“I like having a central character who’s rather out of his depth among the intrigues, but with the willpower to battle through them. A just man in an unjust time, perhaps.” – Author Ian Ross discusses The Twilight of Empire IV The Mask of Command

“I’ve always been drawn to periods of revolution and change, and the possibilities of viewing this very volatile era through the eyes of a man caught in the midst of it, not knowing what the future might bring, were compelling.”

When a treacherous act of murder throws the western provinces into turmoil, Aurelius Castus is ordered to take command of the military forces on the Rhine. But he soon discovers that the frontier is a place where the boundaries between civilisation and barbarism, freedom and slavery, honour and treason have little meaning.

At the very heart of the conflict are two vulnerable boys. One is Emperor Constantine’s young heir, Crispus. The other is Castus’s own beloved son, Sabinus. Only Castus stands between them and men who would kill them. With all that he loves in danger, Castus and a handful of loyal men must fight to defend the Roman Empire. But in the heat of battle, can he distinguish friend from enemy?.

Ian Ross was born in England, and studied painting before turning to writing fiction. After a year in Italy teaching English and exploring the ruins of empire reawakened his early love for ancient history, he returned to the UK with a growing fascination for the period known as late antiquity.

Ian has been researching and writing about the later Roman world and its army for over a decade. His interests combine an obsessive regard for accuracy and detail as well as a devotion to the craft of storytelling.

The Mask of Command (Twilight of Empire IV) (published by Head of Zeus, December 2016). To find out more click here.


Why the age of Constantine?

The Roman era is always going to attract the imagination, I think: perhaps it’s the combination of the recognisable and the very alien, or just the sheer scale of the empire and the drama of its history. The early fourth century is probably rather less familiar to many people, but it was a fascinating period, simultaneously gloomy and ornate, sophisticated and brutal. The empire had been through tremendous upheavals and was in a process of transformation; it was still a resolutely Roman culture and society, but the old certainties of the classical world were gone. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to sense the gathering storms of the empire’s collapse, so there’s a sort of background of darkness that makes the action stand out in even greater clarity.

I’ve always been drawn to periods of revolution and change, and the possibilities of viewing this very volatile era through the eyes of a man caught in the midst of it, not knowing what the future might bring, were compelling. We also have a reasonably good idea of the main events of the time, and a cast of extraordinary historical characters!

Did your research include much travel? Are there places where the visitor can catch a glimpse of the world your characters inhabit?

I’ve tried to visit all of the main sites I write about in the books, yes – an advantage, as I find travel sharpens the imagination greatly. My research so far has taken me from Scotland to Turkey, but this book is mainly set on the north-west frontier of the empire, along the lower Rhine and its hinterland. In Cologne (Colonia Agrippina in the novel, Castus’s centre of operations) you can see the remains of the Roman praetorium, or governor’s palace – and an extraordinary stretch of old sewer tunnel beneath it, which found its way unexpectedly into the novel! In Trier the audience hall of the imperial palace still stands, an enormously impressive building, while in nearby Mainz you can see full-size replicas of the smaller type of Roman river galley.

Downstream at Xanten there’s an entire Roman legionary fortress, with some excellent reconstructions. Often it’s the smaller finds that draw me, though – those glass cases in museums filled with everything from kitchen implements to dice, bits of armour to votive figurines; the things that people of the distant past would have handled in their everyday lives.

When did you first “meet” the hero of the novels, Aurelius Castus? When and how did he first appear in your mind’s eye in roughly the form he takes in the novels?

Castus appeared to me very quickly; I found I could picture him distinctly almost from the first moment I started thinking about the story. I wanted a protagonist who fitted with the era, rather than a sort of superhero figure, but someone with the depth to develop and remain central to the successive stories. Castus is a traditionalist, fiercely loyal to his own rather idealistic sense of the empire and the emperors, and he has a blunt and straightforward view of the world that often makes him clumsy in social situations. But he has a strong sense of ethics and honour, that throws him into conflict with the more duplicitous morality of the times.

