Britannia, AD 45. Sabinus, elder brother of Vespasian, has been snatched by the druids, betrayed by spy Alienus, suspended naked and filthy in a cage until his brother should come to his rescue at which time both men will be sacrificed to the goddess Sullis. Such is the plan but Vespasian is a soldier and officer who has learned his craft, forming meaningful alliances with local chieftains, able to take those harsh decisions which can save an army at the cost of the valued few. But in the druids, Vespasian’s might and determination, a mirror of Rome, comes against an enemy of a type he’s not encountered before. The battle will take all of his cunning and take Vespasian to the very edge of what he can endure.
Rome, though, is no safer a place. These are the days of Claudius, an emperor only slightly less mad than the man who preceded him and the one who is to follow. The dribbling fool is in the thrall of his captivating wife, Messalina, a woman notorious to all (but her husband) for her voracious sexual appetites. Rome is ruled in all but name by Claudius’s three freedmen but even they cannot compete with the reach of the empress. A plan is hatched, Vespasian is caught in the middle. Having proven himself in the field, Vespasian must now use every political skill he can muster to bring down Messalina while all the time securing his family – and his wealth – for the future that has been prophesied.
Masters of Rome is the fifth novel in Robert Fabbri’s superb series chronicling the life and career of Vespasian, a man who against all odds survived Rome’s most infamous emperors only to ascend – somehow, miraculously – to the purple himself. Vespasian is now in his late thirties, a married man with two children, albeit children he barely knows, a difficult wife and a tolerant mistress. The events of previous novels continue to exert their influence, leaving debts that Vespasian must continue to pay, but the price is now exceedingly rich, demonstrating yet another stage in Vespasian’s transformation. There is a strong sense that Vespasian is conscious throughout of the damage that his ambition is doing to his soul and this is one of the major themes of the novel – in Masters of Rome we are given a glimpse into the religion that determined the Roman character, walking hand in hand with its materialism and greed, and the spirituality with which it was assaulted. There is a wave of fear that courses through the pages of this novel, spreading from the groves and springs of Britannia to the temples and gardens of empire. Vespasian feels it and, reading it, so do we. Vespasian must also learn a stark lesson about the Rome that he serves – the ideal is now becoming the personal.
The last novel in the series, Rome’s Fallen Eagle, is a marvellous book and was my favourite of the sequence and one of my top reads of 2013. Masters of Rome, though, surpasses it. This is an achievement indeed. As with the previous novel, the book is divided into two, but here the two are unified by what they reveal about the character of Vespasian and the world he must face and conquer. Liberties are taken with history but they serve a dramatic purpose and the result is a novel that is never less than harrowing, powerful and unputdownable until the very last page.
Every one has their own idea about what the druids would have been like and Robert Fabbri plays with this brilliantly, tapping into the fears of Rome and projecting it onto the page. The novel becomes imbued with superstition, dread and evil. Anything can happen and it does. What matters is that Vespasian must believe it. But this is not the only religion Vespasian encounters in Britannia – there is the stuff of legend here as well as the origins of Christianity.
Back in Rome, Vespasian encounters a state of affairs no less horrifying than the druids as decent men are destroyed at the whim of an insatiable harlot and her pitiful husband. Vengeance becomes a key theme and it’s no less potent or satisfying when exercised against empresses than betrayers.
Each of the Vespasian series could be read as standalone novels, each contains unobtrusive clues to previous events, but to read one without the others would be such a shame. Robert Fabbri is a superb storyteller. He doesn’t shy from depicting violence or venality, far from it, but it always serves the purpose of the story. Fact and fiction mix well in these pages, the goal always being to show the progression of one of Rome’s most remarkable men – Vespasian – while presenting the extraordinary world in which he moved. Masters of Rome is also, I would argue, the most exciting of the series. Nothing was going to get between me and the last 150 pages.
2014 is proving to be an outstanding year for historical fiction – Masters of Rome is right up there with the very best. Long may this series continue.