Headline | 2017, Pb 2018 | 367p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is late AD 54 and the Emperor Claudius is dead. Rumours of murder are circulating around Rome but few dare to utter them outloud. His adopted son Nero now wears the purple, supported by his ambitious, dangerous mother Agrippina. But he needs little of her support – he’s every bit as lethal in his own right. Claudius’s own son, Britannicus, is in a very precarious situation indeed, not least because others look to him as a possible solution to the problem of Nero.
Cato and Macro have arrived back in Rome as heroes after their mission in Hispania. Back within the Praetorian camp, they are positioned better than most to hear the rumblings spreading across the army at the turn of political events, and the lack of their promised gold. Cato, though, has other things on his mind – building a relationship with his young toddler son, Lucius – while Macro has distractions of his own. But it doesn’t seem to matter who’s emperor. They always have jobs in mind for Cato and Macro – and they’re never pretty.
Day of the Caesars is the sixteenth novel in Simon Scarrow’s hugely popular Eagles of the Empire series and it is always good news when Prefect Cato and Centurion Macro return. I’ve loved these two for years and have followed their exploits across the empire with pleasure. This time they’re back in Rome but Rome has never been more dangerous. But Rome is home for Cato and Macro and so we watch them try to put their private lives back together again after months away, finding some comfort, while at the same time we worry for them as the murky and complex world of politics and conspiracies threatens them and their plans from every side.
It’s difficult to imagine a more dangerous period in Roman history than the middle of the 1st century AD. I’ve enjoyed several novels about Nero over the last year and it’s rather refreshing that, in Day of the Caesars, no apologies are made for Nero – he’s as nasty and terrifying as history would have him. There is a scene early on which sets the tone for Nero and while I found it repulsive it certainly achieved its aim in summing Nero up. This is a man to hate. But this is Roman politics and, as such, there’s little to admire in any of the factions and nothing is straightforward. I enjoyed the tangled plot that Simon Scarrow has constructed here. It’s tense but it’s also thrilling and it has the whole of Rome in its grip.
This is most definitely historical fiction. Liberties are taken with events and with historical figures. But that matters little because this is the story of Cato and Macro – two fictional characters at the centre of events that are constructed around them. But the picture of the city of Rome itself is so well drawn, particularly its depiction of the city’s lethal poorer tenements. As usual, though, I have some issues with the author’s portrayal of women – none of the women featured here do well out of it.
In some ways, Day of the Caesars feels like a stepping stone novel. It informs us of what is going on in Rome while moving Cato and Macro from Spain to their next posting. As a result, I don’t think this is the best of the series but it’s certainly hugely entertaining, exciting and thrilling. Time spent with Cato and Macro is always time well spent and now that the sixteenth is read, I’ll look forward to the seventeenth which, just like all of the others, will go straight to the top of my reading pile.