The later Roman Empire was a complex and often murky place, with emperors rising and falling, and murderous conspiracies and treacheries on all sides; and I like having a central character who’s rather out of his depth among the intrigues, but with the willpower to battle through them. A just man in an unjust time, perhaps.

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Where did Castus learn to fight i.e. where did you learn to write authentic battle accounts and war stories?

I’m glad you find them convincing! I would guess it’s safe to say that few, if any, people today know what the actual experience of fighting hand to hand in ancient battles would be like, so authenticity is hard to judge. We have accounts from the period, some very vivid, that can tell us how Roman soldiers fought, how their formations were arrayed, and how particular clashes developed. There are reconstructions and re-enactments that can tell us even more. But beyond that it’s a matter of imagination and a sense of empathy, I think: we all know what fear and shock feel like, what adrenaline does to us, and fiction can build on that knowledge and take it somewhere new.

All novels are about empathy in that sense, about imagining the experiences of somebody else doing something entirely unfamiliar, and when that person is living in an historical era the imagination has to stretch that bit further. So when I’m writing these scenes I’m trying to evoke the sense of action and speed, the sense of danger, but keep everything focussed on the experiences of the individual man, Castus himself, who actually feels quite at home in the violent world of the battlefield!

Castus is the hero, but he is not the narrator. Did you ever consider telling the story in the first person?

I didn’t really, no – Castus is a man of relatively few words, and his taciturn nature wouldn’t really suit a narrator’s role. He’s always going to be at the centre of the story, although I have increasingly used other character’s perspectives alongside his own. In this book, there are viewpoints from Fausta, the emperor’s wife, and a certain rather dangerous eunuch as well; I often find it appealing to write from the perspective of people very dissimilar to myself.

220px-p1070865_louvre_tc3aate_de_fausta_ma4881_rwkYou’ve been researching the period for over a decade. What’s the greatest liberty you have taken with your sources in order to tell the story?

I’ve always tried to take as few liberties as possible with the historical facts – which isn’t actually all that difficult, as our sources tend to be pretty scanty for this period, and there’s plenty of leeway for interpretation! But I haven’t deliberately changed anything so far, and only start inventing things once I reach the furthest borders of the evidence. With the new book, The Mask of Command, I’ve had to be a lot more inventive though: the historical record tends to follow Constantine quite exclusively, and in this book my story leaves him in the eastern provinces and heads back west to the turbulent Rhine frontier.

We know there was some sort of war with the barbarians, and the emperor’s son Crispus claimed a victory, but beyond that things get a bit hazy. So my reconstruction of events is necessarily speculative, although almost everything that happens is at least based on something recorded from the surrounding era. More generally, though, I’ve never found the facts of history – or what we can establish of them – to be a hindrance in storytelling. It’s a lot more fruitful, I find, to try and build a story around the surviving fragments of the past, with all their awkward gaps and contradictions, rather than trying to bend history into a new shape that fits the ideas I already have.

Which novelist of the Roman Empire have you most tried to emulate, or is there one you’ve tried hard to avoid?

There are plenty of great writers around at the moment producing stories set in the ancient world, but I think with my own books I was trying consciously to reach back to works from a previous generation, the sort of thing I read when I was younger, and perhaps more impressionable! Rosemary Sutcliff would be obvious choice – mainly her novel for adults, The Flowers of Adonis, which is fabulous. Also Mary Renault, Wallace Breem and Alfred Duggan, and Robert Graves of course. I’ve tried to capture something of the subtlety and detail of those writers, and combine it with the more action-driven sort of narratives that we’re familiar with today.

If you could meet one of the historical personalities featured in the Twilight of Empire series who would it be?

There are quite a few! Fascinating as it might be to meet Constantine himself, I doubt he’d reveal much beyond his public persona. Actually, it would be more interesting to meet his wife: Fausta plays a significant role in the novels, but she’s a shadowy historical figure, the daughter, mother, and wife of emperors, but perhaps very conflicted in her allegiances. No doubt she could give an illuminating insider’s view on what was really happening in the imperial court! Maxentius, who appears in the third book, would be fascinating too, I’m sure: the pro-Constantine propaganda portrays him as a monstrous tyrant, but he was very popular at the time, and I suspect he was a lot more sympathetic than he often appears.

