Ben Kane, MVB

Doctor of Letters

Friday 22 July 2016 at 1.30 pm - Orator: Dr Genevieve Liveley 

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor

Ben Kane is a writer. He is a publically and critically acclaimed author of historical fiction. He is also an outstanding ancient historian.

He is perhaps best known for his work set in ancient Rome and its imperial outposts: the Spartacus and Hannibal book series, focusing on two of Rome’s greatest enemies, and his Forgotten Legion trilogy. Described by the novelist Wilbur Smith as a ‘rising star of historical fiction', Ben has written and published ten novels in the last eight years. Eight have been Sunday Times bestsellers, and almost a million of his books have been bought and read across the world. Ben’s global reach is greater even than Caesar’s. Ben’s blog makes more interesting reading than Caesar’s too.

Now living just outside Bristol with his family, Ben was born in Kenya, grew up in Ireland, and moved to the UK in 1996 to focus upon building a career as a vet in a ‘small’ animal practice. If you’ve read any of his work, you’ll know that this professional training and experience as a vet has given Ben a particular panache in the literary description of ancient animal sacrifice – to say nothing of bloody battle scenes.

Ben says that his ‘itchy feet’ took him away from small animals a year later, on a three month solo trip hiking along part of the ancient Silk Road. And it was visiting the ancient ruins of Merv, in Turkmenistan, which first sparked his interest in the Roman campaign into Parthia in 53 BC.

But it was back in the UK, during the awful Foot and Mouth Disease crisis of 2001 where Ben’s passion for the ancient world was to really ignite. His veterinary work took him to Northumberland, where he lived for nearly a year. While the work of slaughtering livestock was truly awful – he says – he was able to spend his down-time visiting the Roman sites and museums along Hadrian’s Wall. He writes in his blog:

“These were places that I had longed to visit as a child, and my imagination ran riot as I stood on the craggy ridges looking north, and wondering what the Italian legionaries first posted here must have thought. How had the Scottish tribes reacted to the mighty structure which dwarfed anything they’d seen before? My determination to become a writer emerged then, and I started writing not long afterwards.”

The rest, dare I say it, is history.

And very good history it is too. Ben is as well known for his commitment to meticulous historical scholarship and research as he is for his grisly battle-scenes. He tells me that: “Research is an intimate part of writing historical fiction. It’s the foundation upon which each good story rests, and as such, it needs to be robust and well-laid. In my opinion, without a good basis in reality or fact, historical fiction becomes either historical fantasy or alternate history.”

Indeed, the success of Ben’s writing owes as much to his painstaking research into the social, material, political, and religious history of the ancient world as it does to his inventive creativity and characterization. And I use the term ‘painstaking’ advisedly here: in 2013, Ben walked the entire length of Hadrian's Wall while wearing full Roman military kit, including hobnailed boots, and full weight replica weaponry. He discovered along the way that much about what historians and archaeologists thought we knew about the lived experiences of Roman militia based in Britain was wrong.  

The research merits of marching some 800 kilometres in full replica military kit weighing up to 26 kilograms might not be immediately obvious. But the experience confirmed for Ben – and the wider academic community – that we ancient historians were wrong to assume that Roman soldiers marched with their shields at their sides (as depicted on Trajan’s column and on other ancient monuments). Ben found that marching this way was disabling over even very short distances, whereas wearing a shield strapped to his back was perfectly comfortable – while still allowing the shield to be unslung and deployed for action in less than twenty seconds.

What sets Ben apart from most other authors of historical fiction – and from most other ancient historians – is this absolute dedication to research in the field. Literally walking in the footsteps of his historical characters.

What also sets Ben apart is his absolute transparency about which elements and characters are drawn from actual events and people, and those which are necessarily the products of his writer’s imagination. The end-pages of his novels include comprehensive notes detailing the text-based research underpinning his narratives; the extensive bibliographies he consults before plotting his stories; and his fieldwork, his visits to archaeological sites and their museums. He also references the ancient ancient historians who provide – as he puts it – ‘a route to the past’: Tacitus, Cassius Dio, and Pliny numbering amongst his favourites. He includes Latin glossaries running to tens of pages at the back of each book. And he also records the battles with his editor about using the proper form of Latin names – and the occasional authentic Latin expletive.

It is this rich scholarly research, this scrupulous attention to historical and linguistic detail, which brings Ben’s writing its authenticity. And what’s more, it is how Ben’s writing brings the ancient world to life.

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Ben Kane as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa.

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