Retribution: Centurions III by Anthony Riches

Hodder & Stoughton | 2018 (19 April) | 402p | Review copy | Buy the book

Retribution completes Anthony Riches’ superb Centurions trilogy, the dramatic and thrilling portrayal of the Batavi Revolt that followed the death of Nero in AD 68 and ended in AD 70. You couldn’t read Retribution without having read the previous two novels – Betrayal and Onslaught – and so this review assumes you’ve done just that.

It is January AD 70 and the Roman forces under siege by the Batavi at the Old Camp on the Rhine are nearing the end of what they can endure. For months they have held off the Batavi but now, with nothing left to eat, the four thousand men inside have little choice. All eyes are watching how Kivilaz, the Batavi prince and leader, deals with the surrender. Because it’s clear to many now that it’s only a matter of time before the Batavi are defeated, bringing this bloody civil war to an end. Vespasian is now emperor, his legions (which have sworn loyalty to a string of emperors) are behind him and one or two of them have something to prove, especially the famous Twenty-First Rapax which is marching northwards with fiery zeal and determination in every step. But one thing is sure – the Batavi are not going to give up without a fight. More lives will be lost, more blood will be spilled. How can the northern Roman empire survive this?

In Retribution, Anthony Riches continues the story of four centurions – two Roman, two Batavi – although now the action is pared down to several key events as each of our centurions faces a crisis that brings with it the risk of deadly consequences. I’m mentioning no names here because you need to find out for yourselves which of them will live to fight another day but you can be assured that each of them knows what is demanded of them and no quarter will be given.

This is Roman military fiction at its very best, not least because we have been given the context for this war. These three novels cover just two years. Time has been spent on exploring the origins of the war, the motives of its main proponents, as well as the daily routine of soldiers on the march and in battle, on both sides. Time is given to both Batavi and Romans. There is good and bad, right and wrong on both sides. The Roman leadership is well aware that it is to blame for the revolt in the first place, for sending the imperial Batavi bodyguard home from Rome in disgrace after the death of Nero. But this has almost become irrelevant now that the war has escalated to include other Germanic tribes. Peace will not be won easily.

The action sequences in Retribution are outstanding. There are soldiers here on both sides that we’ve got to know very well and it’s heart in the mouth stuff to watch them all in such peril, fighting for their lives and those of their comrades. We feel the benefit of Anthony Riches’ detailed knowledge of Roman warfare. We’re thrown into the heart of it all. But there’s also a human cost to this that goes beyond falling in battle – what these soldiers witness and endure leaves scars, mental and physical. There are atrocities on both sides which are harrowing to read about. Civilians suffer. Bravery and courage are often rewarded with death. It all makes this war feel very real, bringing the past to life.

The previous books in the trilogy rewarded a close reading due to the large number of characters with similar names in forts scattered along the Rhine. Once more, in Retribution, we’re given a useful list of characters and maps, but Retribution is an easier novel to follow. Events are building to a head, everyone is in their place, and we’re much clearer about who is who. The writing in this trilogy is very good indeed. It’s vigorous, precise, exciting, with the barracks language kept to the minimum to be used when and where it matters most.

The Centurions trilogy is a triumph with Retribution quite possibly my favourite of all of Anthony Riches’ novels – and I’ve read and loved every single one of them. The trilogy presents an informative and fascinating overview of this critical period of Roman history, giving fair time to all sides, while also honing in on certain people and places, showing how this devastating war affected the ordinary soldier as well as the men who commanded them. Roman military historical fiction does not get better than this.

Other reviews and features
Empire I: Wounds of Honour
Empire II: Arrows of Fury
Empire III: Fortress of Spears
Empire IV: The Leopard Sword
Empire V: The Wolf’s Gold
Empire VI: The Eagle’s Vengeance
Empire VII: The Emperor’s Knives
Empire VIII: Thunder of the Gods
Empire IX: Altar of Blood
Betrayal: The Centurions I
Onslaught: The Centurions II
An interview for The Eagle’s Vengeance
An interview for The Emperor’s Knives

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