Category Archives: Roman

Hero of Rome by Douglas Jackson

Corgi | 2010, Pb 2011 | 480p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Hero of Rome by Douglas JacksonIt is AD 59 and Roman officer Gaius Valerius Verrens is finishing off his tour of duty to Britain as tribune to the Twentieth Legion while they’re stationed in the Severn Valley. For now all seems calm but the British tribes are growing restless as demands for tax, subservience and control increase. The situation is aggravated by the Druids. Most are now hiding away on an island off the coast of north Wales but one young Druid left behind, Gwlym, is growing in influence. Valerius is a natural soldier and leader and he has more than one opportunity to show his skill with the sword before he is sent to Colonia in the east of the province to await his orders to return to Rome where he can begin the next stage of his career on the way to the Senate. But there’s someone who has something to say about that and her name is Boudicca.

Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, is on the rampage. Whipped and humiliated by the Romans, her daughters raped, her lands seized, Boudicca is after Roman blood and thousands flock to her banner. Colonia stands between Boudicca and London. Valerius with so few men is given orders to work with Colonia’s local militia of retired legionaries to stop Boudicca’s army in its tracks. It’s a terrible task.

Hero of Rome, published in 2010, began a series that rapidly became one of my very favorites of all series, whatever the genre, and it started it in spectacular fashion. Its centrepiece, the siege of Valerius and the Roman forces and townspeople inside Colonia’s enormous Temple of Claudius, a symbol of Roman might if ever there was one, is phenomenal and remains one of the best action sequences I’ve ever read. Perhaps its closest rival is the siege of Jerusalem in another of this series, Scourge of Rome.

But re-reading Hero of Rome reminds me that there is much more to this fantastic, thoroughly exciting novel than the Temple of Claudius sequence (although reading it again, it was every bit as brilliant as it was the first time). This is a substantial novel, after all. We spend time getting to know Valerius and his men and it is so good to meet the tribune again as a young man. The series has very recently finished with the excellent Hammer of Rome, set over twenty years after the events of Hero of Rome and the mature Valerius is a very different man from the one we first meet here. But perhaps that’s not surprising because the siege of the temple at Colonia and its aftermath is life-changing for Valerius in more ways than one.

I’ve said it more than once and I’ll say it again – it’s been an absolute joy to read the nine books that comprise the Hero of Rome series. I’ve loved every step of the way. Douglas Jackson knows this period inside out and the books are packed full of historical and military details, and Gaius Valerius Verrens is a worthy, unusual hero. Now that the series is complete, it’s the perfect time to read it, if you haven’t had the pleasure already.

Other reviews
Caligula
Claudius
Defender of Rome
Avenger of Rome
Sword of Rome
Enemy of Rome
Scourge of Rome
Saviour of Rome
Glory of Rome
Hammer of Rome
An interview

Thrillers written as James Douglas
The Doomsday Testament
The Isis Covenant
The Excalibur Codex

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Hammer of Rome by Douglas Jackson

Bantam Press | 2018 (6 September) | 462p | Review copy | Buy the book

Hammer of Rome by Douglas JacksonHammer of Rome is the ninth and (sighs) final novel in Douglas Jackson’s magnificent series featuring Gaius Valerius Verrens, our one-armed Hero of Rome who has taken part in many of the Roman Empire’s greatest campaigns during the second half of the 1st century AD, most memorably in newly-conquered Britannia, in Judea, in the deserts of the East, in Spain, and in Rome itself. I’d urge you to read the other books before Hammer of Rome – if you have you’ll be fully invested in watching Verrens’ journey come to an end after all these years. This review assumes you’ve had the pleasure.

It is AD 80 and Valerius is in Britannia doing what he does best – leading a legion. Back at the head of the Ninth Legion, Valerius is ready to go wherever governor Agricola sends him and it looks as if the long overdue invasion of the north is about to get underway at last, building on Valerius’ previous success against the Brigantes. Rome wants to remove at least one legion from Britannia but, before that can happen, the quarrelsome Caledonian tribes must be defeated. But it looks as if a new potential leader has arisen to unite the tribes together against the Roman threat from the south – King Cathal, known to the Romans as Calcagus – and he wants nothing more than to wipe out Rome’s legions and steal their eagles and their honour.

If only all Valerius had to deal with was Calcagus…. The emperor Vespasian has died, succeeded by his son and Valerius’s great friend, Titus. At last, Valerius and his family can make plans for the future. They can even see a future. But waiting in the wings is Ttitus’s younger brother Domitian and Domitian hates few men more than he hates Valerius. That future is about to be snatched away.

