Tag Archives: Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reviews and features
Empire I: Wounds of Honour
Empire II: Arrows of Fury
Empire III: Fortress of Spears
Empire IV: The Leopard Sword
Empire V: The Wolf’s Gold
Empire VI: The Eagle’s Vengeance
Empire VII: The Emperor’s Knives
Empire VIII: Thunder of the Gods
Empire IX: Altar of Blood
Betrayal: The Centurions I
Onslaught: The Centurions II
Retribution – The Centurions III
An interview for The Eagle’s Vengeance
An interview for The Emperor’s Knives

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A Capitol Death by Lindsey Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Triumph in Dust by Ian Ross

Head of Zeus | 2019 (10 January – ebook: 1 December, 2018) | 467p | Review copy | Buy the book

Triumph in Dust is the sixth novel in Ian Ross’s fantastic Twilight of Empire series, books which have followed the career of soldier, centurion and general Aurelius Castus in campaigns across the late Roman empire, from Britannia to Persia, during the early 4th century AD. Triumph in Dust is set more than a decade after the events of the previous novel, Imperial Vengeance, and would, I think, stand alone well. But I’d definitely urge you to pick up this series and read it from the beginning with War at the Edge of the World, if only to find out just how far our hero Castus has come. It’s been an extraordinary, dangerous, thrilling journey.

It is 336 AD. After so many years of conflict and civil war, the empire is at peace. Constantine the Great continues to build the empire’s mighty new capital city of Constantinople. Former general Aurelius Castus is now 60 years old and retired, content in the company of his beloved wife and daughter, trying so hard to forget the terrible events that drove him from Constantine’s service over a decade before. But Castus is not to be left in peace. The Persians are stirring. They threaten the empire’s eastern border with bloody war. Constantine needs an experienced and wise man to assess the situation, to travel across the region’s forts and cities, preparing them for the possibility of war. Only one man will do – Aurelius Castus. Castus is not as young as he used to be. He suspects that his strength and health are failing him. But, after years of retirement, Castus can’t resist the lure of action and command. But, where Castus is going, he will have far more to fear than the Persians. Castus is a famous, respected general. To many, with Constantine nearing the end of his life, Castus is a threat.

Triumph in Dust is an outstanding novel. We’re familiar with Castus and his struggles with Constantine, the emperor’s sons and family as well as with his rival emperors. Castus has had years caught in the middle of civil war, in the most perilous situations. But now Castus embarks on a final mission for an emperor who has caused him so much grief and pain, and it stands out for the very personal struggle that it will bring. Castus is on his own. He has men to advise him, notably his beloved son Sabinus as well as his dear friend and secretary Diogenes, but this is ultimately a personal battle of strength for a man who fears that he may not have much time left. He must find the power within himself but, when it comes to it, he will do once more what he’s always done best – fighting for his empire, sword in hand, with his bare fists if he has to.

Triumph in Dust pits the Roman Empire against arguably its deadliest enemy – the Persians – and the action takes place in the hot deserts of the east. It’s a challenging environment. Life is hard in these forts, towns and cities, travelling between them across the featureless sand can be lethal in the heat. Officials can be corrupt and power-driven. It’s Castus’ job to rally the legions at these remote posts, while constantly being aware that he risks a dagger in the back. But when the war does come then Castus will be ready.

At the heart of Triumph in Dust is what I’ve always enjoyed the most in Roman military historical fiction – a siege! The siege of Nisibis in 337 AD is brilliantly depicted by Ian Ross. It’s exhilarating, exciting, shocking, bloody, astonishing and more. I’ve read some good Roman sieges in fiction over the years but this really must be a contender for the very best. And the fact that Castus is there fighting tooth and claw alongside his men makes us sit even further on the edge of our seats. The book also contains one of the very best depictions (Douglas Jackson has also done this brilliantly) I’ve read of the Roman fighting formation of testudo, the tortoise. With Castus at its heart, we really feel like we’re there and it is truly, truly horrifying, challenging and frightening.

Ian Ross describes Roman warfare so well. He brings the details of it to life in vivid colour and smells. But he is also a master of the rest of it – the politics, the conspiracies and cunning – as well as the details of life in a Roman town, including Constantinople, during the 4th century AD. It feels so real all around us. The story of Castus contrasts with that of his wife Marcellina who must face her own battle to survive as she sees a side to these places that Castus never can.

