Headline | 2018 (15 November) | 369p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is AD 55 and Tribune Cato and his chief centurion Macro must once again go to war. This time they are to be sent east. Rome has a new and very young Emperor, Nero, who must quickly make a demonstration of power. Opportunity comes from Armenia. The mighty Parthian Empire has ousted King Rhadamistus of Armenia and replaced him with a king of their own. Rome will not tolerate a Parthian puppet state so close to its eastern border, nor will such a display of aggression be permitted. General Corbulo is despatched to put Rhadamistus back on his throne.
But Corbulo has grander designs. While he focuses on preparing for war against Parthia itself, he sends Cato and Macro ahead to escort Rhadamistus back to his kingdom. It will be a fearful journey, one from which Cato and Macro are not expected to return alive, but the most difficult challenge facing Cato and his men is Rhadamistus himself, for Rhadamistus is a monster.
The Blood of Rome is the seventeenth novel in Simon Scarrow’s Eagles of the Empire series, better known to many of us as the Cato and Macro series. I have read and loved this series for years and I look forward every year to each new book. It’s fair to say that The Blood of Rome follows on the heels of a run of particularly brilliant novels in the series and, with such a standard to be measured against, it turned out to be, for this reader anyway, one of the least successful of the books. This isn’t to say that there isn’t much to enjoy here, as there is. Cato and Macro are indefatigable as always in their drive to entertain us while they attempt to put the Roman Empire to rights, sword in hand, at great risk to themselves and to those they love.
The mood of The Blood of Rome is dominated by the figure of King Rhadamistus, a despicable excuse for a human being (let alone for a king), and his behaviour hangs over the novel and events like a black shadow. The fact that he’s merciless towards his own men, however, is not the worst of his crimes in my book – that honour falls to what he does to Cato. Cato descends into the depths during The Blood of Rome. He is damaged by what he sees. I think that Simon Scarrow treats the subject of traumatised soldiers well here. There is no reason to believe that soldiers in antiquity were exempt. But what I did have trouble with is how Cato acts out of character and on occasion acts with deliberate cruelty. There is one incident in particular (and you’ll know the one I mean when you read the book) that shocked me absolutely, and not in a good way. And I’m not sure it fits with this series of novels. Macro continues to act in the same loveable way which makes Cato’s new behaviour even harder to deal with, for this reader at least.
This is also one of the more violent books of the series. I have nothing against violence in Roman military historical fiction (as that would be daft!) but the increase of it reflects the book’s darkened mood and the state of Cato’s mind. Cato’s attitude towards women also continues to cause me a few problems. There’s a casual callousness, a dislike, in the way he treats them, as if he were always the innocent. Which he is not.
Having said all that, I found the final third of the novel more enjoyable and I became wrapped up in the Armenian power struggle and the thrilling action sequences that drive the book on. Cato’s relationship with Macro is so entertaining to watch. There are some fascinating details about Roman warfare here, especially the use of siege weaponry, and this campaign, which was so important to Nero, is one that deserves attention. It’s an incredible story. The fact that most people are still in ignorance about the new emperor’s character also tantalises for the future. As always, I look forward to the next outing for Cato and Macro and hope that Cato can find some peace (while still fighting a war, if you see what I mean!).