Historical Fiction Rome
Rome, AD 51: Vespasian bring’s Rome’s greatest enemy before the Emperor. After eight years of resistance, the British warrior Caratacus has been caught. But even Vespasian’s victory cannot disentangle the newly made consul from Roman politics: Agrippina, Emperor Claudius’ wife, pardons Caratacus.
Claudius is a drunken fool and Narcissus and Pallas, his freedmen, are battling for control of his throne. Separately, they order Vespasian to Armenia to defend Rome’s interests. But there is more at stake than producing a client kingdom. Rumours abound that Agrippina is plotting to destabilise the East. Vespasian must find a way to serve two masters – Narcissus is determined to ruin Agrippina, Pallas to save her.
Meanwhile, the East is in turmoil. A new Jewish cult is flourishing and its adherents refuse to swear loyalty to the Emperor. In Armenia, Vespasian is captured. Immured in the oldest city on earth, how can he escape? And is a Rome ruled by a woman who despises Vespasian any safer than a prison cell?
There are two things about novels dealing with Roman times at the height of the Empire. Did all the politicking that all the Roman writers I’ve read write about, actually go on? Or is it just a device that has become a given in Hist Fic circles? Or are we applying a 21st Century view on first century politics? It’s politics, it goes on now, it must have been the same back then. My thoughts as well, would be that a book like this really could cross over to more modern genres, and appeal to those who liked ‘House of Cards,’ for example. And, in Roman times (thought this could cover all periods ‘a long time ago’ were there ever any dull days? Where nothing of note, no poisonings, no huge banquets, no Emperors shagging their half-brothers in public. Days where it rained all day and they sat inside in front of the fire and watched a fresco. You know what I’m saying. Of course, that sort of thing wouldn’t make a good book, let alone a series (of seven, as Robert F is up to now). Maybe, as he points out at the end, saying that this book is speculative, covering at least in part, a period undocumented in Vespasian’s life, maybe the reason there is nothing, is because he didn’t do anything. ‘Ides of March AD 51. Got up, messed about, went to bed.’
The first part, third or so, is concerned with goings on in Rome. Setting out the problems and the reasoning for why the rest of the book deals with what it does. There are perhaps one or two too many ifs and buts and maybes and names ending in ‘us’ to keep total track of, but apart from glazing over a couple of times, I can see why it’s there. Some authors, sensibly, stay at a distance from all the politicking – Ben Kane, Anthony Riches I’d venture – they seem more interested in the consequences of the machinations, than the machinations themselves. I hope authors aren’t including all this kind of thing because it appears to add a certain gravitas to their work. Certainly, given that we know where Vespasian ended up, he had two choices – go along with all this, play the great game, or remove himself from it all. From reading about the period after this book details, from Douglas Jackson for example, that he seems to have done a little of both.
All that aside, there’s a lot to like about this, once it moves away from the plate of spaghetti that is Roman politics (in Historical Fiction at least) of the time. The writing is as ever, absolutely first-rate. You’re allowed in immediately, and you know, pretty much where you’ve got Vespasian. Thinking back over the previous books, you can see what a superb job Robert F has done in slowly developing the Vespasian character to be where he is now. He is also making some points about the free-for-all that was the beginnings of Christianity and Paul(us) in particular, hijacking and deifying of it for his own ends. If I were to go out on a limb, and put words in RF’s mouth, I’d say he wasn’t a great fan of Christianity. I’m not either, I’d hasten to add, but then, I’m not a great fan of any religion and especially not one created and twisted away from its original message.
It didn’t quite take me by the spatula and swing me round by the denarii like, for example, Rome’s Fallen Eagle, but it is a very strong volume in the overall series. And, judging by the end of this one, the next book is going to be a tense affair, as all is ready for Nero to take centre stage. If it’s anything like the one dealing with Caligula, we’re going to need a strong stomach, nerves of steel and hope the story goes off with Vespasian rather than staying in Rome.
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