Headline | 2019 (14 November) | 447p | Review copy | Buy the book
Cato and Macro are back! Two of my very favourite Romans! Traitors of Rome is the eighteenth in this much-loved series and, like most of them, it can be read on its own with no knowledge of the earlier books – the enduring friendship between tribune Cato and the much older centurion Macro is easily understood. I do think, though, that after reading Traitors of Rome you’ll want to read more of this series. It’s addictive.
It is AD 56 and Cato and Macro are stationed with the rest of General Corbulo’s army of 20,000 men in Tarsus, in the eastern Roman Empire, close to the border with Rome’s constant enemy, the vast Parthian Empire. Emperor Nero is urging his General on to war with the Parthians, especially now that the Parthians are threatening some of the Roman-friendly kingdoms on their border. Also, the Parthian royal family is at war with itself. The King of Kings is at war with one of his sons. The time is ripe to take advantage. But Corbulo is a realist and he knows that his reduced ranks are in no fit state to take on the might of Parthia and matters aren’t helped by the influx of poorly trained and ill-equipped new recruits. He needs to stall for time. And so Tribune Cato is given the unenviable task of leading a small group of men into the heart of Parthia to negotiate a peace that Corbulo knows the king won’t agree to. Cato understands that this will be a suicidal mission and so he is glad to leave Macro behind to train the recruits. But Macro will face his own challenges, every bit as deadly as those that Cato will encounter. Both men will be tested to their very limit.
Over the years I’ve read every book in this fantastic series. Cato and Macro have taken me across the Roman Empire and back again. I’ve seen them both suffer, in war and in their personal lives, and I am invested in them, not only in their survival but also in their happiness. In a series this long, there are bound to be books that are more successful than others (although there hasn’t been one that I’ve not enjoyed) and I’m delighted to say that Traitors of Rome is my favourite of them all. This is an enormous achievement that, after eighteen novels, the fire and enthusiasm are still there, as fresh and as vital as ever.
I’ve been trying to think in the few days since I finished the novel why it’s my favourite and I think it’s for a few reasons. It’s partly because Macro has reached a comfortable phase in his life when he can seriously consider retiring. He’s ready to put down that vine stick and stop terrifying the troops. This is hard for Cato. Macro has watched over him for his entire career. Macro is Cato’s family but perhaps this is no longer reciprocated. There’s a sense in this novel that time has changed these men and perhaps it may be running out.
Another reason why I loved Traitors of Rome so much is for its plot. It has a fantastic plot! There is so much going on. The pace never lets up and, as we follow Cato and Macro as they pursue their separate and then combined adventures, we witness the lot – battles, sieges, skirmishes, mutinies, Parthian cruelty and political strategies, spies,treachery. And so much more. As soon as one crisis has finished another one starts and it’s like this throughout the novel. It is thoroughly exhilarating and so exciting.
Then there’s Simon Scarrow’s writing and historical research – both are exemplary. I loved the descriptions of the landscape, both cold and hot, desert and river, with the walled cities and the opulent palaces. It is all gorgeously portrayed. Cato’s journey is so compelling while Macro’s predicament is tense. The historical and military detail is meticulous. It all feels completely real.
The characters are superb and Simon Scarrow presents a wide array of heroes and villains to entertain us. There are a lot of fascinating people, admittedly mostly male but then we spend much of the time in the Roman army, and I found myself particularly interested in General Corbulo. This is a really interesting interpretation of a man that Nero both needed and envied and there’s a casual cruelty about him in the way that he treats his men. But what makes this interesting is that he may well not have been considered cruel, but that this was not just good but excellent generalship. He got results. But here we take a look at the cost.
At the heart of the novel is, of course, Cato and Macro, their friendship and their bond to their men, and they are both on fine form, especially Macro. I couldn’t get enough of them. Traitors of Rome isn’t a short novel but I would have willingly had it at least twice the length. Reading it took me into another Roman world and it was difficult to pull myself out of it. Traitors of Rome is a wonderful book and a thrilling adventure and demonstrates that this fine and very popular series still has so much to give. I fear that the end may be in sight – retirement is very much on Macro’s mind – but I hope that it may still be some time off and I’m intrigued and extremely keen to know where they’ll head next.