Category Archives: Roman

Triumph in Dust by Ian Ross

Head of Zeus | 2019 (10 January – ebook: 1 December, 2018) | 467p | Review copy | Buy the book

Triumph in Dust is the sixth novel in Ian Ross’s fantastic Twilight of Empire series, books which have followed the career of soldier, centurion and general Aurelius Castus in campaigns across the late Roman empire, from Britannia to Persia, during the early 4th century AD. Triumph in Dust is set more than a decade after the events of the previous novel, Imperial Vengeance, and would, I think, stand alone well. But I’d definitely urge you to pick up this series and read it from the beginning with War at the Edge of the World, if only to find out just how far our hero Castus has come. It’s been an extraordinary, dangerous, thrilling journey.

It is 336 AD. After so many years of conflict and civil war, the empire is at peace. Constantine the Great continues to build the empire’s mighty new capital city of Constantinople. Former general Aurelius Castus is now 60 years old and retired, content in the company of his beloved wife and daughter, trying so hard to forget the terrible events that drove him from Constantine’s service over a decade before. But Castus is not to be left in peace. The Persians are stirring. They threaten the empire’s eastern border with bloody war. Constantine needs an experienced and wise man to assess the situation, to travel across the region’s forts and cities, preparing them for the possibility of war. Only one man will do – Aurelius Castus. Castus is not as young as he used to be. He suspects that his strength and health are failing him. But, after years of retirement, Castus can’t resist the lure of action and command. But, where Castus is going, he will have far more to fear than the Persians. Castus is a famous, respected general. To many, with Constantine nearing the end of his life, Castus is a threat.

Triumph in Dust is an outstanding novel. We’re familiar with Castus and his struggles with Constantine, the emperor’s sons and family as well as with his rival emperors. Castus has had years caught in the middle of civil war, in the most perilous situations. But now Castus embarks on a final mission for an emperor who has caused him so much grief and pain, and it stands out for the very personal struggle that it will bring. Castus is on his own. He has men to advise him, notably his beloved son Sabinus as well as his dear friend and secretary Diogenes, but this is ultimately a personal battle of strength for a man who fears that he may not have much time left. He must find the power within himself but, when it comes to it, he will do once more what he’s always done best – fighting for his empire, sword in hand, with his bare fists if he has to.

Triumph in Dust pits the Roman Empire against arguably its deadliest enemy – the Persians – and the action takes place in the hot deserts of the east. It’s a challenging environment. Life is hard in these forts, towns and cities, travelling between them across the featureless sand can be lethal in the heat. Officials can be corrupt and power-driven. It’s Castus’ job to rally the legions at these remote posts, while constantly being aware that he risks a dagger in the back. But when the war does come then Castus will be ready.

At the heart of Triumph in Dust is what I’ve always enjoyed the most in Roman military historical fiction – a siege! The siege of Nisibis in 337 AD is brilliantly depicted by Ian Ross. It’s exhilarating, exciting, shocking, bloody, astonishing and more. I’ve read some good Roman sieges in fiction over the years but this really must be a contender for the very best. And the fact that Castus is there fighting tooth and claw alongside his men makes us sit even further on the edge of our seats. The book also contains one of the very best depictions (Douglas Jackson has also done this brilliantly) I’ve read of the Roman fighting formation of testudo, the tortoise. With Castus at its heart, we really feel like we’re there and it is truly, truly horrifying, challenging and frightening.

Ian Ross describes Roman warfare so well. He brings the details of it to life in vivid colour and smells. But he is also a master of the rest of it – the politics, the conspiracies and cunning – as well as the details of life in a Roman town, including Constantinople, during the 4th century AD. It feels so real all around us. The story of Castus contrasts with that of his wife Marcellina who must face her own battle to survive as she sees a side to these places that Castus never can.

An element of these books that I’ve always enjoyed is their treatment of early Christianity. In previous novels we’ve seen Constantine’s ambiguous relationship with the faith, as well as his mother’s devotion, but in Triumph in Dust we see very little of Constantine. Instead, we see the role that early Christianity – and a couple of its saints – played in the town of Nisibis, when the town is at peace and also at war. It’s really fascinating and makes the people behind the mosaic iconography of Byzantium seem real and, in the case of St Jacob of Nisibis, extraordinary and very charismatic. Castus, of course, hangs on to his paganism which is so much a part of who he is. This tension between faiths, between the new and the old worlds, between Rome and Constantinople, is such an original and compelling element of the series and is particularly resonant in its finale.

