Anyway, one of the invited speakers at the conference was Caroline Lawrence, author of the Roman Mysteries series (I confess to being not too familiar with her books, though I've seen a couple of the tv adaptations). In her talk, she mentioned that in one of the later novels, a character dreams of his future. This got the interest of Juliette Harrisson*, as she's interested in dreams (I think it's her thesis topic, though I'm sure she'll put me straight on that). Which in turn led to a conversation about how prophetic dreams and other sorts of accurate prophecy still occur in historical novels set in the ancient world.
Dreams are, of course, an important feature in ancient literature. Zeus sends a lying dream to Agamemnon in Book 2 of the Iliad. In Aeschylus' Persians, Atossa, Queen of Persia, has a symbolic dream demonstrating that Asia and Greece can never be joined together in one empire. And, of course, Cassandra is the ultimate prophetess, always right, but never believed (I always wondered about that - you'd have thought that someone might notice her 100% accuracy rate ...). There are dreams to be found in Ovid's Metamorphoses.
Accurate predictive dreams are also found in historiography. Herodotus has them (note the symbolic dreams in Book 1 predicting Cyrus the Great's conquest of Asia). This continues into Roman and Romano-Christian writings; in particular, Lactantius' account of a dream that instructs Constantine to fight under the sign of Jesus Christ (presumably promising victory, though Lactantius is not explicit). The Old and New Testaments also have prophetic and symbolic dreams (e.g. the vision of Jacob's ladder in Genesis, or Peter's dream encouraging him to preach to the Gentiles in Acts).
This, however, is not the place for a study of dreams in Graeco-Roman literature, of which there is at least one book-length study, and no doubt more. What I'm interested in here is the persistence of the prophetic dream, and other forms of accurate prophecy, in modern historical novels.
On one level, it seems slightly odd. Post-Enlightenment, 'realism' has become the dominant mode of the novel, and accurate prophetic dreams fall very much into the mode of the fantastic. Yet they are still to be found. Robert Graves' I, Claudius, for instance, begins with a sybilline prophecy, which not only predicts the length of the reign of Claudius, but also in which century his autobiography shall be rediscovered and published. This is picked up in the television version, where, in the final episode, Claudius has a turn in the Senate and allusively names both Graves and Jack Pullman, the adapter of the novel for the screen. A similarly prophetic Sybil is to be found in Sophia McDougall's alternate history novel Romanitas.
Why is this? It's one thing to have characters in a novel who, because of the religious and cultural background, believe in the power of prophecy and dreams. It would be perfectly within the parameters of a realist novel for Claudius to report a prophecy of events from a perspective of writing after the prophesied events have taken place (Claudius is, after all, not necessarily a wholly reliable narrator). It's quite another for the reported prophecy to relate to events that the novel's readership know, because they have happened, but which happen millennia after Claudius' death.
I wonder if it is because the notion of prophecy is hardwired into the ancient-set novel right from its origins in the Roman imperial period. Of course, the best-known of the Greek and Latin novels, Apuleius' Metamorphoses (also known as The Golden Ass), is very much in the fantastic mode. But prophecy is also found elsewhere in the ancient novel. The troubles ahead for the lead characters in the Ephesiaka of Xenophon are accurately predicted by a soothsayer, and predictive dreams feature in Achilles Tatius.
A special case for the modern ancient historical novel are those works dealing with the Trojan War. As has been observed by many, modern retellings of the matter of Troy tend to eliminate most elements of the fantastic, removing the gods from the field of play, and turning the mythological narrative of Homer into a historical novel. But one element of the fantastic often still survives; Cassandra's predictions of the fall of Troy, either through dreams or another method of prophecy. This is the case for David Gemmell's Troy trilogy. It is also the case for Eric Shanower's Age of Bronze, and also for the Doctor Who story The Myth Makers, where otherwise the only fantastic element is the TARDIS crew.
What I don't know about is prophetic dreams in other historical novels. I don't remember anything, for instance, in the mediaeval novels of Jean Plaidy, which I read a lot of in my youth. Are there, indeed, prophetic dreams in mediaeval historiography? Or what about the novels of Dickens, a man certainly open to the possibilities of the fantastic (e.g. A Christmas Carol)? Are there dreams in any of the other novels.
Please leave any further examples you can think of in comments, and I will add them in edits.
* Yes, that is how she spells her name. I've been misspelling more traditional Harrisons for the past couple of weeks.