Category Archives: Roman

A Winter War by Tim Leach

Head of Zeus | 2021 (5 August) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Winter War by Tim LeachIt is 173 AD and only the Danube stands between the mighty army of Marcus Aurelius and the complete destruction of the Sarmatians, a fierce, fractious nomadic people. The warrior tribes come together to fight the Romans on the Danube’s ice surface but it is a disaster. Few survive and those that do must make a choice when given a terrible ultimatum by an emperor who believes himself a god. Kai survived, hidden by one of the fearsome horses that his people prize, and must become a leader of sorts, a role that doesn’t suit because to many he is a coward, a shamed outcast. And no-one hates him more than his sister, the most feared of warriors. But, as the winter freezes the ground and people alike, the Sarmatians must walk an uncertain path between honour and shame, watched over by a Roman army, fascinated by their enemy but determined to crush it forever.

The Last King of Lydia and its sequel The King and the Slave are among the most wonderful historical novels that I have ever read, immersing me in an unfamiliar and almost mythical period of history (the 6th century BC), and illuminating that time with its astonishing depiction of Croesus and his transformation from king to slave. Now Tim Leach portrays a clash of cultures on the fringes of a Roman empire ruled by an enigmatic, cruel philosopher emperor. We spend time with Marcus Aurelius, camped by the Danube, and it’s a dangerous place, but most of the novel is spent with Kai and those closest to him, his friend, his daughter, his lover and his slave. And his extraordinary sister.

Through Kai, Tim Leach explores the society of the Sarmatians, its blurring of genders and roles, its strange and terrible traditions, its relationship with horses and the land, and its complete lack of perception about what the Romans really are, what they represent and what they will do. Knowledge brings with it desperation and division. Male and female characters fascinate equally here, which is a real draw of this novel.

Tim Leach writes beautifully. This is gorgeous prose, immersing the reader in the trials of this cold, cold place at such a time of brutal crisis. It’s lyrical and thoughtful. There is plenty of action, some of it quite shocking – these are violent people! – but this is offset by Kai’s journey.

A Winter War is the first in a new series. It’s a complete novel in itself while also making the reader very keen for book 2! I can’t wait to see what happens next  because it is going to be incredible.

Other reviews
The Last King of Lydia
The King and the Slave

The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper

Head of Zeus | 2021 (13 May) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

Pompeii, AD 74: Amara wasn’t always a slave and ‘Amara’ wasn’t always her name. A Greek and a doctor’s daughter, family ruin led her on this path to slavery and prostitution in the Wolf Den, Pompeii’s most notorious Lupanar, or brothel. The women who work alongside her on these stone beds in confined cells come from all sorts of backgrounds. Some know no other life, saved from rubbish heaps where they had been dumped as babies, but others, like Amara and Dido, stolen from her home in Carthage, remember their past lives and are desperate for freedom. Amara is determined to get it, but at what cost?

The Wolf Den is set at a time when Pompeii’s inhabitants had no idea of what Vesuvius, the mountain looming over the city, had in store for them. This is a novel of what life was like in Pompeii just a few years before the eruption and the result is nothing short of a triumph. I adored this novel so much. It is my favourite novel of the year so far. I regularly visit Pompeii, I know it pretty well, and this novel has transformed my view of it.

Elodie Harper populates the streets and buildings of Pompeii with real people, moving the focus away from the ruins to the bustle and noise of a vibrant, busy city, so full of life. I loved these women, the she-wolves. We follow them as they go about their lives – ‘fishing’ for clients, visiting the local bar for lunch, going to parties to ‘perform’, looking out for one another, especially in regard to the brothel keeper, their owner, searching for a way out, the rich man who will save them. We’re presented with a network of Pompeii’s slaves, both male and female – prostitutes, bar workers, shop workers, doormen, musicians and entertainers. Then there are the people who own them or exploit them, even love them, or kill them. Some of these people are known to history and we see them in The Wolf Den in a new light.

