Domitian by Simon Turney

Canelo Adventure | 2022 (22 October) | 415p | Review copy | Buy the book

Domitian was, through many of his formative years, the heir and spare to an ambitious general, a sometime challenger to the imperial throne and then the emperor himself, Vespasian. It wasn’t easy living through, in one piece, the reigns of Nero and the subsequent conveyor belt of ill-equipped and doomed emperors, and Domitian suffered as much as anyone, seeing family members murdered. But Domitian survived because he turned his seeming unimportance into a talent, creating a spy network that would see him out of all sorts of trouble and push his family ever upwards. He was an observer of everyone while being observed by none, except by his noble friend and political tutor Nerva, who takes some time out, in the aftermath of it all, to tell us all about it. You won’t want to turn away.

Domitian is one of the most famous of the infamous Roman Emperors and a suitable subject for Simon Turney’s Damned Emperors series, or Naughty Emperors, as I like to call them. Domitian is the third (after Caligula and Commodus), and the only one not to begin with C. As with the other books, we largely see the subject through the eyes of others, sometimes, as with Nerva, the eyes are wise, and my quite good knowledge of Rome has me very intrigued about Nerva’s role in all of this.

While the novel itself tells of a dramatic sequence of events, they occur over many years and that makes for a saga feel to the story. It isn’t rushed. We’re expected to get to know Domitian and Nerva and to get a feeling for what this Rome of theirs was like. In this Rome, reaching the purple heights of the throne was no guarantee of security or longevity – danger comes from every direction, and also from within. This is a novel with numberless conspirators whispering in the shadows. Now and again they get hauled out onto the stage to be cut up into pieces but there is always someone to replace them. Domitian is more aware of this than anyone. But he has his friends, just a few, and he keeps them close and loyal. But there is also the inner Domitian, what he keeps hidden, and what escapes from him, terrifyingly.

I do enjoy the ambiguity of these novels – they don’t make bad people good but they do make you question assumptions about a person gleefully written off by Suetonius, while also enjoying those famous and scandalous traits preserved to history.

In other guises, Simon Turney (aka S.J.A. Turney) writes some excellent Roman military fiction. In this series, we move from the battlefield to the no less deadly arena of Roman politics and its popular venue for murder and mayhem – the imperial banquet.

Domitian is a thoroughly entertaining, very well written imperial biography while also being full of facts and details about Roman life for the rich and entitled in the second half of the 1st century AD. It is a fine time in which to set a novel, especially one as good as this; a less fine time in which to have actually been around.

Other reviews
Caligula
Commodus
With Gordon Doherty – Sons of Rome
Writing historical locations – a guest post

Apologies
Apologies for my recent hiatus from reviewing while I contend with continued pain and mobility issues. I am feeling happier in myself these days so I have reviews written and we’re ready to go, my friends!!

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