There are two events in particular from Roman history that have always fascinated me – the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, which resulted in the loss of Varus, his three legions and their eagles and the Claudian conquest of Britannia. In Rome’s Fallen Eagle, the fourth in Robbert Fabbri’s excellent series on Vespasian, these events are both key and the result is a novel that I did not want to let out of my sight.
The series has reached the early 40s AD, Caligula is dead, assassinated by a circle of conspirators that may or may not have included Vespasian’s brother Sabinus. The lame, dribbling Claudius is now Emperor and he is not without his own portion of his nephew Caligula’s madness. Three freedmen eclipse the power of the senate, steering Claudius while fighting amongst themselves in a dangerous game for dominance. Chief among their pawns are Vespasian and Sabinus. Their mission, if they wish to save their skins by bringing glory to a foolish emperor, is to find and return the third of Varus’s lost eagles from deep within the barbarian forests of Germania. Should they survive that place of Roman nightmares then there is an even bigger eagle to claim for Claudius – the island of Britannia.
From the very first chapter, set in a blood-soaked Roman theatre, ravaged by Caligula’s maddened, grief-stricken Germanic bodyguards, Rome’s Fallen Eagle grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck and hauls him or her through the most dangerous fringes of the empire, made worse by the scrambling for power amongst those closest to Claudius and his wife Messalina, and into the unknown.
Robert Fabbri never shies away from the gore and horror of life and death during these most dangerous of times. It’s a miracle that Vespasian survived to become emperor himself but it was by the skin of his teeth. After the insanity of Tiberius and Claudius (I found parts of the last novel False God of Rome difficult to read at times thanks to these men), it’s almost a relief to find Vespasian forced out of Rome. At least in the Germanic forests or on the river shores of Britannia Vespasian can fight back. But the dangers come from every side and there are moments here of such spine-tingling terror, I literally gasped out loud more than once. The scenes in the Teutoburg Forest are especially horrifying and brilliantly done. But they are rivalled by the battles of Rome’s conquest of Britannia’s chiefs and kings.
Throughout the novel, Fabbri expertly and lightly weaves together action with the strategy of what is happening. We are privy to the battle plans, the arrangement of different types of troops, Roman and auxiliary, as well as the historical background of Varus’s defeat and the political context of Claudius’s invasion of Britain. We get to know Germanic chiefs as well as ‘British’ kings and in addition to Rome’s venal administrators we also have its scheming generals. Through the middle of it, always in the midst of it all, is Vespasian and his brother and their companions, sometimes making mistakes but always at the front. What we are shown here are the origins of Vespasian’s great skill in the field, the stirrings of an idea in his head of potential greatness. The omens of previous novels are referred to as are events which have repercussions now. This is a clever series. Events in one novel can affect future events, two or three books down the line, with Fabbri obligingly nudging our memories. And yet, if you wanted to read Rome’s Fallen Eagle as a standalone novel you certainly could.
Above all else, Rome’s Fallen Eagle is one of the most exciting novels I’ve read in 2013. The action does not let up a jot as one adventure turns into another while all the time we are in the company of well-rounded and colourful personalities, Roman and barbarian. I have enjoyed the whole series but without doubt Rome’s Fallen Eagle is my favourite. It is never less than compelling, it is always well-written and time and time again jaw dropping. I couldn’t read its pages fast enough.