Dressed in jeans and with his infectious dry wit, Harry Sidebottom was the polar-opposite of the stereotype of a classics and ancient history teacher. As well as lecturing in Greek and Roman history at Oxford, Harry is the renowned author of the three best-selling Warrior of Rome novels, which have sold in their thousands around the world and have established him as one of the leading exponents of fiction based on the Roman Empire, with his books always riding high in the Sunday Times charts.
Harry's talk on May 6th was called Novels of the Ancient World - the Good, Bad and the Unreadable and he quoted from some of the less memorable (and, it has to be said, American) modern writers who have tried their hand at writing about ancient times. In one opening paragraph, one novelist described the decline of the Roman Empire as "unravelling like an old sweater", whilst others seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time describing the characters' eyes, with the villain's usually "mean and shifty", and the heroine's inevitably "beautiful and soft".
However, it seems that writers from ancient days also repeated the same plot-line over and over again - often, for example, starting with a young shepherd and shepherdess falling in love, only to discover that, in fact, one of them was the long-lost daughter of a wealthy family and the couple finally went off to live a life of unbridled wealth and joy.
Some of Harry's most barbed comments were about the absence of research, or the paltry amount of effort which culminated in confusing dates of major historical periods. His most damning assessment was reserved for Erica Jong, the feminist writer, who had written a poem of such awfulness about the ancient world within one novel that it defied belief it could ever have been published.
However, Harry had nothing but praise for the work of Patrick O'Brian, Mary Renault, Alan Massie and - especially - Robert Harris, whose meticulous research, plot-line and writing about ancient Rome he considered to be some of the best. As for his own novels, Harry claimed they could be read as both holiday action-books, or taken as more multi-layered books which required a more detailed examination. His next novel will be published in July and his legions of followers will be waiting with huge anticipation.
In response to questions from the audience, Harry acknowledged that one of his main characters in the Warrior of Rome novels had echoes of a character from a Patrick O'Brian novel, whilst he admitted that he wrote some sequences thinking of the potential for attracting producers - and selling the film rights.
There has been a small explosion in the number of books about the ancient world (often with the word "Rome", embossed in gold, on the title-page) and Harry traced back the trend to the global success of Ridley Scott's film, Gladiator, which he thought had triggered a huge renewed public interest in that era.
Over eighty people attended the talk and - with the weather being so warm - the wine sold out very easily. Rachel Phipps, from the Woodstock Bookshop, sold twenty of Harry's novels and the overall profit from the evening was £519.
If, like me, you were put off at school by names like Apolsanpearius or Metatoxes, then you need to hear Harry Sidebottom. His humorous and racy talk about novels relating to the Graeco-Roman world stimulated our interest and gave us a very good picture of what life was like in those days. What amazed me was the number and variety of such novels and the extremes of quality from the very "malus" to the very "bonus". We heard about ancient detectives, orgies, romances and the daily doings of Julius Caesar. As a classical scholar, steeped in the languages and history of Greece and Rome, Harry came across as a down-to-earth, very up-to-date figure with the ability to make the past come to life and whet our appetites for more - Quentin Dickens, Oxford