The ancient Greek Temple of Poseidon. Was cancel culture a thing in the Golden Age of Athens?
“With The Gates Of Athens, the great joy is that once one man, Themistocles, had arranged for his two major competitors to be ‘cancelled’ and banished, the Persians invaded and he had to bring them back.”
It turns out Iggulden, 50, is no stranger to such practices himself – having almost had his most successful project, The Dangerous Book For Boys, cancelled, ironically by its own publisher. After writing the non-fiction guide for “boys aged eight to 80” with his younger brother Hal, covering everything from building a treehouse to cooking over an open fire, the publisher told him they wanted to remove seven chapters, effectively de-dangering it.
“One of the chapters was hunting and shooting a rabbit, they felt they would be too controversial,” he explains. “They said, ‘If you take these out, we’ll sell shedloads. If you don’t, we’ll price it at £30 a book and do a limited print run.’ They didn’t put it quite this way but, basically, they’d kill it stone dead. I wanted it to sell shedloads but I didn’t want to lose those chapters.”
Unable to get hold of his brother, Iggulden asked Sharpe and Lost Kingdom creator and fellow writer Bernard Cornwell for advice. “We’d had lunch once and I didn’t know who else to turn to. I sent him an email and he suggested I send the book to his editor at HarperCollins.
“To cut a long story short, they took it on, really as a favour to Bernard, and then it sold better than all my other books with those original chapters included.” Iggulden pauses, then continues: “It was a really tricky, difficult situation. I was out of my depth.”
To date, the book has sold seven million copies around the world, inspiring dozens of imitations and a TV series, while being praised for its stance against overly-protective “cotton wool” parenting. All of which makes you wonder quite what that original publisher thinks now.
But the former English teacher, who became a full-time writer after his first historical bestseller, The Gates Of Rome, was published in 2002 following years of rejections, doesn’t subscribe to claims of a “snowflake” generation. “The ones I taught 20 years ago were pretty resilient. My kids, the oldest is 20, the youngest is 13, seem ever so tough-minded. Maybe there is a group in the middle I missed,” he says.
“But none of the people I actually meet seem to have that kind of sensibility. You’ve got to find some way of getting kids to make great memories without putting themselves in danger. I’ve got four kids of my own; you don’t want them to run wild in case they don’t come back. At the same time, no one is going to remember when they’re 30, 40 or 50, that wonderful moment they got to level 18 on a season of Fortnite.
“The memories you have when you fell over and cut your leg really badly and your ankle went round the wrong way, that’s the kind of thing you remember.”
Gerard Butler in the shape of his life as Spartan King Leonidas in the 2007 film 300
His own upbringing in north London in the 1970s and 80s was fairly ordinary, save for his father, a Second World War Bomber Command pilot turned maths teacher and headmaster, who inspired a love of storytelling.
“My interest in history has always been because my dad lived through so much of it,” he explains. “He was born in 1923 and his dad was born in 1850. His father, my grandfather, was a Victorian and had him very late.” Having written his first book aged 11, about an alien and titled Letters from Planet Earth, the young author sent it to a publisher only to have it returned.
It set a pattern that lasted until Iggulden was 28 and on the verge of giving up, having written at least a book a year for 15 years.
“It was quite depressing,” he admits. “I was constantly turning out books on all sorts of subjects and getting nowhere.”
Completing The Gates Of Rome, the first in what would become the Emperor series about Julius Caesar, he told his wife Ella it was the best he could do and if it didn’t find a home he’d remain a teacher.
In the event, the book sparked a bidding war, was sold for £306,000, and became an almost overnight bestseller. Since finally finding his audience, he’s carried on writing at least a book a year, majoring on huge historical figures. Happily, his father Harry lived until 2014, so was able to enjoy his son’s success. “I was really pleased because I had the chance to dedicate a book to him. It does matter, the relationship with your parents.”
After ancient Rome, Iggulden turned to the story of the Mongol warlord Genghis Khan with his Conqueror series, starting with Wolf Of The Plains.
“He was abandoned and left to die as one of six children, and one of them was killed by the others for stealing food, it was that ruthless. They had almost no chance of survival and yet Genghis went on to become the Khan of all the tribes of Mongolia and his grandson was Kublai Khan, emperor of China. It’s the greatest rags-to-riches tale in human history.”