There’s always sadness in seeing a much loved series come to a close but Triumph in Dust is a triumphant conclusion. Castus is larger than life and yet still just a man. His reputation soars but we see him at his most vulnerable and at his most alone. It’s a fine portrayal and one I won’t forget. Thanks must go to Ian Ross and Head of Zeus for such a spectacular series.

Other reviews and features
War at the Edge of the World (Twilight of Empire 1)
Swords Around the Throne (Twilight of Empire 2)
Battle for Rome (Twilight of Empire 3) (with interview)
The Mask of Command (Twilight of Empire 4)
Imperial Vengeance (Twilight of Empire 5)
Guest post by Ian Ross, author of Triumph in Dust

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Roman historical fiction – a big thank you!

Rome: Eagle of the Twelfth by MC ScottAs the end of the year approaches – and while I continue to hum and haw about my top ten books of the year (at one point this week I managed to get my top 10 down to 58), I thought I’d embark on a series of posts to thank those serial authors whose books I have loved over the years and who, in very large part, are responsible for making me the hungry reader that I am today.

I’m a huge fan of historical fiction, to put it mildly, and there are some series that I have deep affection for and I look forward to the latest addition every year. The fact that each series must eventually end is not something that makes me happy. And this year I’ve mourned the loss of more than one. Although there is now the excitement of wondering where these beloved authors will take us next!

I’m an archaeologist by trade and my favourite period has always been the Roman era. Roman historical fiction forms the heart of my book love. Other periods of history do come in and cheekily steal my attention but I can never get enough of the Romans. So here are the authors I’d heartily recommend, although I suspect that many of you will be enjoying their books already and you don’t need me to tell you how flippin’ marvellous they are.

Hammer of Rome by Douglas JacksonThis year, Douglas Jackson finished his Hero of Rome books with the fantastic Hammer of Rome. Gaius Valerius Verrens is a true hero of Rome, a man we’ve followed through hard times and good as he’s faced some of Rome’s deadliest enemies of the 1st century AD, including Boudicca. He did not emerge from that fight unscathed.

In the new year, Robert Fabbri will finally conclude his chronicle of the rise to power from humble origins, through bloody war, of the Emperor Vespasian. Tribune of Rome began the series and it now ends with Emperor of Rome. Vespasian is not the man he once was – how can he be? He must now learn to become a god.

Another series due to end in the new year is Ian Ross’s Twilight of Empire series set in the 4th century AD. It began with War at the Edge of the World and will conclude with Triumph in Dust in January and I cannot wait to read it! Aurelius Castus is such a fine character who has risen through the ranks to the very top but there seems no end in sight to the civil war that has divided the empire into pieces.

Anthony Riches is an author it’s an absolute pleasure to rave about. He’s just finished a trilogy on the incredible Batavian Revolt, which followed the death of Nero. The Centurions trilogy began with Betrayal and concluded this year with Retribution. This is a masterpiece of storytelling and so good is it, I am prepared to forgive its disruption of his long running Empire series (begun with Wounds of Honour), which is due to continue shortly. We’ve travelled a long way with Marcus Aquila and his troop of Tungrians and I can’t wait to resume the journey.

Conn Iggulden has turned his attention elsewhere in more recent years but his Emperor series is superb. Covering the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire, the series ended with the brilliant The Blood of Gods. Conn’s most recent novel takes us to ancient Greece with the fantastic The Falcon of Sparta.

Eagles at War by Ben KaneI’ve been a big fan of Ben Kane for years and he’s given us several series and I love them all. Ben has tackled Hannibal and Spartacus. My favourite series so far by Ben has been his recently completed trilogy on the great defeat of Varus in AD 9 by Arminius and the seizure of Varus’s three eagles – Rome’s most infamous and famous defeat. It began with Eagles at War, which tells the terrifying and bloody tale from the point of view of centurion Tullus. It’s brilliant. Ben’s latest novel, Clash of Empires, tells the story of what happened when Greek culture encountered head on the might of Rome.