I read Hammer of Rome with excitement (I started it on the day it arrived) and sadness. I have no desire to see this series end. I’ve read it for almost ten years. I can’t tell you how much I’ll miss it. But I couldn’t wait to see how the story of Valerius will end. I’m certainly not going to reveal what happens but I will say that the ending is thoroughly fitting, an enormous achievement in its own right.

The action sequences are as meticulously researched and as exhilarating as ever. Valerius is not the man he used to be when it comes to warfare. He’s much older, he’s more irreplaceable, and he can be more cruel, but he is also far wiser. Nevertheless, he still has moments of extreme recklessness. Only now he is prepared to accept that this cannot continue. One of the elements that I really liked about Hammer of Rome is that Cathal isn’t particularly presented as an enemy – instead he is shown to be a worthy opponent. We spend time with him. We like him, as does Valerius and his fantastic scout, Gaius Rufus – surely one of the best characters in the entire series. The Romans aren’t presented as civilised any more than the tribes are presented as barbaric (although one of the last remaining Druids, and one of the most revolting characters of the series, might have something to say about that). This is a story of conquest after all, a cruel and violent act. Valerius is a man of his time but he is aware of his responsibilities to be as fair as possible.

Hammer of Rome is such a wonderful novel – Valerius is mature, middle-aged, a family man and a man well worth knowing. The battle scenes are as thrilling as ever but so too are all the other scenes, including the chapters scattered throughout that take us back into the heart of a Rome that is becoming very dangerous indeed. There are new characters to enjoy here but we also meet some familiar names while there are quiet moments to remember those who are now gone.

Douglas Jackson is one of the finest writers about today, irrespective of genre. This series is a glorious achievement and so too is the book that completes it, Hammer of Rome. Gaius Valerius Verrens will be missed, although it does mean that readers can now enjoy the full story in its entirety though each of the nine books.

I read the first book, Hero of Rome, before I began reviewing and so for the sake of completeness – and because I really wanted to! – I’m re-reading it. Its depiction of Boudicca’s Revolt and the storming of the great Temple of Claudius is peerless in Roman historical fiction, in my opinion (only rivalled by the siege of Jerusalem in Douglas Jackson’s Scourge of Rome, the sixth book in the series). I cannot wait to read those scenes again. A review will follow shortly. And so if you haven’t read any of this series yet, the timing couldn’t be more perfect, with all nine marvellous books laid before you.

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

Thrillers written as James Douglas
The Doomsday Testament
The Isis Covenant
The Excalibur Codex
The Samurai Inheritance

Vesuvius by Night by Lindsey Davis

Hodder & Stoughton | 2017 | c.80p | Bought copy | Buy the ebook

Vesuvius by Night by Lindsey DavisYears ago, Larius, nephew of Marcus Didius Falco, the most famous of Rome’s private investigators, ran off to set up shop as a fresco painter in Pompeii, located in the Bay of Neapolis where many of Rome’s rich and powerful have their holiday homes, all with walls in need of painting, especially since that dreadful earthquake a double of decades ago. There’s more than enough work to keep Larius busy. And to keep his mind off his troubled marriage. His wife now lives with their children in Herculaneum, although he’s so pleased that his daughter is currently keeping him company in Pompeii. Women aren’t supposed to have careers but she is a dab hand with a paintbrush. Larius shares his room with Nonius whose mind is on far murkier subjects than art – unless it’s a work of art he can steal and sell. Nonius is the type of rogue who thrives on disaster – he’s in the right place then.

In Vesuvius by Night, a novella (of about 80 pages), Lindsey Davis lets us know what happened to Larius after he left Rome. As the year is AD 79 and the setting is Pompeii and Herculaneum, it’s no spoiler to reveal that a volcanic eruption of catastrophic proportions might be involved. And so we’re given one interpretation of events as experienced by Larius and his family and by Nonius.

The story isn’t really long enough to immerse us fully in events and also we’re kept detached from characters by the third-person narrative. Nevertheless, this is a gripping account of a truly terrifying disaster. And what makes it particularly painful to read at times is that Lindsey Davis draws on the evidence of archaeological remains – much of which is actually human – to put flesh on the bones of people whose final positions are known from their plaster casts and skeletons. People are included here who actually lived and who died during these awful moments of hell on earth. I found it impossible not to be moved.

These people that we meet are for me the more significant aspects of Vesuvius by Night and outdo the stories of Larius and Nonius. Maybe that’s because fiction can’t compete with the reality of what actually happened when the evidence of it is now so familiar and evocative. There’s also something about the story of Nonius, that I can’t mention as it would be a spoiler, that caused me pain.