Photo by Kate Atherton, 2019

When I visited the Lupanar (in the evening, when most visitors had left and I had the place to myself), I was shocked by it, with those little cells with their stone beds, the cramped little corridor with its toilet. The Wolf Den portrays the cruel and brutal life that these women (and boys) lived, with the darkness and abuse of the night contrasting with the business and chatter of the day. We’re given glimpses of fabulous villas, with their cool pools, fine wines and food, and libraries. Amara wants that.

The Wolf Den isn’t salacious, it isn’t erotic. Instead, it is a fascinating portrayal of these women’s lives, so full of misery and abuse but with such fight and resilience. It is a romance of sorts but this isn’t romance as we would know it. The women are all so different in the ways that they have responded to their situation, with the reader’s deepest emotional response perhaps going to those who are mothers. There is so much sadness and pain. Elodie Harper tells their stories with such emotional insight and warmth. But there is also a toughness and a sharpness as well as wit as some of the women, such as Amara, try to work the system and is a leader of sorts. She is an incredible character.

We know what looms over Pompeii and the fate in store for it. For much, if not all, of the novel, the reader can forget about that. Our attention is on AD 74 and not on AD 79, such is the power of the storytelling, but that fate is there and I really hope the author returns to Pompeii to continue its story and that of its she-wolves.

The Wolf Den is utterly engrossing and immersive. I will never see Pompeii with the same eyes again. I can’t wait to go back, more than ever now, and, when I do, I will take time to imagine the city’s slaves going about their masters’ business, walking those streets, inhabiting those buildings. This is a serious contender for my book of 2021. I don’t often return to novels but I’m looking forward to re-reading The Wolf Den when the beautiful hardback is published this week. Simply fabulous.

A Comedy of Terrors by Lindsey Davis

Hodder & Stoughton | 2021 (1 April) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Comedy of Terrors by Lindsey DavisThe festival of Saturnalia is rapidly approaching and this year Flavia Albia and her aedile husband Tiberius know that it needs to be extra special due to the two young boys now in their care. But the best laid plans and all of that soon go awry when it becomes clear that a gang of hoodlums is messing around with Rome’s lucrative nut market. When matters turn nasty, Tiberius is forced to investigate while Albia has her own hands full with another matter. A woman has thrown her husband out and wants to know exactly what he’s been up to. It seems like such a simple case, just something to pass the time. Albia couldn’t be any more wrong. And that’s before their pet sheep (called Sheep) is stolen and its head dumped on their welcome mat. Meanwhile, Rome carries on regardless, carrying out practical jokes, decorating their houses, tolerating cheekiness from their slaves, and passing out drunk in doorways.

I have been reading Lindsey Davis’s Roman mysteries for more years than I care to mention – first the Falco books and now those that focus on Falco’s adopted daughter rescued from Britannia. In this now soundly established second series, Domitian’s Rome is brought to life due to the author’s masterful way in backing up her wonderful, engaging stories and characters with all of those fascinating historical details. Lindsey Davis knows her stuff and it enriches these novels every bit as much as her humour. A Comedy of Terrors is the ninth volume of the series (how can it be that many already?) and you can enjoy it with or without knowledge of its predecessors. If you love Marcus Didius Falco – as if anyone doesn’t – then you’ll be pleased to see that he pops in. Saturnalia is a family festival after all.

Flavia Albia, as normal, is our narrator and what a wonderfully witty and entertaining companion she is. It’s clear that sometimes what she says hides what she really feels – such as her relationship with her husband (now on the right track again after the lightning incident, I’m relieved to report), her worries for the two little boys in her care, her responsibility for her household, and her memories of her terrible former life. There is an undercurrent of darkness, should you look for it.

A Comedy of Terrors is, perhaps, a more playful read than others in the series. This might be because the author wants to cheer both herself and her readers up. It worked, at least for me. At its heart is Saturnalia, the festival that has links with Christmas. I know little bits and pieces about the festival but this fabulous novel explores it thoroughly, immersing us in its chaos and fun, while also highlighting its downsides – the streets were far from safe for women and perhaps there is a cruelty behind some of the japes. As usual in these novels, we are reminded of the place of women in this society and the complete and utter barbarity of slavery, as well as the brevity of life for many. No wonder everyone looked forward to Saturnalia and the reversal of roles, with the slave playing king.

