Corvus | 2019 (3 January) | 349p | Review copy | Buy the book
With Emperor of Rome, the ninth book in his engrossing Vespasian series, Robert Fabbri reaches the year AD 68 – the prophecy that has shadowed Vespasian for almost all of his life is about to come true. At last, Vespasian will become Emperor of Rome. This final novel completes the life and career of Vespasian and those closest to him. To feel the full weight of these significant events, I would recommend that you read the series from the start. We’ve got to know Vespasian, his family, friends, servants and enemies over the years. We’ve watched them change. Their time has come.
I’ve loved this series from the beginning, from the early days when the young outsider Vespasian arrived in Rome and started to climb up the political and military ladder, deftly manoeuvering a path through the dangerous whims and fantasies of infamous, deadly, jealous emperors such as Tiberius, Caligula and Nero, even befriending them on occasion. Vespasian’s relationship with Caligula was particularly intriguing while the displays of barbaric cruelty by Tiberius and Nero are unforgettable. Somehow Vespasian always survived but now, in the aftermath of the death of Nero and during the succession of brief, petty emperors, Vespasian’s life has never been less secure. In Emperor of Rome we see how Vespasian has learned the lessons of a life lived at the height of Roman imperial politics.
But Vespasian was a soldier above all else and much of Emperor of Rome follows the general’s campaign, with his son Titus beside him, against the Jews in Judaea. As a result, there is plenty of military action in these pages and once more Robert Fabbri shows his knowledge of Roman warfare, especially siege warfare. It’s gripping stuff. But offsetting this is the utter barbarism with which the defeated Jews are treated and their religion almost destroyed. This might be set 2000 years ago but at times it’s still not easy to read. Vespasian has shown his cruel side before in this series and he does so again here and more often. Vespasian has changed so much over the years. And yet how could he have survived otherwise? Then there are all the terrible things that he’s witnessed, particularly in the previous novel. But it still leaves an unpleasant taste. It’s a fascinating portrait of the corruption of power. And yet Vespasian still considers himself ‘good’, although he does retain some pleasing self-irony.
The relationship between Vespasian and his sons and also with his longterm lover (and ex-slave) Caenis are particularly fascinating. History tells us what will become of Vespasian’s younger son Domitian and the warning signs are here for Vespasian to ignore (perhaps intentionally). On the other hand, the elder son Titus has rather a glowing reputation but we see a bit more to him here. The suggestion that Titus did his father’s dirty work so that Vespasian could be adored is really interesting. And did he really consider treachery towards his father? As I say, fascinating! Caenis is a strange one. She’s endured more than most because of her position but she’s found the best way to survive – through the manipulation of other people’s power. She, too, has grown bored by cruelty. She barely blinks an eye when she sees it played out before her. I found this chilling. This strange Roman family.
Vespasian is no longer a man I can like and this did affect my enjoyment of the book a little, I must confess. As did the repetitive ‘my love’ uttered by Caenis to Vespasian almost every time she opens her mouth – this is a very minor point but it did get to me after a while. But I was swept away by the scope of the story and the fulfilment of Vespasian’s destiny. After all these years, after nine books, the time has arrived. Emperor of Rome tells such a compelling story while depicting the way in which Vespasian used his military and political knowledge to shape the empire to suit him. It moves between Judaea, Alexandria and Rome and brings this ancient world to life, blending military action with political intrigue.
It isn’t easy to say goodbye to a series that I’ve looked forward to each year for a fair few years now. They’ve always gone straight to the top of my reading pile and there’s going to be quite a gap without them. The end of Emperor of Rome tells us where Robert Fabbri will be heading next – to the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s death. I cannot wait. But, in the meantime, if you haven’t read the Vespasian books, now is the perfect time to do so. The completion of this marvellous, ambitious series is a wonderful achievement that deserves to be celebrated. Bravo, Robert Fabbri!
Vespasian I: Tribune of Rome
Vespasian II: Rome’s Executioner
Vespasian III: False God of Rome
Vespasian IV: Rome’s Fallen Eagle
Vespasian V: Masters of Rome
Vespasian VI: Rome’s Lost Son
Vespasian VII: The Furies of Rome
Vespasian VIII: Rome’s Sacred Flame
Arminius: The Limits of Empire