The Mask of Command is the 4th book of the series. What’s next?

There are going to be six books in The Twilight of Empire series, covering a period of about thirty years. I planned them, rather roughly, before I started work on the first, and I’ve just finished the fifth. Despite all the planning – I try to plot everything out in as much detail as I can before I start a new project – things do always change once I’m into the writing process, so the story can always develop in unexpected ways. But you can expect further challenges for Castus, a lot more conflict and imperial intrigue, and some dramatic new locations too.

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading Twilight of Empire IV The Mask of Command?

I never listen to music when I’m actually working, as it’s too distracting, although when I’m in the planning and preparation stages I sometimes do: anything from Holst to medieval Sicilian music, whatever helps to summon a certain mood. But if anyone wanted a musical accompaniment to reading the book, I’m sure the soundtrack to Gladiator would be quite suitable!


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+3 Interview: Price (still) Includes Biscuits

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“I also involve the audience in range of ways – but it’s always safe on the front row!”

WHO: Naomi Paul – Writer and performer

WHAT: “Satirical and hilarious deadpan humourist Naomi Paul returns to the Fringe with her quirky four-star one-woman show Price (still) Includes Biscuits. Naomi uses characteristic dry Jewish humour to comment on topical political issues, share personal stories and perform catchy handmade songs. The show takes audiences on a surreal journey from lingerie to libraries, Birmingham to the Balkans.”

WHERE: theSpace @ Surgeons Hall (Venue 53)

WHEN: 18:15 (50 min)

MORE: Click Here!


Is this your first time to Edinburgh?

No, it’s not the first time!

I came initially to the Free Fringe in 2011 with a double bill show and then again in 2012 with my first solo show, doing half the run in a lopsided comedy bus at The Free Sisters. Since then I have been at the Space @ Surgeon’s Hall performing solo shows entitled Making Light (2014) and Price Includes Biscuits (2015)…

Tell us about your show.

Price (still) Includes Biscuits is a revised and updated version of last year’s show – hence its title! I want to offer the audience unusual and satirical angles on the everyday (both personal and political). I use my Jewish background as a platform for material, as well as a deadpan style. I also involve the audience in range of ways – but it’s always safe on the front row!

I wrote and produced the show, and have been writing and performing my own work since 2010 and following completion of a Creative Writing MA.

For this show I’ve worked with Peta Lily on script development and directorial supervision, and with Joe Samuel on musical arrangement of the songs.

The show will be on in the forthcoming Birmingham Comedy Festival at the Old Joint Stock Theatre (Friday October 14, @8pm) After that I hope to take it to other festivals and small scale venues during 2016-7.

What should your audience see at the festivals after they’ve seen your show?

Simon and Garfunkel – Through the Years is a remarkable show by Bookends; they have forensically listened to the songs with great empathy and musicianship and when you shut your eyes you would imagine you were listening to the originals. At the Space at Symposium Hall

Lost in Blue by Debs Newbold at Summerhall. A remarkable piece of solo theatre telling a moving story via several characters, leaving the audience catching their breath – and their emotions – by the end.


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+3 Interview: Knock Knock

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“I decided to do my Penniless Tour for Shelter from Land’s End to Edinburgh (120 gigs with no money or transport).”

WHO: Damian Kingsley – Comedian

WHAT: “A story about identity and pretentiousness for anyone with a friend or partner who’s become a bit of prick. All donations go to Shelter as part of the penniless tour from Lands’ End. No admission after start.”

WHERE: Laughing Horse @ Bar 50 (Venue 151)

WHEN: 15:30 (60 min)

MORE: Click Here!


Is this your first time to Edinburgh?

It’s my first solo, one hour show but, like most comics, I came up doing compilation shows, two handers and then a work in progress show – building up material over the years.

Tell us about your show.