The story is a good one, with several strands which are slowly developed. There is so much of interest happening outside the cases. Everything you wanted to know about the Roman nut business or pie making business can be found in this book. It is all pulled together satisfactorily, and rather amazingly, and I think that the last third is particularly fantastic. I felt like applauding at the end.

Lindsey Davis is so good at placing us in the streets (and high-rise tenements) of late 1st-century AD Rome. There is so much to look at. I love her characters and Flavia Albia has now established herself as a worthy successor to Falco – Falco would, no doubt, have it no other way. I look forward to this series every year and A Comedy of Terrors shows so well exactly why that is.

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

Vesuvius by Night
A Capitol Death
The Grove of the Caesars

The Emperor’s Exile by Simon Scarrow

Headline | 2020 (12 November) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Emperor's Exile by Simon ScarrowIt is AD 57 and Tribune Cato and Centurion Macro have returned to Rome following an unsuccessful campaign in the East. Their reception is a frosty one. They’re lucky that Nero isn’t in a bad mood but he does have a mission for them – one that will keep them out of his sight. The Emperor has been persuaded that he must banish his mistress from Rome. Nero’s political advisors have become jealous of the influence of the beautiful Claudia Acte. Cato is ordered to escort her to Sardinia, an island ravaged by bandits and plague. While there, Cato is expected to take over the island’s garrisoned soldiers and not come back until he’s sorted them and the place out. As for Macro, he’s had enough. He’s done his years and is now ready to retire. Cato is going to have to manage on his own, almost.

The Emperor’s Exile is the 19th novel in one of my all-time favourite series, Eagles of the Empire by Simon Scarrow. Like me, you may well have read them all and it’s an annual pleasure to keep up with the adventures and careers of Macro and Cato. But, if you’ve not yet read any, this book stands alone well, not least because it represents a new phase in the careers of our two heroes.

Much of the action takes place on Sardinia, which is an island in trouble. Tribal bandits have taken over the place and Cato, along with his second in command, the enigmatic spy Apollonius, has no idea whom he can trust and has to make do with the men that he finds there. Matters aren’t helped by the plague. In what feels like a particularly appropriate read for this winter, the plague is travelling around Sardinia like wildfire and the sections on it are especially engrossing.

But this is primarily a tale of aggression and war as Cato must try and subdue the tribes and their sympathisers while also trying to keep Claudia safe. The result is an action-packed adventure, which is not only gripping and thrilling, it’s also meticulously researched by an author who writes so well. I also really liked the edge given by Apollonius, an excellent character. I always enjoy these novels and this is a fabulous addition to the series. I’m excited by where the author may be taking us in the future. There are some clues and, if I interpreted them correctly, this series has so much more life left in it. Long may it continue.

Other reviews
The Blood Crows
Brothers in Blood
Day of the Caesars

The Blood of Rome
Traitors of Rome
With T.J. Andrews – Invader

Sons of Rome by Simon Turney and Gordon Doherty

Head of Zeus | 2020 (10 December) | 519p | Review copy | Buy the book

Sons of Rome by Gordon Docherty and Simon TurneyWhen boys Maxentius and Constantine meet in 286 AD in Diocletian’s glorious city of Treverorum, they instantly strike up a friendship that will last through the years and what momentous years these will be for Rome’s empire and for the men that Maxentius and Constantine will become. They meet during the celebrations to mark Diocletian’s division of the empire into two, with Diocletian retaining the East while Maxentius’s father Maximian becomes Empire of the West. Some years later two emperors become four, with Constantine’s father among them, becoming Augustus of the West. But such powerful men can’t stay content with their share. While some want it all, others must fight to retain what they have. Maxentius and Constantine are caught in the middle, used as pawns, as are their sisters, until the time comes when they, too, play their part as they rise to the very heights of power and friends become rivals.

