Tag Archives: Roman

The Emperor’s Knives (Empire VII) by Anthony Riches

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 371
Year: 2014
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Review copy

The Emperor's Knives by Anthony RichesReview
Anthony Riches’ Empire series has become essential reading for any fan of Roman history and historical fiction. It excels not just because of the standard of writing and the historical detail – which are always second to none – but because each book is different, each book surprises and thrills, while giving us more quality time with some of my very favourite Romans: Marcus Valerius Aquila and his cohort of larger than life Tungrians. Riches has refined his Empire recipe now to perfection. No surprises then that the seventh, The Emperor’s Knives, is a candidate for the title of best of the series while also continuing the trend of being entirely different from any of the wonderful books that precede it.

It is extremely difficult to review a book that is seventh in a long running series. While you could undoubtedly read and enjoy The Emperor’s Knives without having read any of the others, I must recommend that you instead start from the beginning and get to know and love these Tungrians and their officers just as much as I do. This review inevitably contains information about what has gone before, not least because The Emperor’s Knives is a pivotal novel in the series and has a lot to do with how things ended in The Eagle’s Vengeance. Having uttered my words of warning, I’ll continue.

The Empire books might be one series but there are sub-series within it. The first three novels introduce our characters – Marcus, Scaurus, Dubnus, Julius, Arminius, Qadir, Martos and Felicia and others – on their missions along and north of Hadrian’s Wall. In The Leopard Sword (book 4), the cohort moves away from the familiar into the unknown on the continent, discovering a whole host of new enemies and threats to do combat with. The individual adventures, of which there are many, are just one side to the novel; the other is the struggle of Marcus Valerius Aquila to survive to wreak vengeance on the agents who slaughtered his family in Rome. In The Emperor’s Knives, following the outstanding confrontation of the last novel’s conclusion, this reaches a head. This book marks a turning point in Marcus’s story, moving the emphasis away from the Roman army and shifting it towards Roman politics with the action set in the very heart of Rome itself. This is a totally different enemy and it is embodied by the emperor’s Knives, a small band of men whose fearful control of Rome Marcus and his legate Scaurus are determined to end.

The Emperor’s Knives is a pageturner from start to finish. We know Marcus and Scaurus so well now that we fully understand how driven they are. After all this time, the end is in sight and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that they or their men will not do to win vengeance. The Tungrians themselves are billeted in Rome, waiting for their next orders, so they have plenty of time to help their officers in their plan and what an elaborate, satisfying plan it is too. We do spend time with the old favourites – there is still time for a laugh and mischief – but the mood is different. This is much more personal. There are also new characters to get to know as we’re immersed in the contradictory worlds of politicians and gladiators. Another bonus here is the wonderfully-realised city of ancient Rome. I’ll never look at the Colosseum with the same eyes again.

As is to be expected, there is violence and blood, vile language and gore. There is rage and fury by the cartload. There are also twists and surprises around every corner. The Emperor’s Knives has a fantastic plot. It’s thrilling but it’s also clever. You just never know what horrors Anthony Riches is going to force upon our Tungrians next and that is as true in this book as it is in all the others. You’ve just got to hold on, keep an eye on your favourites and hope for the best.

The Empire series is set to run and run and if there is one series that can retain its freshness and exuberance, it’s this one. Which is just as well because each addition to the series is a highlight of my reading year. Long may it continue.

The hardback edition has the added bonus of an exclusive short story.

You can read my Q&A with Tony Riches for this book here.

Other reviews
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

Dark Omens by Rosemary Rowe

Publisher: Severn House
Pages: 240
Year: 2013 (1 December for ebook version)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Dark Omens by Rosemary RoweReview
The Emperor Commodus is dead. It takes a while for the news to reach Glevum (Roman Gloucester) but when it does, amid a hysterical swirl of rumour and whispers, the scene is set for murder. The local nobleman, Marcus, is a good friend of the new potential emperor and wishes to hasten to Rome to give him some much-needed advice to prevent the Praetorian Guard from murdering him. But before he can do that, Marcus has to solve the matter of the disappearance of businessman Genialis, a man far from genial, in order to work out what he should do with Genialis’s rather appealing ward and his successful business. What that actually means is that Marcus needs his client, Longinus Flavius Libertus, to do it for him. Libertus is a mosaic ‘pavement-maker’, a freedman and now a citizen, who has a near unfailing ability to work things out.

As the snow falls, Glevum is gripped not only by ice and food shortages but by suspicion and unease. The omens aren’t looking good. Animals resist sacrifice while Libertus’ neighbour Cantalarius has had a run of luck bad enough to make people cross the street to avoid him. And then remains of bodies are found outside the city, frozen and not all of them victims of the weather. It’s as if the whole town needs Libertus to solve the mystery and lift the curse.

