It is AD 69 and civil war is threatening to tear the foundations of Rome apart. In this Year of the Four Emperors, nowhere is safe as faction upon faction puts its legions into the field. Gaius Valerius Verrens is in a particularly tight spot – friend to one emperor (Vitellius) but fighting for another (Otho), Valerius has reached the end, bare foot, awaiting a traitor’s death on the bitterly contested soil of Pannonia.
But Valerius is a man with powerful friends and it is one of them, Titus, who saves him, putting him to work to support the campaign of his father Vespasian, a general watched closely by destiny. Valerius’s orders are to join commander Marcus Antonius Primus and eradicate Vitellius’s forces which stand between Vespasian and Rome. It’s unfortunate to say the least that Primus would much rather enjoy the sight of Valerius’s corpse than the thought of having the man among his staff. Valerius is driven, though, not just by his reprieve but also by the thought of Domitia, daughter of the great general Corbulo, and now living under the protection of Vespasian’s brother Sabinus in Rome, not to mention the beady lecherous eye of the other son, Domitianus.
Enemy of Rome grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck instantly. The tension of the opening chapter is a force to be reckoned with and it is barely relieved through the course of the entire novel. The strength of this novel, and the others in the series, lies in the character of Valerius. Hero of Rome, his right hand lost in Britannia during the Boudiccan Revolt, his courage and honour is admired by all, even by those who want to kill him. But Valerius has no doubt of his mortality, unlike many he serves, and he is always conscious that in a civil war the enemy might be one’s brother or friend. If a town is sacked during civil war, this is an outrage against one’s own fellow citizens. Valerius never forgets the cost of war – he can see it everyday in his wooden fist – and he never loses sight of what matters the most. Valerius is a good man, vulnerable despite his strengths, who has been made a killer and this self-awareness shadowed by doubt is one of the many reasons why our hero stands out so tall and fascinating.
The novel is divided in two with much of the book dealing with war and all its complications and blood. Valerius and his servant (although he’s far more friend than servant), Serpentius, are frequently to be found in the midst of battle or leading small numbers in lethal raids. The battle and skirmish scenes are second to none – vividly presented in terrifying detail with, poignantly, several personal stories brought to a close under a blade’s edge or a horse’s hooves. Finally, though, the war must reach the streets of Rome itself and the result is a conclusion that cannot be put down unfinished.
Quite apart from Valerius and Serpentius, there are other portraits that stand out in Enemy of Rome, especially, for me, Vitellius, the obese hungry emperor who loves his wife and his son, is wrapped in finery and false praise but wishes he were the man he used to be and not what he has become. One can see why Valerius liked him so much and why he had to oppose him. More, too, is revealed in Serpentius in this novel and it is clear that he is becoming a changed man. Vespasian lives in the wings of Enemy of Rome. I can’t wait to see what Douglas Jackson does with him.
Douglas Jackson is a fine writer whose recreation of past lives and places is enriched with a thorough historical and military knowledge and impressive insight. He knows all about pace and action but he is also one of those authors who makes the reader feel that they are witnessing history – and what a period of history this is to be brought alive.
Enemy of Rome is the fifth novel in the Gaius Valerius Verrens series. It could stand alone if asked but why deny yourself the pleasure of starting this series from the very beginning? That would be Hero of Rome which contains scenes that remain my favorite of all Roman historical fiction.