I don’t know what it is about novels on Rome and its legions but I can’t get enough of them. Nothing spread Roman imperialism and culture to the masses quite like its armies and, if I had to give a reason why such novels fascinate me so much, I might argue it’s because they can dramatise so well the tension of life on the fringes of Rome, sometimes literally and often in other ways as well. The clashes of cultures and worlds, culminating in hand to hand conflict, is, if written well, very exciting and immediate on the page. Two thousand years ago, a Roman soldier would have found himself in all sorts of sticky spots before, if he were fortunate enough not to be struck down on the battlefield, finally settling down many miles from his place of birth – another type of Roman conquest. Not surprisingly, then, I was delighted to win a copy of S.J.A. Turney’s The Invasion of Gaul, which is the first in a series of novels about these heavily burdened, mile marching legionaries known as Marius’ Mules (after the popular military hero of Republican Rome Marius) who followed Julius Caesar across Gaul in the mid 1st century BC.
Julius Caesar might be the most important man of the novel but our attention focuses on Marcus Falerius Fronto, the legate in command of the Tenth. Fronto is a man from a wealthy and privileged background but he has turned his back on a potentially rewarding political career in the senate or as a province governor in favour of leading a legion – not for a year or two, but for good. As such, he is one of the few high rankers that Caesar can trust, not that this necessarily means that Fronto trusts him back. As well as Fronto, we get to know his primus pilus, or chief centurion, Priscus, the chief training officer, Velius, the extraordinary military engineer, Tetricus, the commander of the Eighth, Balbus, and Longinus, the legate of the Ninth and commander of the cavalry. And that’s just to name a few. There are quite a few more I could mention. That is one of the great strengths of Marius’ Mules – it introduces us to a range of men aiming to do Caesar’s bidding while keeping their own men alive on the march, in the camp and on the battlefield. After a chapter or two, you’ll be very concerned to know how they fare.
The story is straightforward. Caesar is out to win political glory through military conquest and the best way to do that is to stir up the tribes of Gaul and Germania. Matters are helped by the fact that the tribes spend as much time fighting each other as they do the Romans but Caesar isn’t after a diplomatic solution. He wants victory, land and the kind of honour he would get from leading the chieftains of Gaul in chains behind his chariot in triumph back in Rome. As a result, this is a novel about life on the march, broken up by regular battles or skirmishes. In the second half of the book, Caesar’s mission focuses on one man, the enemy King Ariovistus but to conquer this real threat takes a little more ingenuity and strategy – just the kind of service Caesar expects from Fronto.
Although the attention is very much on the men leading the legions from the front, these are mostly career soldiers respected by their soldiers or young men experiencing their first command and earning their dues. As the soldiers get to know them, so do we. Fronto might be a skilled strategist but he’s happiest on the frontline, away from Caesar’s staff especially the unpleasant Crassus, and he spends the majority of his time getting into scrapes, getting battered and drinking it off. There’s no time for niceties when you’re on the march, constantly looking over your shoulder for enemy scouts, risking an arrow in the back. Fronto and his friends are hard drinking (they’re regulars in most of the taverns of the empire), gambling, joking, jostling men, who know that each day may be his last and enjoying it all the same.
Caesar isn’t quite the hero we’re used to. He makes his mistakes and he surrounds himself with both good and bad advisers, largely because he can’t take one eye off the senate, and he is prepared to sacrifice thousands of lives – Roman and barbarian – for his ambition and still proclaim it for the glory of Rome. Nevertheless, he is the boss and we see little more of Caesar than Fronto shows us. Likewise, because this is the story of Fronto and the other legates, we see relatively little of the enemy, except as glimpses in the forest or on the other side of the shieldwall
By the end of Marius’ Mules there won’t be much you won’t know about the construction of Roman camps, Roman battle formations and troops, military equipment and uniform, personal possessions, the treatment of the dead and life on the march. I was as fascinated by all of that as I was entertained by the repartee between Fronto and his friends. It all feels very realistic while letting you get close to the men due to their banter and bravery in the field. As a result I felt quite moved in places. This is a self-published book but it deserves to be on the shelves of our bookshops. I’m delighted to say that I have already bought Marius’ Mules II: The Belgae and look forward to seeing what Fronto and Caesar get up to against the next bunch of unlucky barbarians.