I have been reading Rosemary Rowe’s novels for years. For me, the appeal is not so much the story as the lost world that Rowe evokes. I cannot think of another writer who brings the detail of Roman Britain to life in the manner that Rowe does. Longinus Flavius Libertus, our hero, was once a Celtic nobleman. He was then enslaved with his love Gwellia, from whom he was separated for twenty years. Libertus then became a freedman and finally a citizen, having found at last, and married, Gwellia. He works in a shop on a Roman street in a Roman town but he lives in a roundhouse outside its walls. He has an important patron but as a citizen he has a status of his own. Libertus has young slaves but they are more like the children he and Gwellia are no longer able to have. What all this means is that Libertus is the ideal means through which to see so many aspects of Roman Britain at work. He is observer and participant. It is hugely effective and immensely fascinating.

When I visit a villa site in the Cotswolds, I can imagine life within its walls, 1800 years ago, all the more vividly because of Rosemary Rowe’s books. I understand a little more how temples worked, patronage, Roman crafts (even how to lay a mosaic), how people arranged the rooms of a Roman house (or the space in a Celtic roundhouse). There are glimpses in Dark Omens about the hidden side of slavery but it is not dealt with sentimentally – Libertus and Gwellia were both slaves. They know what it’s like, although their care for their own slaves is clearly unusual. As a citizen who has to earn his living by trusting less than honourable types, whilst also pleasing a patron, Libertus is hardly free himself. In Dark Omens another theme is the status of young widowed women – in law they are children – and there is little appetising about the fate of such young women. On top of all this, or behind it, is the physical description of Glevum, its streets, houses and public buildings, and the roads to the villas, country estates and Celtic settlements in the frozen countryside.

Dark Omen continues the wonderful trend of Rosemary Rowe’s novels of making me feel closer to the Roman history of Britain. It is densely packed with information and fascinating insight. Where it suffers, however, is in the plot. It is very slow to evolve, partly, one suspects, because of the relish with which Rosemary Rowe describes this Roman world. But while there are moments of tension and drama, all increased by the horrendous winter storm that could leave people marooned, unable to inform their loved ones that they’re safe or not safe, they are relatively subdued and no competition for the real strengths of the novel.

I was completely absorbed by Dark Omens. The character of Libertus is such an interesting one. He is a Celt making a living in a Roman world that has abused him. But he doesn’t complain about it. He gives a good life to his wife, his adopted son and their two young slave boys. He takes his responsibilities seriously. There is little of the humour of Davis’s Falco novels, or of the Wishart Marcus Corvinus mysteries, but the Libertus novels aren’t dark or earnest. They are realistic, matter of fact and gripping and always a pleasure. I am so pleased to see the series continuing.

Several of the Libertus novels have been re-released on Kindle in 2013. Details of the first, The Germanicus Mosaic, are here.

The Blood Crows by Simon Scarrow

Publisher: Headline
Pages: 384
Year: 2013, Pb 2014 (8 May)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Review copy

The Blood Crows by Simon ScarrowReview
I think I’d better start this review with a confession. The Blood Crows is the twelfth book in Simon Scarrow’s spectacularly popular military Roman series, set in the mid 1st century AD, featuring Macro and Cato. But while The Blood Crows might be Scarrow’s twelfth, it is my first. Having failed in previous attempts to read the early books in the series, I thought I would give it one last push. The result is that I can vouch for The Blood Crows being not only an engrossing and unputdownable Roman adventure, but also that – if you need it to be – it is entirely standalone.

It didn’t matter at all that I hadn’t read any of Macro and Cato’s previous escapades. While I can imagine that if you have read the series through then you will love this one all the more because you know the ins and outs of what these two Roman soldiers have been through, the fact that I knew very little beyond the fact that both had served in Britannia before didn’t affect my enjoyment in the slightest. I would say, then, that The Blood Crows is a very good book indeed – for those who love the series and for those looking for a way in but don’t want to read eleven novels first.

The earliest novels, I believe, presented Macro and Cato in the frontline of the Claudian invasion of Britain. Macro was then the hardened, rough centurion and Cato, a youngster, was his optio, or officer in training. In this twelfth book, the story has moved on (via most of the Empire’s hotspots) approximately six years and Macro and Cato are back in Britain. This time, though, their roles are reversed – Macro is still the centurion, albeit more experienced and hardened than ever, while Cato is prefect, aged beyond his years by events that have left physical and psychological scars.

Aside from the back history, parts of which are dropped unobtrusively into the narrative, The Blood Crows is a perfectly formed whole story. The progress of the Roman Conquest is threatened by Caratacus, a chieftain deprived of his land, who has become a figurehead for vengeance-seeking locals, encouraged by their druid priests. Macro and Cato are sent to the Welsh borders, to a fort that is at risk from a united enemy. Unfortunately, our heroes have much more than angry Britons to deal with. This is a fort like no other.

