Head of Zeus | 2017 (12 January) | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 317 AD and the Roman Empire continues to be divided, East from West. It is more important than ever to protect the Empire’s boundaries from invasion. The Germanic tribes are rumbling with discontent once more and so Constantine sends his young illegitimate son, and his apparent heir, Crispus to the Rhine. With him goes Aurelius Castus as commander of his forces. The situation has been inflamed by the recent murder of another Roman commander while conducting the Emperor’s business across the river. Castus has his suspicions that the same fate might be planned for him. But these are dangerous times. The intrigue of Rome has a long reach and it has Crispus in its sights. So, not only must Castus work to keep the peace, he must also protect Crispus, fight to keep himself alive and, more than anything else, look after his young son who he has had to bring with him to this most uneasy frontier.
Not knowing who he can trust, Castus wages a series of campaigns along the Rhine frontier, working where he can to make friendships among the local tribes. But he continually finds himself undermined by the actions of the Governor and his officials. It isn’t long before this begins to take the form of more open attacks against Castus himself. But the dangers on the Roman side almost fade into insignificance once Castus crosses the frontier and finds himself part of a deadly war, on water and on land.
The Mask of Command is the fourth novel in Ian Ross’s excellent Twilight of Rome series, which focuses on a rather overlooked period of Roman history, the early 4th century. The age of Constantine is, though, a fascinating one, not least for the rise of ideas associated with the emperor’s favour for the new religion of Christianity. The Empire is changing. Its armies are also changed. There is very little ‘Roman’ about some of the men who take up arms to fight for the empire. And the way that Rome must deal with those on its borders is also changing. But, within this grand picture, this series focuses on the actions of one man, Castus, to fight for what he believes.
When we first met Castus a few books ago, he was regarded as a ‘knucklehead’ by his military superiors and was seen as little more than a brave and dependable fighting machine. That Castus is no more. He might not have had much of an education but his loyalty and courage have won him imperial patronage and added to that bravery is decency. Castus is a good man. He has responsibilities now, too. His young son is defenceless and has given this grizzly soldier something well worth fighting for. It’s softening him, even if this leaves him a little more vulnerable. Leopards cannot totally change their spots and Castus continues to make decisions that might not be his to make. But in this time and place, where it is so difficult to know who to trust, perhaps that is exactly what he should be doing.
There are some fantastic battle sequences in The Mask of Command – the battles on sea and river are especially thrilling and absolutely riveting to read. There is a new force to reckon with – Saxon pirates – and they are terrifying. Castus is caught between a rock and a hard place. He wants to do the decent thing for the tribes. He wants to be an honest and reliable intermediary between the Germanic tribes and Rome but this is an impossibility thanks to Roman treachery. The situation escalates and the final third of this novel is next to impossible to put down as everything blows up in Castus’s face.
I love the mix of Castus’s own story and development with that of the wider picture of a Roman empire in crisis. We see less of Constantine and imperial figures in this novel but their influence is most strongly felt. When all’s said and done, The Mask of Command is a corking story, thoroughly exciting and with some of the best fighting sequences I’ve read in Roman military fiction. I’m such a fan of this series but The Mask of Command could well be the best so far – it’s a fine piece of writing by Ian Ross, backed up by his obviously detailed knowledge of the period and its military background, and it belts along. But we never lose sight of Castus the man and it is Castus who drives this series on. I can’t wait to meet him again.
I must also mention, as with other Head of Zeus hardbacks, The Mask of Command is a fine looking book. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I do love a hardback with a ribbon.