Corvus | 2018 (4 January) | 347p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is AD 63. Nero is emperor and there is no one who doesn’t fear him – except for the plebeians in the streets that is, who love their indulgent, flamboyant ruler, a man of the people and not of the Senate. But anyone with money or influence is under threat, including the family of Vespasian and his brother Sabinus. You would have thought that Vespasian as governor of Africa would be safe so far from Rome, but not a chance. Vespasian has been ordered deep into the desert to a frontier city kingdom where a tyrant holds hundreds of captured Roman citizens as slaves. It is Vespasian’s task to escort these poor souls back to Roman lands across miles of empty desert. It is a formidable and extreme task.
But Rome is no safer. People compete for Nero’s favour while beholding the emperor’s behaviour at its worst. There are plots and plotters but can anybody really hope to stop the monster? It’s clear, though, that for now things can only get worse.
Rome’s Sacred Flame is the eighth novel in Robert Fabbri’s Vespasian series, which is one of my favourite series of any genre. We have followed Vespasian through the years from childhood – when he was the subject of a great prophecy that continues to shine on him – through the reigns of several emperors, including his one-time friend Caligula, until now when the madness of Rome’s Julio-Claudian line of emperors reaches its heights – or depths. The fact that we know Vespasian’s destiny, while he himself does not, does nothing to detract from the tension and drama of these novels. The time spent waiting for his rise to power is both fascinating and lethal.
Robert Fabbri doesn’t beat around the bush – these emperors were vile men, the perpetrators of horrific crimes, and we’re spared none of it. I’m still getting over Fabbri’s portrayal of Tiberius, but with Nero we behold the devil. Some of this is quite shocking to read, at least for me, particularly the humiliation of the wives and daughters of Rome’s senators, and the terrible deed of crucifixion. I must admit that I found some of this hard to read.
But the grim content is offset by a glorious portrait of Rome during the 1st century AD. Its streets, forum, public buildings and houses are brought to life. And there is a brilliant account of one of the most famous events of this century, hinted at by the title and cover. It’s compelling stuff. Likewise, the chapters set in Africa are extremely dramatic. You can almost feel the heat and the thirst of those who must cross the vast desert.
This period of history is made for novels and Robert Fabbri does such a fine job of blending fact with fiction, reinterpreting some of the key events of the period as well as the personalities of the day, from emperors and consuls to Christian leaders and vigilante troops. Vespasian has changed enormously over the years – decades at the heart of Rome will do that to a man – and he’s not always likeable. In fact, he often isn’t. He’s committed some terrible acts over the years and there’s a powerful and horrifying sense here that now he’s having to pay for it. Rome’s Eternal Flame is, I think, the most emotional of the series, and the most shocking. A couple of scenes had me in tears (once on the bus), while others did repulse me. It’s certainly not a book I ever wanted to put down. I can’t wait for the next one as we approach the fulfilment of the prophecy. There are most definitely, though, more hurdles for Vespasian to overcome.
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
Vespasian VII: The Furies of Rome