Tag Archives: Rome

The Return by Harry Sidebottom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reviews
Warrior of Rome I: Fire in the East
Iron and Rust: Throne of the Caesars I
Blood and Steel: Throne of the Caesars II
Fire and Sword: Throne of the Caesars III
The Last Hour
The Lost Ten

River of Gold by Anthony Riches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grove of the Caesars by Lindsey Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brigantia by Adrian Goldsworthy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reviews
The Encircling Sea

Traitors of Rome by Simon Scarrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Last Battle by Nick Brown

2019 (26 September) | 375p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Battle by Nick BrownMy love for Nick Brown’s Agent of Rome series knows no bounds and, having lapped up the first six and loved every moment of them, I was disappointed and saddened to learn that no more would be conventionally published. Cassius, Indavara and Simo were in very real danger of being left in the lurch, with no hope of resolution, especially for the bodyguard and ex-gladiator Indavara, a character who has grown and grown during the years and had reached such a critical point in his life. It was such a relief to learn that Nick Brown would be publishing the final seventh novel under his own steam. This is clearly a labour of love. It shines through every page. And it is of every bit as high a standard as the ones that went before, right down to the gorgeous cover. I am so grateful to the author for taking the series through to its conclusion. But what this does mean is that The Last Battle isn’t a book to start with. Instead, you must go back to the beginning and Agent of Rome: The Siege. This review assumes you know what has happened before.

It is AD 274 and the Roman Empire is divided. The Emperor Aurelian has control of Rome and has conquered most of his rivals. But the rival ’emperor’ Tetricus, after many years, still holds Gaul. Aurelian is determined that this state of affairs will end. He will take back the west. His legions are poised along the Rhone, ready to cross and seize control of Gaul. Tetricus knows what Aurelian is up to but he needs to know the detail. And so he sends his agent Volosus to abduct a key general in Aurelian’s plan. He will be taken to the formidable, inaccessible fortress of Ecytha for ‘questioning’. Time is of the essence. The general must be rescued before he can reveal Aurelian’s plans.

Cassius Corbulo, agent of Rome and spy, is young but his brief career has brought him glory, as well as severe hardship. His companions, the bodyguard Indavara and the servant Simo, a Christian, have been vital for Cassius’s survival and well-being. And now the three of them are sent to Ecytha to achieve the impossible – to sneak into the impregnable fortress and retrieve the general. Cassius is nearing the end of his five-year service. His home is tantalisingly close. Indavara, too, feels himself close to home, while Simo must reflect on how he will use the freedom Cassius will reward him with when the mission is done. Cassius, Indavara and Simo have reached a critical turning point. But first they must survive their mission.

The Last Battle is the seventh and final novel in the Agent of Rome series and it gives the series the ending it deserves. It is absolutely wonderful! If you’ve read any of these books (and if you enjoy Roman historical fiction then I’m sure you would have done) then you’ll know what a joy it is to spend time with these three damaged, trapped and immensely likeable individuals. Cassius is such a fascinating young man who has achieved so much, far more than anyone would expect. He’s clever and he’s also kind, albeit a little blind and gullible at times. Indavara has been through so much. He remains an enigma but the signs are there that he is a puzzle about to be cracked. It’s an immensely human and tender portrayal of a gladiatorial killing machine who has found his conscience. My favourite, though, is Simo. What a fantastic creation! He is Christian, and that puts him at odds with his pagan companions, but that unease is beautifully portrayed. We regularly meet key figures in early Christianity in these novels and The Last Battle is no different. Simo’s love for Patch the donkey is a humorous theme that has run through several novels now but it does such good service to Simo’s character. What is to happen to Simo when Cassius completes his tour of duty and how will Cassius manage without him? This occupies Simo’s mind.

This is such an exciting novel. The pages fly through the fingers. The action is almost relentless, and yet there are frequent moments to stop and draw breath. I loved the descriptions of Ecytha. This series has been consistently strong with its locations and this is just as true of The Last Battle. Because this is the last novel of the series, there are reminders of the past, including appearances by past characters. It all adds to the sense of occasion as well as closure.

There were tears… I didn’t want this series to end but I’m so thankful for the way in which it did end. This is fine writing and here we have characters that I love deeply. The author is to be congratulated for bringing the series to a fitting close. It’s emotional to read at times but I’m thankful for it. Several of my favourite Roman series have ended recently and here we have another one. But at least it means that the series is now complete for new readers keen to immerse themselves in this incredible period of history. I’m going to miss Simo….