An element of these books that I’ve always enjoyed is their treatment of early Christianity. In previous novels we’ve seen Constantine’s ambiguous relationship with the faith, as well as his mother’s devotion, but in Triumph in Dust we see very little of Constantine. Instead, we see the role that early Christianity – and a couple of its saints – played in the town of Nisibis, when the town is at peace and also at war. It’s really fascinating and makes the people behind the mosaic iconography of Byzantium seem real and, in the case of St Jacob of Nisibis, extraordinary and very charismatic. Castus, of course, hangs on to his paganism which is so much a part of who he is. This tension between faiths, between the new and the old worlds, between Rome and Constantinople, is such an original and compelling element of the series and is particularly resonant in its finale.

There’s always sadness in seeing a much loved series come to a close but Triumph in Dust is a triumphant conclusion. Castus is larger than life and yet still just a man. His reputation soars but we see him at his most vulnerable and at his most alone. It’s a fine portrayal and one I won’t forget. Thanks must go to Ian Ross and Head of Zeus for such a spectacular series.

Other reviews and features
War at the Edge of the World (Twilight of Empire 1)
Swords Around the Throne (Twilight of Empire 2)
Battle for Rome (Twilight of Empire 3) (with interview)
The Mask of Command (Twilight of Empire 4)
Imperial Vengeance (Twilight of Empire 5)
Guest post by Ian Ross, author of Triumph in Dust

Roman historical fiction – a big thank you!

Rome: Eagle of the Twelfth by MC ScottAs the end of the year approaches – and while I continue to hum and haw about my top ten books of the year (at one point this week I managed to get my top 10 down to 58), I thought I’d embark on a series of posts to thank those serial authors whose books I have loved over the years and who, in very large part, are responsible for making me the hungry reader that I am today.

I’m a huge fan of historical fiction, to put it mildly, and there are some series that I have deep affection for and I look forward to the latest addition every year. The fact that each series must eventually end is not something that makes me happy. And this year I’ve mourned the loss of more than one. Although there is now the excitement of wondering where these beloved authors will take us next!

I’m an archaeologist by trade and my favourite period has always been the Roman era. Roman historical fiction forms the heart of my book love. Other periods of history do come in and cheekily steal my attention but I can never get enough of the Romans. So here are the authors I’d heartily recommend, although I suspect that many of you will be enjoying their books already and you don’t need me to tell you how flippin’ marvellous they are.

Hammer of Rome by Douglas JacksonThis year, Douglas Jackson finished his Hero of Rome books with the fantastic Hammer of Rome. Gaius Valerius Verrens is a true hero of Rome, a man we’ve followed through hard times and good as he’s faced some of Rome’s deadliest enemies of the 1st century AD, including Boudicca. He did not emerge from that fight unscathed.

In the new year, Robert Fabbri will finally conclude his chronicle of the rise to power from humble origins, through bloody war, of the Emperor Vespasian. Tribune of Rome began the series and it now ends with Emperor of Rome. Vespasian is not the man he once was – how can he be? He must now learn to become a god.

Another series due to end in the new year is Ian Ross’s Twilight of Empire series set in the 4th century AD. It began with War at the Edge of the World and will conclude with Triumph in Dust in January and I cannot wait to read it! Aurelius Castus is such a fine character who has risen through the ranks to the very top but there seems no end in sight to the civil war that has divided the empire into pieces.

Anthony Riches is an author it’s an absolute pleasure to rave about. He’s just finished a trilogy on the incredible Batavian Revolt, which followed the death of Nero. The Centurions trilogy began with Betrayal and concluded this year with Retribution. This is a masterpiece of storytelling and so good is it, I am prepared to forgive its disruption of his long running Empire series (begun with Wounds of Honour), which is due to continue shortly. We’ve travelled a long way with Marcus Aquila and his troop of Tungrians and I can’t wait to resume the journey.

Conn Iggulden has turned his attention elsewhere in more recent years but his Emperor series is superb. Covering the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire, the series ended with the brilliant The Blood of Gods. Conn’s most recent novel takes us to ancient Greece with the fantastic The Falcon of Sparta.

Eagles at War by Ben KaneI’ve been a big fan of Ben Kane for years and he’s given us several series and I love them all. Ben has tackled Hannibal and Spartacus. My favourite series so far by Ben has been his recently completed trilogy on the great defeat of Varus in AD 9 by Arminius and the seizure of Varus’s three eagles – Rome’s most infamous and famous defeat. It began with Eagles at War, which tells the terrifying and bloody tale from the point of view of centurion Tullus. It’s brilliant. Ben’s latest novel, Clash of Empires, tells the story of what happened when Greek culture encountered head on the might of Rome.

