It’s about time a novel was written about this fascinating emperor – key to the invasion of Britannia, builder of the Colosseum and a major force in Palestine (not to mention spymaster to Lindsey Davis’ Falco).
In the first of a new series, Robert Fabbri takes us back to the young Vespasian, looking after his father’s estates in the provinces. As he gets a little older it’s time for him to add military experience to his innate administrative skills and he and his rather unpleasant brother set off for Rome in search of the right posting to secure honour and wealth for their family. Mixing with the elite of Rome, with their luxurious lust for violence, sex and power, it’s not long before the young men are caught up in the intrigues of the court of Tiberius, most of which circle around Sejanus and Antonia. These two are mortal enemies (despite the fact that Antonia’s daughter is Sejanus’ lover).
When Vespasian, with the eager help of none other than Caligula, rescues Antonia’s captive maid from the clutches of Sejanus, he has no choice but to flee Rome with the Praetorian Guard at his heels and his thug of a bodyguard Magnus for company. He heads for Thracia and, in a case of jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, earns his military boots as Tribune facing a massive rebellion of the local tribes. There is no escape from Rome’s intrigue even here as Vespasian questions the role of Rome’s leaders in the revolt.
Vespasian is an immensely exciting book. Its second half is full of military clashes, mixed with the intense hours waiting for the first blows. The first half, however, can match it, notably with a brutal chariot race and the machinations of court life. The book is full of meticulous and fascinating detail that brings the streets and blocks of the city of Rome to life, as well as the countryside, roads and military camps of the empire. No detail is too small and none is wasted – the pages that describe Vespasian’s initial journey to Rome and the progression of his family across the city are particularly evocative and memorable. You can almost smell it and you can feel the chaos as everyone fights for right of way. Goods are expensive and yet life is cheap.
Vespasian’s story is in extremely capable hands with Robert Fabbri and I look forward to the next chapter in his life.