Other reviews and features
Agent of Rome I: The Siege
Agent of Rome II: The Imperial Banner
Agent of Rome III: The Far Shore
An interview – The Far Shore>
Agent of Rome IV: The Black Stone (review followed by an interview with the author)
Agent of Rome V: The Emperor’s Silver
Agent of Rome VI: The Earthly Gods

A Prisoner of Privilege by Rosemary Rowe

Severn House | 2019 (31 May) | 240p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Person of Privilege by Rosemary RoweIt is AD 194 and the Roman Empire is in turmoil following the murder of the Emperor Pertinax by his own Praetorian Guard. The new Emperor, Septimus Severus, sees threats on every side and one of those threats is the Governor of Britannia, Clodius Albinus. Sides are being drawn and the effects are felt as far away as Glevum (modern Gloucester) in Britannia. Pavement maker Libertus has risen high, thanks to the patronage of Marcus, a powerful man in Britannia and the friend of Pertinax. Libertus, a citizen who was once a slave, is now sitting on the town council.

Libertus now has influence of his own. But he must still do whatever Marcus instructs and one day Marcus informs Libertus that a cousin of his is being sent to Britannia as the Emperor’s own messenger. Everyone knows he’s a spy, sent to uncover dissenters and followers of Clodius. Marcus knows that his rank will not be able to save him from the spy’s awkward questions. And so the murder of a local moneylender, another influential man in Glevum, couldn’t have come at a worst time. It’s up to Libertus to solve it before he, too, falls victim to the spy. But then another murder upsets everything.

I’ve been reading Rosemary Rowe’s Libertus novels for more years than I care to recall. I’ve not missed one of them and I always look forward to them. They’re comforting and entertaining but they’re also packed with historical detail and research, backed up by informative introductions in which the author sets the time and place. A Person of Privilege is the eighteenth Libertus mystery. They all stand alone very well but I’ve loved getting to know Libertus and his household of family and young slaves over the years, as well as demanding patrician Marcus and the men and women of a beautifully realised prosperous Roman town.

Libertus’s life has been full of incident and drama and it’s given him insight into the lows and highs of Roman society. He was once a slave and slavery is a repeated theme through the series. Libertus is a father figure to his young slaves. He cares deeply for them. In this novel, slaves, recently sold, play an important role. Libertus never lets us forget that they’re human beings, in contrast to the attitudes of his patron, Marcus. Libertus’s family plays such an important role in his life, and therefore in the novels.

I really enjoyed the depiction here of local Roman government with all of its little rituals and expectations, such as the command that Libertus and councillors like him must always wear a toga, with its thin purple strip, when outdoors. Not that he does, of course, because at heart Libertus is still a pavement maker, a craftsman of mosaics. We also learn about the customs, rituals and practicalities of death. It’s all deeply fascinating and informative.

The Prisoner of Privilege, while not my favourite of the series (it has a lot of competition), was a delight to read. I love the world of Roman Britain it takes me to. It’s comforting and cosy but it’s also clever and superbly researched. Marcus is always leading Libertus into trouble and I’ve loved being there with him every step of the way as he puzzles, or blunders, his way out of it. I always look forward to these books. Long may they continue!

Other reviews
Dark Omens
The Fateful Day
The Ides of June
The Price of Freedom

The Exiled by David Barbaree

Zaffre | 2019 (27 June) | 367p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Exiled by David BarbareeThe Exiled is the sequel to one of my very favourite books of 2017, the remarkable Deposed. What if Nero didn’t die in AD 68? What if he managed to get away, blinded, maimed, a different man, to somewhere distant from Rome where he could plot against the emperors who succeeded him? That is the premise of this fantastic series and I’m delighted (but not surprised) to say that The Exiled is every bit as good as its predecessor. I would urge you to read Deposed first, even though The Exiled stands well on its own. This review assumes you’ve done just that.

It is the summer of AD 79. Emperor Vespasian has just recently died and the new ruler is his son Titus, a man of action. Titus is also a superstitious man and he is troubled by the words of an oracle, which foretold a great disaster and, perhaps even more troubling, that a slave will rule. There is trouble in the East, yet again. Brothers compete, and murder, for the Parthian throne. There are Parthian hostages in Rome, pledged during an earlier war, and now they will be caught in the middle of a power struggle between Rome, which they hate, and Parthia, which they no longer know. As a Parthian embassy arrives in Rome, trouble stirs and plots are hatched.

