all the varied combinations of lovers from that one era alone, the clash and blending of cultures as lovers from two different worlds find their common ground. Feel like playing games? Romans took their games oh-so-seriously, as in life and death seriously. Gladiators both male and female fought for victory, fame and their very lives in front of bloodthirsty crowds. Think sports romances cranked up to eleven and you’ve got it right. Politics could get as bloody as sport, and for those who love some pomp and circumstance, the patricians have that covered in grand style. Rich girl/poor boy romance (or the other way round) could have some serious consequences. Lynn Bartlett’s Defy the Eagle continues to enthrall readers decades after its publication, and historical fiction fans will be quick to rave about Kate Quinn’s Mistress of Rome series.

Paranormal authors have long known the compelling power of mythology, and in the ancient world, this power can be given its full reign. Norse, Celtic, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and other legends reach back into the mists of time and touch that timeless part of the human spirit. Gods who shift into animal form to woo human lovers, or play with the fates of mere mortals are classic stories in the literal sense. With Roberta Gellis's Dazzling Brightness and its two sequels as proof of the timeless appeal of myth combined with romance, what more stories in this vein are yet to be told, based on other, perhaps lesser known mythologies? This can be fresh and fertile ground.

Vikings have been a romance staple for years, and with the success of Vikings on television, will readers be seeing more dragon ships on the horizon? Chances are excellent, with Harlequin Historicals authors like Michelle Willingham, Michelle Styles, and Joanna Fulford on the job, or Mia Marlowe’s Silk Dreams, which thrusts captive heroine Valdis into the chaotic splendor of Byzantium.

Mara, Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGrawThe appeal of ancient Egypt has inspired timeless romantic tales, from Elton John’s Aida, based itself on the iconic opera, to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra. In the romance genre, readers can get all the pomp, pageantry and intrigue, with a happy ending guaranteed, no matter what perils, natural or otherwise, stand in our lovers’ ways. Those of us who cut our reading teeth on Mara, Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw and hang tight to our copies of Merline Lovelace’s Lady of the Upper Kingdom can attest this is a winning combination.

Though Tang Dynasty China may not have been on every reader’s radar before Jeannie Lin brought the era to vivid and romantic life with her Butterfly Swords, one may wonder why there aren’t more books set in ancient Asia, and that’s only scratching the surface. As long as there have been people, there has been romance, and there have been stories. Could the future of historical romance lie in the distant past? Try an ancient world romance and decide for yourself.


Anna C. Bowling considers writing historical romance the best way to travel through time and make the voices in her head pay rent. She welcomes visitors to her blog, Typing with Wet Nails and to follow her at Twitter.

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1. Scarlettleigh
Oh, you had me searching my poor memory - good thing there is Google and other search engines, or I never would have remembered the author or book. Long ago, I read a series of books by Joyce Verette - so romantic at least then. I haven't read them in forever. Dawn of Desire is the first book in the series - it is set in ancient Egypt.
2. Gerri Brousseau
Hi Anna,
Great post. I don't know if you are a fan of the new Sleep Hollow, but on the last program they encountered a village of people who spoke "Middle English." I have to hand it to these writers, good job. If you had not see it, the characters were speaking English, but it was so convoluted they had to have subtitles! I'll have to check out the titles you mentioned above.
3. ECSpurlock
I've just started The Patrician's Fortune by Joan Kayse and am enjoying it hugely! As a former Classical specialist, I'm glad to see Romans making a comeback! They're always good for high drama.
Anna Bowling
4. AnnaBowling
@Scarlettleigh, search engines are lifesavers, allowing us to find, or reconnect with older books like Dawn of Desire. Joyce Verette is a name I haven't heard in a long time, but her books do sound intriguing. Will have to go have a look.

@Gerri Brousseau, I do watch Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod's Middle English was enough to launch a thousand swoons. Isn't it amazing how much language has changed, and how much it hasn't?

@ECSpurlock, Romans wrote the book on high drama, making them a perfect fit for historical romance and historical fiction. I'm hoping to see more of them soon, too. I'll have to look into Joan Kayse's books; they certainly look like they can bring some drama.
5. 715Helva
I got my copy of Mara, Daughter of the Nile on my 10th birthday, 1953. I read it and re-read it many times over the years. It was an indelible influence on,my reading imagination. I think that it left a scar on my psyche, as I still am drawn to the stories where the heroine has to suffer physically before being saved, or saving, the hero. Don't like pain for love in my real life, but like it in my fantasy readings. I last re-read it about a year ago, and always love it. So, it's a children's book? Balderdash! It is a wonderful story.
6. ScribblerBobbi
Good Post, Anna!
I've alwasy loved the varied and intersting story settings of the Historical. I find the weave of history with romance always makes for an interesting read. Though you did have me clicking on google for some of the titles ou mentioned.
Anna Bowling
7. AnnaBowling
@715Helga, That's a sure sign of a classic, being well loved and reread time and time again. Nothing at all wrong with Mara being written for children. Get them young, and keep them reading, I say.

@ScribblerBobbi, I couldn't agree more about the mix of history and romance. Here's hoping that Google searching leads you to a few good reads.
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