Lindsey Davis knows her history and archaeology – this novella is packed full of the kind of details of which I can’t get enough and she uses them to great effect. Therefore, if you focus on the setting, the building of the tension, the power of our hindsight, the devastation of the eruptions, then you will be drawn right back to this terrifying time, so vividly described by one of our finest writers of historical fiction.

Other reviews
Enemies at Home
Deadly Election
The Graveyard of the Hesperides
The Third Nero
Pandora’s Boy

Memento Mori by Ruth Downie

Bloomsbury | 2018 (1 April) | 408p | Review copy | Buy the book

Memento Mori by Ruth DownieRoman citizen and former military doctor Ruso is now living a settled life on the northern fringe of the Roman empire on what is effectively a major building site – Hadrian is building his Wall – alongside his British wife Tilla. Their customs might be different but life is good especially now that they have Mara, their adopted baby daughter to worry about. But life takes a jolt when an old friend Albanus, Ruso’s former clerk, turns up exhausted after the huge effort of rushing up all of the way from Aquae Sulis (now Bath) to bring Ruso some disturbing news. The wife of Ruso’s best friend Valens has been found drowned in the sacred springs and her father has accused Valens of her murder. The governor is due to visit Aquae Sulis in just a few days and Valens will stand trial before him. There’s nothing for it. Ruso, his wife, child, his entire entourage, must head south in a hurry to prove his innocence. Hoping, of course, that he is actually innocent.

Memento Mori is the eighth novel in Ruth Downey’s hugely entertaining and, I think, really rather sophisticated Roman mystery series featuring Ruso and his independently-minded and rather flakey wife Tilla. The author does a fantastic job of bring the Roman empire to life during the 2nd century AD, especially Britannia. After Ruso’s adventures in Rome itself during the last novel Vita Brevis, I enjoyed seeing Ruso’s return to the homeland of his wife and the ancient city of Bath or Aquae Sulis, with all of its strange customs, brought to life.

At the heart of the novel is Aquae Sulis itself, a magnet for some of the strangest people of Roman Britain, straddling as it does beliefs from both ancient Britain and from the Roman Empire. Druids and Roman soldiers live side by side, with wild priestesses even forming romantic liaisons with grouchy old Roman centurions, and any problem is believed solvable with a spell or a curse. This is a great setting for a mystery and Ruth Downie does such a fine job of filling the streets, temples and baths of this well-known archaeological and historical site with living, breathing people.

I did find that the mystery itself took second place to the superb setting and to the novel’s mood. It is clear that so much research has gone into telling this story right but it’s used lightly. This is wonderful prose, laced through with wit and warmth, and it’s a joy to read. Memento Mori is one of those novels that you pick up and before you know it you’re sucked in to it, loving the way in which it’s written. There are also so many details about Roman life in Britain – religion, death, marriage, rituals, daily life, slaves, soldiers, natives and occupiers – there’s something going on in every direction.

I’m such a fan of this series. I love Ruso and I am warming to Tilla (she does have an alarming tendency to just wander off, here with a shovel) and so these are books I always look forward to. And they look so handsome! Ruth Downie writes so brilliantly and I love the Roman world as we see it through her eyes and those of her Roman doctor, Ruso.

Other reviews
Semper Fidelis
Vita Brevis

The Encircling Sea by Adrian Goldsworthy

Head of Zeus | 2018 (1 June) | 370p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Encircling Sea by Adrian GoldsworthyIt is about 100 AD, Trajan is on the throne far away in Rome, and centurion Flavius Ferox is doing his best to keep the peace along the empire’s northernmost fringe. Ferox is perfect for the job, bridging both worlds. Born a prince of the Silures tribe of southern Britannia, he is now a well-respected Roman officer, albeit one who likes to keep his head down, avoiding the attention of the rich, powerful and political. But Ferox is not going to have things his own way.

Time might have passed since the recent deadly Druid threat, but more rebels are again making their presence felt, irritating their Roman occupiers. It’s bad timing. Rome wants to impress the kings of Hibernia (Ireland), who are currently competing for the role of chief king. A meeting is about to take place on the British coast and the forces of Vindolanda and its neighbouring forts will be in attendance. Ferox will be there playing a crucial role. And he’s worried.

The Encircling Sea is the second novel by Adrian Goldsworthy to feature Ferox, looking at life on the northern fringes of empire, a couple of decades before Hadrian built his Wall across this landscape. Vindolanda is already a large and busy fort, and it’s Ferox’s job to move regularly between the forts, settling disputes, looking out for trouble, keeping it peaceful. It pays to have read the earlier novel Vindolanda first because then you’ll have more of an idea of his complicated relationship with Cerialis, the Batavi prefect in charge of Vindolanda, and, most particularly, his beautiful wife Sulpicia Lepidina. But, if this is the first novel you read of the Vindolanda seres, you’ll have no trouble picking up the story’s threads.

