Robert Fabbri’s Vespasian: Tribune of Rome was a highlight of 2011 and, I would argue, the historical fiction debut of the year. On the face of it, Vespasian was an intriguing choice for a new series of novels. Vespasian (70s AD) was not a Roman emperor I knew much about, other than that he was a great administrator, a bit of a moneypincher and the builder of Rome’s most glamorous monument, the Colosseum. But, before he came to power, Vespasian led armies to victory in Britain and Judaea and, even more impressively, survived the imperial reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero, right under their noses. He could not have done that without being the consummate politician and strategist. So, after all, Vespasian is perfect material for a new series and, as you’ll see from my review of the first, Tribune of Rome, Robert Fabbri has done a superb job of making Vespasian (and his brother Sabinus) real and his Roman world three dimensional.
Rome’s Executioner picks up the story of Vespasian in AD 30, when the young soldier is learning the ropes in Thracia. Despite being far from Rome, it’s not long before the intrigues of the city arrive, here in the shape of Vespasian’s brother Sabinus – a natural soldier as Vespasian is a born administrator. The plots and schemes of the brothers’ patron Antonia spread far. The mother of stuttering fool Claudius and the grandmother of hedonist Caligula, she is also the mother of Livilla, a bigger source of trouble you could not imagine. She and her lover Sejanus have managed to bring Rome almost to its knees while its demented emperor Tiberius plays with his ‘fishes’ on his island of Capri.
The mission of Vespasian and Sabinus is to find a believable witness of Sejanus’ treachery and bring him before Tiberius. The most likely choice is a Thracian priest who has been invoking attacks on Rome’s soldiers. No one is better placed than Vespasian to capture this nasty bit of work and bring him before the emperor.
Of course, you don’t need me to tell you that this is extraordinarily more difficult than it sounds and before it can happen Robert Fabbri will make use of his thrilling battle-describing skills, including the incredible scenes when Vespasian and a small group smuggle themselves into the Thracian fortress of Sagadava. And it doesn’t stop there. The chariot race was an especially memorable part of Tribune of Rome and one aspect of Robert’s writing that I have come to look forward to is his gripping and incredibly detailed and realistic action sequences. There is a sea battle here that I am unlikely to forget and I was on the edge of my armchair reading it. And you won’t want to go anywhere near a lamprey after reading Rome’s Executioner – that’s if you know where a lamprey is to avoid it.
The battle scenes are equalled by the extraordinary sequence of events in Rome which fill the second half of the novel. You just couldn’t make these people up and it is incredible to think that these men and women had control over the lives of so many. Vespasian, as we know from the first book, is a friend of Caligula and so we see a side to this famous demon that is less familiar. But Tiberius is another kettle of fish altogether. Robert Fabbri, though, doesn’t just present a monster, he shows a man distorted and warped by mental illness and power. Likewise, Vespasian is an interesting and complex man. He is likeable, as one would want from the subject of a series of novels, but he can be just a little bit odd. It’s hard to imagine how he could have survived otherwise.
Rome’s Executioner is a thoroughly satisfying and much anticipated sequel to a fine debut. It is not an easy read in places – these were dark days and what Vespasian has to endure and even participate in is sometimes truly horrid. There is no escape from that and there is no shine or gloss put on some of the despicable acts that took place as Tiberius reasserted his authority. I felt quite shocked by the time I’d finished the novel – the thrill of the battles and intrigue as well as the wonder with which ancient Rome is recreated go hand in hand with a frank telling that hints at what it must have been like to live through these days. This is fine storytelling to produce such a reaction.
The False God of Rome is the next in the series and it can’t come soon enough.
I am very grateful for the advance copy!