Harry Sidebottom is well known for his military series featuring Ballista, the Warrior of Rome (begun with Fire in the East, and Ballista has reappeared recently in this year’s excellent Roman thriller The Last Hour – Ballista has only one day to save the emperor from assassination and the empire from disaster. I can also recommend Harry’s now complete trilogy The Throne of the Caesars, begun with Iron and Rust.

The Earthly Gods by Nick BrownI am a huge fan of Nick Brown’s Agent of Rome series. Cassius Corbulo is a young spy thrown very much into the deep end and sent off on all manner of perilous missions across the empire during the late 3rd century AD. His Christian servant Simo is such a memorable creation as is Cassius’s bodyguard and ex-gladiator Indavara. This series began with The Siege and the most recent and sixth novel was The Earthly Gods. I long for this series to return – I’m keeping everything crossed.

Manda (MC) Scott is one of the finest writers about, whichever period of history she writes about. I adore her Rome series, which began with The Emperor’s Spy and ended with book four The Art of war. The Eagle of the Twelfth, set during the reign of Nero, is one of the very best novels I’ve ever read. Demalion of Macedon is an extraordinary character. This is powerful writing that also never forgets how to tell a good tale.

Britannia by Simon ScarrowWhen talking about Roman military fiction, I can’t leave out Simon Scarrow’s Macro and Cato series which I have loved for years (the latest novel The Blood of Rome was published this year. My favourite is Britannia). You also shouldn’t miss SJA Turney’s Marius Mules’ long running series which covers the military campaigns of Julius Caesar. The series began with The Invasion of Gaul.

I can’t get enough of Roman crime fiction and some series have long legs. David Wishart’s Marcus Corvinus series is possibly my favourite and I’ve been reading it for more years than I care to mention. This year the nineteenth was published, Family Commitments, and I think it could be one of the best of the entire series. Although arguably Corvinus isn’t the star of the books. That honour begins to his butler Bathyllus and his megalomaniac chef. Other series that I’ve enjoyed are Rosemary Rowe’s long running series featuring the British mosaic maker Libertus (the latest novel is The Price of Freedom) and Steven Saylor’s Sub Rosa series. The Throne of Caesar about the assassination of Julius Caesar was published this year and it is wonderful! I must also recommend Ruth Downie’s crime series which features Roman doctor Ruso. His latest case, Memento Mori, was published this year.

Pandora's Boy by Lindsey DavisLike so many of us I’ve read and loved Lindsey Davis’s books for years. Who doesn’t love Marcus Didius Falco, Vespasian’s spy? His cases kept me entertained for years until it was time for him to retire and settle down in the antique business. Now it’s the turn of his adopted daughter Flavia Albia, who must also contend with Rome’s attitudes towards a female detective (Rome doesn’t like it) plus a new husband who is suffering from being struck by lightning. Flavia’s last case was Pandora’s Boy. She will return for her seventh case, A Capitol Death, in the spring. Fantastic!

I’ll finish with Rome’s emperors. I just can’t get enough of them. I’ve hugely enjoyed Margaret George’s two books on Nero, beginning with The Confessions of Young Nero and concluding this year with The Splendour Before the Dark. Caligula by Simon TurneyOne of the book highlights of this year was Simon Turney’s fantastic novel on Caligula. Simon will next turn his attention to Commodus – this makes me very happy indeed.

And so there we have it! I know I’ll have left wonderful authors and fabulous books out and I’ll be troubled by that. But I think there’s enough here to start with. My plea to publishers is that you never stop publishing Roman historical fiction. I cannot be without it. I need more! And to all of those authors whose novels have, and continue to, thrill, move and entertain me – I’m so grateful. Thank you! I can’t wait to travel back through time with you again next year.

Emperor of Rome by Robert Fabbri

Corvus | 2019 (3 January) | 349p | Review copy | Buy the book

Emperor of Rome by Robert FabbriWith Emperor of Rome, the ninth book in his engrossing Vespasian series, Robert Fabbri reaches the year AD 68 – the prophecy that has shadowed Vespasian for almost all of his life is about to come true. At last, Vespasian will become Emperor of Rome. This final novel completes the life and career of Vespasian and those closest to him. To feel the full weight of these significant events, I would recommend that you read the series from the start. We’ve got to know Vespasian, his family, friends, servants and enemies over the years. We’ve watched them change. Their time has come.