The Blood Crows is an action-packed adventure from start to finish (with some truly horrible gore and violence) but there are other elements to it that make it stand out. Firstly, the setting and place are vividly evoked, whether it be Londinium, Glevum, ancient sanctuaries or the woodlands and hills of the borders. Also, this is a Roman Britain populated by people drawn from across the Roman empire. It feels alive with cultures, contrasting so well with the expectations and struggles of the indigenous people. Macro and Cato are well liked by many of the locals but time has moved events out of their hands. This is a country at war.

Secondly, the dialogue is second to none. Whatever the region or the ideology of the speaker, what they say rings true. I am a wuss and could have done with a little less swearing but otherwise the dialogue puts the reader right into the heart of what matters, whether it’s an event or a feeling, whether the speaker is a Roman or a Briton. There is also just enough politics to give us an understanding of the influence of a declining Claudius on affairs this far from Rome.

Thirdly, there is Macro and Cato themselves. The characters both have independent personalities but the relationship between the two soldiers is perfectly done. It’s not all roses, especially because the authority has shifted from one to the other, but it is time-tested and trusting. We’re used to Roman soldiers being portrayed as being not necessarily someone you’d invite home for Sunday lunch but there is a pleasing subtlety here.

Having read and loved The Blood Crows, I have bought a couple of the earlier books and will be dipping into the past adventures of Macro and Cato. It can be difficult for readers to approach a series as established as this one but Simon Scarrow has done absolutely the right thing – he has written a novel that will satisfy his faithful readers while winning over many others like me who wanted to get into the series without having to go right back to the beginning. Having said all that, I will now enjoy reading forwards and backwards at the same time.

Agent of Rome III: The Far Shore by Nick Brown

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 439
Year: 2013, Pb 2014 (27 February)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Review copy

The Far Shore by Nick BrownReview
Roman imperial secret service agent Cassius Corbulo is back. Despatched by the chief spymaster to his deputy’s villa on the island of Rhodes, Cassius arrives to discover the deputy, Memor, newly murdered. Not only that, Memor’s head has been sliced off and stolen by his assassin. Reluctantly, Cassius accepts the inevitable and sets off in pursuit of the killer on a winter journey that will take him and his companions across the stormblown Mare Nostrum to Crete and a remote part of Cyrenaica on the cold and dusty North African coast. With Cassius is his gentle Christian servant Simo and his bodyguard, freed gladiator Indavara, whose relationship to the gods is far more complicated, especially after he kicks a priest of Poseidon in the leg. Never a good thing to do before a sea voyage. But they are not alone on their journey. Annia, Memor’s daughter, with her maid Clara, is determined not to let them out of her sight. What they discover and what they must endure on this quest is truly monstrous and changes them all.

The Agent of Rome series is a favourite of mine but, while I would suggest you read The Siege and The Imperial Banner first, The Far Shore stands well alone.

The Far Shore is one of the most gripping novels of Roman historical fiction that I have read. It is heated up with two equally dramatic, harrowing episodes that were impossible for me to put down. The sea voyage is so intense and horrible and brilliantly described that I could feel my own stomach churn, let alone that of Cassius and the others. The captain and his crew come alive, doing much more for the novel than simply sailing our hero across the Roman world. This is then matched by the fascinating depiction of life on the very edges of late Roman rule on its remote North African edge. This is the late 3rd century AD when indigenous tribes were reclaiming lands across the empire, aided by a succession of fleeting, corrupt, embattled governments in Rome. Cassius gets a taste of this first hand in Cyrenaica. A dangerous place at a dangerous time.

Quite apart from the edge of seat action, a great appeal of this series is the trio at its heart – Cassius is an unlikely hero. As he admits, being a secret service agent hardly endears him to strangers, and his youth and arrogance might seem charming at times but at others they get him into all sorts of trouble. He is very likeable but he also can be irritating. His treatment of his servants, and the entire female gender, is enough to make the reader roll their eyes on occasion. But he has many redeeming qualities which shine through despite himself. Simo, the bodyservant from Gaul, is a fine creation by Nick Brown. There is so much I want to know about him. We see him mainly though his master’s eyes but we get glimpses of something much deeper and fascinating. We found out a little about Simo in The Imperial Banner and I’m looking forward to learning much more. Indavara is likewise a character with a lot to give as we go through the novels. The Far Shore tantalisingly delivers some of Indavara’s past. The dynamic between the three can be laugh out loud funny, amusing, or deeply touching or on edge. It works very effectively to unite the novels together even though the action in them is largely independent.

It’s worth mentioning that the baddie here is not only spectacularly inhuman he is also brilliantly compelling and, unusually for such a horrible bit of work, intriguing.

Overall, The Far Shore is a thoroughly enjoyable, fast and furious, often funny Roman adventure, populated by people I care about and set in a world in which demons are at work.

