The story of the aftermath of the assassination of Julius Caesar in the Theatre of Pompey in 44BC is a familiar one, possibly the most famous of all Roman tales thanks to Shakespeare and Hollywood. For Conn Iggulden, though, it represents the inevitable and natural culmination of his superb series Emperor, which has brought alive the rise to power of the god Julius and now, in The Blood of Gods, depicts his fellow Romans slipping in his blood, scrambling for position, giving way under the indomitable obsession for revenge wielded by his adopted son Octavian, the new Julius Caesar – Rome’s first emperor in everything but name. The story might be familiar but Conn Iggulden brings a context to it, to Octavian’s dramatic rise to power, as well as a poignancy thanks to all that we have learned over previous books about Caesar’s deep friendship with Brutus, the final assassin. We can’t forget Mark Antony here either. Iggulden replaces the famous speech of Shakespeare’s Antony with a piece of gutwrenching theatre performed over the corpse of his friend. The die is cast and we’re on the road to Philippi before you know it.
The familiarity of the novel’s story is offset by Conn Iggulden’s perceptive insight into the characters of Caesar’s friends and enemies. This is especially true of Octavian, renamed Julius Caesar in the days following the killing. We are first introduced to Octavian and his brave and loyal friends Maecenas and Agrippa on leave in Greece. Their behaviour, which speaks large of bravery, honour and drunkenness, immediately has to readjust itself as Octavian learns of events in Rome. He is transformed into a young man with a mission. He is a poor man and so must use all his guile to win over support. It’s not possible to doubt for a minute that he won’t achieve power and the fulfilment of his oath to avenge his adopted father. Octavian is a fine creation here who comes into his own more and more as the chapters progress, mirroring the increasing confusion of Mark Antony. Both, ingeniously, are very likeable.
Mark Antony, a consul, is a man who holds great authority and wants to do the right thing by Caesar but knows that he must use all his charisma and intelligence just to stay alive. As the forces of Rome realign and ajust, these are dangerous days. Even facing each other across the battlefield is no guarantee that you know what side you’re on. You could almost feel pity for Brutus and Cassius but in The Blood of Gods the time for sympathy for Brutus’ ideals is past. In this book, the focus is very much on the complex character of Octavian instead.
There are some fantastic set pieces in The Blood of Gods. In addition to the famous last battle, there is also a harrowing sea battle led by Agrippa. This is real heart in the mouth action and while the creation of a new fleet should seem not out of the ordinary for the builders of the Empire’s network of roads, its heroism and gall is pounding. The horrifying battle sequences complement well the political machinations of Rome just as the combat exists side by side with great oratory. The manipulation of Rome’s masses is as important as prowess on the battlefield.
It’s been over five years since the publication of the last Emperor novel, The Gods of War. Now the story ends at last, just a few months short of Iggulden’s move to Penguin for the launch of his new Wars of the Roses series. There is indeed closure here. You can feel it in the few scenes with Brutus and Cassius, in the shifting of Mark Antony as he tries to find his own place of comfort and power, and in the resolution of Octavian Caesar to proclaim his adopted father a god, his assassins all slaughtered. Above all, though, The Blood of Gods is an enormously confident and accomplished novel that achieves the near impossible task of placing you, the reader, in the very heart of this most fascinating time in Roman history as a witness to the actions of its greatest men.