The Encircling Sea presents a whole new and self-contained adventure, this time featuring the strange dark men who come at night in their boats from the sea. They appear to be targeting certain individuals in their raids but it’s not easy for Ferox and his second-in-command, the Brigantian Vindex, to work out the purpose of the attacks. But what is clear is that these pirates will use deadly force to achieve their goals. A lot of people are going to die. Very nastily.

As before, The Encircling Sea resonates with the insight and knowledge of its author, the historian Adrian Goldsworthy. This is supported by the extraordinary archaeological discoveries that have been made at Vindolanda over the years. Many of the people in this novel were real. They walked those excavated streets and lived in those buildings, now uncovered. They are named in tablets and it’s likely that even their shoes have been found. It’s evocative for sure and Adrian Goldsworthy captures all of that.

This is a novel in which, for me, the historical setting wins first place over its story. The author undoubtedly brings the border to life, especially for its soldiers and their wives, but the plot does fall rather flat and a little laboured in my opinion. It never becomes as exciting as it could be, nor as engaging. I enjoyed the repartee between Ferox and Crispinus and I really liked Crispinus, their young and witty commander, but they are let down a little by some of the dialogue, especially when words such as ‘humping’ or ‘humped’ are used in place of the more expected curses. This isn’t done as much as in the first novel, thank heavens, but it still stands out. It all feels a little strained, and restrained. I did, though, appreciate the historical notes at the end.

Adrian Goldsworthy undoubtedly knows his stuff and I love seeing the archaeological remains of Vindolanda brought to life in his pages. And that is undoubtedly the main strength of The Encircling Sea. I must also mention that this is another beautiful hardback from Head of Zeus.

Other review
Vindolanda

Clash of Empires by Ben Kane

Orion | 2018 (17 May) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

Clash of Empires by Ben KaneIt is 202 BC and Rome’s legions are about to defeat the Carthaginians once at for all at the Battle of Zuma in North Africa. Facing Hannibal’s formidable elephants and army, it’s a chance for reputations to be made, but a handful of Roman soldiers are about to land in a whole heap of trouble. Legionary Felix has not been particularly well named. As for Rome itself, its senators and generals might have thought that they could enjoy the benefits of peace for a while after such a long, bloody war. But King Philip of Macedon has other ideas. Determined to reclaim lands once conquered by his ancestor, the father of the great Alexander, he is stirring up Greece, as well as the cities and tribes of the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean who look to Rome for help against Philip. The wily Senator Flamininus sees an opportunity. If he can lead the Roman army to victory over Philip, there will be no end to his power and influence. Unfortunately, not everyone in Rome agrees with his ambition.

This is Greece’s last chance to put upstart Republican Rome in its place. But Rome is determined to rise and conquer Philip just as it did Hannibal. As the old and new world clash, it’s the ordinary soldiers on both sides who must win the victory, suffer the defeat and pay the price.

Clash of Empires is the first novel in Ben Kane’s new series, which takes us back to a critical time in Rome’s history, to a war that has been overshadowed by the Punic Wars, just as Philip of Macedon has been overshadowed by his illustrious ancestors. A new book by Ben Kane is always cause for celebration and I loved the premise of Clash of Empires. The idea of these two cultures taking each other on, one with a glorious past against the other with a spectacular future ahead, in a great epic showdown is so appealing. This is a period of Roman history that I know very little about and I welcomed the chance to have my eyes opened.

Clash of Empires is a fantastic book. There’s so much going on and nothing in this war is going to be easy. I love the way that the action shifts as we move between ordinary soldiers on both sides as well as between the major players – Flamininus, and his colleagues in the Senate, and King Philip. Flamininus in particular has long-term goals. He’s a strategist, working out the best way in which to achieve them. Soldiers like the Roman Felix and the Macedonian Demetrios have more immediate concerns – when they’ll be able to get some sleep, more food, how not to be afraid, how not to be killed. We’re given reasons to like both men and therefore both sides. I particularly enjoyed being shown how the Greek phalanx worked, their use of the spear, their formation and so on. There are some brilliant fight scenes in Clash of Empires. Ben Kane knows his subject inside out and we’re informed as well as entertained.

There are sequences here that are so exhilarating and thrilling, when our two sides come together, man against man. This is exciting stuff. There are other moments of incredible brutality, particularly in the Roman army. There is one moment in particular that is shocking. Ben Kane writes graphically, we’re not spared the details, and it is all the more compelling and immersive for it. Sometimes we see the same scene from different Greek and Roman perspectives as these two cultures come face to face.

