It’s unlikely that the 1st century AD will lose its interest any time soon for authors and readers alike. Dominated by characters and megalomaniacs that you’d be hard pressed to make up, Caligula, Nero and Vespasian – to name just three out of many – are gifts to novelists. In his debut novel The Last Caesar, Henry Venmore-Rowland focuses on the events of AD 68, an extraordinary year in which Rome’s most powerful aristocrats and generals reached the end of their tether with possibly the worst of the lot, Nero.
Fresh from his success on the field against Boudicea in Britain, young soldier and quaestor Aulus Caecina Severus finds himself the pawn in a plot involving Rome’s mighty governors. They have one goal – the overthrowing of Nero – except for Galba, who has another – the installation of himself as emperor. But he is an old man with no heirs. The ambitious young Severus is no fool and neither is Galba.
The Last Caesar follows Severus as he moves across Gaul in his mission to spread the conspiracy across the western empire while fooling Roman legions and barbarians alike into providing a smokescreen. Disguised as something he is not, Severus has much to contend with, quite apart from the hardship of military life in the field, and is vulnerable to the deceits and cowardice of others, not to mention their knives.
This is the first of two novels in the telling of AD 68 and the novel is narrated by Severus as an old man. Therefore, we know from the first page that our young hero will survive but at what cost?
Henry Venmore-Rowland is a very young man, just out of University, and this makes the publication of The Last Caesar all the more of an achievement. Severus has a young voice and it is largely a modern young voice. This combination of more traditional historical fiction with contemporary overtones works very well. Severus is not always a likeable character. He’s not afraid to use people and some of his decisions are violent and harsh. But these are terrible times when a successful general would be ordered by Nero to commit suicide. A plot would have no chance if led by selfless, completely honest paragons of classical virtue.
There are some interesting characters here quite apart from the intriguing and flawed Severus, barbarian and Roman, and the politics are offset by the thrill of the battle and the danger of Severus’ subterfuge.
This is not a long novel but, after an exciting start, it did take its time for the story to develop. There is a lot of talk. However, these issues with pace and structure are a minor side-effect of this being a debut novel by such a young writer and one can expect them ironed out in the future. This is a very well-researched and confident first novel. Henry is a new voice in British historical fiction and I look forward very much to watching his career develop. He can be very proud of its origins in The Last Caesar.