Tag Archives: Rome

The House with the Golden Door by Elodie Harper

Head of Zeus | 2022 (12 May) | 400p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

The Roman city of Pompeii is enjoying its heydey and life is looking good for Amara, who once worked as a prostitute in the city’s most infamous and famous brother, the Wolf Den. She has been rescued by a wealthy man and he is now the only man she serves as one of Pompeii’s most glamorous courtesans. But she can’t leave her friends there behind. She is haunted by their continued suffering while being all too well that her own good fortune is transient. And so Amara sets out to help them, especially her closest friend Victoria, and that means she must go back into the wolf’s lair.

The Wolf Den was my favourite novel of 2021. It brought the streets and houses of Pompeii to life for me in a way no other book has done. I’ve visited the place often and I’ll never see it with the same eyes again thanks to the power of Elodie Harper’s prose and research. I was so pleased that there is more and so I couldn’t wait for The House with the Golden Door. Even before I started reading, I was stunned by the beauty of the cover. These are seriously gorgeous books!

The novels are set during the few years leading up to the eruption of Vesuvius. The fact that we know what lies in store adds such a sense of foreboding and I can’t help hoping that the author takes us right up to these events. But the novels don’t miss the drama of the eruption. Instead, the focus is on the daily lives of these damaged women, as well as on the men who own them, the men who love them and all of the other people who tread these streets as shop workers, slaves, business men, courtesans, inn keepers. I love it.

I think any novel is bound to suffer by comparison with The Wolf Den which, to my mind, is nigh on perfect. The fact that Amara has been removed from that awful brothel of the first novel, a major character in its own right, detracts a little from the power of the second. I also found the storyline involving Victoria difficult. Nevertheless, The House with the Golden Door is an excellent novel and once more it is filled with the details that make these novels stand out. There are so few good novels about Roman women or society in general. This was indeed a man’s world. And it is wonderful to immerse oneself in their stories, although everything about Amara’s life and her past is so hard. But there are moments of joy and happiness and I feel like we’re there with her for it all.

Once more, I should point out that these novels are not salacious or erotic. These might be courtesans and prostitutes but they’re also enslaved women living in a city full of life and colour as well as violence and threat. I can’t wait for the third book. I need to know what happens to Amara next. I’m hoping that in the meantime I can return to this incredible place in person myself.

Other review
The Wolf Den

The Capsarius by Simon Turney

Head of Zeus | 2022 (14 April) | 432p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

It 25 BC and Egypt is not what it once was. Pharaoh-less, it is ruled by Romans, hungry for its wealth and resources. The Queen of the Kush, far to the South, also has her eye on it and that means trouble. The 22nd legion is sent up the Nile to deal with the Queen’s army and raiders and among it is Titus Cervianus, an army medic and scientist who has the distinction of being both extremely talented at mending people while being incredibly unpopular and picked upon. It doesn’t help that he finds himself friends with one of the legion’s troublemakers, Ulyxes. As they travel deeper into Egypt, there is danger everywhere, from within the legion, from terrifying enemy fighters, and from the Nile itself, which thrashes with crocodiles.

I love a Roman military adventure and have read many of them over the years. The Capsarius is such a fine example for lots of reasons, not least its author, Simon Turney. What he doesn’t know about the Roman world and its military engine isn’t worth knowing. The amount of research he does for each of his books (fiction and non-fiction) is extraordinary and all of that means that you can enjoy his novels while also feeling that you’re learning something.

The setting of The Capsarius is fantastic and it is effectively a military tour up the Nile at a time with the wonders of ancient Egypt are fading but are still marvelled at and have a power to awe. Temples are described in beautiful detail that captures the enigma of Egyptian religion and architecture. I’ve visited many of these places myself on a leisurely cruise up the Nile and the novel brought back memories of the colour and heat of middle and southern Egypt.

But this is a dangerous place for Cervianus, not least because his fellow soldiers keep wanting to kill him while the officers in charge make reckless decisions about their mission. Cervianus seems to reel from one disaster to the next, while all of the time the legion is plagued by attack, the hostile environment, the heat, and then there are the crocodiles. I’m rather glad there were none of those on my cruise. Unfortunately, the crocodiles seem to like nothing better than the taste of a sweaty Roman soldier.

Cervianus’ medical knowledge is called upon with alarming regularity and the detail of his progressive methods is both fascinating and, I have to say, gory. But there is something really appealing about Cervianus. He is an entertaining and true companion, loyal, very unlucky and clever. Despite being widely unliked, he does find friends in strange places, including among the native Egyptian auxiliaries, who are fascinating in their own right.

I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of an unusual man and his exploits on the trail of the Kush queen’s army. The descriptions of the Nile and the legacy of its pharaonic past are wonderful as the army moves further and further away from Alexandria ad the familiar. Simon Turney knows his stuff and the fascinating detail and insight makes this novel stand out. If you love Romans and the ancient world, you’ll love this.