Other reviews
The Siege
The Imperial Banner

The Bull Slayer by Bruce Macbain

Publisher: Head of Zeus
Pages: 269
Year: 2013, Pb 2014
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Review copy

The Bull Slayer by Bruce MacBainReview
Roman Games by Bruce Macbain was one of the delightful surprises of last year (review here), its reluctant detective Pliny the Younger an unusual and pleasing hero, his Roman world well realised, corrupt, striving to be better than it is. I have been looking forward to The Bull Slayer ever since.

Rather intriguingly, The Bull Slayer is set a full 14 years after the close of Roman Games. Domitian is now dead (to big sighs of relief, no doubt) and the more conventional, if pinickity, Trajan is emperor. Pliny is an established figure in government, newly Governor of the institutionally-challenged and not entirely content province of Bithynia; his child-bride Calpurnia is 28 and Bithynia’s first lady, entertaining the wives of her husband’s officials with stately dinners, improving herself with Greek lessons from Timotheus, a pedagogue intent on edifying his pupil with Homeric epic. Unfortunately, when Balbus, the second highest ranking Roman official in Bithynia and the man in charge of finances, disappears it’s up to Pliny to investigate what has happened to him and who might benefit from his possible death. Last time, Pliny had Martial helping him. This time he has the equally famous, and salacious, author Suetonius by his side.

This is a province that spans three worlds – Rome, Greece and Persia. While it endures Roman bureaucracy, parts of it exalt and remember, falsely, its Greek past while others welcome mysterious Persian religions, in particular the cult of Mithras. It’s into this unhealthy mix of corruption, pride, venality and superstition that Pliny finds himself and his case. The more he uncovers, the more is hidden. His frustration at dealing with local officials with all their secret agendas is palpable. The earthquakes that shake the ground under his feet don’t help.

But what makes The Bull Slayer stand out is not so much the mystery, intriguing as that undoubtedly is, but what is going on at home. Pliny’s wife Calpurnia is a fascinating, deeply sympathetic figure. Here is a young woman, married as a child to a much older (though young himself) man with whom she dutifully falls in love but now, 14 years later, she must deal with a stillborn birth, life in a foreign land with a status that leaves her especially alienated, and a husband who is often distant. He is never less than kind or patronising but this is more subtle a portrait than that. She loves art, she wants to learn, she wants to be able to discuss matters with her learned husband, but she also wants to be loved. Calpurnia is no flighty girl. She is strong but she is also very human. Bruce Macbain is to be congratulated on his portrait of Calpurnia, he really is.

The Bull Slayer also raises the question of slavery in a very special way, as the issue affects Pliny and Calpurnia and, in return, their male and female slaves. The novel has much to intrigue with its evocation of mysterious eastern religions, political corruption, Roman supremacy and Greek servitude, but it’s in its treatment of this young woman, Calpurnia, and the relationship between master and slave that The Bull Slayer stands out. And it really stands out.

As with Roman Games, my only issue with The Bull Slayer is its length. Again, the novel was much too short at about 260 pages. I read it in just one day. I would have liked to have spent much more time in the company of Pliny and his fascinating wife Calpurnia. I hope we get more.

Other review
Roman Games

Hannibal: Fields of Blood by Ben Kane

Publisher: Preface
Pages: 432
Year: 2013, Pb 2014 (16 January)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Review copy

Hannibal: Fields of Blood by Ben KaneReview
Ben Kane’s retelling of Hannibal’s campaign against Rome was paused to make way for his two superb Spartacus novels (The Gladiator and Rebellion). Now, Kane picks up the threads of Hannibal: Enemy of Rome to continue the story of young Carthaginian soldier Hanno, his Roman counterpart Quintus and Aurelia, the Roman’s younger sister. Do please read Enemy of Rome first. Once you’ve done so you’ll know that the ties that bind Hanno to Quintus and Aurelia are complicated. Hanno and Quintus might face one another on the battlefield but Hanno’s captivity as a slave in the household of Quintus’ parents has left its mark on the young North African, not all of which are displeasing but most, now that Hanno is back beside his brothers fighting for Hannibal while Quintus is defending Italy against the invaders, are very dangerous.

The centerpiece of Hannibal: Fields of Blood is the Battle of Cannae. This battle, fought in 216 BC, retains the dubious distinction, as Ben Kane informs us, of remaining one of the bloodiest battles of history, with over 50,000 Roman soldiers dead on the field. All paths here do indeed lead to Cannae, although we pass on the way skirmishes, raids and feats of daring on both sides, not least by Hanno and Quintus themselves.

