Category Archives: Roman

A Prisoner of Privilege by Rosemary Rowe

Severn House | 2019 (31 May) | 240p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Person of Privilege by Rosemary RoweIt is AD 194 and the Roman Empire is in turmoil following the murder of the Emperor Pertinax by his own Praetorian Guard. The new Emperor, Septimus Severus, sees threats on every side and one of those threats is the Governor of Britannia, Clodius Albinus. Sides are being drawn and the effects are felt as far away as Glevum (modern Gloucester) in Britannia. Pavement maker Libertus has risen high, thanks to the patronage of Marcus, a powerful man in Britannia and the friend of Pertinax. Libertus, a citizen who was once a slave, is now sitting on the town council.

Libertus now has influence of his own. But he must still do whatever Marcus instructs and one day Marcus informs Libertus that a cousin of his is being sent to Britannia as the Emperor’s own messenger. Everyone knows he’s a spy, sent to uncover dissenters and followers of Clodius. Marcus knows that his rank will not be able to save him from the spy’s awkward questions. And so the murder of a local moneylender, another influential man in Glevum, couldn’t have come at a worst time. It’s up to Libertus to solve it before he, too, falls victim to the spy. But then another murder upsets everything.

I’ve been reading Rosemary Rowe’s Libertus novels for more years than I care to recall. I’ve not missed one of them and I always look forward to them. They’re comforting and entertaining but they’re also packed with historical detail and research, backed up by informative introductions in which the author sets the time and place. A Person of Privilege is the eighteenth Libertus mystery. They all stand alone very well but I’ve loved getting to know Libertus and his household of family and young slaves over the years, as well as demanding patrician Marcus and the men and women of a beautifully realised prosperous Roman town.

Libertus’s life has been full of incident and drama and it’s given him insight into the lows and highs of Roman society. He was once a slave and slavery is a repeated theme through the series. Libertus is a father figure to his young slaves. He cares deeply for them. In this novel, slaves, recently sold, play an important role. Libertus never lets us forget that they’re human beings, in contrast to the attitudes of his patron, Marcus. Libertus’s family plays such an important role in his life, and therefore in the novels.

I really enjoyed the depiction here of local Roman government with all of its little rituals and expectations, such as the command that Libertus and councillors like him must always wear a toga, with its thin purple strip, when outdoors. Not that he does, of course, because at heart Libertus is still a pavement maker, a craftsman of mosaics. We also learn about the customs, rituals and practicalities of death. It’s all deeply fascinating and informative.

The Prisoner of Privilege, while not my favourite of the series (it has a lot of competition), was a delight to read. I love the world of Roman Britain it takes me to. It’s comforting and cosy but it’s also clever and superbly researched. Marcus is always leading Libertus into trouble and I’ve loved being there with him every step of the way as he puzzles, or blunders, his way out of it. I always look forward to these books. Long may they continue!

Other reviews
Dark Omens
The Fateful Day
The Ides of June
The Price of Freedom

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The Exiled by David Barbaree

Zaffre | 2019 (27 June) | 367p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Exiled by David BarbareeThe Exiled is the sequel to one of my very favourite books of 2017, the remarkable Deposed. What if Nero didn’t die in AD 68? What if he managed to get away, blinded, maimed, a different man, to somewhere distant from Rome where he could plot against the emperors who succeeded him? That is the premise of this fantastic series and I’m delighted (but not surprised) to say that The Exiled is every bit as good as its predecessor. I would urge you to read Deposed first, even though The Exiled stands well on its own. This review assumes you’ve done just that.

It is the summer of AD 79. Emperor Vespasian has just recently died and the new ruler is his son Titus, a man of action. Titus is also a superstitious man and he is troubled by the words of an oracle, which foretold a great disaster and, perhaps even more troubling, that a slave will rule. There is trouble in the East, yet again. Brothers compete, and murder, for the Parthian throne. There are Parthian hostages in Rome, pledged during an earlier war, and now they will be caught in the middle of a power struggle between Rome, which they hate, and Parthia, which they no longer know. As a Parthian embassy arrives in Rome, trouble stirs and plots are hatched.

