None of this explains the popularity of Roman novels with readers. Part of the answer is clear: readers like to be entertained by strong narratives, larger-than-life characters and dramatic confrontations. But why are more novels written about Rome than about Tsarist Russia—where you also find those things? Why Julius Caesar and Augustus rather than Louis XIV or even Napoleon—subject of innumerable biographies but few novels?
I would hazard this explanation. However dimly or unconsciously, there persists the idea that Greece and Rome matter, that they are part of our inheritance. Salvatore Settis quotes John Stuart Mill writing in 1859: "The battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the battle of Hastings. If the issue of that day had been different… the Britons and Saxons might still be wandering in the woods." "This image," Settis writes, "of Greek history as universal history requires the Romans not just as cultural intermediaries but as the institutional, military and administrative structure by which the Roman empire created the right context for 'classical' culture to put down roots." Though Settis casts some doubt on the validity of this view, and draws attention to the "superficial" nature of much contemporary interest in the classical past, there nevertheless remains, even in our global cultural economy, something of the sense that we grew out of Greece and Rome. People may have only a vague notion as to the exact nature of our debt to antiquity. They may be—indeed, must be—further from understanding classical culture than those belonging to earlier generations, whose education was dominated by Greek and Roman texts. Nevertheless, Greece and Rome continue in some way to matter as other periods of history, and other cultures, do not. Those of us who write and read novels set in the ancient world are striving to absorb something of its significance. Our novels may offer only a shadowy representation of the reality of Greece and Rome, but even that shadowy version is preferable to classical culture being submerged in the dark.