Aulus Caecina Severus is triumphant. His lord Vitellius is poised on the edge of Italy, ready to march into Rome in a blaze of glory, emperor, supported on either side by his generals Severus and Valens, now Consuls. AD 68, the year of four emperors, explored in The Last Caesar, has now turned into AD 69, a year in which Rome could be at peace, led by men such as Severus. If only it were that simple.
The Sword and the Throne focuses on the events following the suicide of Otho, once master of Severus but now reduced to an elaborate artificial death, a crease of red self-drawn across his throat, his men defeated, now looking for a new leader. After his time of subterfuge in The Last Caesar, hiding as a barbarian, trying to stir up a rebellion against Nero, Severus is now a young general, one of the youngest, ready to play a leading role in Rome’s transition to enduring peace. But on the way to Rome, Severus must lead an army across the Alps, away from the vanquished northern tribes. With him is his young family, the beautiful, opinionated Salonina and their young son Aulus, as well as Quintus, the son of Vindex, the barbarian leader of the previous novel, who is now much more than an adopted brother to Severus. Quintus has almost become his conscience. The road to Rome might be treacherous and dangerous but it is resolute. Severus will arrive in Rome.
The Sword and the Throne is a novel in two parts – the action-driven battle into Italy and Rome and then the consolidation of rule in Rome itself. This means a novel divided between thrilling action, focusing on besieged towns and defended passes, and then political intrigue and deceit in the city as the different sides settle. There are shocks in both parts.
There are battles here. Severus is a brave man, handy with a sword, keen to stand out. He is shocked by the atrocities he witnesses. Many of the enemy are barely tamed Romans, maybe not tamed at all. Yet, above all, it is the political necessity that stirs Severus on, his rivalry with his fellow consul, his drive for vengeance, his regret for his son. Vitellius might be a personable old and ‘safe’ emperor but in the wings waits Vespasian. Yet again the time has come when a man must nail his colours to the wall and risk being damned as a traitor.
I enjoyed The Last Caesar, last year’s debut novel by Henry Venmore-Rowland, but in this sequel and conclusion to the story of Severus, Venmore-Rowland has written a confident, well-structured and pacey second novel, that is fuelled by the intriguing character of Severus. This is a portrait of a man, presented in the first person, who changes before our eyes. There are moments when I did a double-take, asking myself if he really did just do that. Events happen to people around Severus, he witnesses and takes part in some horrendous experiences, and it changes him. How that is presented is a great part of what makes The Sword and the Throne such a fine, focused novel, better than its predecessor.
My only complaint is that an interesting character who makes a lasting impression in the opening pages of the novel is then allowed to disappear without any further mention at all. But this dropped thread is minor. On the whole, The Sword and the Throne is an excellent novel that Henry Venmore-Rowland should be proud of. I hope that in the future Henry will return to writing about ancient Rome. He has an original voice – Severus can appear very modern, in voice and thought, and I think this perspective works very well. On another note, it’s rather pleasing to see a story completed in two novels, removing the need for the somewhat troublesome middle novel.