I was thrilled to hear the news that Simon Turney and Gordon Doherty were joining forces to write a new series called Rise of Emperors. These two writers know their stuff (what Simon Turney doesn’t know about the Roman military isn’t worth knowing) and Constantine (not yet The Great) and Maxentius are in very safe hands. It’s difficult to imagine a more complicated period of Roman history than the years between 286 and 312 AD and these years were dominated by some larger than life personalities. It could be overwhelming. But the authors begin their series in fine style with Sons of Rome, bringing history and people to life and revealing what an absolutely fascinating and dramatic period of Roman history this was. It’s even more incredible when you think that all of this actually happened!

The novel is divided between our two main protagonists, Maxentius in Rome and Constantine on military campaign across the empire. The authors take a character each but you really wouldn’t know that, the joins are seamless. I was particularly drawn to the sections set in Rome – this Rome feels both familiar and strange with well-known monuments now in need of repair and whole sections of Rome cleared to make way for defences. The Colosseum is a busy place with Romans as cruel as ever, especially against the Christians.

Constantine’s early years are brutal, with his father’s callous dismissal of his wife and Constantine’s mother setting the tone for his relationship with his father. Constantine is a soldier, not yet a Christian, and his life is spent on the move, pursuing enemies to the empire but also enemies and challengers from much closer to home. Maxentius’ enemies, by contrast, come to him. I enjoyed the relationship between Maxentius and his monstrous ogre of a father, Maximian. Maximian has his rivals for most detestable Augustus, mind you – looking at Galerius here. Maxentius’ wife is quite a character in her own right. The women bear the brunt of much of the power struggles. Having been married off to secure alliances they then find themselves torn between loyalty to their fathers and strained loyalty to their husbands.

Sons of Rome sets the scene so well for the future novels as Constantine’s power and ambition grows. It’s fascinating to see what forces made Constantine the man and Emperor he was. This was all a bit of a mystery to me and now I can’t wait to discover more. It’s such a good story! I love Roman historical fiction so much and it’s wonderful to have a new series to follow.

Other reviews

Writing as Simon Turney

Writing as S.J.A. Turney
Marius’ Mules I: The Invasion of Gaul
Marius’ Mules II: The Belgae

Writing historical locations – a guest post

The Return by Harry Sidebottom

Zaffre | 2020 (ebook: 11 June, Hardback: 1 October) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Return by Harry SidebottomIt is 145 BC and Roman soldier Gaius Furius Paullus has returned home to his farm in Calabria, south of Rome, after two years of fighting to protect and extend the empire’s growing borders. But Paullus has returned alone. His childhood friend Alcimus was killed in action and now Paullus must face his friend’s grieving father. The matter is complicated by the fact that Paullus was awarded the civic crown for his bravery in battle. This now places him equal to any man in his community, even his elders. It benefits people to befriend him as he becomes a pawn in their petty games but most of all it means he must endure the scrutiny of everyone who wonders why, if he was so brave, he didn’t bring his friend back home safely to his family.

Then the bodies begin to appear. Other farmers are murdered and their bodies horrifically mutilated. Rumours begin that an old demon has returned to haunt the woods and fields. Paullus isn’t so sure. He suspects a human hand has done this evil work and he sets out to discover the killer before he too is either blamed for the murders or killed himself. And all the time he is haunted by the events of the last two years. Carthage had only just been taken in an absolute bloodbath but Paullus had faced his own hell on earth, in the destruction of Corinth in Greece. Paullus now realises he may have brought death back home with him.

Harry Sidebottom is a well-known and fantastic writer of Roman historical military fiction and is particularly well-known for his Warrior of Rome series. In recent books, though, the author has been trying something different while keeping his writing feet firmly in the world of ancient Rome. In The Last Hour we were given an excellent Roman thriller, which took place over the course of one day. This was followed by the fabulous The Lost Ten, which tells the story of a rescue mission deep into enemy territory. The Return gives us something different again – a stand alone murder mystery featuring a detective who has been traumatised by war and is desperate to find peace and can only achieve that by defeating evil.