My show’s about how life can unravel and spiral into crisis and it’s the reason behind why I decided to do my Penniless Tour for Shelter from Land’s End to Edinburgh (120 gigs with no money or transport). It’s about trust, identity and the people that are there to pick up the pieces of your life when it goes wrong.

What should your audience see at the festivals after they’ve seen your show?

I don’t really see any point in them seeing other stuff but, if they have to, I’d recommend Aidan Killian, John Hastings, Athena Kugblenu and Paul McMullan.


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+3 Interview: Children Are Stinky

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“We wrote the show very quickly and literally threw it on stage at the Melbourne Fringe after 8 rehearsals.”

WHO: Malia Walsh & Chris Carlos – Writers and Performers

WHAT: “With a rocking soundtrack, high calibre circus, hilarity and a five-star sell-out Australian debut, Children are Stinky is a show to be seen. Expect daredevil stunts, incredible acrobatics, lightning fast hula hoops, fun and loads of laughs leaving both adults and children with their jaws on the floor wanting more.”

WHERE: Assembly George Square Gardens (Venue 3)

WHEN: Times Vary (45 min)

MORE: Click Here!


Is this your first time to Edinburgh?

Malia performed/produced a show 6 years ago in Edinburgh with Circus Trick Tease – a trio circus show (more for grown ups). The experience was wonderful, delightful and terrifying! But we are delighted to be back again.

Tell us about your show.

Tell us about your show; who wrote it; who’s producing it; how did the company come together; did this production premier before Edinburgh; where are you taking it after?

We wrote the show very quickly and literally threw it on stage at the Melbourne Fringe after 8 rehearsals. The response was huge so we did the Adelaide Fringe and now we are here. The show is still so fresh, new and young. We are quite amazed wight the response here in Edinburgh, and the award has totally blown us away.

We have done absolutely everything ourselves on a shoe string, Malia produced, made the costumes and remixed the sound tracks, Chris is a master of tricks and choreography. The whole production is actually family affair, Malia’s partner made the set and their son drew the image for the posters. Chris mum took care of the merchandise and his bestie did the lighting design. Thank goodness for family right.

What should your audience see at the festivals after they’ve seen your show?

It’s totally bias but we are immensely proud of all the Australian theatre here…. Tink Tank (bunk puppets), How to be a Rock Star and Trash Test Dummies are top notch family shows. Strong Female Character, Betty Grumble (but only for the grown ups) and Zoe Coombs Marr are incredible solo shows pushing art in amazing directions… And Briefs and Hot Brown Honey will actually blow your top off!!!


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+3 Interview: Alex Kealy Is An Idea Whose Time Has Come

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“This is my first full hour of comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe.”

WHO: Alex Kealy – Comedian

WHAT: “So You Think You’re Funny finalist and land mammal Alex Kealy presents his debut show. Rejected titles include Kealing Me Softly and Touchy Kealy.”

WHERE:  Underbelly Med Quad, Daisy Room (Venue 296)

WHEN: 21:50 (60 min)

MORE: Click Here!


Is this your first time to Edinburgh?

An answer in two parts; this is my first full hour of comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe but I’ve been coming up over the last few years to split hours and perform half hour sets. It’s been really fun this year, it’s a much more exciting prospect to be doing a full show and I’m enjoying the whole experience a lot.

Tell us about your show.

My show is stand-up comedy, and it’s split between self-deprecating gags about my own appalling romantic life and political comedy about the US election, Brexit and privilege.

I also wrote it because I’m a renaissance man (if a renaissance man meant “performing and writing stand-up comedy”, which it doesn’t).

What should your audience see at the festivals after they’ve seen your show?

Well, I’m typing this at The Scottish Parliament building near Holyrood as there’s the Festival of Politics on so there’s your Not A Comedy Thing recommendation from ol’ Keals.

I’m about to watch a speechwriter with the highly improbable name Barton Swaim give a talk – he wrote a great book about his time working for South Carolina Governor Mark Sandford, a charismatic man who spoke in mangled sentences and whose promising political career was brought down by a sex scandal. It’s gonna be great.

