The Furies of Rome | Robert Fabbri | 2016 | Corvus | 350p | Review copy | Buy the book
The Furies of Rome is the seventh novel in Robert Fabbri’s superb series on the soldier and emperor Vespasian. These novels are a highlight of every year, never disappointing but always astonishing as Fabbri so expertly welds together history and fiction. Each novel does contain a self-contained story and can be read on its own but I would definitely recommend that you read the series in order instead. By the time of The Furies of Rome, Vespasian is not the idealistic young man he once was. Rome has changed him and it’s been fascinating watching the process over the past few years and the past six books. The predecessor, Rome’s Lost Son, featured in my top historical fiction novels of 2015.
It is AD 58 and, against all odds, Vespasian, as well as his brother Sabinus and uncle Gaius, has survived the madness-tinted reigns of emperors Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius. But now Rome is descending even deeper into the shadows – Nero is on the throne and everyone lives and dies at the mercy or whim of the emperor and his court of favourites. Little gives more dread than an ‘invitation’ to attend one of Nero’s feasts, events which are normally followed by Nero and his sycophants smuggling themselves in disguise into Rome’s streets to torment, rape, thieve and murder. Vespasian and Sabinus are away from Rome when their uncle is caught up in such a riot. He is hurt and humiliated and the brothers have no choice but to plot vengeance against the leader of Nero’s cronies. So begins yet another feud to endanger Vespasian’s life. By now there are so many.
As usual, Vespasian finds himself caught up as a tool in the emperor’s domestic affairs and this time, now that Nero is in love with a woman as mad as he is, the repercussions are shocking. Nero is about to prove that nobody is safe. Vespasian also becomes ensnared in the prominent political matter of the day – whether or not Rome will withdraw its forces from Britannia. This is a significant affair. Many of Rome’s most important figures have large amounts of money invested in the province. Vespasian doesn’t know if it’s a blessing or not when he is ordered to Britannia to oversea the financial interests of Nero and his favourites. All would have gone very differently if it hadn’t have been for Rome’s cruel treatment of a widowed queen – Boudicca. Suddenly, Vespasian finds himself in a place every bit as lethal as Nero’s Rome.
The Furies of Rome is divided in two, with the first half of the story taking place in Rome and the second in Britannia. It would be impossible to say which is the more enjoyable because both are absolutely superb and utterly gripping. It would be hard to imagine that anything can rival the cruelty and madness of Nero’s corrupt court as depicted here but Britannia under attack from Boudicca’s Revolt manages it. This is exciting stuff – intrigue and corruption on a massive scale in Rome with Britannia torn apart by violence, vengeance and war. But Robert Fabbri brings affairs to life by letting us watch it through the eyes of Vespasian and his family, including his longterm mistress Caenis – now Seneca’s secretary and powerful in her own right – as well as his untrustworthy and greedy wife, Fulvia.
I always enjoy watching Vespasian age and grow through these novels and in this book Vespasian has reached a stage where his destiny – as foretold way back in the first novel – is tantalisingly and yet impossibly almost within reach. He is an ambitious man, wanting a governorship worthy of him, and it’s arguable that he’ll do almost anything to achieve that. Nevertheless, he remains likeable and we still see him as Caenis does – we remember the young man who arrived in Rome all those years ago who has somehow survived and not just by being honourable.
Robert Fabbri’s portraits of the emperors are always fantastic and memorable – Tiberius gave me nightmares. But Fabbri reaches new heights with Nero. Here is an extraordinary figure – an insane mix of child and man. An emperor who wants to be the equal of his subjects – as a charioteer or a singer and musician – but in reality is a monster and megalomaniac. Nero is mesmerising on the page.
Nero, though, is just one of many highlights in this gripping and worthy addition to a fine and consistently excellent series. Long may it continue!
Vespasian I: Tribune of Rome
Vespasian II: Rome’s Executioner
Vespasian III: False God of Rome
Vespasian IV: Rome’s Fallen Eagle
Vespasian V: Masters of Rome
Vespasian VI: Rome’s Lost Son