The period of Roman history is also different. The centuries are turned back and we’re now in the mid 2nd century BC, to the Roman Republic, which is most certainly unknown territory for this reader at least. It feels different. People seem to be more superstitious – gods and demons lurk everywhere, watching everything. Society is more rural and farm-based, at least in Calabria where this novel is set, and soldiers are picked from that society to fight for Rome, in this case to fight the league of Greek cities which are attempting one final time to defeat their conquerors. There is plenty of military action in The Return and there aren’t many authors who can write about Roman warfare with such knowledge and insight as Harry Sidebottom. These scenes are tense, violent, exhilarating and realistic. Paullus knows better than anyone how horrific it was, how absolutely appallingly the people of Corinth suffered. He sees it every time he closes his eyes.

The novel moves back and forwards as Paullus continues to remember what he’s trying to forget. These memories interrupt the present where he faces a different kind of enemy. I really enjoyed the depictions of this Roman rural society, with its rules, superstitions and codes. It is all absolutely fascinating and described with such colour and atmosphere. It is a very immersive read.

This was my first read of the Lockdown (the publication was delayed, as with so many books), when I was finding it extremely difficult to settle on a book to read. I was very fortunate that this book arrived at just the right time and allowed me to escape back into the Roman past. The Roman period is my favourite for historical fiction (and for history, generally) and so at the moment I can’t get enough of it. The Return is such a fine example and shows yet again why Harry Sidebottom is one of my very favourite authors. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading any of Harry’s books before then The Return would make an excellent introduction.

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 Lost Ten

River of Gold by Anthony Riches

Hodder & Stoughton | 2020 (6 August) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

River of Gold by Anthony RichesIt is AD 187 and a deadly, unknown force from the mysterious land of Kush is attacking Roman settlements in the far south of Egypt. This is a wealthy region, the site of diamond mines as well as a gateway between continents for exotic goods from the east. With Egypt at its weakest in thousands of years, it is perhaps not surprising that Rome should have a rival for its riches. Emperor Commodus’s closest and most devious advisor sends Marcus Corvus, his superior Scaurus and their too few men deep into the deserts of Roman Egypt to drive the enemy back to the south. But what can so few achieve against a mighty army? Scaurus and Marcus suspect that this is one mission they are not supposed to survive.

It will only take a glance at the long list of reviews and interviews below to know how much I adore Anthony Riches’ Roman books! The Empire series is one of my favourite series of all and I always look forward to them. I was thrilled to receive River of Gold and gobbled it up. It was delicious. River of Gold is the eleventh in the series. It’s been quite a journey for Marcus and his bunch of Tungrians and Britons. Nevertheless, each of the books stands on their own well and this one particularly so. But, obviously, I would recommend that you read the whole series just so you can find out just what these men have endured. You’ll also be able to meet much loved comrades who fell along the way….

As soon as I saw that this was a book about Roman Egypt, I couldn’t wait to read it even more than normal. It’s an irresistible destination. I loved the journey of Scaurus and Marcus through Egypt, passing the pyramids, going deep into the desert, a place of legend even to the Egyptian guide and scholar who accompanies them. The people of the far, far south are feared, presumed monsters. It’s all fascinating and richly described. I was also interested in another man who accompanies them – a former centurion who is now a Christian, who suffers for his previous persecution and torture of Christians. That adds something extra to this tale of war.

The enemy, when we discover them, are a worthy foe and are intriguing in their own right, as well as being suitably menacing. I love sieges in Roman historical fiction and we have one of those here. It’s tense, exciting and backed up with the author’s attention to detail and historical and military knowledge. This is also such an interesting period of Roman history, taking us to the time of Commodus (of Gladiator fame).

I absolutely loved River of Gold, reading it in just a couple of days, which is pretty unheard of for me these days. It was such a pleasurable read and I loved being back with characters that I am so fond of and wouldn’t be without (although I do worry about them!). A reading highlight of my summer. There isn’t enough Roman historical fiction being published these days and so I am particularly grateful for the Empire series. Long may it continue!

