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Interview - Tony Bradman and the Adventures of Roman Boy

Tony Bradman has written quite a few books.

Okay, that's something of an understatement. As one of the most prolific and iconic children's authors writing today, Tony's horde of historical fiction books can be found in classrooms up and down the country. In fact, if we visit a school and don't spot a copy of 'Viking Boy', then we FREAK OUT. Because that is weird and clearly the Matrix is glitching.

Along with being a stand-up fella, Tony is also a Fellow of the Historical Association - quite the honour!

This June, Tony has a new book hitting bookshelves like a gladius to the shin bone - Roman Boy. Suffice it to write (but write it we will, otherwise there would be no words here) the latest in the 'Boy' series looks tremendous; a thrilling tale of Roman Britain that will delight primary school readers!

We never need an excuse to enjoy talking to Tony but, hey, the release of Roman Boy provided one, so it was a double win. We had a chat with Tony about the Romans, their influence on Britain, and what it might have been like to be a child living through such a tumultuous period.

Check out his words, and ours, below!

Hey Tony, thanks for chatting with us again! Could you tell us a little more about your upcoming release, Roman Boy?

It’s my third novel for Walker Books - the first two were Viking Boy and Anglo-Saxon Boy. They’ve both done really well in schools, so we talked about doing a third to follow them, and the obvious choice was a story set in Roman Britain.

I’ve been fascinated by classical history and culture since my early teens - I went to a state secondary school in south London, but it was a Grammar (back in the days of the 11-plus!), and I was lucky enough to learn Latin and Greek. My love for all things Roman grew even stronger when I encountered the brilliant Roman stories of Rosemary Sutcliff, such as The Eagle of the Ninth, The Mark of the Horse Lord, and Dawn Wind. At university, I discovered the Claudius novels of Robert Graves (I, Claudius and Claudius The God), which were adapted for television at around the same time. You can now watch I, Claudius on iPlayer - highly recommended!

So it was a very easy decision to make the third book a Roman story - I’d even doing the research for it for a very long time! Although it was a wonderful opportunity to read even more…


Always fun to read even more! So, where did the idea for the story of Roman Boy come from?

Children have to study the Romans as part of the National Curriculum for KS2, and there are lots of books on the subject, both fiction and non-fiction. Many of them are great, but I’d thought for a long time that children are sometimes given a rather distorted view of the Romans - I tend to think of it as a white-marble-temple-and-togas kind of approach. The Romans were far stranger and more exotic - the city of Rome at its peak was huge, rich, dirty, noisy, brutal, over-crowded, full of slums; yet also incredibly exotic.

Roman society was also very patriarchal, and in some ways was run like the Mafia - powerful men struggling with each other for glory and riches. I also wanted to write a story that would give young readers some idea of why the Romans were so successful in building their colossal empire, and it seemed to me that the answer was a simple one - they were just very, very good at waging war. They developed an amazing professional army, bigger and better organised than anyone else they encountered - and they never gave up.

Book cover of Viking Boy
Viking Boy, the classic adventure that started the 'Boy' series!

Viking Boy and Anglo-Saxon Boy work in the same way - I created a central character whose adventure would help to illuminate those periods and those cultures. They’re also both stories about growing up to be a boy in those societies, with all the pressures that might involve - and both feature explorations of father-son relationships, and what it might be like to grow up in a violent culture that expects a boy to be a warrior. So, with Roman Boy, it was a case of doing pretty much the same thing. I decided to set it at the time of Emperor Hadrian - when the Empire was probably at its Peak - and make my central character Lucius a boy who ends up having to come to Britain and join the army!

Sounds suitably epic! How did you go about developing the story and researching its setting in Roman Britain?

I develop all my stories the same way. To begin with, I do masses of research - lots of reading! - to try and make sure that I get the historical background and details right. I go to museums and archaeological sites too so I can get a feel for the material culture and the atmosphere of places - so the Roman rooms at the British Museum were a must, and of course I’ve visited Hadrian’s Wall (where the climax of the story is set!), Bath (lots of great Roman stuff there), Lullingstone Roman Villa (not far from where I live) and Fishbourne in Sussex.

Then I spend a lot of time thinking about the story, starting with the central character, and the plot that will hold the whole story together. I work on getting as much suspense into the story as possible - lots of cliffhangers! - and I try to make the whole thing as gripping and exciting as I can. I fill notebooks with enormous amounts of scribbling - and I always develop a whole plan for a story, so yes, I do know what’s going to happen at the end, at least roughly. The plan can sometimes change if I realise a bit of it isn’t working - but I very rarely ditch a whole plan and start again. I do the actual drafting on my computer - I’m a slow writer so I usually only do 500-600 words a day, revising endlessly as I go. That way, when I send it to my editor, I know it’s the best I can do.


In your research, did you discover what was life like for a child in Britain before the arrival of the Romans?

