Category Archives: Roman

The Price of Freedom by Rosemary Rowe

Severn House | 2017 (31 October) | c.300p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Price of Freedom by Rosemary RoweMarcus Aurelius Septimus is one of the most powerful men in all of Roman Britannia and when he tells Libertus – pavement-maker, freedman, Roman citizen and Celtic noble – that he wants him to stand for civic office in the town of Glevum (Gloucester), Libertus has little choice but to do what his patron tells him. But Libertus’s ascendancy is jeopardised by the untimely death of Flauccus, the official responsible for raising Gloucester’s taxes. Flauccus has been found hanging, the tax money vanished, gambled away according to Flauccus’s suicide note. But Marcus isn’t too sure that the death is as straightforward as it seems, especially as if follows hot on the heels of a calamitous fire that killed several of Flauccus’ civic colleagues. Libertus is good at solving mysteries and so he is despatched by Marcus to investigate – he can also attend a wedding on Marcus’s behalf while he’s at it.

And so Libertus sets off an adventure that will take him along the uncomfortable roads of southwestern Britannia where any step could see him fall foul of bandits, bears or wolves – to the small town of Uudum and beyond, via flea-infested inns, barracks of cross soldiers and, unfortunately, other murder scenes, one of which is guarded by unruly goats. Carefully wrapped away in his toga, though, Liberts has his pass from Marcus, instructing others to treat him as they would the emperor himself. Not everyone does…

The Price of Freedom is the seventeenth Libertus series by Rosemary Rowe. I’ve read every one of these books over the last twenty years and my admiration and love for them has only increased over the years. In fact, I have no hesitation in declaring The Price of Freedom my favourite of them all and I read most of it in one glorious sitting.

Rosemary Rowe excels in recreating the lives of (mostly) ordinary Romans and the towns, villages, roundhouses, slave quarters, villas in which they lived. Libertus is a fantastic character. He’s middle-aged, happily married (at last), with an adopted son, living in his roundhouse close to Glevum where he has a shop for his successful mosaic business. Born a Celtic chieftain, he was captured and sold into slavery when young but now he is a respected citizen and, although he has no choice but to do the bidding of his patron, the powerful Marcus, at some level and to some degree, Marcus is Libertus’s friend. Libertus bridges the Roman and Celtic worlds perfectly and he’s a canny observer of people. He’s our eyes, ears and narrator and he describes perfectly the events that befall him and the mysteries that he solves, often at some considerable personal cost. Libertus can never forget that he was once sold in a slave auction. That’s not something to which he would ever wish to return.

Slavery is a big theme of The Price of Freedom, as the title suggests, and I love the way in which it’s handled. It’s done lightly and, as a result, the horror of it strikes home. Slaves are discarded and sold on a whim, new ones are bought and ‘broken in’ and even (for some land slaves) their hair is sold as a crop each year. Rosemary Rowe also looks at the life a young woman, effectively sold into marriage by her father, and then there is a young soldier, living so far from home, at the extreme edge of an empire that is in almost every way cold to him. The fact that Libertus can care so deeply for such people (he wraps the soldier in his arms when he is distraught) is a sign of his deep empathy and sympathy. I like him immensely. That he’s not your typical hero-type makes him all the more interesting.

The story in The Price of Freedom is brilliant! The plot is very carefully put together and complements perfectly the instructive element of Rosemary Rowe’s fiction. When we enter the small enclosed town of Uudum it really tallied with my concept of small Roman towns from my years of excavating them (also in Gloucestershire, where this novel is set). It all feels so real. The little details feel right, in the towns and also in the descriptions of travel. But all the glorious details never hinder the mystery which is such a good one.

If you’ve never read a Libertus mystery then I certainly suggest you give them a go. They can be read in any order as each stands alone well but the first is The Germanicus Mosaic. They’re set towards the end of the 2nd century AD when the various crises affecting Rome still manage to reach this distant edge of empire. Libertus, though, reminds us of Britannia’s Celtic past and his commentary on Rome and its ways – while trying to emerge unscathed from one case after another – is a joy to read. If you want to immerse yourself in Roman Britain, then look no further.

