Scourge of Rome | Douglas Jackson | 2015 | Bantam Press | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book
Scourge of Rome is the sixth novel in Douglas Jackson’s superb Gaius Valerius Verrens series, surely one of the finest of all series, regardless of genre. While I would advise that you give yourself the pleasure of reading all the books in sequence, this latest book works extremely well as a stand alone novel. In many ways, the leading figure, Verrens, is starting again from scratch and so Scourge of Rome would also make a great introduction to the series.
It is AD 70 and Rome is about to embark on one of its darkest deeds – the brutal siege and destruction of Jerusalem. Vespasian is new to the imperial throne. His hold on it is not secure. His eldest son Titus must likewise prove himself as a leader, a General every bit as good as his father, before he can be declared heir. Glory will be his if he can stamp out the Jewish revolt once and for all, so that this irritating region will no longer trouble its Roman masters.
Gaius Valerius Verrens was once one of Rome’s most experienced and admired centurions, his wooden hand never harming his skill on the battlefield. But his reputation is in shreds, his death narrowly avoided. With Domitian, Vespasian’s younger son, after his head, Valerius has no choice but to leave Rome and head east to redeem himself by the side of his former friend, Titus. It’s good timing. Never has Titus needed a soldier of Valerius’ prowess as much as he does now as he builds his siege works around the unhappy walls of Jerusalem.
I could rave about the Gaius Valerius Verrens series all day, and whenever a new book in the series comes out I do just that, but I have no hesitation in declaring Scourge of Rome the best of all so far. This is quite a feat but Scourge of Rome is a wonder.
There are many reasons why Scourge of Rome is so good. Douglas Jackson’s sensitive characterisation is one of them. You don’t expect Roman soldiers to be vulnerable and tender but Valerius is such a man, even more so than before due to the great sacrifices he has made to survive. The fact that he can become a killing machine in the heat of battle gives Valerius no comfort, quite the reverse. Perhaps even more powerful a portrait is that of Serpentius, Valerius’s friend and bodyguard, who comes into his own in this novel, with mental and physical injuries that go even deeper than his friend’s.
There is another fascinating presence in Scourge of Rome – the Jewish traitor and historian Josephus. Infamous in history, Josephus is a charismatic, enigmatic figure in these pages and one that Valerius must depend on as he goes behind enemy lines in the lethal streets of Jerusalem.
The crowning glory of Scourge of Rome is undoubtedly the siege of Jerusalem itself. Douglas Jackson does not spare us. This is a horrendous episode in Roman history, made even worse by the desperation of the city’s defenders, themselves torn apart by conflict and hatred. While we spend much of the time observing events from the Roman side, we do venture inside the city walls and meet leading figures from Jerusalem’s warring factions. Everyone is fighting to capture the powerfully symbolic Temple, everyone is prepared to see it burn.
The danger that Valerius and Serpentius face in the streets and tunnels of the city is matched by the peril of those inside the walls as they are pounded by Roman artillery, and of those outside as they are attacked in a series of frenzied skirmishes. The siege and battle for Jerusalem is vividly brought alive here in all its brutality and confusion. The pace never drops. The human tragedy as great as the trauma done to this great city.
Titus himself remains an elusive figure, arguably not the man Valerius once knew – just as Valerius is irretrievably changed himself. Light relief is provided by intrigue in Titus’s camp, led by the cunning Queen Berenice of Cilicia who has her own agenda and vested interest in Jerusalem’s fall. Her agents increase tension but one of them at least offers Valerius the chance to know love again, of which he is in dire need.
Scourge of Rome is a thoroughly exhilarating and pulse-thumping read. Douglas Jackson is a fine writer, both of action and of character and both play vital roles here. This is Roman historical fiction at its very best.