Harry Sidebottom is well known for his military series featuring Ballista, the Warrior of Rome (begun with Fire in the East, and Ballista has reappeared recently in this year’s excellent Roman thriller The Last Hour – Ballista has only one day to save the emperor from assassination and the empire from disaster. I can also recommend Harry’s now complete trilogy The Throne of the Caesars, begun with Iron and Rust.

The Earthly Gods by Nick BrownI am a huge fan of Nick Brown’s Agent of Rome series. Cassius Corbulo is a young spy thrown very much into the deep end and sent off on all manner of perilous missions across the empire during the late 3rd century AD. His Christian servant Simo is such a memorable creation as is Cassius’s bodyguard and ex-gladiator Indavara. This series began with The Siege and the most recent and sixth novel was The Earthly Gods. I long for this series to return – I’m keeping everything crossed.

Manda (MC) Scott is one of the finest writers about, whichever period of history she writes about. I adore her Rome series, which began with The Emperor’s Spy and ended with book four The Art of war. The Eagle of the Twelfth, set during the reign of Nero, is one of the very best novels I’ve ever read. Demalion of Macedon is an extraordinary character. This is powerful writing that also never forgets how to tell a good tale.

Britannia by Simon ScarrowWhen talking about Roman military fiction, I can’t leave out Simon Scarrow’s Macro and Cato series which I have loved for years (the latest novel The Blood of Rome was published this year. My favourite is Britannia). You also shouldn’t miss SJA Turney’s Marius Mules’ long running series which covers the military campaigns of Julius Caesar. The series began with The Invasion of Gaul.

I can’t get enough of Roman crime fiction and some series have long legs. David Wishart’s Marcus Corvinus series is possibly my favourite and I’ve been reading it for more years than I care to mention. This year the nineteenth was published, Family Commitments, and I think it could be one of the best of the entire series. Although arguably Corvinus isn’t the star of the books. That honour begins to his butler Bathyllus and his megalomaniac chef. Other series that I’ve enjoyed are Rosemary Rowe’s long running series featuring the British mosaic maker Libertus (the latest novel is The Price of Freedom) and Steven Saylor’s Sub Rosa series. The Throne of Caesar about the assassination of Julius Caesar was published this year and it is wonderful! I must also recommend Ruth Downie’s crime series which features Roman doctor Ruso. His latest case, Memento Mori, was published this year.

Pandora's Boy by Lindsey DavisLike so many of us I’ve read and loved Lindsey Davis’s books for years. Who doesn’t love Marcus Didius Falco, Vespasian’s spy? His cases kept me entertained for years until it was time for him to retire and settle down in the antique business. Now it’s the turn of his adopted daughter Flavia Albia, who must also contend with Rome’s attitudes towards a female detective (Rome doesn’t like it) plus a new husband who is suffering from being struck by lightning. Flavia’s last case was Pandora’s Boy. She will return for her seventh case, A Capitol Death, in the spring. Fantastic!

I’ll finish with Rome’s emperors. I just can’t get enough of them. I’ve hugely enjoyed Margaret George’s two books on Nero, beginning with The Confessions of Young Nero and concluding this year with The Splendour Before the Dark. Caligula by Simon TurneyOne of the book highlights of this year was Simon Turney’s fantastic novel on Caligula. Simon will next turn his attention to Commodus – this makes me very happy indeed.

And so there we have it! I know I’ll have left wonderful authors and fabulous books out and I’ll be troubled by that. But I think there’s enough here to start with. My plea to publishers is that you never stop publishing Roman historical fiction. I cannot be without it. I need more! And to all of those authors whose novels have, and continue to, thrill, move and entertain me – I’m so grateful. Thank you! I can’t wait to travel back through time with you again next year.

Emperor of Rome by Robert Fabbri

Corvus | 2019 (3 January) | 349p | Review copy | Buy the book

Emperor of Rome by Robert FabbriWith 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!