While Hanno has to reassert his loyalty to the extraordinary Hannibal, proving that he is no friend of Rome, and attempting to find peace with his two brothers, Quintus has to prove himself to his father. No longer able to do this as a member of the elite equestrians, Quintus turns his back on his father and comrades and instead ‘re-enlists’ as a common foot soldier. In this lowly position he has to fight for supremacy, even survival, in the small world of his tent men. Enemies are easily made here. A knife in the back is so easily explained away. Meanwhile, near Capua, Quintus’ young sister Aurelia has to reassert her own independence against her mother who is intent on marrying her off to save the fortunes of the estate. Actually, there can be no independence, and that is the battle that Aurelia must fight, within herself. She is a young woman, barely out of adolescence and, like so many others of her age and time, she must deal with marriage to a virtual stranger, childbirth and anxiety about her father and brother on a frontline that is getting ever closer to her own home. If you want to be born into another period of history, it’s likely it wouldn’t be this one.

It was good news to learn that Ben Kane was returning to Hanno and Quintus. I thoroughly enjoyed Enemy of Rome, not least because Hanno was completely unexpected and a pleasure to get to know. Hannibal exists very much in the shadows – or in the sun – and instead we witness his ambition and genius through young men such as Hanno and his brothers. Likewise, Hanno’s period of slavery, getting to know Quintus and Aurelia, was fascinating. Since Enemy of Rome, though, we have been given the two Spartacus novels which, I think, are spectacularly good and again took me on a very different path to the one I was expecting. It’s possible that by the time Fields of Blood came around I had moved on too far and too much time had passed.

Ben Kane is a master of the details. His research is meticulous and every page reaps the benefit of thorough knowledge. His description of the two armies, their units, and the Battle of Cannae itself, are superb. But there is for me little of the enjoyment that I had felt reading Enemy of Rome. This might well be the result of the times being told here – this was hardly a good time to be Carthaginian or Roman – but I found it relentlessly bleak. I found Hanno and Quintus difficult to distinguish in terms of character and I had little grasp of the wider picture. Nevertheless, this is a vivid and exact picture of a brutal confrontation. Where I think Fields of Blood does suffer is in the sections dealing with Aurelia. Personally, I would have preferred them removed.

As a piece of military historical fiction, Fields of Blood has much to commend it. Its downfall for me is that it is a return to a story that I have been separated from for too long thanks to two of my favourite historical novels of recent years, Ben Kane’s retelling of the story of Spartacus.

Other reviews
Hannibal: Enemy of Rome
Spartacus: The Gladiator
Spartacus: Rebellion

Agent of Rome: The Siege by Nick Brown

Publisher: Hodder
Pages: 400
Year: 2011, Pb 2012
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

Agent of Rome: The Imperial Banner by Nick BrownReview
Today is the day of the publication in paperback of Nick Brown’s Agent of Rome: The Imperial Banner. I cannot praise this book enough. A heart-thumping, adrenalin-dripping, blood-thumping Roman adventure, it takes us back to the AD 270s and the aftermath of the emperor Aurelian’s defeat of the Palmyrans, led by the enigmatic and extremely glamorous Queen Zenobia. Cassius Corbulo, a young and somewhat reluctant agent or spy is given the treacherous mission of finding the stolen Persian imperial banner which is a crucial requirement of any peace settlement between these two great, battle-weary empires. It was never going to be easy and it doesn’t help that Cassius, his ex-gladiator bodyguard Indavara and his servant Simo are distracted by the Christian Problem that Rome was determined to stamp out at the time.

There was only one sensible course of action after reading Book 2 in the series and that was go back and read Book 1: The Siege.

The Siege by Nick BrownWhile it is never ideal to read a series in the wrong order, it’s better than not having read it at all. The Imperial Banner presents us with a fully-rounded and fascinating individual for a hero and I was intrigued to see where he came from. In The Siege we see Cassius Corbulo’s first mission as a 19-year-old cornman or agent of Rome. Cast out from his family after an indiscretion, Cassius is sent off to ‘man up’. He arrives in the Syrian desert in 270 AD. Zenobia is still claiming victories, fought for by warriors obsessed by her beauty and charisma. Cassius is ordered to the small, pitifully neglected desert fort of Alauran and is charged with holding it until reinforcements arrive. Palmyran attack is inevitable; the fort is built around a well that the enemy must control to advance. Unfortunately, the fort is manned by the dregs of Caesar’s own legion, the Third, as well as remnants from other legions and Syrian sling shooters. Leaderless, soaked in wine, divided by racism, the fifty legionaries and Syrian auxiliaries are all that stand between the frightened and inexperienced Cassius and certain death. It wouldn’t be a quick death either.

Siege stories, if done well, are almost impossible to put down (I think of Fire in the East by Harry Sidebottom and The Wolf’s Gold by Anthony Riches) and Nick Brown has done an excellent job. But what makes The Siege such a successful novel is the fact that events are allowed to build up at a pace that takes us closer and closer to the edge of our comfy seat. There’s no point depicting the against-all-odds struggle of fifty men against overwhelming odds if we don’t care about those men. Nick Brown makes us care. But when we first meet these men it doesn’t bode well. More than one is ill, most are poorly disciplined, none have been paid. The most dangerous fighter amongst them, an ex-Praetorian of colossal dimensions, is in no fit state to stand up let alone wreak fire and brimstone on a hoard of Palmyrans.

