Head of Zeus | Ebook: 1 December 2016; Hb: 11 January 2018 | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book
Imperial Vengeance is the fifth novel in Ian Ross’s Twilight of Empire series. We have followed Aurelius Castus through many years of service to Constantine, as a centurion in Britain and now as something far grander. While you can read Imperial Vengeance as a stand alone novel, this review assumes that you’ve read the other books in the series and have kept up with the political machinations of Constantine and his wife Fausta.
It is AD 323 and the Roman empire is divided. While Constantine controls Rome itself and the west, Licinius is ruler of Egypt and the East. But Constantine wants it all. Helping Constantine to win his glory is his son Crispus, who rules Gaul as Caesar and has won significant victories over the Germanic tribes across the Rhine. Constantine now calls on Crispus to join him in his expedition to the East, to challenge Licinius in battle on sea and land, and to take from him that jewel of the eastern empire – Byzantium. And how could Constantine fail? Now fully committed to Christianity, Constantine marches with Christ at his side.
Aurelius Castus is Crispus’s supreme military commander. This lofty rank means that he must leave his family once more to do all he can to keep his young master alive and safe. Castus is no longer a young man, he wears the scars of battle, but once more he must lead from the front. But Crispus is not making life easy for him – as Constantine nears his twentieth year of rule, Crispus looks to the example of Diocletian who abdicated his throne for his son on such an occasion. Castus couldn’t be more aware of the potential danger of Crispus’s ambition and the terrible decision that he himself would have to take if son turned against father.
Time has moved on for Castus, now that we’ve reached the fifth novel in the Twilight of Empire series. His children are growing, his stepdaughters marrying, his son eager to follow in his steps, but once more Castus must leave them behind as he strides into the Civil War of the AD 320s. This might be a relatively overlooked period by Roman historical fiction but it more than merits this series of novels. Constantine and his mother Helena are remembered with rather a saintly glow, indeed both were canonised, but Ian Ross paints them warts and all and they are fascinating! I particularly enjoyed the way in which Ian Ross deals with the aged and domineering Helena – she is fearsome indeed – while Constantine, with his jutting jaw, is as capricious and cruel as you’d expect from an emperor who puts nothing, absolutely nothing, above his ambition. By contrast, Crispus is a delight, so charming and handsome, militarily gifted and brave, a young god indeed. And with Fausta thrown into the mix, this is an extraordinary family and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading about them in this series. In Imperial Vengeance, Constantine outdoes himself.
Castus has a loyal circle of servants and warriors around him and we’ve followed them all through the novels. While I don’t think that Castus has the colour of his imperial masters, he is perfectly placed to guide us through the conflicts and battles of the day. He is older, as are the men who follow him, and each of them has to make a choice about who they serve. Constantine’s Christian zeal is not easy for these old soldiers to understand. It’s going to be a difficult journey.
At the heart of Imperial Vengeance is its battles and here we find them on land and at sea. This is utterly thrilling (especially the sea battles), packed with historical and military details. I’m no expert on warfare during this period but it all certainly feels real and authentic, while the gore, although there is some, is secondary.
My favourite element of Imperial Vengeance, though, is its depiction of the imperial family. All of these figures are absolutely fascinating, while the dynamic between them is both enthralling and lethal. Ian Ross has secured Constantine a firm place in Roman military historical fiction. He makes me want to learn more about him (I was looking things up as I read along) and that is just what I want from a novel that takes me back into the past.
War at the Edge of the World (Twilight of Empire 1)
Swords Around the Throne (Twilight of Empire 2)
Battle for Rome (Twilight of Empire 3) (with interview)
The Mask of Command (Twilight of Empire 4)