I’ve loved this series from the beginning, from the early days when the young outsider Vespasian arrived in Rome and started to climb up the political and military ladder, deftly manoeuvering a path through the dangerous whims and fantasies of infamous, deadly, jealous emperors such as Tiberius, Caligula and Nero, even befriending them on occasion. Vespasian’s relationship with Caligula was particularly intriguing while the displays of barbaric cruelty by Tiberius and Nero are unforgettable. Somehow Vespasian always survived but now, in the aftermath of the death of Nero and during the succession of brief, petty emperors, Vespasian’s life has never been less secure. In Emperor of Rome we see how Vespasian has learned the lessons of a life lived at the height of Roman imperial politics.

But Vespasian was a soldier above all else and much of Emperor of Rome follows the general’s campaign, with his son Titus beside him, against the Jews in Judaea. As a result, there is plenty of military action in these pages and once more Robert Fabbri shows his knowledge of Roman warfare, especially siege warfare. It’s gripping stuff. But offsetting this is the utter barbarism with which the defeated Jews are treated and their religion almost destroyed. This might be set 2000 years ago but at times it’s still not easy to read. Vespasian has shown his cruel side before in this series and he does so again here and more often. Vespasian has changed so much over the years. And yet how could he have survived otherwise? Then there are all the terrible things that he’s witnessed, particularly in the previous novel. But it still leaves an unpleasant taste. It’s a fascinating portrait of the corruption of power. And yet Vespasian still considers himself ‘good’, although he does retain some pleasing self-irony.

The relationship between Vespasian and his sons and also with his longterm lover (and ex-slave) Caenis are particularly fascinating. History tells us what will become of Vespasian’s younger son Domitian and the warning signs are here for Vespasian to ignore (perhaps intentionally). On the other hand, the elder son Titus has rather a glowing reputation but we see a bit more to him here. The suggestion that Titus did his father’s dirty work so that Vespasian could be adored is really interesting. And did he really consider treachery towards his father? As I say, fascinating! Caenis is a strange one. She’s endured more than most because of her position but she’s found the best way to survive – through the manipulation of other people’s power. She, too, has grown bored by cruelty. She barely blinks an eye when she sees it played out before her. I found this chilling. This strange Roman family.

Vespasian is no longer a man I can like and this did affect my enjoyment of the book a little, I must confess. As did the repetitive ‘my love’ uttered by Caenis to Vespasian almost every time she opens her mouth – this is a very minor point but it did get to me after a while. But I was swept away by the scope of the story and the fulfilment of Vespasian’s destiny. After all these years, after nine books, the time has arrived. Emperor of Rome tells such a compelling story while depicting the way in which Vespasian used his military and political knowledge to shape the empire to suit him. It moves between Judaea, Alexandria and Rome and brings this ancient world to life, blending military action with political intrigue.

It isn’t easy to say goodbye to a series that I’ve looked forward to each year for a fair few years now. They’ve always gone straight to the top of my reading pile and there’s going to be quite a gap without them. The end of Emperor of Rome tells us where Robert Fabbri will be heading next – to the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s death. I cannot wait. But, in the meantime, if you haven’t read the Vespasian books, now is the perfect time to do so. The completion of this marvellous, ambitious series is a wonderful achievement that deserves to be celebrated. Bravo, Robert Fabbri!