Other reviews
Dark Omens
The Fateful Day
The Ides of June

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Onslaught: The Centurions II by Anthony Riches

Hodder & Stoughton | 2017 (21 September) | 386p | Review copy | Buy the book

Onslaught by Anthony RichesOnslaught is the middle book in Anthony Riches’ new and really rather brilliant trilogy on the Batavi Revolt of AD 68-70. Although, if you really had to, you could read this without having read the first in the series, Betrayal, I don’t recommend it. Onslaught follows on from Betrayal perfectly so do read that one first. This review assumes that you’ve done just that.

It is AD 69 and Rome’s problems extend far beyond the grumbling tribes of Germany – the new emperor Vitellius is in trouble already, with Vespasian threatening from the East. As a hugely respected soldier and general, Vespasian is a popular choice for several of the legions and so the Roman army is split. And when some of the most experienced soldiers are marched south from the Rhine to join Vitellius’s forces against Vespasian, the ones left behind are extremely vulnerable to the might of the Batavi. Once bodyguards to the emperors, the Batavi haven’t forgotten the shameful way in which recent emperor Otho dismissed them from his service and sent them home. Their rebellion, led by prince Kivilaz, has gone quiet after their victories of the year before, but this is merely a lull. And the prospect of Vespasian on the horizon has given Kivilaz just what he needs to tear the Romans apart.

Onslaught brings us the story of the Batavi Revolt through four centurions – Marius, Antonius, Alcaeus and Aquilius – as well as their superior officers and the men that they command. Once all four fought on the same side, especially in Britannia, but now they oppose each other in civil war. The action moves between the camps that line the Rhine, the Roman border, which goes right through the tribal lands of the Batavi. Old Camp is particularly vulnerable and it is there that the Batavi decide to attack.

This is thrilling stuff. Tension, fear, martial prowess and incredible courage are all on display here as we move up and down the Rhine, following the marching, disciplined Batavi troop – who, as soldiers, are in a way more Roman than the Romans – as well as watching the Romans prepare for a siege. Because we are drawn into both sides of the conflict, we care for soldiers on both sides. Our sympathies really are split, at least on an individual level. There are people here we care for – they banter, they squabble, they give each other nicknames, and they all have to bury friends. This is an enemy with a face, no matter which side you’re on. It raises the stakes.

You do have to have your wits about you when reading Onslaught. There is a lot of moving around and it can be quite difficult, at least during the first third, to keep track of who’s who. There are some similar people and place names as well. But this is not a simple story, happily, and if you take the time and effort, it’s very rewarding. There is, though, a very useful dramatis personae at the beginning as well as a couple of handy maps.

I love sieges in Roman military fiction and this is one of the very best. Anthony Riches knows his Roman military history inside out and we reap the benefits of that here. Every time you think that the siege couldn’t get any more difficult or desperate, the level is raised once more. This is brutal and it’s bloody. But I also felt that I was learning a great deal about Roman warfare, especially its weaponry and tactics, which I really enjoyed and appreciated. Combining this with exhilarating action, I did not want to put Onslaught down at all. I also liked very much the added political element, going on behind the scenes, of the fight for the empire between Vitellius and Vespasian.

Anthony Riches doesn’t pull his punches, nor does he mind throwing in a few shocks. You can’t count on any of these characters making it through to the end, so I did take a few blows to the heart. But this is war, after all. There was one moment that really made me think, when one of the centurions has to decide how to treat men who have had enough and don’t want to fight anymore. This is not black and white. These are three-dimensional characters and their personalities shine even though they’re hard at work most of the time just staying alive.

Retribution will complete the trilogy next spring and I can’t wait. You only have to look at the list of reviews below to see how much I love Anthony Riches’ work. His Empire series, which I adore, now has a rival for my affections in The Centurions.

Other reviews and features
Betrayal: The Centurions I

Empire I: Wounds of Honour
Empire II: Arrows of Fury
Empire III: Fortress of Spears
Empire IV: The Leopard Sword
Empire V: The Wolf’s Gold
Empire VI: The Eagle’s Vengeance
Empire VII: The Emperor’s Knives
Empire VIII: Thunder of the Gods
Empire IX: Altar of Blood
An interview for The Eagles Vengeance
An interview for The Emperor’s Knives

Cover reveal – Day of the Caesars by Simon Scarrow

I’m a huge fan of Simon’s Scarrow Eagles of the Empire series and on 16 November Headline publishes the 16th – Day of the Caesars! I am delighted and more than a little thrilled to present here, exclusively, the cover reveal for the novel. And doesn’t it look good?!

