Fire and Sword | Harry Sidebottom | 2016, Pb 2017 | HarperCollins | 437p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is April AD 238 and the Year of the Six Emperors continues. Fire and Sword is the third volume in Harry Sidebottom’s meticulously researched and yet dramatically thrilling account of one of the most tumultuous years in Roman imperial history. You can can pick up any these novels and they’ll stand alone very well indeed but to get the full picture – and feel the consequences – of this extraordinary year, you’re better off reading the books in order. This review assumes that you’ve read Iron and Rust and Blood and Steel first.
The Gordiani, the father and son emperors, have been defeated and killed in North Africa – the younger cut down on the battlefield, the elder hanging himself in his palace. For them the struggle is over, but for the senate so far away in Rome that supported them, the fight is just beginning. The tyrannical emperor Maximinus, until now safely preoccupied by fighting the barbaric tribes to the north, has had enough. While the Senate squabbles over who should succeed the Gordiani, Maximinus marches towards Rome. In the city, prefect Pupienus seizes the throne in partnership with the dissolute and really rather unpleasant Balbinus, both adopting as their subordinate Caesar the surviving and very young Gordian heir. It’s pretty clear, though, that the mob has had its fill of the senate.
As Maximinus marches into north Italy, the city of Aquileia becomes critical, standing between Maximinus and Rome. Senate supporter Menophilus must hold the city against all odds and so begins one of the most crucial sieges of all Roman history.
Harry Sidebottom is a master of combining historical authenticity with action and in Fire and Sword he does a fantastic job of depicting a year in Roman history that was surely unequalled in sheer brutality and greed. It’s difficult to imagine a more horrendous year to live in, for patricians and plebeians, but what a gift for a novelist as good as this one.
Each of these novels focuses on just a few weeks of this momentous year, giving the narrative time to move around the empire and tell the stories of some of the key players in events, as well as a few others who have less control over their destiny, particularly Iunia Fadilla, the wife of Maximinus’s son, a man so nasty that even his own father is determined to kill him. Much of our time, though, is divided between Rome and the siege of Aquileia and it would be impossible to choose between them for action, drama and treachery. Rome might be the political centre of the empire but some of these politicians have as much of a taste for blood as the barbarian warriors that fascinate and disgust them so much.
Menophilus is an interesting character. Like others at this time, he is a senator and a soldier but he also likes to think of himself as a philosopher and has the long beard to prove it. We have Stoics, Christians, pagans and other philosophers here but really the language they best understand is power. The siege itself is so well portrayed thanks to the author’s detailed knowledge of Roman military matters. I must admit that I particularly enjoyed the scenes in Rome – you really couldn’t make some of this stuff up – extraordinary! Maximinus himself is another intriguing character. His view of himself, which he constantly reminds us of here, is utterly at odds with his actions. Any competition between this lot to decide who is the most cruel could be too close to call but I think my money would be on Maximinus. Arguably, Pupienus is the main character of the novel but he too is a mixed bag. It is fascinating watching these characters endlessly shifting position, justifying their actions, trying to remove all opposition while consistently proclaiming that they hold the moral high ground.
I enjoyed Fire and Sword very much but its second half in particular is outstanding. Everything comes together in a showdown that resonates across the empire and sets the scene for the next stage of this remarkable chronicle. There are other moments in the later stages of the book that fans of Harry Sidebottom’s Ballista (Warrior of Rome) series will relish. It can be no easy task to translate this period of history, so densely packed and so alien in many ways, into a series of novels. Harry Sidebottom manages it brilliantly, uncovering and interpreting the forces that drove these men on, at such a cost to the empire they coveted.
The novel closes with 50 pages of historical notes, a glossary and a dramatis personae.