Caesar opened the door for Conn Iggulden

Julius Caesar has forever made his mark in the history books, but much of his life is shrouded in mystery. Now, in the book series Emperor, Conn Iggulden fills in the gaps, using well-founded fantasies and a lot of research. Hollywood is just around the corner.

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Iggulden is late for our meeting after buying strap-on crampons for his father, and he looks like a friendly giant in his black winter coat. It has only been a few years since the English teacher from London was the subject of a bidding war that resulted in a multimillion-euro sum in his bank account.

Iggulden is only 33 years old, but he has been working on his writing for 20 years. He has written a book a year since he was 13, but it was when he began to write the story of Julius Caesar that he attracted the interest of the publishing companies.

“Much of it has to do with luck that I found the story of Julius Caesar,” says Iggulden. “And it was a pure joy and a revelation to find it. I am happy that after about 20 failed and rather poor books, I had adequate writing skills to do this subject justice.”

Emperor is about two boys who grow up together on an estate outside Rome: the aristocrat Gaius and his foster brother Marcus. Together, they experience Rome’s magnificent civilization and bloody cruelties and grow up to become two of history’s most famous Romans – Julius Caesar and his assassin Brutus.

“Everyone knows the final act with ‘et tu, Brutus,’ but I want to give it a new depth, so that we know what it means when they look at each other. The final scene is either powerful or easily forgotten, depending on how familiar one is with the characters involved.”

The first two books of the series of four, The Gates of Rome and The Death of Kings, present a dizzying story of the young Julius, who gets married at the age of 16, is captured by pirates shortly afterwards and singlehandedly forms his own army at the age of 19.

Iggulden’s books have received some criticism from Caesar connoisseurs, including over the fact that Brutus is believed to have been born 15 years after Caesar, meaning that they could not have been childhood friends. But Iggulden does not consider that he has lied in his book.

“We don’t know exactly when Caesar and Brutus were born,” he says. “If it is impossible to say who shot John F. Kennedy 40 years ago, how can we be sure about events from 2,000 years ago?

“It is nearly always impossible to get a grasp of the past. We have a skeleton, and I have added the flesh. And the flesh will always be questioned; all that you can be certain about is the skeleton.”

An example of a calculated guess is when a German leader requests to meet Caesar, but Caesar is only permitted to take along his cavalry. He responds by borrowing horses and putting his entire legion on horses.

“This is a sentence in Suetonius’ writings, so I had to fill in the gap and think about ‘what happens if you put infantrymen, who have never ridden, on horses and order them to ride 40 kilometers?’ I guessed that many of them would fall off. You have to add the color to the painting.”

Iggulden adds color by reading many historical sources, but also by looking for personal experiences that are reminiscent of the brutality of ancient Rome. It was possible to make use of observations of a pub brawl and a mauled foot after a fight with siblings, as well as a bungee jump.

“It was only 50 meters [160 feet] up, but I was so scared that when I jumped, I forgot I had a lifeline. When I fell, I was totally convinced I was going to die. I felt incredibly calm; there was no point in screaming or waving my arms and legs because I was going to die. I thought something pathetic like ‘but I had so much more to give.’ And when I felt the rope it was like being born again. I was able to use it in a scene where someone escapes death and feels euphoria.”

Hollywood has bought the film rights to Emperor and scriptwriter William Broyles is currently working to transform the four novels into a film manuscript. Broyles was responsible for such films as Apollo 13, Cast Away and Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes.

“When they bought the option I was overjoyed because I had never been part of something like this before,” Iggulden recalls. “But since then, everyone who knows anything about films has said, ‘You need to calm down. It takes 1,000 small steps and each of them could go wrong and mean that it never happens, so don’t get too excited.’ But what really made me excited was a meeting at which they said: ’We will try to make three films to tell the full story.’

“I have met Bill Broyles and reviewed the books. I have no idea how long it takes to write a manuscript, but I know that Spartacus did the rounds for 10 or 15 years before it was made. There are 900 steps left, but I am looking forward to it.”

Iggulden has just completed the final book in the series, and in the spring, he will write a children’s book together with his brother – an instruction book on how to build catapults, tie knots and communicate using Morse code. But, afterwards, another mammoth work about a historical person awaits.

“I am not permitted to disclose who it is,” Iggulden says. “I will be writing four books, but it is not even stated in the contract who this work is about. The book world is so small, and if someone finds out, they could write their own version, and a poor one to boot.”

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