The contents sound pretty fab as well:

AD 54. The Emperor Claudius is dead. Nero rules. His half-brother Britannicus has also laid claim to the throne. A bloody power struggle is underway.

All Prefect Cato and Centurion Macro want is a simple army life, fighting with their brave and loyal men. But Cato has caught the eye of rival factions determined to get him on their side. To survive, Cato must play a cunning game, and enlist the help of the one man in the Empire he can trust: Macro.

As the rebel force grows, legionaries and Praetorian Guards are moved like chess pieces by powerful and shadowy figures. A political game has created the ultimate military challenge. Can civil war be averted? The future of the empire is in Cato’s hands…

A review will be appearing here nearer the publication date but, in the meantime, here are past reviews of Simon Scarrow’s work.

The Blood Crows
Brothers in Blood
Britannia
Invictus
Invader (with T.J. Andrews)

Glory of Rome by Douglas Jackson

Bantam Press | 2017 (10 August) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Glory of Rome by Douglas JacksonIt is 77 AD and life is going well for Hero of Rome, Gaius Valerius Verrens. Valerius is a prosperous landowner, living with his much loved wife and son in their villa a few miles from Rome’s city walls. But while Valerius is confident of the friendship and patronage of the Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus, Valerius has a dangerous enemy in Domitian, Vespasian’s younger son. When Domitian goes after Valerius’ little son, Valerius knows he must remove his family from Rome. The opportunity comes from Vespasian who orders Valerius to the province of Britannia where he will serve as the emperor’s legate, a position second only in importance to Britannia’s new governor, Julius Agricola.

It’s seventeen years since Britannia was burnt and torn in the Boudiccan Revolt but enough time has past for some of the tribes to grumble and for the power of the druids to re-emerge, focused upon the island of Mona. Inspired by Gwylm, his chief druid, the High King of the Ordovices, Owain, is gathering the warriors of northern Wales for an attack on Agricola’s legions. The bait was easy to set. The tribal army wiped out a Roman fort in the north Welsh hills, its chief officer cruelly killed and displayed as a message to Agricola. The governor responds and prepares his army to march. But he needs help. The commander of the Ninth Legion has been murdered. None is better placed to assume his post than Valerius Verrens, one of only two men to survive Boudicca’s infamous assault on the Temple of Claudius in Camulodunon all those years ago. Valerius’ reputation proceeds him but the danger ahead is as deadly as any he has faced in the past.

If you have any liking at all for Roman historical fiction, or indeed any historical fiction, then there’s a very good chance that you’re already a devoted fan of Douglas Jackson’s Hero of Rome series. What a fantastic writer Douglas Jackson is! But his fine words are backed up by two other strengths: the innate ability to tell a marvellous story; and meticulous and thorough historical and military research and insight. Glory of Rome is the eighth novel in the Hero of Rome series and it proves yet again how much life is left in the story of Gaius Valerius Verrens. There have been highpoints in this series over the years – the siege of the Temple of Claudius, told in the very first book Hero of Rome, and the battle for Jerusalem, the subject of Scourge of Rome – but Glory of Rome fights with both of these for my favourite book of them all.

If you haven’t read any of the books then I think you could read Glory of Rome as a stand alone. Life has moved on for our hero since the previous novel Saviour of Rome and, in some ways, Glory of Rome represents a new beginning for Valerius. Valerius has new companions-in-arms and it’s fascinating to watch their role and loyalty develop through the book. There is a big gap in Valerius’ life to be filled and this novel goes a long way to do just that. I would definitely recommend that you read the earlier books first – they cover seventeen years of Valerius’ life – but if you start with this one then it may well make you want to return to the start. Valerius is famous among Rome’s armies for the loss of his arm. You really need to go back to Hero of Rome to see the circumstances of that. And it has repercussions for the events of Glory of Rome as Valerius, now much older and with wife and child, returns to Britannia.