Keenly observing it all, with senses other than his blind eyes, is the wealthy Spanish senator Lucius Ulpius, who is growing ever closer to the emperor Titus. Titus’ closest friend, Pliny, both admiral and scientist, is jealous but, more to the point, he is also suspicious, and he instructs his young nephew Gaius to observe. But there is something else to fascinate Pliny – the mountain of Vesuvius rumbles ominously and the ground shakes.

The Exiled is a very, very good book. As with its predecessor, this is such an original take on a very familiar period of Roman history. Here we have Nero as never presented before. He was brought to the very depths of despair, blinded, tortured and humiliated. But, thanks to Marcus (now passed off as the senator’s nephew) and men like him, Nero survived and he has forgotten nothing, despite the transformation undergone by his character due to what he has suffered. Nero, now Lucius Ulpius, has learned wisdom from his suffering. He wants revenge but he is prepared to wait for the right time and serve it cold.

The focus in this novel isn’t actually on Ulpius at all. He’s always there in the background. We can never forget him. But much of the narrative is told in the present tense by Gaius, the nephew of the extraordinary man we know as Pliny the Elder. This is fascinating! Gaius is the perfect witness to history. He’s been instructed by his uncle on how and what to observe and, although at times he is forced into social situations he hates, he learns and watches and records. And then everything is overshadowed by the eruption of Vesuvius.

The Exiled is such an exciting and riveting novel – a Roman political thriller with a disaster novel thrown in for our added enjoyment. I couldn’t take my eyes off the pages. We hear other voices and they resonate, especially Titus’s sister Domitilla, who is caught up in something way beyond her control. And then there’s the Parthian hostage, Barlaas. Each of these has a unique voice and plays such a central part in a brilliant story. We see so many aspects of Roman life, including the games. Here we meet gladiators as well as senators, servants, the inn keepers, the ordinary man and woman on the street, each of which has a significant part to play in what unfolds.

There is so much plot in The Exiled! There is clearly – thankfully – much more to come and in a future novel I’m sure we will see how Nero/Ulpius has manoeuvered himself. In The Exiled, he plays a quiet but significant part. Ironically, Titus is worried by the False Neros who threaten him in the East, never realising that the real Nero is right under his nose.

I could go on and on about how much I love The Exiled. Really, you just need to read it for yourself. It’s a story, a thriller, that works on so many levels as Nero works his way into the emperor’s court. But, on top of that, the chapters set in Pompeii are riveting. The Exiled, just like its predecessor Deposed, is original, clever, exciting and engrossing. I can’t praise it or its author enough.

Other review
Deposed

Commodus by Simon Turney

Orion | 2019 (13 June) | 482p | Review copy | Buy the book

Commodus by Simon TurneyMarcia’s place at the Roman imperial court is unusual. She has the status of a freedwoman, the daughter of the seamstress of Lucius Verus, Marcus Aurelius’ co-emperor, but she spent her childhood alongside those of the royal family, growing especially close to Marcus Aurelius’ son, Commodus, and his brothers. Years later, when Commodus succeeds his father as Emperor, Marcia becomes closer still to this young man she loves so much. But a man cannot rule the world without it changing him. History knows Commodus as the megalomaniac who loved to fight as a gladiator (just remember Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the man in Gladiator!), and Marcia is witness to it all. Marcia knows Commodus better than anyone. She loves him the most and she also has reason to fear him.

Simon Turney’s latest novel in his ‘Damned Emperors’ series focuses on one of the most charismatic and infamous of Rome’s rulers, who was emperor in the later years of the 2nd century AD. Commodus really did think of himself as Hercules reborn but Simon Turney here shows that there was much more to the man than this. As with the previous novel, Caligula, the story is told from the perspective of a woman (a genuine historical figure) who was closest to the Emperor. Marcia was quite possibly the love of Commodus’ life and she achieved a status that far outstripped her rank as a freedwoman. Once again, Simon Turney creates a convincing, fascinating and complex female figure – someone who is a central part of the story while also being an outsider, due to her gender and her rank.