And then there’s Cassius Corbulo, our hero. Unclear of his own status, not knowing how to deal with these men so much older than him, terrified of how he will act when faced with the gory horror of hand-to-hand combat for the first time, this is a very young man who wants to let nobody down but more than anything wants to live to see his mother again. He’ll obey orders almost blindly but incredibly his idealism, so ridiculous as it seems in the situation, inspires these men and when the siege begins you will be desperate for Cassius and his men. So many of them won’t make it. This is a Zulu situation.

The Imperial Banner is more polished as one might expect from a second novel but The Siege is a fine book. It is cleverly paced and the characters are developed very well indeed. Cassius’ new servant Simo is a fascinating individual, even more so when you know how his character develops in The Imperial Banner. Here, we are getting to know him just as Cassius is. This novel is full of individuals whose names we learn and whose fate we care about. The action when it comes is so thrilling but it is also harrowing. There is a realism about it that crosses these two thousand years.

I might have read these two books in the wrong order but I will be reading every one as they come from now on.

Agent of Rome: The Imperial Banner

Rome: The Art of War by M.C. Scott

Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 560
Year: 2013, Pb 2014
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Review copy

Rome The Art of War by MC ScottReview
Rome: The Eagle of the Twelfth was a highlight of 2012; it is also one of the finest pieces of historical fiction I have ever had the fortune to read. Wholly original, it explores the true significance of a legion in the hearts of the men who fought, died and killed to protect its Eagle. How astonishing, then, that Rome: The Art of War should not only equal The Eagle of the Twelfth but arguably excel it. It picks up the historical fiction genre and does something to it that is entirely different to anything else and is utterly wonderful.

I don’t think there is another series like it – each of the four novels is hugely rewarding and clever but each is also completely unalike. Linked together by the Leopard, Pantera, the Roman spy, a chameleon as well as a leopard, the books follow events in the Middle East during the tumultuous AD 60s before now taking the drama to Rome itself. Characters come and go, emphasis fluctuates, good and evil blurs. But in each Scott captures the spirit of the times in these rough days of shifting power.

In Rome: The Art of War we are given something very different to what has gone before, not least because we have now moved to the heart of the empire and Rome itself, but it gives M.C. Scott a new perspective to explore in greater depth and intensity some of the characters we have met before as well as search for the motivation that put a whip to history in one of the most remarkable years of the Roman period – AD 69, the Year of the Four Emperors. Whereas previous books have moved fluidly through time, in The Art of War, the action of the novel is tightly focused on these few months in one year. We are shown what went on through a series of personal eyewitness accounts by those not only caught up in the events but also manipulating them – this is the story of Vespasian’s rise to power told by those for it and those who oppose it. It could also, if it had to, stand alone.

This is a time of spies and moles. It takes more than soldiers to win an empire.

The novel begins with the prime mover Vespasian, general in Judaea in the summer of AD 69 and now ready to challenge the emperor Vitellius and his venal brother Lucius. His agent Pantera is given a vital mission. He is sent to Rome to keep safe the three people most important to Vespasian – his brother Sabinus, his son Domitian and his wife in all but name the freedwoman Caenis. Their slaughter would be a higher price than Vespasian is prepared to pay.

Pantera, although a constant figure through the novel, as well as being a great source of speculation, confusion and concern to others, is mostly quiet to us. Instead, we are presented with the thoughts of men and women on both sides of the power struggle, most notably Caenis herself; Geminus, a centurion in the Praetorian Guard who draws Pantera’s name in Vitellius’ lottery of death; the soldier Trabo, an ox of a man, determined to avenge Otho; Jocasta, part of Seneca’s infamous but secret spy network, as well as others who move between the different sides. There is not a soul without secrets and watching them all and moving above them are the boys who use the roofs of Rome for their own network of spies.

This use and mix of first-person narratives is an incredibly effective way to move the fast-moving story forward, poking at it from all manner of angles. It also emphasises the mystery of it all. As far as we can, we go undercover, a witness trying to unravel the clues as events become more and more dangerous, infecting Rome with unrest and violence. There is nobody to trust and the man whose thoughts we most want to know, we are denied.

There isn’t another writer of historical fiction quite like M.C. Scott. Roman history breathes on her pages, largely due to the people she puts on them. The focus is very much on the forces that drive the characters on to change history, whether it be ambition, deceit, lust, fear or love. In The Art of War we see Vespasian’s rise to power from every angle, from every corner, often from behind the curtain. The art of war is indeed the subject and it has far less to do with the sword than one would expect. It does, though, have an awful lot to do with courage.

A superb novel.

Reviews of previous books in the Rome series
Rome: The Emperor’s Spy
Rome: The Coming of the King
Rome: The Eagle of the Twelfth

Oxford Literary Festival 2013 report – Hilary Mantel and Paul Roberts – Bring Up the Bodies and Hug a Roman!