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
Empire X: The Scorpion’s Strike
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

The Grove of the Caesars by Lindsey Davis

Hodder & Stoughton | 2020 (2 April) | 399p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Grove of the Caesars by Lindsey DavisThe Groves of the Caesars is the eighth novel in Lindsey Davis’s now well-established Roman crime fiction series featuring Flavia Albia, the daughter of Marcus Didius Falco who, I’m sure, needs no introduction! Flavia took over the family trade of private detection once Falco retired (to focus on his auction business). The lack of status accorded to women in Rome means that Flavia might have trouble getting cases but she gets by very well indeed, partly because of her father’s reputation, partly because her husband is an official (who should really be investigating these cases himself but prefers to concentrate on his building company, especially since he was struck by lightning on his wedding day) and partly because Albia just seems to attract trouble. Each of these novels stands alone very well indeed although it is a great pleasure to read them all as they come out each year and long may they continue to do so!

Albia’s husband Tiberius has had to leave Rome to see his sister who is believed to be on her deathbed. It’s a terrible time for the whole family. Albia stays behind to look after the business but her mind is with her husband. Distraction comes from one of the building sites. The old grotto in the Grove of the Caesars, a park bequeathed to the city by Caesar and now rundown and home to the shifty and the criminal, is being turned into a grand nymphaeum or holy grotto as part of a plan to hopefully rejuvenate the place. The workmen dig up a large number of scroll fragments, each covered in, it transpires, scribbles from some long forgotten philosophers, just the sort of thing that might do well at auction.

But very shortly Albia is distracted from her distraction by something horrendous. A powerful man celebrated a big birthday in the grove and during it his wife went off for a peaceful walk. She didn’t return. She was horribly murdered. The same night two boys in Albia’s service who should have been at the grotto, also disappear. This makes the case Albia’s business and, in her husband’s absence, she works with local officials to solve a murder that soon appears to be the work of a monster who has been slaying women in the grove for years. How can Albia possibly stop The Pest?

I am such a fan of the Flavia Albia books, just as I am of the Falco books, and I look forward to each addition to the series. The Grove of the Caesars is excellent. Once more Lindsey Davis uses her considerable skill as a writer and as someone who knows an awful lot about the city of Rome during the 1st century AD to bring the place to life at this time – in its appearance and in its society. Albia always walks a great deal around the city. Through her eyes we see the streets, monuments, parks and river crossings vividly brought to life. It is such a wonderful way of immersing the reader in the past.

Albia is an excellent character in her own right, especially now that she has fully emerged from her father’s shadow. The story is told from her perspective and her narration is witty, warm and sharp. Listening to her, you would think that she cares about nothing but if you really listen to her you would see that she cares enormously and her detective work is one way in which she can escape the worry she feels for her husband and for others, in this case, the two children gifted to her family as some sort of joke by Domitian following the Emperor’s Black Banquet. This feast was a deadly affair and, although Albia discusses it humorously, it’s perfectly clear how horrific this event was and how fortunate her husband and her uncles survived it. What they’ve been left with are these two poor boys and their story is a powerfully upsetting one. Lindsey Davis is so good at this – using humour to disperse the horror and then throwing in something truly upsetting and disturbing.

One of the main crimes of the novel, that of the woman in the grove, is appalling and I did question if its horror is too extreme for the book, too incongruous. I’m still in two minds about that one but there is no doubt that there is a monster loose in Caesar’s grove. The novel’s story is a particularly strong one in the series and it develops in some interesting ways as we get to know the men who work in the gardens. Lindsey Davis is so good at filling her novels with the ordinary men and women of Rome, especially workmen, bar owners, musicians, prostitutes and so on. In this case we have gardeners. And book collectors! The story of the scrolls does provide such a welcome and frequent tonic to the darker side of the novel.

Talking of darkness, it shouldn’t be forgotten why Albia’s husband is absent – because his sister is expected to die in childbirth. Once more, Lindsey Davis reminds us that the people of Rome faced more dangers than those posed by their mad emperor. Married women died every day having children.

The Grove of the Caesars is undoubtedly one of the very best in this excellent series that both entertains and informs. Lindsey Davis is a marvellous writer – the dialogue is always such a joy to read. The Falco books are classics but in Flavia Albia Falco may well have met his match. He would be very proud, I think. And then he would try and stop her ever leaving the house again.