Through Marcia we see glimpses into Commodus’ soul, beginning in AD 162, from their earliest years as children playing together, along with Commodus’ siblings. This is a novel filled with disasters, some that affected all of Rome and others that damaged Commodus. Commodus better than anyone understood the fragility of life. It also makes for an exciting novel as we see floods, fires, civil unrest, war and accidents. One of the biggest threats facing Rome and the empire, though, was plague. It’s never that far away from these pages.

Commodus is such an engrossing novel, filled with characters who each leave their mark, whatever their rank. Marcia is our narrator but she isn’t quite what she seems. There’s a psychological thriller element here, I think. She is an unreliable narrator at times. She has her own agenda and at times I found her horrifying, no less a demon than Commodus himself. Perhaps this is one reason why they grew so close. Marcia keeps her eye on the men and women who live in Commodus’ circle. Intrigue is rife and, as time goes on, intrigue becomes something else. Marcia seems to be at the heart of it all. Commodus is almost the innocent at times. But it all shows what a complicated man Commodus was. There is more to him than history has recorded and, although we only see some of it in glimpses – it’s difficult for Marcia to see into Commodus’ deepest thoughts – it’s compelling and our feelings towards him are conflicted as we try to understand him.

This is such a fascinating period in Roman history and it’s brought alive here. We have the personal relationship between Marcia and Commodus and those closest to them, but then there is also the political turmoil of the period, reinforced by disaster, and these two sides to Commodus’ story are brought together by Simon Turney in such thoroughly absorbing style. I can’t wait to find out which emperor will be the next to receive the Turney treatment!

By the way, Commodus is a beautiful hardback, complete with maps and family trees.

Other reviews and features
Marius’ Mules I: The Invasion of Gaul
Marius’ Mules II: The Belgae
Writing historical locations – a guest post
Caligula

The Lost Ten by Harry Sidebottom

Zaffre | 2019 (18 April) | 355p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Lost Ten by Harry SidebottomIt is AD 265. The attention of the Emperor Gallienus is on rebels in the West but Volsianus, the powerful Praetorian Prefect has his eye on the East. The chance has come to unsettle the legendary, enormous Persian Empire. The King of Kings has turned on his brother, a man respected for his learning and wisdom, imprisoning his nephew, the child Prince Sasan, in the Castle of Silence, a dreadful, impenetrable fortress close to the far side of the Caspian Sea. It’s only a matter of time before the order is given for the boy to be murdered horribly. Volsianus is determined that won’t happen. He wants the prince in Roman hands, as a pawn in his own games.

A team is assembled to undertake the formidable journey through Mesopotamia to the Castle of Silence. Murena, the head of the frumentarii, Rome’s spies, is given the task of recruiting some of the ten men who will meet in the eastern city of Zeugma, ready to begin a mission that is surely suicidal. And it’s not long after they set off that the first death occurs, putting the young equestrian officer Marcus Aelius Valens in charge and totally out of his depth. He must pull this strange and hostile group together as they head deep into the desert and drylands and yet all the time, as mishap follows mishap, Valens’ suspicion that there is a traitor in their midst increases. This must surely be a one-way mission. He must prepare to fight for his life, then die for Rome.

The Lost Ten is a standalone Roman thriller by Harry Sidebottom, the master of Roman military historical fiction. There was something about the TV thriller 24 in the author’s last novel, The Last Hours, as our hero had just a day to save the emperor’s life from an unknown assassin. This time we’re put in SAS-thriller territory. This is a rescue mission by a team of ruthless, highly capable soldiers in a hostile environment. Not all will make it, if any. It will all depend on the strength, courage and leadership of one man. Throw in an inaccessible, terrifying fortress and an enemy that has developed the most sophisticated, cruel ways in which to commit murder, and you have something irresistible.