After 2012’s Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival (reports on part 2 and part 3), I could not wait for this year’s to come around. It began with a disappointment, though. My first event was to be a talk by Rupert Everett. It was sadly cancelled due to illness. It was also a shame to have no festival hub in the shape of last year’s superb tented headquarters and bookshop. This left two talks to make up for it. The first was by Paul Roberts, the head of Roman Collections at the British Museum and curator of the greatly anticipated and much heralded exhibition, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which opens at the BM on 28 March. The other speaker was Hilary Mantel, double Booker Prize winner for the first two novels of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy and recipient, during the Oxford event, of the Bodley Medal, a medal forged from the copper of the original mid 17th-century roof of Oxford’s first public library. Libraries, as Hilary mentioned in her acceptance speech, fuel writers. History does its bit as well.

For the Hilary Mantel event I was as high up in the gods of the Sheldonian as it is possible to be. People who squeezed past to take their ‘seats’ had to be clutched as they passed by, saving them from a tumble to their doom. This time at least nobody fainted right in front of me. There was no unconscious body to prop up until the end when they could be finally lifted out over the teetering, queasy spectators and lowered to ground level, many, many metres below. While an open window by my head did lead me to worry that hypothermia might be an unfortunate side-effect of this much sought after festival ticket, the event itself was well worth it.

Hilary MantelI expected Hilary Mantel to be eloquent and charismatic and so she was. She began with a reading from Bring Up the Bodies, reading the scene where the quiet Jane Seymour is fitted with her painful headdress, so different from the French fashion made popular by Anne Boleyn, squeezed onto her head by her mother and sister, before quietly expressing her opinion on the future of the current queen: ‘You cannot do what Anne Boleyn did, and live to be old.’ You could have heard a pin drop. Following on from the description of a very physical scene, almost comic in places, here was a bitterly cold shock of undeniable and resolute truth told at a time in the novel when it is expected that Anne will be confined simply to a convent. Hearing it all read by Hilary Mantel herself was a privilege.

Hilary spoke about the decision of splitting her story into three volumes – how could one continue to read (or write) after the death of Thomas More or the death of Anne Boleyn? She also talked about the recurring imagery of the novels, the significance of opening and closing lines and the task of making each of the books standalone. The contrast between Cromwell the statesman and the man who loved little dogs was an intriguing one. Most fascinatingly of all, Hilary tantalised about how the end of the third novel The Mirror and the Light will echo the beginning of the first, Wolf Hall. It will be a powerful end. As Hilary said, we know what happens in history and that intensifies our experience. We know that it will end on the scaffold. We know what is in store for Thomas Cromwell and for us, the reader. It’s all the more powerful for it.

Review of Bring Up the Bodies.

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneaum by Paul RobertsLikewise with Pompeii and Herculaneum. We may marvel at the uniquely intact mosaics and wall paintings as well as the possessions from daily life but we know that none of it would have survived without the devastating destruction of 79 AD. The eruption of Vesuvius preserved two cities by destroying them and while neither would have been unusual in their own time, today they are irreplaceable. The poignancy of this juxtaposition between miraculous survival and human tragedy was brought home during the excellent talk by British Museum Roman Curator Paul Roberts by the image of a carbonised baby’s cradle from Herculaneum, one of many evocative objects from this summer’s exhibition at the BM. The cradle might be on display but we were assured that the remains of the baby found within it, along with his or her blanket, would not. We were shown the mosaic of a dog that would have served as a kind of welcome mat at one of Pompeii’s villas. In the next slide, found at the same villa, was the plaster cast corpse of a dog, contorted in death agonies, possibly even the dog on which the mosaic was modelled. You couldn’t say that it wasn’t.

Paul RobertsPaul Roberts was a wonderful speaker, telling us about wandering through the store rooms of Pompeii, Naples and London’s British Museum to select items for display in the exhibition that, in many cases, have not been displayed before. Other exhibitions have been held on Pompeii but here we were shown Paul’s efforts to make the 2013 BM exhibition unique, not least because Pompeii and Herculaneum have been given equality. The emphasis throughout is on the life that went on in these two cities, as is demonstrated in the thematic chapters of the accompanying book.

I reviewed the book recently on Goodreads: It is a substantial volume and is far more than a catalogue. Chapters focus on aspects of life and death (but mostly life) in the two cities leading up to the eruption, supported by glorious full-colour images of buildings and artefacts alike. The text is full of useful information, structured in chapters that move from one room of a building to the next, as well as looking at public spaces of the cities, but it doesn’t pretend to examine the sites or monuments in detail. Instead Roberts provides useful references for further personal exploration. The tragedy of the eruption for the inhabitants of the two cities, some of whom are captured here along with their possessions in moving photographs, is not neglected.