Other than that, go see Goose’s show Hydroberserker at Assembly George Square Gardens; it had me laughing the whole way through and is a fantastically bold comedy show which uses music, video and audience interaction in consistently innovative ways.


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+3 Interview: Barbarians

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“I’m a battle-scarred veteran.”

WHO: Ben Van der Velde – Performer

WHAT: “Thanks to Genghis Khan’s friskiness we’re all 8% barbarian, but were we ever that civilised in the first place? A pretty sobering thought as you play on your iPhone whilst sipping a skinny mocha-latte. Big questions require big answers, and so long as you don’t equate big with accurate, you’re in for a treat!”

WHERE: Laughing Horse @ The White Horse (Venue 296)

WHEN: 17:30 (55 min)

MORE: Click Here!


Is this your first time to Edinburgh?

I’m a battle-scarred veteran. I first came up with the Oxford Imps and larked around doing daft improv for 4 four years. I then performed in a bunch of gang shows with great acts like James Acaster and Andrew Doyle, hosted the Big Value Showcase and have done two previous solo shows: Chain Letter and Strudelhead.

Tell us about your show.

Barbarians is my third solo show and I think and hope, my best one. It’s about how human being’s fight or flight response is not calibrated for the modern world and can lead us to make terrible spur of the moment decisions. Obviously it’s not as dry as that sounds – hopefully the show doesn’t descend into an anthropology lecture and I’ve managed to cram in jokes about Sweden, lions and Islamic fundamentalism.

What should your audience see at the festivals after they’ve seen your show?

They should absolutely go and see a play called Every Brilliant Thing at Summerhall. It is warm, bittersweet, hilarious, inclusive and devastating. It was the best thing I saw last year and I’m off to see it again today!


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+3 Interview: Spoon-Feeders

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“Each year we take an original piece of writing to the Fringe.”

WHO: Chloe Burton – Production Manager

WHAT: “Spoon-Feeders follows the daily lives of four actors working for STN News; exploring the interaction between the worlds of information and entertainment. Max, Tibby, Jons and Felicity all have their own dramatic aspirations but Felicity, quashed by the others, has to satisfy herself with office work. When Stephen, an aspiring actor and recent graduate accepts a job at the office, Tibby and Jons feel their positions are threatened. The prospect of a career-making scoop beckons and claws are sharpened. As each party vies for supremacy, a question emerges: What does it really mean to control something?”

WHERE: theSpace @ Surgeons Hall (Venue 53)

WHEN: 20:30 (40 min)

MORE: Click Here!


Is this your first time to Edinburgh?

This is not our company’s first time in Edinburgh, previous members of NUTS have taken shows to the Fringe for years, most recently If Only Diana Were Queer (2015) at Greenside and Big Brother: Blitzkrieg (2014) at theSpaceUK; the venue we return to this year.

Our production team have been in shows and have worked at some fringe venues before but for all our actors this will be their first time acting at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Tell us about your show.

Spoon-Feeders was written by Patrick Watson, a member of our company. We are Newcastle University Theatre Society and we are one of the largest and most successful student theatre societies in the country and one of the oldest societies at Newcastle University. Students from all over the university come together each year to showcase their talents in the form of 10 plays, 2 musicals and 6 student written plays and each year we take an original piece of writing to the Fringe.

We premiered Spoon-Feeders at our Drama Festival in June showcasing 6 student written plays from Newcastle and 1 from Durham University. Since then the show has developed, grown, been rewritten and recast and comes to the show with a new director, Lucy Sherratt, production manager Chloe Burton and show producer Thomas Edney.

We don’t have any plans to tour after Fringe but the writer is keen to develop and keep changing the show based on feedback during our run up here in Edinburgh.

What should your audience see at the festivals after they’ve seen your show?

Our cast and crew saw a fantastically self-aware, self-deprecating and very funny (also student written) performance by Manchester University Drama Society called Novel Experiments In Living. The characters in the play slowly discover that they are indeed characters, not real as they thought, and they try to take control of their own ‘script.’


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