Ballista is Harry Sidebottom’s most famous hero and, although he doesn’t feature here (only getting a few welcome mentions), we’re still in Ballista’s Rome and Empire. This is familiar territory and the author knows it inside out. It’s a fascinating journey into the East and every step of it is marked by action, natural disaster and treachery. We’re given glimpses of the boy in his tower and we will him to be freed and so we are invested in this story, just as we are exhilarated by its thrills.

Harry Sidebottom writes so well and his novel is enriched by his impressive historical military knowledge. But none of it feels heavy or out of place. It merges with the novel perfectly. We’re not distracted in anyway from the extraordinary endeavour of Valens and his men.

I loved The Lost Ten. It’s extremely exciting, historically fascinating and with a fantastic setting. I gobbled it up. I think readers of modern military thrillers will really enjoy this one while those of us, like me, who can’t get enough of Harry Sidebottom’s Roman storytelling will lap it up. There’s also something very appealing about a stand alone Roman thriller. Excellent!

Other reviews
Warrior of Rome I: Fire in the East
Iron and Rust: Throne of the Caesars I
Blood and Steel: Throne of the Caesars II
Fire and Sword: Throne of the Caesars III
The Last Hour

The Scorpion’s Strike (Empire X) by Anthony Riches

Hodder & Stoughton | 2019 (18 April) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Scorpion's Strike by Anthony RichesOne of the novels I’ve been looking forward to the most this year, with no doubt at all, is The Scorpion’s Strike by Anthony Riches. I’ve read and loved everything that this author has ever written (just see the long list of reviews and features at the end of this review!) but there’s something a little extra special about this book. After a gap of three years – a gap that has been very well filled with the superb Centurions trilogy – the Empire series resumes and centurion Marcus Valerius Aquila is back! And how good it is to see him.

The Scorpion’s Strike is the tenth in the series, which means that you’ll get more from it if you’ve followed Marcus’s extraordinary journey, and that of his group of loyal Tungrians and Britons, from the beginning but I think this one does well as a stand alone novel. Marcus has come a long, long way since his journey began in Wounds of Honour, a novel I reviewed nine years ago. This review assumes that you've had the pleasure of reading the others.

It is AD 186 and Marcus and his Tungrians have returned to Rome after their deadly mission into the forests of Germania. It's good to see their families again but the reunion is brief. Marcus is still trapped by his past. The Emperor Commodus and his chamberlain Cleander continue to have a hold over him, and Marcus and his friends can't escape their grip. They are to be sent to Gaul to lead a force of Praetorians to defeat Martinus, a Roman soldier turned rebel who is becoming a magnet for anyone with a grudge against Rome. His threat is becoming dangerous. If it's a choice between fighting for their lives on a foreign field of war or trying to survive political games in Rome, it's clear which Marcus, Scaurus, Julius and the others would opt for. But with Marcus's children and Julius's wife left as hostages, and with Cleander adamant that Marcus will not return alive to challenge his own vulnerable position, our friends' imminent future couldn't look more uncertain.

Almost immediately it’s as if we’ve had no gap at all and I was right back in the midst of Marcus's story and we're marching again with the troops. Our centurions and the tribune Scaurus have had a shift up in rank, which adds humour as they learn their new responsibilities and they're soon tested as they're thrown into battles and skirmishes against an enemy who knows better than most how to fight the Roman way. He's a worthy opponent. Anthony Riches knows his stuff and this is especially seen in the battle scenes, which are thrilling as well as bloodsoaked, but also in the scenes in which the army march, build camps, prepare for the fight. It all feels real as well as making the heart beat faster. And it's good to see that Marcus's promotion doesn't stop him displaying his gladiatorial prowess with two blades.