The story told in Glory of Rome is fantastic and it has a brilliant start as we’re thrown into a tense and volatile situation in northern Wales. We’re also given a glimpse of a Londinium that has been rebuilt since the Boudiccan Revolt and I love how this is depicted, but the focus is on Wales. Valerius has more than one problem on his hands – he must bring together his new bodyguard of misfits, he must discover what happened to Fronto, the legate he’s replaced, and must take the Ninth Legion to war against thousands of tribal warriors. Then there’s the other matter of spies. Somewhere in Agricola’s company of officers is a spy reporting back to Domitian in Rome. But who is it?

Glory of Rome is a thrilling novel from the outset and culminates in a brilliant battle sequence that had me on the edge of my seat. Valerius is determined not to repeat the shame of Varus who lost his legions’ eagles in the forests of Germania. He will die protecting it and he is fully prepared to do that. Valerius is older and wiser than in the earlier books. He is responsible for his family as well as his men. He will not let them down. Valerius is not the man he once was and he is prepared to be cruel. It’s a fascinating portrait of a man we’ve grown close to over the years and I was riveted to it. I also loved the references to Douglas Jackson’s first novels about Rome and Roman Britain, Caligula and Claudius.

Glory of Rome is not a book I read quickly. I savoured every line, every page. It is written so well and there is so much in it and with so much promise for future novels (Roman Britain needs Valerius). It is astonishing what Douglas Jackson is achieving with this series. We’re lucky to have it. Long may it continue.

Other reviews and features
Caligula
Claudius
Defender of Rome
Avenger of Rome
Sword of Rome
Enemy of Rome
Scourge of Rome
Saviour of Rome
An interview

Vindolanda by Adrian Goldsworthy

Head of Zeus | 2017 (1 June) | 403p | Review copy | Buy the book

Vindolanda by Adrian GoldsworthyIt is AD 98 and all is quiet on the northernmost fringes of the Roman empire. It’s a generation or so since the Iceni revolt led by Boudicca and Hadrian’s Wall is still twenty years or so in the future. The majority of tribes have gone quiet. They’re paying their taxes (as late as possible) and they’re even integrated into the Roman army of occupation. Flavius Ferox is a fine example – he is both tribal prince (of the Silures) and centurion. Ferox has been seconded to the northern border where his role is to help mediate with the local people to keep the peace.

But Ferox has been harmed by his service to Rome. He’s been too good at his job, used to bad ends by the now dead and damned emperor Domitian, finding refuge in wine, beer and oblivion. But now Rome has a new emperor, Trajan, and, while many greet his accession with hope, there are others who see this empire in transition as weak, open to attack. You might have thought that Britain would be far enough away from Rome to be safe from such plots. But there are ambitious and treacherous Romans serving in Britain, ready to use the northern tribes to bring disgrace and defeat to Rome’s British legions and governor. These tribes, though, have plans of their own, and leading them is a terrifying figure – Stallion, a Druid of formidable influence and cruelty.

Adrian Goldsworthy is one of Britain’s most well-known Roman historians and with Vindolanda he makes his  Roman fictional debut (he is previously known for his Napoleonic fiction). A wealth of well-preserved evidence has been recovered from excavations in the Roman fort of Vindolanda and the author puts this to very good use – whether it’s the Vindolanda tablets (especially the famous birthday party invitation) or the astonishing number of shoes that have been found in the site’s waterlogged deposits. There are people in this novel who really existed, making a home so far away from Rome, and Adrian Goldsworthy brings these men and women whose names we know to life, just as he brings Vindolanda itself to life. He gives this archaeological site walls, gates, offices, roads, barracks, bathhouses and a neighbouring town of shops, taverns and brothels. You can almost hear the sound of hobnailed feet.

As you’d expect from a good historian, this is a novel supported by meticulous detail but it doesn’t take anything away from the drama of what always remains a thoroughly entertaining work of fiction. The result is a wonderfully rich portrait of clothes, armour, carriages, house furnishings and so much more, including, in particular, warfare. Ferox finds himself caught up in an increasingly tense and violent situation as the Druids call to arms the men of the tribes. Ferox can stand and watch the exodus of warriors from village to army or he can lead the Romans and make the locals fight. It’s very tense and exciting, as well as bloody. There’s nothing gratuitous about the violence in Vindolanda. Much is left to the imagination. When we are told the true outrage of what has happened – such as the cruel murder of a young Roman matron – it’s all the more horrific for standing out.