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

Brigantia by Adrian Goldsworthy

Head of Zeus | 2019 (13 June) | 452p | Review copy | Buy the book

Brigantia by Adrian GoldsworthyIt is AD 100 and once more Britannia is threatened with unrest. Matters aren’t helped by the state of affairs in Rome itself. There are rumours that the Emperor is weak, dead even. Power is there for the taking and there are officials, and chieftains, in Britannia who are very ambitious indeed. Centurion Flavius Ferox, based in Vindolanda, is charged with keeping the peace in the northern edges of the empire. When a public official is found murdered in Vindolanda Fort’s latrine, he realises that the task might not be so easy. But with no time to investigate, Ferox is summoned to Londinium by the governor. A plot has been identified. Powerfully symbolic artefacts are being stolen. Someone wants to work magic with them. Ferox knows it must be the Druids, who are now led by a man with whom Ferox has a grim history. There is no choice. Ferox must go to that most feared of islands, Mona, to confront the Druids in their own lair.

Brigantia is the third novel in Adrian Goldsworthy’s Vindolanda series and it completes the trilogy. The novels stand alone and I don’t think it matters too much if you read them out of order. There is a thread that runs through it about Ferox’s relationship with the wife of the prefect in charge of Vindolanda, but you can easily pick that up and, besides, things have moved on for Ferox. There is another woman who steals his and our attention now, Claudia Enica, a princess of the Brigantia tribe and a young woman who is more than capable of giving Ferox a run for his money.

Adrian Goldsworthy, the well-known historian and expert in Roman military history, undoubtedly knows his subject and his knowledge shines through the novel. There are so many details about life in forts, on the march, on campaign and in battle and they are all fascinating. This is the type of novel that makes you want to know more, to do research yourself. It is a wonderful account of Roman warfare in Britannia at a time that still remembers Boudicca’s Revolt and can even recall the Claudian invasion of about sixty years before. We’re also reminded of the infamous Batavian Revolt that followed on the heels of Nero’s death. A major player in that revolt fights alongside Ferox. I really liked this idea of the past lurking in the shadows around Ferox, his men and his commanders. The old world is almost gone, and with it the Druids and the old chiefs. Their artefacts have such resonance largely because they belong to the past. The future is uncertain and is to be feared. All of this is captured so well in Brigantia.

Ferox is a fascinating character that I’ve enjoyed following over the three books and I love what we learn about him and his home at Vindolanda before Hadrian built his wall. His love life has been tumultuous to say the least and there’s no sign of that ending in Brigantia. But we have also got to know the men around him, especially Vindex and the enigmatic Crispinus, a young nobleman, very likeable but also perhaps not to be wholly trusted. It’s an interesting group. And here we watch them cross Britannia and go into battle, as well as get caught up in all sorts of scrapes. Claudia Enrica adds something extra and I really enjoyed her role in the novel, perhaps more than anything else.

But there are issues with Brigantia. This has been a mixed trilogy for me. I loved the first, Vindolanda, but I had trouble with the second, The Encircling Sea. Brigantia is much better than the novel that precedes it but it still feels like it’s not quite there and there are some editing errors, which marred the reading experience. There’s also something about the writing style that niggles at me. Fortunately, the use of ‘humping’ to replace other curse words is much less evident in this book than in the others, although it’s still there and I just can’t understand why. The prose can be a little lifeless, perhaps trying too hard. Also, as a final book in a trilogy, it doesn’t end satisfactorily. I needed closure on a major plot line.

Nevertheless, Brigantia is a fascinating depiction of what Britain may have been like in AD 100, when some of the chiefs, druids etc who remembered the Claudian invasion were dying off, marking the start of a new era for Roman Britain. I’m interested to see where Adrian Goldsworthy goes with his next Roman series. I’ll certainly be reading.