Thrilling retellings of the lives of historical figures have become something of a trademark. “It’s that context that gives you the whole story,” he says. “I learned that from reading Wilbur Smith’s Courtney books.”
Iggulden is currently exploring ancient Greece and the birth of democracy. The Gates Of Athens introduced a triumvirate of real-life characters, low-born but ambitious Themistocles and the two political rivals he has ostracised – Xanthippus and Aristides – before bringing them back to fight the Persians. It features two famous battles – Marathon in 490BC, when the Athenians led by Miltiades defeated much larger Persian forces, and Thermopylae in 480BC, a heroic if doomed clash in which 300 Spartans famously held up a massive Persian army over three days before being annihilated in one of history’s most glorious last stands.
The battle at the “hot Gates” was told in the 2007 film, 300, starring Scottish actor Gerard Butler in the shape of his life as Spartan King Leonidas. Iggulden laughs: “It’s true Gerard Butler’s abdomen muscles probably should have got a credit – they were extraordinary.”
His new book, Protector, already a bestseller, picks up the story after the Persian army captures Athens. Despite describing events of 2,500 years ago, the struggle between democracy and dictatorship feels extremely topical. “I wasn’t particularly trying to reflect society today, but it’s an important human drive,” says Iggulden.
Tholos of Delphi, built between 380 and 360 BC. Tholos were common in Ancient Greece and Rome
“The desire to control and the desire not to be controlled are two warring things. Freedom is really important, and every major society that tries to take it away ends up destroying itself and the people in it. The idea of standing against tyranny and the rule of kings was central to the Athenians, so much so that all you needed was 6,000 votes and you could banish anyone for 10 years.”
The clash between Persia and the Greeks is set to continue in Iggulden’s next book, Noble Son, exploring the story of Xanthippus’s real-life son, Pericles. “Because the Persians
invaded these different cities like Sparta and Athens, who were not allies or even friends, they had to come together to fight them.”
So what would have happened if the Athenians, Spartans and their allies had crumbled in the face of the Persian empire? “History was turned on its head by a couple of key decisions by people like Themistocles,” says Iggulden.
“In the great tide of history, everyone expected them to lose, including the Athenians. I think perhaps only the Spartans thought they could win because they never thought they could lose.
“But if the Persians had taken over, Greece would have become a western wing of the Persian empire; there wouldn’t have been Alexander the Great; Rome, a city of just 40,000 people at this point, barely a big town, wouldn’t have been able to flower and come back and conquer parts of Greece.
That would have stopped the whole Roman empire.
There would have been no invasion of Britain and it would never have become Romanised, so there’s a reasonable chance the British empire would never have come about either. You’re talking about one of the apex moments of history in the West.
They completely mucked up the Persian war machine and that’s an incredible story – it’s why I love telling stories of history.”
Wood engraving after a painting of The death of Julius Caesar by painter Carl Theodor von Piloty
Iggulden isn’t afraid of using his best guesses when historical sources fall short. “We don’t know why Julius Caesar pulled his toga over his head while he was being stabbed to death. It’s a really weird thing to do but no one had the chance to ask him so we have to guess,” he says.
“Some people have suggested he was afraid. But he fought in battles and was known as physically brave. So it had to be something to do with him not wanting to look at them, to show scorn.”
But the author, who lives in Chorleywood, Hertfordshire, with his family, where he writes in his attic study at a standing up desk after back problems, is scrupulous about “getting the colours right”.
Before writing about Genghis Khan, he visited Mongolia. “It turns out it’s exactly like the Brecon Beacons, but I didn’t know that at the time,” he smiles. “But I went into one village in the middle of nowhere and I saw a totem pole with carved heads. It was like seeing a grand piano. The locals told me, ‘We crossed the Bering Strait about 15,000 years ago and went into Canada, some of us stayed there, some of us went into America’. It had never occurred to me that Native Americans came from somewhere else as well.”
In his search for authenticity, Iggulden even took up taekwondo, in part to learn “how it felt to be truly exhausted and still have to spar with the next 20-year-old who’s bouncing about looking delighted when he sees a red-faced, middle-aged man”.
A series of injuries forced him to give up at blue belt level but this pursuit of realism shines through in his books.
He adds: “Obviously, I have never personally waded into a line, swinging my sword hoping to take someone’s head off. You do have to use your imagination to get as close as you can.”
Protector by Conn Iggulden (Michael Joseph, £20) is out now