Other reviews (also writes as S.J.A. Turney)
Caligula
Commodus
Marius’ Mules I: The Invasion of Gaul
Marius’ Mules II: The Belgae
Writing historical locations – a guest post
With Gordon Doherty – Sons of Rome

The Honour of Rome by Simon Scarrow

Headline | 2021 (11 November) | 431p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Honour of Rome by Simon ScarrowIt is AD 58 and retired Praetorian Centurion Macro has arrived in Londinium, Britannia, with his new wife Petronella. It wasn’t plain sailing getting there, to put it mildly, and, now that she’s seen the place, Petronella isn’t impressed. But the plan is to spend Macro’s retirement running the inn and brothel that he co-owns with his formidable mother Portia while also managing a farm in the veteran’s colony of Camulodunum.

If only matters ever went to plan for Macro. It isn’t long before Macro discovers that Londinium is a lawless place, run by gangsters, and he’s managed to get himself noticed by rival gangs after barely a day in this backwater. There will be trouble. And it’s not all plain sailing in Camulodunum either, where the veterans find themselves called up to deal with some hostile tribe members. Petronella’s increasing fears about the safety of Britannia seem well-founded. If only Cato were around to help Macro.

The Honour of Rome is the twentieth (wow!) novel in Simon Scarrow’s ever-popular Eagle series featuring the exploits of best friends and colleagues Centurion Macro and Prefect Cato. The two names go together as well as fish and chips and salt and vinegar (I’m clearly hungry) but this state of affairs has shifted thanks to Macro’s reluctant retirement from the Roman army. The last novel, The Emperor’s Exile, mainly focused on Cato and his troubles in Sardinia, with Macro making an occasional appearance, and this time we’re with Macro, his wife and mother in Britannia, with Cato turning up later on. I must admit that it’s when the two are together that I’m at my happiest. We’ll have to see how that works out in future novels although I think the signs are good.

Nobody attracts trouble like Macro and he’s up to his neck in it almost by the end of page one, as if he wasn’t scarred enough already. You can just imagine Petronella rolling her eyes at him as he gets into one scrape after another. Macro has a formidable foe in this novel in the shape of the gangsters running the local protection rackets. He also joins a force to tackle unrest among the local tribes near Camulodunum. It’s difficult to know which is more deadly.

I’m not a particular fan of novels about gangsters and I discovered with The Honour of Rome that this also extends to Roman gangsters but I really enjoyed the descriptions of Londinium, a city in its earliest days. Barely any time at all has passed since the conquest – which involved Cato and Macro – and there is a real feel of the wild west about the place. It’s also mid Winter, which doesn’t help the feeling of desolation. The reader will be well aware that Boudica’s revolt looms at the time in which this novel is set and so there is extra interest in the references to Macro’s old friend, Boudica herself.

The Honour of Rome is full of action, fighting, military skirmishes and camaraderie between old soldiers. It’s difficult not to be carried along by Macro as he immerses himself in this new environment and finds his place. There is, to be warned, violence and cussing. I liked how this masculine world is also offset a little by the inclusion of the very likeable Petronella and the indomitable Portia.

I did find The Honour of Rome very entertaining as always. While not being my favourite of the series, it is always good to spend time with Macro and Cato, and the clues are there that make me want to read the next novel very much indeed.

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

The Blood of Rome
Traitors of Rome
The Emperor’s Exile
With T.J. Andrews – Invader
Blackout

Vengeance by Anthony Riches

Hodder & Stoughton | 2021 (11 November) | 321p | Bought copy | Buy the book

It is December AD 192 and Marcus Aquila, known and loved by many in his disguise as Marcus Corvus, has returned to Rome, his identity once more hidden. He has a mission and it is a deadly one. The mentor of Marcus’s commander Scaurus has plans. His name is Pertinax. He is a respected and honoured member of the Senate and he and many like him have had more than enough of the megalomaniac gladiator emperor Commodus. The news that Commodus intends to murder Pertinax and many of his colleagues on New Year’s Day is the final desperate straw. But to kill Commodus, a man of Herculean strength, protected by his Praetorians, will take a soldier like no other. But Marcus Aquila is no ordinary man. His swordfighting skills in the arena and on the battlefield are legendary and his hatred and hunger for vengeance against Commodus are unequalled. The soldiers and politicians of Rome wait and watch in the wings. Each has an agenda and each will be merciless.

Where to start with my love of this series, Empire, by Anthony Riches…. This is the twelfth in the series and it continues the run of enthralling, hugely entertaining and involving action thrillers set during the reign of one of Rome’s most bonkers emperors (which is saying something). You don’t need to have read them all to enjoy Vengeance but, if you have, you’ll have more of an idea of why Marcus and Scaurus are prepared to embark on what is surely a suicide mission. The world of the early books in the series was kinder to Marcus in some ways – he had a family to support him in his exile. Now his world is smaller, focused and he is supported by his old comrades, Britons, Tungrians, Syrians, Greeks – many of whom are built like an ox. They all adore Marcus. Now they’re going to step into the lion’s den to keep him safe.