The emphasis has moved away from Marcus's private life, which is good I think as it had become desperate, thanks to Commodus, an emperor who deserves every one of his countless enemies. Cleander adds political interest but the focus is on the military campaign and, interestingly, on the relationship between the Tungrians and the Praetorians as they have to fight side by side. We get to know a fair few of them over the course of the novel, which is always a risk, as you know with this series that not all will live to fight again.

Anthony Riches is a fantastic author, one of my very favourites, and his Empire series is one I wouldn't be without. As we'd expect, Marcus continues to have a price on his head. His survival and that of his comrades is not guaranteed. The fight will be dirty. Excellent – welcome back!

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
Retribution – The Centurions III
An interview for The Eagle’s Vengeance
An interview for The Emperor’s Knives

A Capitol Death by Lindsey Davis

Hodder & Stoughton | 2019 (4 April) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Capitol Death by Lindsey DavisIt is AD 89 and the Emperor Domitian is on his way back to Rome and the city is thrown into chaos! Domitian has negotiated two enemies into defeat and he intends to enter the city in triumph, actually with a Double Triumph. Never mind that he hasn’t captured any barbarians to parade behind his gilded chariot, to garotte ceremoniously. There are plenty of actors who can dress up for the day. It’s more than one’s life is worth to mutter against the ridiculousness. Best just to get on with it. But then a man is thrown off Rome’s infamous Tarpeian Rock and unfortunately it turns out that he’s the official in charge of transportation for the Triumph. Nothing must be allowed to spoil the Emperor’s big day and so Rome’s aediles are given the job of investigating. Luckily, one of them, Faustus, is married to Flavia Albia, arguably Rome’s best private investigator, now that her father Marcus Didius Falco has retired.

A Capitol Death is the seventh novel to feature Flavia Albia, Falco’s adopted daughter from Britannia. I always look forward to this series. There’s something comforting about returning to Lindsey Davis’s Rome. The historical detail is meticulous and the writing is always witty and entertaining as Albia undertakes one of her exhausting investigations. There’s a lot of walking to do as Albia has to tread from one side of Rome to another, time after time, on the trail of a killer. This time there is the added fun of an excursion from Rome to the coast to look at the unpleasantly smelly business of making purple dye, another Triumph essential.

The mystery is, as usual, full of red herrings and surprises, as Albia enters the world of Triumph preparation, where everybody knows everyone else. It turns out that not a soul liked the murdered man and so the number of suspects increases with every interview Albia conducts. While the mystery is rather slow moving and, in the second half of the book, a little confusing, at least to this reader, this is more than compensated for by the absolutely fascinating depiction of the preparation for a Triumph.

In historical fiction, we’re used to seeing Triumphs depicted from the point of view of those being celebrated. But here we go backstage and behind the scenes, into the enormous buildings where floats are prepared, costumes are made, and actors are made ready. We’re also shown the religious aspect of the Triumph with plenty of time spent in Rome’s most sacred spaces – the Temples of Jupiter and Juno. Once more, it’s the men who look after these places that get the attention. My favourite is Feliculus, the old man who looks after the sacred geese, birds that fans of Falco will be very familiar with.

Flavia Albia is a wonderful heroine and narrator. Her background – orphaned and penniless in Britannia – makes her sympathetic to others in a similar situation. Strays are always gathered. It also makes her feel like an outsider and an observer. Perhaps this is one reason why she’s such a good investigator. Her relationship with her husband Faustus is so poignant and tender, if hidden a little behind the banter. Faustus is recovering from his wedding day lightning strike, although I am glad to report that he’s much better now (thank heavens). Falco and Helena continue to get the odd mention, which makes me very happy indeed.

The star of A Capitol Death is undoubtedly Rome itself. The years are bridged and we’re placed right into the heart of 1st-century Imperial Rome. I love the way in which familiar ruins are rebuilt and streets are filled with life and business. There is also something rather intriguingly modern about Albia. This continues to be such an excellent series and each one is such a highlight of my reading year.

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

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