Other reviews
Vespasian I: Tribune of Rome
Vespasian II: Rome’s Executioner
Vespasian III: False God of Rome
Vespasian IV: Rome’s Fallen Eagle
Vespasian V: Masters of Rome
Vespasian VI: Rome’s Lost Son
Vespasian VII: The Furies of Rome
Vespasian VIII: Rome’s Sacred Flame
Arminius: The Limits of Empire

Guest post by Ian Ross, author of Triumph in Dust

The Twilight of Rome series by Ian Ross has given me such reading pleasure over the last few years. Set during the early years of the 4th century AD, the books provide such a fascinating and thrilling portrait of a divided Roman empire at war, covering the rise to power of one of Rome’s most famous (but perhaps not that well known in fiction) emperors Constantine the Great. The centurion Aurelius Castus, a fantastic hero, is placed at the heart of events and it is gripping stuff. In January, the series comes to a close with the sixth book, Triumph in Dust. This obviously makes me sad as I’ll miss it but I’m really excited to see how it will end – for Rome and for Castus. I’ll be posting a review of the novel closer to its publication in hardback on 10 January but the ebook will be available from 1 December. To celebrate the occasion, I’m delighted to join the blog tour with a guest post by Ian Ross on how he picked this particular period of Roman history to bring alive in the Twilight of Rome series.

War at the Edge of the World by Ian RossGuest post

You decide that you want to write a series of novels, following the adventures of a single character through an epic period of history. You’ve always been fascinated by the ancient Roman world, so that seems the ideal setting; but Rome endured for over half a millennium, and featured a wealth of extraordinary events; how do you narrow it down?

You want to choose a period that will allow you the widest geographical scope. You also need a cast of engaging historical figures, familiar to the educated reader but not over-represented in fiction. You want to steer your stories as close as possible to recorded facts, so you need a well documented era, but one with sufficient breadth of uncertainty to allow your imagination free rein. Lastly, of course, you need to choose a setting with the greatest possible dramatic potential, a time of wars and uprisings, plots and intrigues, a moment when the certainties of the past are being overthrown, and a single man – or woman – can rise from obscurity to take a guiding role in great events.

It’s strange to consider, as I reach the conclusion of my ‘Twilight of Empire’ series – the sixth and final book, Triumph in Dust, is published in January – that I did once ask myself these questions. But for me, there could only have been one answer. Years before, when I lived in Sicily, I had visited the ruins of the Roman villa at Piazza Armerina, and seen the fabulous floor mosaics, dating from the early 4th century AD, showing scenes of daily life: soldiers and hunters, aristocrats and slaves, all in dazzling colour. I soon realised that the thirty-year reign of the Emperor Constantine would provide an ideal framing chronology. From his first acclamation at York in AD306, Constantine’s bloody and dramatic rise to sole power would give me a powerful narrative arc, around which my story could evolve. He was also the first emperor to adopt Christianity, and the revolutionary changes in religion would add an extra social dimension to the turmoil of the era.

Imperial Vengeance by Ian RossBut I did not want to tell the story of Constantine himself; instead I wanted to view his world through the eyes of a figure on the periphery of power, a man who could move freely between the frontiers and the very heart of the empire. And so my protagonist was born: Aurelius Castus begins the first novel as a common soldier, recently promoted to centurion of a legion in northern Britain. His adventurous career will take him through the greatest battles of the age, and right across the Roman world from the barbarian wilderness to the palaces of the emperors, then onward to the distant eastern frontiers, as he scales towards the dangerous summit of power.

Now, even as I consider future projects, and once more ask myself those same questions about setting, I know that the world of the ‘Twilight of Empire’ novels will always endure in my imagination. Historical fiction gives us a way of encountering familiarity in the strangeness of the past.

Reviews and posts
War at the Edge of the World (Twilight of Empire 1)
Swords Around the Throne (Twilight of Empire 2)
Battle for Rome (Twilight of Empire 3) (with interview)
The Mask of Command (Twilight of Empire 4)
Imperial Vengeance (Twilight of Empire 5)

Emperor Rome: The Splendour Before the Dark by Margaret George

Macmillan | 2018 (15 November) | 571p | Review copy | Buy the book

Emperor Nero: The Splendour Before the Dark by Margaret GeorgeIt is AD 64 and the Emperor is in his villa in Antium, to the south of Rome, where he performs his own epic on the Fall of Troy for his appreciative audience of friends and fellow artists. It is while Nero is there that an exhausted messenger arrives from Rome and tells him that the city is burning. The Great Fire of Rome has begun and it is threatening everything in its path, including Nero’s own palace. Nero immediately rides back to Rome as fast as he can, determined to fight the fire with his own hands, alongside the fire officers and crews who are working day and night to save the city. What Nero experiences over the coming days and nights will change him forever, but it will also give his vision new expression – Nero will rebuild Rome. Its splendour will astonish the world.

