For a novel about the Roman world to succeed, in my opinion, it needs to combine historical accuracy, authority even, with an immediacy that snaps me out of the 21st century. I need to believe that the lives and events I am reading about could have existed, even if I know that they didn’t. It needn’t take much to throw a reader out of a historical novel but when the author is Harry Sidebottom the reader – and the characters- are in safe hands.
Harry Sidebottom is a Lecturer of Ancient History at the University of Oxford. By definition, that should mean that he knows his stuff. And indeed he does but it’s the way that he carries this expertise that makes his Warrior of Rome series (or at least the quarter of it that I’ve read) so believable and readable. It helps, of course, that the series takes place during a difficult time in Roman history, the troubled third century, when more than one emperor was attempting to hold sway at the same time. The action also takes place in the mysterious east, in Syria, on the edges of the retreating empire. On both counts, Fire in the East is different from many other Roman military novels.
Fire in the East introduces us to Ballista, the long-haired barbarian from the north, an Angle, who has risen from dubious origins (to say the least) to be a commander of the Roman army. His mission is to fortify the city of Arete in Syria and hold it against the Persian King of Kings at all cost. Ballista has to dig in, win the favour of the mixed community within the city, and use all his wit, guile and courage to protect Arete from the thousands of soldiers and hoards camped around the city’s walls.
With Ballista is his familia, gathered from across the empire, including Greeks and Spaniards. Not all are free, some are slaves, notably his bodyguard Maximus and his secretary Demetrius, but Ballista drinks with them all and will embrace them before battle. However, as Ballista is painfully aware, friendships are secondary when compared to the urgency of saving the city and its inhabitants.
This is a hugely exciting novel, carefully structured and paced, as we follow very closely Ballista’s strategies to defend Arete and then his courage in facing the enemy, so much greater in number. You can almost feel the arrows fly past your cheek or the artillery smash stone and men at your feet. Ballista is an enormously likeable young man and the reader’s feelings are intensified by the moments of vulnerability – for his past, his wife and child – that he lets slip to us yet to no-one else. He is mocked by the Romans in the city and yet the Romans are outnumbered in Arete by its eastern population and soon it’s Ballista’s name they chant. But the Angle can never forget that there are traitors around him and that his death may come just as easily, maybe even easier, from an act of betrayal as from an arrow or sword during battle.
The story moves around Arete, its different communities and religions. A range of characters are given leave to give their perspective on events. We know, for instance, that there are spies here and, as the novel progresses, part of the game is to guess who might be one of these ‘corn men’. The city itself is also a character, with its walls, towers, mines and tombs. The desert around it, with the mighty river flowing through it, is vividly presented.
Played off against the action of the siege we have the drama inside Ballista’s head. Amongst his nightmares and dreams is the growing awareness that Rome is a long way away.