Orion | 2019 (13 June) | 482p | Review copy | Buy the book
Marcia’s place at the Roman imperial court is unusual. She has the status of a freedwoman, the daughter of the seamstress of Lucius Verus, Marcus Aurelius’ co-emperor, but she spent her childhood alongside those of the royal family, growing especially close to Marcus Aurelius’ son, Commodus, and his brothers. Years later, when Commodus succeeds his father as Emperor, Marcia becomes closer still to this young man she loves so much. But a man cannot rule the world without it changing him. History knows Commodus as the megalomaniac who loved to fight as a gladiator (just remember Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the man in Gladiator!), and Marcia is witness to it all. Marcia knows Commodus better than anyone. She loves him the most and she also has reason to fear him.
Simon Turney’s latest novel in his ‘Damned Emperors’ series focuses on one of the most charismatic and infamous of Rome’s rulers, who was emperor in the later years of the 2nd century AD. Commodus really did think of himself as Hercules reborn but Simon Turney here shows that there was much more to the man than this. As with the previous novel, Caligula, the story is told from the perspective of a woman (a genuine historical figure) who was closest to the Emperor. Marcia was quite possibly the love of Commodus’ life and she achieved a status that far outstripped her rank as a freedwoman. Once again, Simon Turney creates a convincing, fascinating and complex female figure – someone who is a central part of the story while also being an outsider, due to her gender and her rank.
Through Marcia we see glimpses into Commodus’ soul, beginning in AD 162, from their earliest years as children playing together, along with Commodus’ siblings. This is a novel filled with disasters, some that affected all of Rome and others that damaged Commodus. Commodus better than anyone understood the fragility of life. It also makes for an exciting novel as we see floods, fires, civil unrest, war and accidents. One of the biggest threats facing Rome and the empire, though, was plague. It’s never that far away from these pages.
Commodus is such an engrossing novel, filled with characters who each leave their mark, whatever their rank. Marcia is our narrator but she isn’t quite what she seems. There’s a psychological thriller element here, I think. She is an unreliable narrator at times. She has her own agenda and at times I found her horrifying, no less a demon than Commodus himself. Perhaps this is one reason why they grew so close. Marcia keeps her eye on the men and women who live in Commodus’ circle. Intrigue is rife and, as time goes on, intrigue becomes something else. Marcia seems to be at the heart of it all. Commodus is almost the innocent at times. But it all shows what a complicated man Commodus was. There is more to him than history has recorded and, although we only see some of it in glimpses – it’s difficult for Marcia to see into Commodus’ deepest thoughts – it’s compelling and our feelings towards him are conflicted as we try to understand him.
This is such a fascinating period in Roman history and it’s brought alive here. We have the personal relationship between Marcia and Commodus and those closest to them, but then there is also the political turmoil of the period, reinforced by disaster, and these two sides to Commodus’ story are brought together by Simon Turney in such thoroughly absorbing style. I can’t wait to find out which emperor will be the next to receive the Turney treatment!
By the way, Commodus is a beautiful hardback, complete with maps and family trees.