Vindolanda tells a fantastic story. It is packed full of action and thrills but this is balanced with real insight into Roman Britain and its people at the end of the 1st century AD. This is Roman military fiction written with restraint and I really admired and liked that. This did, though, lead to my only issue with the novel – the repeated use of the words ‘humping’ or ‘humped’ in place of the more expected curses! It really stood out and I wish it didn’t.

Historians don’t necessarily make good novelists but Adrian Goldsworthy has pulled it off. Vindolanda is such a well-written and authoritative novel that is always enjoyable and entertaining. Ferox is a great character (I love the repartee with Vindex) and so too are the women that we meet, especially the marvellous Sulpicia Lepidina. I really enjoyed the mix of military and civilian Vindolanda, its blend of religions and traditions, as well as its exploration of the mingling of Roman and Briton on this edge of empire. This is an excellent novel and I’m delighted to report that it is just the first in a new series.

I must mention that Vindolanda is yet another of Head of Zeus’s fine looking hardbacks – with a ribbon!

Adrian Goldsworthy’s website on Vindolanda

Deposed by David Barbaree

Twenty7 | 2017 (4 May) | 469p | Review copy | Buy the book

Deposed by David BarbareeIt is AD 68 and an emperor is deposed. He lies in his prison cell, newly blinded by the men who once served and protected him. There is little to comfort him as he works through the pain and torment of his utter fall from grace, just the kind care of a frightened slave boy called Marcus and fierce thoughts of vengeance. Once this man was Nero, emperor and god. Now he has been lost to history.

In AD 79, Vespasian is emperor of the vast Roman empire but his family, the Flavians, cannot rest. Vespasian’s son Titus has become obsessed with worry about murderous plots against his father. They usurped power and now it is the turn of others to take their chance. But who? An obvious threat comes from the East where yet another False Nero has emerged to fan rebellious flames but Titus believes there is more danger, closer to home. A close friend to the family has vanished while a dog brought another man’s hand, wearing a nobleman’s ring, directly to Titus in one of Rome’s temples. The Flavians look for support and money where they can find it, and sometimes it comes from the most unlikely of sources, including an immensely wealthy senator from Spain who wears a bandage over his blinded eyes and is accompanied by an angry young man, his nephew called Marcus.

Deposed is without doubt one of the most extraordinary and original novels I have read about ancient Rome. It takes one particular bit of it – AD68-79, a time of transition from the Julio-Claudians to the Flavians via the turmoil of civil war and the Year of the Four Emperors – and makes it new. As the author David Barbaree says in his notes, we don’t actually know what happened under Nero and Vespasian. We don’t really know them at all. Because all we do know comes from historians writing decades or centuries afterwards who related ‘what others claim to have observed. It would be inadmissible in court’. The existence of several False Neros (there were no such False other emperors) suggests that there was doubt over Nero’s supposed assisted suicide. Who knows? Perhaps he lived. This is an author’s gift and David Barbaree makes perfect use of it. The result is a novel that could quite easily prove itself my book of the year.

Deposed is brilliantly written and very cleverly done. It moves back and forth between the years and also between characters, always speaking in the first person in present tense. This is undoubtedly ambitious but it is wholly successful. The voices are distinct, clear and immediate. Among them we have Nero, Titus and Domitilla (Titus’s sister) – all three of whom have an eye on history, but we also hear from others who don’t, including Calenus, a former soldier, and Marcus. Every story here is fully developed and gripping.

There is a deliciously complex plot running through the novel as conspiracies and plots emerge and hide. Some we’re aware of, others we’re not. And watching over it all is the malignant force of a terrifying and violent religious cult. It all adds to the mood of menace, the darkness that blights Nero’s life, the obsession that threatens to make Titus mad. Because these characters are all made to feel so real, we care for them and so there are moments of real tenderness scattered through this book, as well as sadness and fear and triumph.