The Splendour Before Rome completes Margaret George’s superb and original portrait of Rome’s most famous and infamous emperor that began with The Confessions of Young Nero. In the first novel we saw Nero’s rise to power, his transformation from the unknown young child Lucius into heir to Claudius’s throne, finally becoming emperor himself. It was a part of Nero’s life largely controlled and steered by his notorious mother Agrippina, whose fate forms such a central role in the first book and in the emperor’s life. It is from that point that Margaret George now resumes her story, covering the period from the Great Fire of Rome – possibly the most well-known event of Nero’s reign – through to the very end. You can read The Splendour Before Rome without having read The Confessions of Young Nero first, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

The Nero that presents himself to us here – for most of the novel is written in Nero’s own words – is not one that I’ve met before, and I’ve read a lot of wonderful books over the years that feature him. Margaret George explains in her afterword that she believes that Nero has been unfairly treated by Roman commentators, who had their own agenda to maintain, leading to a whole series of rumours that were perpetuated by later historians, not to mention Hollywood. Whether you agree with this or not, Margaret George here pulls together the strands of Nero’s life, finding the roots of some of the gossip that grew up around him, while also presenting a fascinating portrait of what absolute power can do to a young man who’d really much rather race chariots and compose heroic verse than rule an empire. It’s an intriguing mix. In one sense, we’re given reasons to explain why Nero was regarded as he was by historians, but conversely we’re also given glimpses of a man who failed in the one role he couldn’t maintain – emperor. He is both misunderstood and flawed.

Nero is conflicted and his self-awareness of this is a truly fascinating element of Margaret George’s treatment of him. Nero talks of the dark Nero, the third Nero, that will do anything to keep alive his other two Neros – the emperor and the artist. We’ve seen in the first book what his dark side will make Nero do but in this second book Nero does his best to suppress the evil. Instead he wants to focus on the arts and also on his passion for chariot racing, a cause of great scandal to Rome’s elite. The senate is shocked by Nero’s decision to go to Greece and compete in all of its festivals (all compressed into one year on his orders). Nero seems oblivious to how he is perceived by Rome and carries on regardless, but there are clues for us that this cannot end well.

Nero is oblivious to other things as well – how people will regard his great Golden House that he will build across much of the city’s centre, and then there’s the enormous colossus statue of himself that will tower over Rome. Nero genuinely believes that the people around him are his friends. He accepts their criticisms because he is a humble artist and that is what artists must do – they will always have their critics. But there comes a time when he will learn the truth about what they really think about him. And he is amazed.

The emperor might have his enemies but he is also loves and is loved and we see that here, especially in the figure of his wife Poppaea but also in his first love, Acte. The fate of Poppaea is dealt with so well while Acte is given occasional chapters as narrator, revealing another side to young Lucius, as she will always regard him. And then there’s the tragic figure of Sporus.

Certain infamous deeds of Nero’s reign seem to take place in the shadows, especially the persecution of the Christians in the aftermath of the fire. It’s as if Nero can distance himself from these acts. It’s described almost as if it’s a dream. Nero seems proud that he’s never hurt anyone with his own hands but, as emperor, with power over life and death, this is a meaningless belief. Especially as many are forced to die by their own hand. I really loved this conflict between Nero’s view of himself and the view of others that we’re given tantalising glimpses of – the Nero who makes decisions about the government of the empire without consulting his senate, who evicts people to seize their land for his own palace, the extravagance of that palace. At times he is deeply saddened when people he loves seem not to love him back. He struggles to explain why when we can see it as clear as day. He is also very superstitious. He is a man who lives in dread of his fate while seeing signs to it all around. Nero is also an outsider – at odds with the ideal of Roman martial masculinity. There is no doubt that he is looked down upon. At times, one might almost feel pity for him. Almost.

I love these two books. Aside from the drama of Nero’s own conflicted personality, there are dramas of other kinds – the fire is described brilliantly as we follow its destructive path across the ancient city, burning its temples and holy places. It’s impossible not to warm to Nero the fire fighter. The chariot racing scenes are thrilling and I really enjoyed the chapters spent on Nero’s great cultural tour of Greece. Then there’s the great love affair of Nero and Poppaea, which is treated here in a wholly original way. Poppaea is such an unusual woman, as was Nero’s mother, and Margaret George does wonders in bringing such complex personalities to life.