Keenly observing it all, with senses other than his blind eyes, is the wealthy Spanish senator Lucius Ulpius, who is growing ever closer to the emperor Titus. Titus’ closest friend, Pliny, both admiral and scientist, is jealous but, more to the point, he is also suspicious, and he instructs his young nephew Gaius to observe. But there is something else to fascinate Pliny – the mountain of Vesuvius rumbles ominously and the ground shakes.

The Exiled is a very, very good book. As with its predecessor, this is such an original take on a very familiar period of Roman history. Here we have Nero as never presented before. He was brought to the very depths of despair, blinded, tortured and humiliated. But, thanks to Marcus (now passed off as the senator’s nephew) and men like him, Nero survived and he has forgotten nothing, despite the transformation undergone by his character due to what he has suffered. Nero, now Lucius Ulpius, has learned wisdom from his suffering. He wants revenge but he is prepared to wait for the right time and serve it cold.

The focus in this novel isn’t actually on Ulpius at all. He’s always there in the background. We can never forget him. But much of the narrative is told in the present tense by Gaius, the nephew of the extraordinary man we know as Pliny the Elder. This is fascinating! Gaius is the perfect witness to history. He’s been instructed by his uncle on how and what to observe and, although at times he is forced into social situations he hates, he learns and watches and records. And then everything is overshadowed by the eruption of Vesuvius.

The Exiled is such an exciting and riveting novel – a Roman political thriller with a disaster novel thrown in for our added enjoyment. I couldn’t take my eyes off the pages. We hear other voices and they resonate, especially Titus’s sister Domitilla, who is caught up in something way beyond her control. And then there’s the Parthian hostage, Barlaas. Each of these has a unique voice and plays such a central part in a brilliant story. We see so many aspects of Roman life, including the games. Here we meet gladiators as well as senators, servants, the inn keepers, the ordinary man and woman on the street, each of which has a significant part to play in what unfolds.

There is so much plot in The Exiled! There is clearly – thankfully – much more to come and in a future novel I’m sure we will see how Nero/Ulpius has manoeuvered himself. In The Exiled, he plays a quiet but significant part. Ironically, Titus is worried by the False Neros who threaten him in the East, never realising that the real Nero is right under his nose.

I could go on and on about how much I love The Exiled. Really, you just need to read it for yourself. It’s a story, a thriller, that works on so many levels as Nero works his way into the emperor’s court. But, on top of that, the chapters set in Pompeii are riveting. The Exiled, just like its predecessor Deposed, is original, clever, exciting and engrossing. I can’t praise it or its author enough.

Other review

Commodus by Simon Turney

Orion | 2019 (13 June) | 482p | Review copy | Buy the book

Commodus by Simon TurneyMarcia’s place at the Roman imperial court is unusual. She has the status of a freedwoman, the daughter of the seamstress of Lucius Verus, Marcus Aurelius’ co-emperor, but she spent her childhood alongside those of the royal family, growing especially close to Marcus Aurelius’ son, Commodus, and his brothers. Years later, when Commodus succeeds his father as Emperor, Marcia becomes closer still to this young man she loves so much. But a man cannot rule the world without it changing him. History knows Commodus as the megalomaniac who loved to fight as a gladiator (just remember Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the man in Gladiator!), and Marcia is witness to it all. Marcia knows Commodus better than anyone. She loves him the most and she also has reason to fear him.

Simon Turney’s latest novel in his ‘Damned Emperors’ series focuses on one of the most charismatic and infamous of Rome’s rulers, who was emperor in the later years of the 2nd century AD. Commodus really did think of himself as Hercules reborn but Simon Turney here shows that there was much more to the man than this. As with the previous novel, Caligula, the story is told from the perspective of a woman (a genuine historical figure) who was closest to the Emperor. Marcia was quite possibly the love of Commodus’ life and she achieved a status that far outstripped her rank as a freedwoman. Once again, Simon Turney creates a convincing, fascinating and complex female figure – someone who is a central part of the story while also being an outsider, due to her gender and her rank.

Through Marcia we see glimpses into Commodus’ soul, beginning in AD 162, from their earliest years as children playing together, along with Commodus’ siblings. This is a novel filled with disasters, some that affected all of Rome and others that damaged Commodus. Commodus better than anyone understood the fragility of life. It also makes for an exciting novel as we see floods, fires, civil unrest, war and accidents. One of the biggest threats facing Rome and the empire, though, was plague. It’s never that far away from these pages.

