The murder of Roman emperor Alexander Severus in the spring of AD 235 heralded an age of iron and rust. The triumphs of Republic and Empire were trodden underfoot by a succession of usurpers, traitors, killers, who conspired to seize the teetering throne for themselves. The first of these was Maximinus, a mere soldier of equestrian rank, whose men cut down the young (but hardly a saint) Alexander alongside the mother whose skirts he clutched.
Maximinus, an ugly ogre of a man, tells himself that he never wanted to be emperor, all he wanted to do was to crush rebellion out of the northern tribes. He has never been unfaithful to his beloved wife Paulina, he indulges his son, ignoring his venal sins, and he wants Rome’s senators to put aside their self-interest and instead do good service to Rome, raise money for his armies, support his fight, glorify its military might. That might be how Maximinus sees himself but it’s unlikely there was a soul in Rome who thought likewise. It is only a matter of time.
This, then, is how Iron and Rust begins, the start of a new series by Harry Sidebottom, the beginning of a new phase of Roman history to tell. Iron and Rust covers the period between March 235 AD and March 238 AD, its story told through the perspectives of a number of key men (and one woman) positioned around the Empire who had a role to play in the conspiracies that shaped Rome for approximately fifty years. These include Maximinus himself, almost always in a campaign tent, Pupienus, Prefect of the City of Rome, Iunia Fadilla, a young beautiful widow married off and carted off out of Rome, Gordian in North Africa, son of the aged Proconsul and a successful soldier, Timesitheus on the Euphrates, a resourceful and efficient administrator, and others, all of whom have a lot to say but have to be careful who they say it to.
Iron and Rust is above all else a political thriller. Harry Sidebottom spends much of the novel setting the scene, moving between protagonists and locations, slowly raising the tension as the plotting becomes more and more complicated and intricate. There are times when one or more character might raise a hint of rebellion, tasting the air, but then it is allowed to sink, the time not being quite right. At other times revolt is allowed to break out, rarely successfully, and then everybody has to shift as the fallout rains. There is military action but it is secondary to political interests. Only Maximinus is obsessed by soldiering, when he’s not consumed by his other obsession, that is – destroying anyone he judges an enemy.
The switching perspectives means that the reader can enjoy the contrast between the way a character views him or herself and the way that they are viewed by the rest of Rome. This is complicated by the need for secrets, expressed in whispers. This makes characters like Maximinus much more interesting than a straightforward narrative might. Likewise, Gordian is an intriguing personality, a foil in some ways to Maximinus and certainly to Maximinus’s despicable son. Other characters are referred to, glimpsed in the Roman Senate or mentioned in hidden meetings. They come and go, revealing a fair bit about Rome’s descent into terrified chaos while also highlighting the political ability of the central figures to stay alive.
Iron and Rust is accompanied by maps and numerous pages providing background information on historical figures, concepts and words. This is pretty vital, I think, in order to fully understand the movement of the conspiracies, both through time and across the Empire.
Harry Sidebottom is very familiar to readers of Roman historical fiction for his long running Warrior of Rome series which tells the story of Ballista, a soldier who straddles both Roman and barbarian worlds. There is some crossover in time with Iron and Rust, some hints of recognition in the character of Maximinus, but otherwise the novels are very different in style and approach. What the two series do share, though, is Harry’s meticulous, academic attention to detail. There is a great deal of historical and military detail here, plus regular snippets of Latin. In the Warrior of Rome series this can prove tiring in places but I didn’t find it so here.
I have read all but the last of the Warrior of Rome series and I have to say that I was ready for a break from it. I was delighted to hear that Harry was working on something new, albeit it from the same period that he knows so thoroughly. The good news is that Harry’s expertise and knowledge have been put to good use. Roman imperial politics in the mid to late 3rd century AD was as complex as it was lethal. Iron and Rust captures the detail of the former and the drama of the latter, never staying in one place too long, always with an eye on what was happening elsewhere in the Empire. The chances of anyone in the novel reaching old bones seems slight and it is that uncertainty, wrapped in fear and tension, that colours this novel from start to finish. It’s hard to think of another period of history more fascinating to read about and less attractive to live in. I’m looking forward to watching this series develop.
Fire in the East (Warrior of Rome I)