Other reviews
The Encircling Sea

Traitors of Rome by Simon Scarrow

Headline | 2019 (14 November) | 447p | Review copy | Buy the book

Traitors of Rome by Simon ScarrowCato and Macro are back! Two of my very favourite Romans! Traitors of Rome is the eighteenth in this much-loved series and, like most of them, it can be read on its own with no knowledge of the earlier books – the enduring friendship between tribune Cato and the much older centurion Macro is easily understood. I do think, though, that after reading Traitors of Rome you’ll want to read more of this series. It’s addictive.

It is AD 56 and Cato and Macro are stationed with the rest of General Corbulo’s army of 20,000 men in Tarsus, in the eastern Roman Empire, close to the border with Rome’s constant enemy, the vast Parthian Empire. Emperor Nero is urging his General on to war with the Parthians, especially now that the Parthians are threatening some of the Roman-friendly kingdoms on their border. Also, the Parthian royal family is at war with itself. The King of Kings is at war with one of his sons. The time is ripe to take advantage. But Corbulo is a realist and he knows that his reduced ranks are in no fit state to take on the might of Parthia and matters aren’t helped by the influx of poorly trained and ill-equipped new recruits. He needs to stall for time. And so Tribune Cato is given the unenviable task of leading a small group of men into the heart of Parthia to negotiate a peace that Corbulo knows the king won’t agree to. Cato understands that this will be a suicidal mission and so he is glad to leave Macro behind to train the recruits. But Macro will face his own challenges, every bit as deadly as those that Cato will encounter. Both men will be tested to their very limit.

Over the years I’ve read every book in this fantastic series. Cato and Macro have taken me across the Roman Empire and back again. I’ve seen them both suffer, in war and in their personal lives, and I am invested in them, not only in their survival but also in their happiness. In a series this long, there are bound to be books that are more successful than others (although there hasn’t been one that I’ve not enjoyed) and I’m delighted to say that Traitors of Rome is my favourite of them all. This is an enormous achievement that, after eighteen novels, the fire and enthusiasm are still there, as fresh and as vital as ever.

I’ve been trying to think in the few days since I finished the novel why it’s my favourite and I think it’s for a few reasons. It’s partly because Macro has reached a comfortable phase in his life when he can seriously consider retiring. He’s ready to put down that vine stick and stop terrifying the troops. This is hard for Cato. Macro has watched over him for his entire career. Macro is Cato’s family but perhaps this is no longer reciprocated. There’s a sense in this novel that time has changed these men and perhaps it may be running out.

Another reason why I loved Traitors of Rome so much is for its plot. It has a fantastic plot! There is so much going on. The pace never lets up and, as we follow Cato and Macro as they pursue their separate and then combined adventures, we witness the lot – battles, sieges, skirmishes, mutinies, Parthian cruelty and political strategies, spies,treachery. And so much more. As soon as one crisis has finished another one starts and it’s like this throughout the novel. It is thoroughly exhilarating and so exciting.

Then there’s Simon Scarrow’s writing and historical research – both are exemplary. I loved the descriptions of the landscape, both cold and hot, desert and river, with the walled cities and the opulent palaces. It is all gorgeously portrayed. Cato’s journey is so compelling while Macro’s predicament is tense. The historical and military detail is meticulous. It all feels completely real.

The characters are superb and Simon Scarrow presents a wide array of heroes and villains to entertain us. There are a lot of fascinating people, admittedly mostly male but then we spend much of the time in the Roman army, and I found myself particularly interested in General Corbulo. This is a really interesting interpretation of a man that Nero both needed and envied and there’s a casual cruelty about him in the way that he treats his men. But what makes this interesting is that he may well not have been considered cruel, but that this was not just good but excellent generalship. He got results. But here we take a look at the cost.

At the heart of the novel is, of course, Cato and Macro, their friendship and their bond to their men, and they are both on fine form, especially Macro. I couldn’t get enough of them. Traitors of Rome isn’t a short novel but I would have willingly had it at least twice the length. Reading it took me into another Roman world and it was difficult to pull myself out of it. Traitors of Rome is a wonderful book and a thrilling adventure and demonstrates that this fine and very popular series still has so much to give. I fear that the end may be in sight – retirement is very much on Macro’s mind – but I hope that it may still be some time off and I’m intrigued and extremely keen to know where they’ll head next.

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