Vengeance is a thriller from start to finish. It is so exciting! It’s full of underhand trickery, plotting, rather dim and bitter Praetorians, gladiatorial combat, lascivious feasting, senate pomposity, palace politics, and it is all brilliantly done. Anthony Riches knows his stuff and I love how this book is set in Rome, some of it even in the palace, above and below stairs. It’s full of fascinating details – such as how people can access certain areas of the palace and how Commodus was fed his daily feast of gladiators to fight. We see what life was like as a servant in the palace, as a mistress, as a soldier. And, what I find completely fascinating, how a conspiracy comes into shape and how ideals and greed just don’t get along. Rome as a society and power seems both knowable and totally alien. I love it.

And then there’s Commodus. We may know him from Gladiator but there’s much more to him here. Not long before the Pandemic hit, I went to Rome and I saw the astonishing statue of the emperor as Hercules. What a beautiful statue. Here we see the madness behind it unveiled. I love how Anthony Riches does that. He takes the known facts, buildings and dates and builds such an enthralling story around them.

Vengeance is, with no doubt at all, one of my favourites of this fabulous series. It’s such a good self-contained story in its own right that I think anyone would enjoy it. You’d then, no doubt, fill your shelves with the other eleven books in the series, so you can see what life was like in those long ago days when the young Marcus found himself on the front line in Britannia serving alongside a bunch of terrifying warriors that we have now come to love so much. More, please!

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
Empire VII: The Emperor’s Knives
Empire VIII: Thunder of the Gods
Empire X: The Scorpion’s Strike
Empire IX: Altar of Blood
Empire X: The Scorpion’s Strike
Empire XI: River of Gold
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 Burning Road by Harry Sidebottom

Zaffre | 2021 (30 September) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Burning Road by Harry SidebottomIt is AD 265 and the famous general Ballista is returning from Rome and the empire’s battlefields to his family in Sicily. With him travels Isangrim, the eldest son he barely knows. The journey is intended to remedy that but, from its outset, catastrophe piles on disaster and it becomes a fight for survival. The island is aflame with a slave revolt. The roads aren’t safe, luxurious villas have become slaughter houses, as slaves spill out from farms, mines and houses, following the man they believe to be their messiah. Many of them are recently captured Germanic warriors and Ballista, himself considered a barbarian by many of his equestrian class, as well as by his son, feels a connection but his mission is to keep his son safe, to find his family and defeat the brutal revolt.

Ballista is back! Most readers of Roman historical fiction will be familiar with Harry Sidebottom’s ‘Warrior of Rome’, who has been missing from the author’s more recent historical thrillers. The author continues his run of stand along thrillers set in the ancient world but this time he gives us Ballista as well and the result is, in my opinion, the best of his novels. This is no mean feat at all as it has serious competition.

The action is non-stop and immediate, beginning with the catastrophic sea voyage – this is hugely exciting! From then on, Ballista and Isangrim, or Marcus as his son wishes to be known, undergo ordeal after ordeal and Isangrim, a boy on the edge of young manhood, has to grow up fast and brutally. This is one of the great successes of the book, the growing relationship between Ballista and Marcus, who are worlds apart in so many ways, and the development of Marcus into Isangrim. The theme of barbarian versus Roman is a major one and so much of it is embodied in the remarkable figure of Ballista, whose reputation is formidable and yet he stands apart from Rome in many ways even though he is so important to it.

There is violence here but it’s not overdone and reflects the cruel lives endured by slaves. My sympathies were conflicted, there’s no black and white, but the revenge inflicted on owners is as horrifying as you’d imagine. The novel also raises the question of can there be such a thing as a ‘good’ owner. We have to remember that this is a novel about the Roman world, which is so different to our own, but the theme of slavery is timely and The Burning Road is a reminder that the empire was built on the ownership, labour and mistreatment of slaves. Sometimes that backfired as here, with the realisation that slaves far outnumbered their owners.

Harry Sidebottom, whose background is teaching classics at Oxford, really knows his stuff and he enriches his novels with his knowledge about warfare and society in the ancient world. One of the aspects of The Burning Road is that the author places Sicily firmly in its historical and mythological context. The thrilling story of Ballista’s journey across the burning island, so famous for its volcano, is also a story of Sicily’s legends and Greek battles of the past. They almost signpost Ballista’s heroic, epic journey.

I’m also glad to say that Ballista gets his chance to lead men in a fight once more and there are fantastic sections in which Ballista fights to save a town from attack. Sieges are one of my favourite aspects of Roman military fiction and few write of them as well as Harry Sidebottom.

It’s not often that I read a book in one day, let alone in one sitting, but that’s just what I did with The Burning Road. I’m not a fast reader and so I spent some wonderful hours one sunny Sunday in the garden engrossed in this novel, enjoying spending time with Ballista again and getting to know his son. I didn’t even move to have lunch! If you haven’t read any of the Ballista novels it doesn’t matter. The Burning Road stands alone brilliantly as a Roman thriller and as an outstanding historical novel.

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
The Return

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.

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
Britannia
Invictus
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
Caligula
Commodus

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