I have enjoyed Margaret George’s ‘autobiographies’ for many years and her portrait of Nero is a fine addition to them. Here we have Nero as he may have been. Perhaps as Nero might have recognised himself. This remarkable, flawed, possibly mad, individual here gets the chance to speak for himself and his words are never less than riveting.

Other review
The Confessions of Young Nero

The Blood of Rome by Simon Scarrow

Headline | 2018 (15 November) | 369p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Blood of Rome by Simon ScarrowIt is AD 55 and Tribune Cato and his chief centurion Macro must once again go to war. This time they are to be sent east. Rome has a new and very young Emperor, Nero, who must quickly make a demonstration of power. Opportunity comes from Armenia. The mighty Parthian Empire has ousted King Rhadamistus of Armenia and replaced him with a king of their own. Rome will not tolerate a Parthian puppet state so close to its eastern border, nor will such a display of aggression be permitted. General Corbulo is despatched to put Rhadamistus back on his throne.

But Corbulo has grander designs. While he focuses on preparing for war against Parthia itself, he sends Cato and Macro ahead to escort Rhadamistus back to his kingdom. It will be a fearful journey, one from which Cato and Macro are not expected to return alive, but the most difficult challenge facing Cato and his men is Rhadamistus himself, for Rhadamistus is a monster.

The Blood of Rome is the seventeenth novel in Simon Scarrow’s Eagles of the Empire series, better known to many of us as the Cato and Macro series. I have read and loved this series for years and I look forward every year to each new book. It’s fair to say that The Blood of Rome follows on the heels of a run of particularly brilliant novels in the series and, with such a standard to be measured against, it turned out to be, for this reader anyway, one of the least successful of the books. This isn’t to say that there isn’t much to enjoy here, as there is. Cato and Macro are indefatigable as always in their drive to entertain us while they attempt to put the Roman Empire to rights, sword in hand, at great risk to themselves and to those they love.

The mood of The Blood of Rome is dominated by the figure of King Rhadamistus, a despicable excuse for a human being (let alone for a king), and his behaviour hangs over the novel and events like a black shadow. The fact that he’s merciless towards his own men, however, is not the worst of his crimes in my book – that honour falls to what he does to Cato. Cato descends into the depths during The Blood of Rome. He is damaged by what he sees. I think that Simon Scarrow treats the subject of traumatised soldiers well here. There is no reason to believe that soldiers in antiquity were exempt. But what I did have trouble with is how Cato acts out of character and on occasion acts with deliberate cruelty. There is one incident in particular (and you’ll know the one I mean when you read the book) that shocked me absolutely, and not in a good way. And I’m not sure it fits with this series of novels. Macro continues to act in the same loveable way which makes Cato’s new behaviour even harder to deal with, for this reader at least.

This is also one of the more violent books of the series. I have nothing against violence in Roman military historical fiction (as that would be daft!) but the increase of it reflects the book’s darkened mood and the state of Cato’s mind. Cato’s attitude towards women also continues to cause me a few problems. There’s a casual callousness, a dislike, in the way he treats them, as if he were always the innocent. Which he is not.

Having said all that, I found the final third of the novel more enjoyable and I became wrapped up in the Armenian power struggle and the thrilling action sequences that drive the book on. Cato’s relationship with Macro is so entertaining to watch. There are some fascinating details about Roman warfare here, especially the use of siege weaponry, and this campaign, which was so important to Nero, is one that deserves attention. It’s an incredible story. The fact that most people are still in ignorance about the new emperor’s character also tantalises for the future. As always, I look forward to the next outing for Cato and Macro and hope that Cato can find some peace (while still fighting a war, if you see what I mean!).