Nero’s character is perhaps the most fascinating of all and it is riveting. You must discover it for yourself. It is equalled, though, by the novel’s strong sense of historical authenticity. Without overloading the narrative with background, David Barbaree makes it all feel real – the palaces, houses, prisons, feasts, temples and Rome itself. They are all beautifully portrayed. But what I also really enjoyed about this novel is that it explores what the immediate aftermath of Nero’s overthrow would have been like for the ordinary man, woman and slave of Rome. It would have been a very frightening and violent time, and extremely uncertain. As someone asks, ‘Is Rome safe?’. It feels very unsafe indeed.

The premise of Deposed is fantastic but its delivery is even better. It is remarkable that Deposed is a debut novel from David Barbaree. It is brilliantly accomplished and assured and I hung on to every word. I was just so sorry to finish it! I’m not sure if there will be a sequel. It’s a complete novel with a fine and satisfying conclusion but I would dearly love to discover what happens next. This is a world I didn’t want to leave. Extraordinary!

The Third Nero by Lindsey Davis

Hodder & Stoughton | 2017 | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Third Nero by Lindsey DavisIt is AD 89 and Domitian is ensconced on Rome’s imperial throne. His position is far from secure, not least because he’s such a horrible human being. In fact, he’s so unpopular that people have been getting rather nostalgic for their poor murdered emperor Nero, so much so that there have been at least three Neros who have recently popped up across the empire, eager to prove that they are in fact not dead. Not all of them can even speak Latin, but that doesn’t deter grumbling Roman officials, stationed far from home, from grabbing the opportunity to adopt a potentially resurrected emperor for their own gains. Much to the relief of his senators, Domitian is away from Rome at the moment, protecting the empire’s borders but, unfortunately, this leaves Rome itself wide open to conspiracy. The latest Nero contender has been brought to Rome for questioning and this has caught everyone’s interest.

The palace is nervous. It’s well aware of a plot embedded in Rome itself but it’s sensitive. Two of Rome’s nobles have fallen foul of Domitian, suspected of involvement in a Nero plot, but nothing has been proven. It is hoped that their widows might hold the answer but how to get it out of them? And then there’s the visiting VIP Parthians and their exotic household and harem. A woman’s sensitivity is needed. Flavia Albia will have to do.

Flavia could do with the distraction. She might have got married only the day before but the fact that her new husband was struck by lightning during their wedding procession and barely survived has meant her marriage has not got off to the best of starts. Worried about her husband but not wanting to sit by his sickbed all day, Flavia reluctantly accepts the case and finds herself as something she never wanted to be – but her father Marcus Didius Falco would know all about – an imperial spy.

The Third Nero is the fifth novel in Lindsey Davis’s wonderful Flavia Albia Roman detective series. It follows on almost immediately from The Graveyard of the Hesperides but you don’t need any prior knowledge to enjoy any of these books. You might not know all the ins and outs of Flavia’s family and romantic life but that’s about it. But if you’re as big a fan of the Falco books as I am, then it’s great to pick up the references to familiar people, places and dogs.

This is a little different from the books that have gone before. The Third Nero is far less of a murder mystery than it is a Roman spy thriller. Instead of working for private clients, Flavia is now in the unfortunate position of working for a government (or palace) that she doesn’t like and it takes her painfully close to some of Falco’s worst memories of being an imperial spy. She’s aware of this and she’s uncomfortable with it. This is a world of dungeons, torturers and secret agents. The latter are not easy to spot.

As usual, Lindsey Davis is expert in bringing to life the everyday details of ancient Rome. This book, like the others, is full of historical and social background – we learn about politics, government, the place of women and foreigners, diplomats, marriage, and much, much more, all set within the marvellously visualised city of Rome. However, I did find that at times this rich background was a little at the expense of the story, which is not one of the strongest of the series. I like the usual whodunnit format of these books and I missed that here. My biggest issue with The Third Nero, though, is poor Tiberius’s lightning strike. This felt like a convenient way to keep him out of the way, allowing his wife to do her detecting, something which may have been extremely irregular during this period.

Nevertheless, it’s always a pleasure to spend time with Flavia Albia. I love her wit and spark. Lindsey Davis writes her so well. She’s immensely likeable and, despite seeming modern in some ways, is also such a part of Rome and the time in which she lives. I always look forward to the latest novel by Lindsey Davis, a novelist I have read and loved for almost thirty years. I’ve read every single one and I can’t wait for the next!

Other reviews
Enemies at Rome
Deadly Election
The Graveyard of the Hesperideres