Other reviews
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

Guest post by Ian Ross, author of Triumph in Dust

The Twilight of Rome series by Ian Ross has given me such reading pleasure over the last few years. Set during the early years of the 4th century AD, the books provide such a fascinating and thrilling portrait of a divided Roman empire at war, covering the rise to power of one of Rome’s most famous (but perhaps not that well known in fiction) emperors Constantine the Great. The centurion Aurelius Castus, a fantastic hero, is placed at the heart of events and it is gripping stuff. In January, the series comes to a close with the sixth book, Triumph in Dust. This obviously makes me sad as I’ll miss it but I’m really excited to see how it will end – for Rome and for Castus. I’ll be posting a review of the novel closer to its publication in hardback on 10 January but the ebook will be available from 1 December. To celebrate the occasion, I’m delighted to join the blog tour with a guest post by Ian Ross on how he picked this particular period of Roman history to bring alive in the Twilight of Rome series.

War at the Edge of the World by Ian RossGuest post

You decide that you want to write a series of novels, following the adventures of a single character through an epic period of history. You’ve always been fascinated by the ancient Roman world, so that seems the ideal setting; but Rome endured for over half a millennium, and featured a wealth of extraordinary events; how do you narrow it down?

You want to choose a period that will allow you the widest geographical scope. You also need a cast of engaging historical figures, familiar to the educated reader but not over-represented in fiction. You want to steer your stories as close as possible to recorded facts, so you need a well documented era, but one with sufficient breadth of uncertainty to allow your imagination free rein. Lastly, of course, you need to choose a setting with the greatest possible dramatic potential, a time of wars and uprisings, plots and intrigues, a moment when the certainties of the past are being overthrown, and a single man – or woman – can rise from obscurity to take a guiding role in great events.

It’s strange to consider, as I reach the conclusion of my ‘Twilight of Empire’ series – the sixth and final book, Triumph in Dust, is published in January – that I did once ask myself these questions. But for me, there could only have been one answer. Years before, when I lived in Sicily, I had visited the ruins of the Roman villa at Piazza Armerina, and seen the fabulous floor mosaics, dating from the early 4th century AD, showing scenes of daily life: soldiers and hunters, aristocrats and slaves, all in dazzling colour. I soon realised that the thirty-year reign of the Emperor Constantine would provide an ideal framing chronology. From his first acclamation at York in AD306, Constantine’s bloody and dramatic rise to sole power would give me a powerful narrative arc, around which my story could evolve. He was also the first emperor to adopt Christianity, and the revolutionary changes in religion would add an extra social dimension to the turmoil of the era.

Imperial Vengeance by Ian RossBut I did not want to tell the story of Constantine himself; instead I wanted to view his world through the eyes of a figure on the periphery of power, a man who could move freely between the frontiers and the very heart of the empire. And so my protagonist was born: Aurelius Castus begins the first novel as a common soldier, recently promoted to centurion of a legion in northern Britain. His adventurous career will take him through the greatest battles of the age, and right across the Roman world from the barbarian wilderness to the palaces of the emperors, then onward to the distant eastern frontiers, as he scales towards the dangerous summit of power.

Now, even as I consider future projects, and once more ask myself those same questions about setting, I know that the world of the ‘Twilight of Empire’ novels will always endure in my imagination. Historical fiction gives us a way of encountering familiarity in the strangeness of the past.

Reviews and posts
War at the Edge of the World (Twilight of Empire 1)
Swords Around the Throne (Twilight of Empire 2)
Battle for Rome (Twilight of Empire 3) (with interview)
The Mask of Command (Twilight of Empire 4)
Imperial Vengeance (Twilight of Empire 5)

Emperor Rome: The Splendour Before the Dark by Margaret George

Macmillan | 2018 (15 November) | 571p | Review copy | Buy the book

Emperor Nero: The Splendour Before the Dark by Margaret GeorgeIt is AD 64 and the Emperor is in his villa in Antium, to the south of Rome, where he performs his own epic on the Fall of Troy for his appreciative audience of friends and fellow artists. It is while Nero is there that an exhausted messenger arrives from Rome and tells him that the city is burning. The Great Fire of Rome has begun and it is threatening everything in its path, including Nero’s own palace. Nero immediately rides back to Rome as fast as he can, determined to fight the fire with his own hands, alongside the fire officers and crews who are working day and night to save the city. What Nero experiences over the coming days and nights will change him forever, but it will also give his vision new expression – Nero will rebuild Rome. Its splendour will astonish the world.