Other reviews
The Blood Crows
Brothers in Blood
Britannia
Invictus
Day of the Caesars
With T.J. Andrews – Invader

Family Commitments by David Wishart

Self-published | 2017 | 280p| Bought copy | Buy the book

Family Commitments by David WishartIt is May, AD44, and purple-striper Marcus Corvinus and his wife Perilla are back in Rome after their eventful jaunt around Gaul. Marcus would like the world to believe that he’s happy spending his days crawling around Rome’s bars, putting the world to rights, untroubled by crimes to solve. They’d be wrong. He is, in fact, at a bit of a loose end. This fortunate state won’t last long. Firstly, Marcus’ mother comes round convinced that Marcus’ stepfather, a man who has always seemed to favour antiques over women, is having an affair, insisting that Marcus should find out exactly what’s going on. And then Marcus’ butler Bathyllus starts to get that guilty, pale and ill look. It’s not surprising. His brother, a fellow slave, has turned up after many years and he’s on the run, wanted for the murder of his master. Marcus has no choice but to help out and that’s when it all starts to go wrong. This is no straightforward case. Marcus should have run a mile.

Family Commitments is the nineteenth (not the twentieth as the back of the cover says) of David Wishart’s fantastic Marcus Corvinus series. This series has had more than one publisher over the years and I’ve worried for its future but the good news is that, although I’ll miss those elegant Severn House editions and wish Corvinus still had a home with them, the author is now publishing the books independently. I’m hoping this means that we’ll get many more of them and I’m very keen to give them my support. If you haven’t read this marvellous series, please do! Set during the first half of the 1st century AD, they bring this fascinating period of Roman history alive. And Marcus and Perilla are both perfectly placed to comment on it – they’re patrician, very well-connected and even know emperors personally, including the really bad ones. It also means that the crimes Marcus investigates are particularly juicy. As this crime especially demonstrates.

You can enjoy each of these novels as standalone mysteries but there is so much pleasure to be had reading this series. I’ll never stop enjoying Marcus, quite possibly my favourite Roman detective. He likes to think he’s satirical, when actually he’s rather sarcy, but he’s most certainly witty, likes a goblet of wine or three, and has his hands full trying to manage the staff while trying and failing to maintain his air of studied aloof detachment. The fact that their chef Meton is a genius with flavours does much to make up for his psychopathic temperament while Bathyllus, the long-suffering butler, has fine-tuned his sardonic attitude into an art form. He is, though, the perfect major domo. And Marcus Corvinus will do anything he can for him. Perilla does all that a matron restricted by strict patrician codes of conduct can do to support her husband, while trying to persuade him to cut back on the swearing and wine guzzling. But it’s Perilla’s input that often saves the day, much to her husband’s irritation. Getting to know these people over the last couple of decades or so has been an absolute joy.

Family Commitments has such a good mystery at its heart and it’s not long before Marcus realises he’s out of his depth. It’s such a tangled knot of intrigue, involving gangsters, cut-throats, politicians, the powerful and the desperate. I did get stuck a couple of times as the number of people involved increases. I found it easy to lose track. No wonder Marcus and Perilla find this one a difficult case to solve. But the way that it all comes together is so brilliantly done. It’s worth the brain ache of one section of the novel. And so much of it is so witty!

Rome is brought to life so well, especially the rather posh bit of it. This is a world of dinner parties and literary evenings, but we also encounter the other side of things as Marcus spends much of his time wandering around Rome on foot. And then there’s the dark shadow cast by slavery. As a patrician, Marcus would have taken slaves for granted and would have depended on them – he certainly depends on Bathyllus – but there are moments here when he reflects on what Bathyllus and his brother have endured and how, ultimately, they are all alone in the world. Marcus wants to do his bit to show them that they have him. It’s all rather complicated and no doubt these are unfamiliar thoughts for a man such as Marcus Corvinus. But it’s rather good that he has them. I love the way in which David Wishart depicts the relationships between master and slave, even though I suspect this is all rather wishful thinking.

This is one of those rare series that I have followed and adored from the very beginning. I still remember reading Ovid all those years ago. Such a wonderful book. Right from the start this series has included some of the most famous and infamous personalities of the day and Family Commitments is no different. This is a time when it very much paid to keep your head below the parapet. Unfortunately, Marcus Corvinus can’t do that. His curiosity – after all he is rich and doesn’t have a job to distract him – leads him into all kinds of trouble and I can’t get enough of it. More, please!

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