The character of Flamininus is fascinating and through him we’re given an intriguing glimpse into the politics of Republican Rome. I really liked this mix of power politics with the nitty gritty of life and death on the frontline of war.

Clash of Empires is the first in a series and we’re left wanting more. Expect no resolution here. Instead we’re immersed in the beginnings of the final struggle between those two great powers of ancient Europe – Greece and Rome – and it is bloody, with disasters and very few triumphs on both sides. I can’t wait to see what happens next. Ben Kane’s last series, which began with Eagles at War, is superb and a very hard act to follow. Clash of Empires does the job brilliantly.

Other reviews
Hannibal: Enemy of Rome
Hannibal: Fields of Blood
Hannibal: Clouds of War
Spartacus
Spartacus: Rebellion
Eagles at War
Hunting the Eagles
Eagles in the Storm
(with others) A Day of Fire: a novel of Pompeii

Retribution: Centurions III by Anthony Riches

Hodder & Stoughton | 2018 (19 April) | 402p | Review copy | Buy the book

Retribution completes Anthony Riches’ superb Centurions trilogy, the dramatic and thrilling portrayal of the Batavi Revolt that followed the death of Nero in AD 68 and ended in AD 70. You couldn’t read Retribution without having read the previous two novels – Betrayal and Onslaught – and so this review assumes you’ve done just that.

It is January AD 70 and the Roman forces under siege by the Batavi at the Old Camp on the Rhine are nearing the end of what they can endure. For months they have held off the Batavi but now, with nothing left to eat, the four thousand men inside have little choice. All eyes are watching how Kivilaz, the Batavi prince and leader, deals with the surrender. Because it’s clear to many now that it’s only a matter of time before the Batavi are defeated, bringing this bloody civil war to an end. Vespasian is now emperor, his legions (which have sworn loyalty to a string of emperors) are behind him and one or two of them have something to prove, especially the famous Twenty-First Rapax which is marching northwards with fiery zeal and determination in every step. But one thing is sure – the Batavi are not going to give up without a fight. More lives will be lost, more blood will be spilled. How can the northern Roman empire survive this?

In Retribution, Anthony Riches continues the story of four centurions – two Roman, two Batavi – although now the action is pared down to several key events as each of our centurions faces a crisis that brings with it the risk of deadly consequences. I’m mentioning no names here because you need to find out for yourselves which of them will live to fight another day but you can be assured that each of them knows what is demanded of them and no quarter will be given.

This is Roman military fiction at its very best, not least because we have been given the context for this war. These three novels cover just two years. Time has been spent on exploring the origins of the war, the motives of its main proponents, as well as the daily routine of soldiers on the march and in battle, on both sides. Time is given to both Batavi and Romans. There is good and bad, right and wrong on both sides. The Roman leadership is well aware that it is to blame for the revolt in the first place, for sending the imperial Batavi bodyguard home from Rome in disgrace after the death of Nero. But this has almost become irrelevant now that the war has escalated to include other Germanic tribes. Peace will not be won easily.

The action sequences in Retribution are outstanding. There are soldiers here on both sides that we’ve got to know very well and it’s heart in the mouth stuff to watch them all in such peril, fighting for their lives and those of their comrades. We feel the benefit of Anthony Riches’ detailed knowledge of Roman warfare. We’re thrown into the heart of it all. But there’s also a human cost to this that goes beyond falling in battle – what these soldiers witness and endure leaves scars, mental and physical. There are atrocities on both sides which are harrowing to read about. Civilians suffer. Bravery and courage are often rewarded with death. It all makes this war feel very real, bringing the past to life.

The previous books in the trilogy rewarded a close reading due to the large number of characters with similar names in forts scattered along the Rhine. Once more, in Retribution, we’re given a useful list of characters and maps, but Retribution is an easier novel to follow. Events are building to a head, everyone is in their place, and we’re much clearer about who is who. The writing in this trilogy is very good indeed. It’s vigorous, precise, exciting, with the barracks language kept to the minimum to be used when and where it matters most.

The Centurions trilogy is a triumph with Retribution quite possibly my favourite of all of Anthony Riches’ novels – and I’ve read and loved every single one of them. The trilogy presents an informative and fascinating overview of this critical period of Roman history, giving fair time to all sides, while also honing in on certain people and places, showing how this devastating war affected the ordinary soldier as well as the men who commanded them. Roman military historical fiction does not get better than this.

Other reviews and features
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
Betrayal: The Centurions I
Onslaught: The Centurions II
An interview for The Eagle’s Vengeance
An interview for The Emperor’s Knives