The Splendour Before Rome completes Margaret George’s superb and original portrait of Rome’s most famous and infamous emperor that began with The Confessions of Young Nero. In the first novel we saw Nero’s rise to power, his transformation from the unknown young child Lucius into heir to Claudius’s throne, finally becoming emperor himself. It was a part of Nero’s life largely controlled and steered by his notorious mother Agrippina, whose fate forms such a central role in the first book and in the emperor’s life. It is from that point that Margaret George now resumes her story, covering the period from the Great Fire of Rome – possibly the most well-known event of Nero’s reign – through to the very end. You can read The Splendour Before Rome without having read The Confessions of Young Nero first, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

The Nero that presents himself to us here – for most of the novel is written in Nero’s own words – is not one that I’ve met before, and I’ve read a lot of wonderful books over the years that feature him. Margaret George explains in her afterword that she believes that Nero has been unfairly treated by Roman commentators, who had their own agenda to maintain, leading to a whole series of rumours that were perpetuated by later historians, not to mention Hollywood. Whether you agree with this or not, Margaret George here pulls together the strands of Nero’s life, finding the roots of some of the gossip that grew up around him, while also presenting a fascinating portrait of what absolute power can do to a young man who’d really much rather race chariots and compose heroic verse than rule an empire. It’s an intriguing mix. In one sense, we’re given reasons to explain why Nero was regarded as he was by historians, but conversely we’re also given glimpses of a man who failed in the one role he couldn’t maintain – emperor. He is both misunderstood and flawed.

Nero is conflicted and his self-awareness of this is a truly fascinating element of Margaret George’s treatment of him. Nero talks of the dark Nero, the third Nero, that will do anything to keep alive his other two Neros – the emperor and the artist. We’ve seen in the first book what his dark side will make Nero do but in this second book Nero does his best to suppress the evil. Instead he wants to focus on the arts and also on his passion for chariot racing, a cause of great scandal to Rome’s elite. The senate is shocked by Nero’s decision to go to Greece and compete in all of its festivals (all compressed into one year on his orders). Nero seems oblivious to how he is perceived by Rome and carries on regardless, but there are clues for us that this cannot end well.

Nero is oblivious to other things as well – how people will regard his great Golden House that he will build across much of the city’s centre, and then there’s the enormous colossus statue of himself that will tower over Rome. Nero genuinely believes that the people around him are his friends. He accepts their criticisms because he is a humble artist and that is what artists must do – they will always have their critics. But there comes a time when he will learn the truth about what they really think about him. And he is amazed.

The emperor might have his enemies but he is also loves and is loved and we see that here, especially in the figure of his wife Poppaea but also in his first love, Acte. The fate of Poppaea is dealt with so well while Acte is given occasional chapters as narrator, revealing another side to young Lucius, as she will always regard him. And then there’s the tragic figure of Sporus.

Certain infamous deeds of Nero’s reign seem to take place in the shadows, especially the persecution of the Christians in the aftermath of the fire. It’s as if Nero can distance himself from these acts. It’s described almost as if it’s a dream. Nero seems proud that he’s never hurt anyone with his own hands but, as emperor, with power over life and death, this is a meaningless belief. Especially as many are forced to die by their own hand. I really loved this conflict between Nero’s view of himself and the view of others that we’re given tantalising glimpses of – the Nero who makes decisions about the government of the empire without consulting his senate, who evicts people to seize their land for his own palace, the extravagance of that palace. At times he is deeply saddened when people he loves seem not to love him back. He struggles to explain why when we can see it as clear as day. He is also very superstitious. He is a man who lives in dread of his fate while seeing signs to it all around. Nero is also an outsider – at odds with the ideal of Roman martial masculinity. There is no doubt that he is looked down upon. At times, one might almost feel pity for him. Almost.

I love these two books. Aside from the drama of Nero’s own conflicted personality, there are dramas of other kinds – the fire is described brilliantly as we follow its destructive path across the ancient city, burning its temples and holy places. It’s impossible not to warm to Nero the fire fighter. The chariot racing scenes are thrilling and I really enjoyed the chapters spent on Nero’s great cultural tour of Greece. Then there’s the great love affair of Nero and Poppaea, which is treated here in a wholly original way. Poppaea is such an unusual woman, as was Nero’s mother, and Margaret George does wonders in bringing such complex personalities to life.

I have enjoyed Margaret George’s ‘autobiographies’ for many years and her portrait of Nero is a fine addition to them. Here we have Nero as he may have been. Perhaps as Nero might have recognised himself. This remarkable, flawed, possibly mad, individual here gets the chance to speak for himself and his words are never less than riveting.

Other review
The Confessions of Young Nero