Commodus is such an engrossing novel, filled with characters who each leave their mark, whatever their rank. Marcia is our narrator but she isn’t quite what she seems. There’s a psychological thriller element here, I think. She is an unreliable narrator at times. She has her own agenda and at times I found her horrifying, no less a demon than Commodus himself. Perhaps this is one reason why they grew so close. Marcia keeps her eye on the men and women who live in Commodus’ circle. Intrigue is rife and, as time goes on, intrigue becomes something else. Marcia seems to be at the heart of it all. Commodus is almost the innocent at times. But it all shows what a complicated man Commodus was. There is more to him than history has recorded and, although we only see some of it in glimpses – it’s difficult for Marcia to see into Commodus’ deepest thoughts – it’s compelling and our feelings towards him are conflicted as we try to understand him.

This is such a fascinating period in Roman history and it’s brought alive here. We have the personal relationship between Marcia and Commodus and those closest to them, but then there is also the political turmoil of the period, reinforced by disaster, and these two sides to Commodus’ story are brought together by Simon Turney in such thoroughly absorbing style. I can’t wait to find out which emperor will be the next to receive the Turney treatment!

By the way, Commodus is a beautiful hardback, complete with maps and family trees.

Other reviews and features
Marius’ Mules I: The Invasion of Gaul
Marius’ Mules II: The Belgae
Writing historical locations – a guest post

The Lost Ten by Harry Sidebottom

Zaffre | 2019 (18 April) | 355p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Lost Ten by Harry SidebottomIt is AD 265. The attention of the Emperor Gallienus is on rebels in the West but Volsianus, the powerful Praetorian Prefect has his eye on the East. The chance has come to unsettle the legendary, enormous Persian Empire. The King of Kings has turned on his brother, a man respected for his learning and wisdom, imprisoning his nephew, the child Prince Sasan, in the Castle of Silence, a dreadful, impenetrable fortress close to the far side of the Caspian Sea. It’s only a matter of time before the order is given for the boy to be murdered horribly. Volsianus is determined that won’t happen. He wants the prince in Roman hands, as a pawn in his own games.

A team is assembled to undertake the formidable journey through Mesopotamia to the Castle of Silence. Murena, the head of the frumentarii, Rome’s spies, is given the task of recruiting some of the ten men who will meet in the eastern city of Zeugma, ready to begin a mission that is surely suicidal. And it’s not long after they set off that the first death occurs, putting the young equestrian officer Marcus Aelius Valens in charge and totally out of his depth. He must pull this strange and hostile group together as they head deep into the desert and drylands and yet all the time, as mishap follows mishap, Valens’ suspicion that there is a traitor in their midst increases. This must surely be a one-way mission. He must prepare to fight for his life, then die for Rome.

The Lost Ten is a standalone Roman thriller by Harry Sidebottom, the master of Roman military historical fiction. There was something about the TV thriller 24 in the author’s last novel, The Last Hours, as our hero had just a day to save the emperor’s life from an unknown assassin. This time we’re put in SAS-thriller territory. This is a rescue mission by a team of ruthless, highly capable soldiers in a hostile environment. Not all will make it, if any. It will all depend on the strength, courage and leadership of one man. Throw in an inaccessible, terrifying fortress and an enemy that has developed the most sophisticated, cruel ways in which to commit murder, and you have something irresistible.

Ballista is Harry Sidebottom’s most famous hero and, although he doesn’t feature here (only getting a few welcome mentions), we’re still in Ballista’s Rome and Empire. This is familiar territory and the author knows it inside out. It’s a fascinating journey into the East and every step of it is marked by action, natural disaster and treachery. We’re given glimpses of the boy in his tower and we will him to be freed and so we are invested in this story, just as we are exhilarated by its thrills.

Harry Sidebottom writes so well and his novel is enriched by his impressive historical military knowledge. But none of it feels heavy or out of place. It merges with the novel perfectly. We’re not distracted in anyway from the extraordinary endeavour of Valens and his men.

I loved The Lost Ten. It’s extremely exciting, historically fascinating and with a fantastic setting. I gobbled it up. I think readers of modern military thrillers will really enjoy this one while those of us, like me, who can’t get enough of Harry Sidebottom’s Roman storytelling will lap it up. There’s also something very appealing about a stand alone Roman thriller. Excellent!

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