I think the general consensus among historians is that the Ancient Britons lived in quite complex, prosperous societies - they weren’t quite the wild savages that the Romans made them out to be! But then we all know that it’s the winners who write the history books, and the Romans were very good at bigging themselves up and putting their enemies down. Like all colonialist societies, they liked to see themselves as a higher culture bringing civilisation to the benighted natives. The truth is probably that the Britons were highly successful Iron Age farmers, and life as a British child might well have been great - lots of freedom, outdoor activities, excellent family and tribal structures… of course, times could be hard - a few years of bad crops might lead to famine, and the various tribes almost certainly fought each other. But we have to bear in mind that the Romans wouldn’t have been interested in conquering the Britons if they weren’t already prosperous!


Good point! So, after the Roman Invasion of Britain, how did the Romans and the Celts get along?

The Roman Empire was hugely successful and powerful and had an enormous influence on the lands that bordered it. Britain is only separated from Europe by a narrow strip of sea, and there’s plenty of evidence of trade between the Britons and Rome. So it’s likely that some Britons - especially in the south - were already half-Romanised before the Romans invaded. They might have bought Roman wine, food, clothes, and learned to speak Latin. It’s a bit like the United States today - it’s a hugely powerful and influential country, so people in other countries want to buy American things and even behave like Americans! But in Britain, the further you went north - and therefore away from the Romans -  the less likely people were to be interested in Rome.

Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian's Wall in all its glory.

As far as we can make out, the Romans felt very superior to the people they conquered. In one writing tablet found at the fort of Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall, a Roman officer describes the locals (in Latin) as ‘Brittunculi’ - which means ‘the wretched Britons’! I’m sure that some Romans and Celts got along very well, and over the centuries the Britons did become more and more Roman. Lots of people from all over the Empire and outside it too - Greece, Spain, North Africa, the east, and beyond - came to Britain too - as soldiers, traders, and of course as slaves, bringing their languages and religions with them. (The original Britons spoke a Celtic language, the ancestor of modern Welsh.) So Roman Britain was a highly diverse, multicultural place.


Did the Celts rebel against the Romans?

They most certainly did! They fought against Julius Caesar when he invaded in 55 and 54 BCE, and even harder when the Romans invaded in 43 CE under the Emperor Claudius! The resistance in 43 CE was led by Caradoc, the chieftain of the Catuvellauni tribe (the Romans called him Caractacus!). He was defeated, but fled to the west and carried on a guerrilla campaign until he was finally beaten - he finished his life as a prisoner in Rome. I wrote a story called Revolt Against the Romans about Caradoc.

Book cover of 'Revolt Against the Romans' by Tony Bradman
Discover the heroic tale of Caradoc in 'Revolt Against the Romans'!

The most famous revolt against the Romans is, of course, that of Boudica, Queen of the Iceni - they lived in what we now call Norfolk. The Romans treated Boudica very badly, and she rose against them. It was a brutal campaign - she captured and burnt three Roman settlements - Camulodunum (Colchester), Londinium (London), and Verulamium (St Albans), killing all their inhabitants too - as many as 70,000 people (according to the Romans). Boudica was finally defeated and was either killed or committed suicide, and her people were crushed. I wrote a story called Queen of Darkness about Boudica too. (Did you know that Boudica’s name probably comes from the old Celtic word ‘Buddig’, which means ‘Victory’? So really she’s called Queen Victoria…)

The Romans never fully conquered the north - what was called Caledonia then and is now called Scotland - and there were certainly other revolts against them.


Sounds a little rowdy! How did these battles affect the lives of regular people in Britain?

War is always destructive, and war in the ancient world could be terrible indeed. If you gave in to the Romans early on, they might be reasonably merciful and only kill your leaders. If you fought hard against them, they would probably burn down your villages and towns, and kill as many of you as possible. And if you finally gave in they would almost certainly sell you into slavery.

It’s worth emphasising that slavery was an accepted part of the ancient world - it was taken for granted that some people would be slaves. The Romans kept huge numbers of slaves because they had conquered so many peoples. Of course, it could be terrible to be a slave (especially if you ended up as a gladiator!), but some slaves were treated well and many were able to buy their freedom - in fact some historians think that ex-slaves were a huge part of the Empire’s population - and plenty of ex-slaves even bought slaves to work for them!


After all the battles, rebelling, and risk of slavery, were the British happy to become Roman Citizens in the end?

Absolutely, particularly in the south and the east of Britain. There is plenty of evidence that the villas, towns, and cities people lived in were very Romanised - Londinium was actually a very important city in the Empire. Britain stopped being part of the Empire in the fifth century, at the time when the western part of the Empire was collapsing and tribes from beyond the borders began to take over. But it seems that parts of Britain - particularly in the West - stayed pretty Romanised for a long time…


Thanks so much for your time Tony, just one final question before we wrap up: What one (or more!) thing do you hope young readers will learn or understand about life in Roman Britain from reading your book? 

I hope they’ll realise that it was a fascinating time in our history, and more complex than they might have imagined. I also hope they’ll learn that in many ways, people haven’t changed - in all of history, people have the same hopes, dreams, and fears. But most of all I hope they get lost in the story and feel really excited to be taken back into the past!

We are sure they will, thank you Tony!



'Roman Boy' is due for release on the 4th of July, 2024. You can pre-order your copy by clicking here and heading over to the website.

Also, why not say hello to Tony over on Twitter? You'll find him at the end of this link!




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