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As Marius’ Mules II begins, the winter has passed and the season for war has returned. Julius Caesar has arrived back from Rome, a city at risk of being torn apart by conspiracy, and he has one thing on his mind: world domination, bit by bit. Actually, he has two things on his mind, with the other being the insidious threat of Publius Clodius Pulcher who, not content with his affair with Caesar’s ex-wife, now plots to destroy the general. However, the Caesar of Marius’ Mules is not the Caesar that we learn about in school or from his own words. This Caesar may be brave and ambitious but he is also spoiled, cruel and not totally on the ball when it comes to the strategy of winning a battle. Just as well, then, that he has Fronto, the legate in command of the tenth, by his side to nudge him in the right direction – diplomatically.
The first of the trilogy, The Invasion of Gaul, began Caesar’s campaign and introduced us to Fronto, his chief centurion or primus pilus Priscus, and his fellow legates and commanders of men on foot and horse. Now that the northern tribes have formed an alliance against the advance of Caesar, led by the feared and dangerous Belgae, Caesar’s legions face a huge threat. But this is a war fought on more than one front. Rome has a long reach and the forces working against Caesar are closer than he thinks. As a result, Caesar depends on the military genius of Fronto more than ever. But not only that, he also relies on Fronto’s honesty because no-one else will tell him the truth.
What follows is a novel packed full of skirmishes, full blown battles, daring escapades, duels and marches into the unknown. The emphasis here is very much on action and the advance of Caesar’s plan. I would strongly recommend that you read Marius’ Mules I first. Not only is it a wonderful and lively read but it also provides the introduction to the characters who return here. However, even without that you will quickly warm to Fronto and his loyal friends. Fronto may be a great and brave strategist but he also has an unerring talent of talking and walking himself into trouble. He also is the friend of every tavern owner and the irritant of any quartermaster who has to supply the wine. The banter with Priscus, Balbus and the others flows through the novel from the very first page.
There is real danger here, though. Major characters are hurt, even killed. There is no denying the scale of the war that Caesar has stirred up nor the courage and desperation of the tribes to trick him and fight back. There is an ambivalence about the merit of Caesar’s war and no denying that the motive is his future triumph. The cost is extremely high and tragic and so the games and camaraderie that surround Fronto is partly, one thinks, to deal with that and his increasing unhappiness with Caesar who was once his friend. The physical weaknesses of Caesar are also beginning to show.
S.J.A. Turney writes about Roman soldiers brilliantly – whether on the field or in the tent. There are little details everywhere which contribute to the book’s wonderful air of authenticity and it does feel that we are following an army on the move. It is also a great humour to it. There is no denying it’s blokey. There are few women in it, at least women who aren’t being enslaved, but it doesn’t matter because this is a story about Caesar and his army at war and it’s a male world. It’s one which I was quickly drawn into. At the heart of it is Fronto and it’s a pleasure to meet him again. Fortunately, there is another book left, Gallia Invicta, in which, I believe, the menace of Rome draws ever closer. Excellent!