Paul Roberts is a fantastic walking advertisement for his exhibition – showing us photos of exhibits squeezed through the British Museum’s doors and explaining how women and ex-slaves had a more significant part in Roman society than authors of the day may have wished. The empress Livia was a role model for powerful Pompeian women who in turn influenced the women in the shops and villas of the town. Ex-slaves comprised an enormous proportion of the two cities’ populations although, as Roberts put it so well, Pompeii was like the Gloucester to Herculaneum’s Cheltenham. Herculaneum might have been more refined but in both places, at the end, people of all classes and ages were on the run for their lives.

I visited Pompeii and Herculaneum just a few days ago partly because of this exhibition although more precisely the exhibition was used as an excuse to fulfil a lifelong ambition to visit these two sites. I’ve excavated numerous Roman remains in Britain and Germany over the years but never made it to Pompeii and Herculaneum. I think I thought it would be difficult or expensive – it was neither. It was glorious though.

Reading the book by Paul Roberts and listening to his talk in Oxford, as well as contemplating a visit to the exhibition, has placed my visit in context. As Paul said, these museum exhibits are not artefacts, they’re possessions. They belonged to people just like you and me and we know that because of the destruction of Vesuvius. Written records don’t always reveal the whole truth. Paul somewhat apologetically said that a goal of the exhibition is that after it you will feel that you have not only touched a Roman, you will have hugged him or her. The disaster has brought them so much closer to ourselves and, thanks to the exhibition and to the sites themselves, we can reap the rewards of that. It was, though, such a tragedy.

We visited Herculaneum and Pompeii on a very warm sunny day – and went back to Pompeii for more on a day when lightning forked across the ruins. While Pompeii was impressive, not least in size, Herculaneum was more accessible, quiet, intimate and so beautiful. I thought I’d inflict some photos on you.


Herc 2
Herc bar
Herc bathhouse
Herc 3
Herc 4
Herc street


B pic 2
Storm over Pompeii
B pic 1
Pompeii bar
Large theatre
Pompeii fresco

(Photos (c) Kate Atherton)

Semper Fidelis by Ruth Downie

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 330
Year: 2013
Buy: Hardback
Source: Review copy

Semper Fidelis by Ruth DownieReview
Semper Fidelis is the fifth in Ruth Downie’s Roman mystery series featuring Gaius Petreius Ruso, medicus or doctor to the Twentieth Legion in Roman Britain. The year is AD 122 and Ruso, along with his barbarian and suitably feisty Briton wife Tilla, rejoins the Twentieth at Eboracum (York) just in time for the chaos that means the imminent arrival of emperor Hadrian, who is on one of his famous imperial tours, no doubt involving a detour to a certain wall. Unfortunately, Ruso’s arrival and the visit of Hadrian and his empress coincide with a spate of mishaps affecting the legion’s native recruits. They appear to be dropping like flies. It’s not long before word spreads of a curse. While Ruso is put to the task of fixing the recruits, while hearing worrying rumours of their harsh treatment by certain officers, Tilla looks about for clues to the source of the curse. Needless to say, such meddling gets them both into a spot of bother.

I have yet to read the earlier novels in the series and, considering how much I enjoyed Ruso and Tilla’s relationship in Semper Fidelis, this is clearly something to put right. If you had read the preceding novels then I think you’d derive extra pleasure from watching the pair as they settle down to marriage with all the ease and confidence that this brings to them both. Relationships are seldom if ever perfect and this one isn’t either but despite the less familiar setting of 2nd-century Britannia and the thrills of the murder mystery the portrayal of Ruso and Tilla is very real. I enjoyed getting to know them in this novel, with their little arguments and conflicts, their variable beliefs due to their very different backgrounds, and the security that they bring to each other. Not to mention the laughs.

And then there’s Eboracum. Semper Fidelis brings this northern Roman town to life, not only for the streets, houses, inns and barracks but also for the beliefs of the native population, their relationship to their Roman overlords and their effort to fit in and be a part of it while retaining their identity. As the mystery shows, this can’t always work out well and there is a real clash of cultures. The army might have much to offer a young Briton after citizenship and land but it’s not an easy transition.

The mystery behind Semper Fidelis is an intriguing one and pits Ruso and Tilla against some important local Romans, especially gnarled centurion Geminus and the ambitious tribune Accius. Among the memorable characters is the empress herself Sabina, given (to her satisfaction) a prime role in events, and the young Briton Virana who lives up to her reputation as a Roman soldier groupie. She is full of life, though, and is a fine example of the liveliness that can be found throughout this novel. Ruth Downie not only captures the spirit of Roman Britain, she gives it a humorous edge, not going too far with it, but instead making it feel within reach.

I found the mystery itself rather convoluted and dense compared to the lightness and interest of its context but its impact on Ruso and Tilla is thoroughly unsettling. As a result I now have the treat of reading the other novels in the series while I wait for the next which, this novel suggests, may bring new developments for Ruso and Tilla.