Rome: The Eagle of the Twelfth was a highlight of 2012; it is also one of the finest pieces of historical fiction I have ever had the fortune to read. Wholly original, it explores the true significance of a legion in the hearts of the men who fought, died and killed to protect its Eagle. How astonishing, then, that Rome: The Art of War should not only equal The Eagle of the Twelfth but arguably excel it. It picks up the historical fiction genre and does something to it that is entirely different to anything else and is utterly wonderful.
I don’t think there is another series like it – each of the four novels is hugely rewarding and clever but each is also completely unalike. Linked together by the Leopard, Pantera, the Roman spy, a chameleon as well as a leopard, the books follow events in the Middle East during the tumultuous AD 60s before now taking the drama to Rome itself. Characters come and go, emphasis fluctuates, good and evil blurs. But in each Scott captures the spirit of the times in these rough days of shifting power.
In Rome: The Art of War we are given something very different to what has gone before, not least because we have now moved to the heart of the empire and Rome itself, but it gives M.C. Scott a new perspective to explore in greater depth and intensity some of the characters we have met before as well as search for the motivation that put a whip to history in one of the most remarkable years of the Roman period – AD 69, the Year of the Four Emperors. Whereas previous books have moved fluidly through time, in The Art of War, the action of the novel is tightly focused on these few months in one year. We are shown what went on through a series of personal eyewitness accounts by those not only caught up in the events but also manipulating them – this is the story of Vespasian’s rise to power told by those for it and those who oppose it. It could also, if it had to, stand alone.
This is a time of spies and moles. It takes more than soldiers to win an empire.
The novel begins with the prime mover Vespasian, general in Judaea in the summer of AD 69 and now ready to challenge the emperor Vitellius and his venal brother Lucius. His agent Pantera is given a vital mission. He is sent to Rome to keep safe the three people most important to Vespasian – his brother Sabinus, his son Domitian and his wife in all but name the freedwoman Caenis. Their slaughter would be a higher price than Vespasian is prepared to pay.
Pantera, although a constant figure through the novel, as well as being a great source of speculation, confusion and concern to others, is mostly quiet to us. Instead, we are presented with the thoughts of men and women on both sides of the power struggle, most notably Caenis herself; Geminus, a centurion in the Praetorian Guard who draws Pantera’s name in Vitellius’ lottery of death; the soldier Trabo, an ox of a man, determined to avenge Otho; Jocasta, part of Seneca’s infamous but secret spy network, as well as others who move between the different sides. There is not a soul without secrets and watching them all and moving above them are the boys who use the roofs of Rome for their own network of spies.
This use and mix of first-person narratives is an incredibly effective way to move the fast-moving story forward, poking at it from all manner of angles. It also emphasises the mystery of it all. As far as we can, we go undercover, a witness trying to unravel the clues as events become more and more dangerous, infecting Rome with unrest and violence. There is nobody to trust and the man whose thoughts we most want to know, we are denied.
There isn’t another writer of historical fiction quite like M.C. Scott. Roman history breathes on her pages, largely due to the people she puts on them. The focus is very much on the forces that drive the characters on to change history, whether it be ambition, deceit, lust, fear or love. In The Art of War we see Vespasian’s rise to power from every angle, from every corner, often from behind the curtain. The art of war is indeed the subject and it has far less to do with the sword than one would expect. It does, though, have an awful lot to do with courage.
A superb novel.