Head of Zeus | 2020 (10 December) | 519p | Review copy | Buy the book
When boys Maxentius and Constantine meet in 286 AD in Diocletian’s glorious city of Treverorum, they instantly strike up a friendship that will last through the years and what momentous years these will be for Rome’s empire and for the men that Maxentius and Constantine will become. They meet during the celebrations to mark Diocletian’s division of the empire into two, with Diocletian retaining the East while Maxentius’s father Maximian becomes Empire of the West. Some years later two emperors become four, with Constantine’s father among them, becoming Augustus of the West. But such powerful men can’t stay content with their share. While some want it all, others must fight to retain what they have. Maxentius and Constantine are caught in the middle, used as pawns, as are their sisters, until the time comes when they, too, play their part as they rise to the very heights of power and friends become rivals.
I was thrilled to hear the news that Simon Turney and Gordon Doherty were joining forces to write a new series called Rise of Emperors. These two writers know their stuff (what Simon Turney doesn’t know about the Roman military isn’t worth knowing) and Constantine (not yet The Great) and Maxentius are in very safe hands. It’s difficult to imagine a more complicated period of Roman history than the years between 286 and 312 AD and these years were dominated by some larger than life personalities. It could be overwhelming. But the authors begin their series in fine style with Sons of Rome, bringing history and people to life and revealing what an absolutely fascinating and dramatic period of Roman history this was. It’s even more incredible when you think that all of this actually happened!
The novel is divided between our two main protagonists, Maxentius in Rome and Constantine on military campaign across the empire. The authors take a character each but you really wouldn’t know that, the joins are seamless. I was particularly drawn to the sections set in Rome – this Rome feels both familiar and strange with well-known monuments now in need of repair and whole sections of Rome cleared to make way for defences. The Colosseum is a busy place with Romans as cruel as ever, especially against the Christians.
Constantine’s early years are brutal, with his father’s callous dismissal of his wife and Constantine’s mother setting the tone for his relationship with his father. Constantine is a soldier, not yet a Christian, and his life is spent on the move, pursuing enemies to the empire but also enemies and challengers from much closer to home. Maxentius’ enemies, by contrast, come to him. I enjoyed the relationship between Maxentius and his monstrous ogre of a father, Maximian. Maximian has his rivals for most detestable Augustus, mind you – looking at Galerius here. Maxentius’ wife is quite a character in her own right. The women bear the brunt of much of the power struggles. Having been married off to secure alliances they then find themselves torn between loyalty to their fathers and strained loyalty to their husbands.
Sons of Rome sets the scene so well for the future novels as Constantine’s power and ambition grows. It’s fascinating to see what forces made Constantine the man and Emperor he was. This was all a bit of a mystery to me and now I can’t wait to discover more. It’s such a good story! I love Roman historical fiction so much and it’s wonderful to have a new series to follow.