Set at the begining of the “Year of the Four Emperors” with Rome in turmoil. Political mayhem in Rome with mad dictators and the Legions on the borders of the Empire starting to become restless – or rather their leaders are starting to feel the need for change at the top!
The book opens with our hero, Aulus Ceacina Severus lined up with his Legion facing the barbarians in Britain who are on the point of crushing the Romans in battle. Aulus thinks that this is time for him to check out the route for escape and to save his own skin. It becomes a bit Flashmanesque
at this point as an officer rides up to Aulus with orders; he is knocked off his horse and killed by an arrow. Aulus thinks that this is a great opportunity for him to escape and climbs on the horse. However the horse has other ideas, or more likely frightened out of its skin, and heads directly for the Britons. Aulus, with no option other than to hold on and strike out at the Britons charges headlong into the main bunch of attackers. His men seeing this brave act follow behind and the day is finally won by the Romans due to this hugely heroic act which is seen and lauded throughout the Legion. Thus the reputation of Aulus is fixed – the Hero of Briton.
The book is told as a memoire of an old man who has risen to be a Senator of Rome, looking back at events that happened when Rome was struggling with whether it wanted to be ruled by Dictators or elected Senators. Nero is on the throne but is opposed by Servius Sulpicius Galba, an important Governor in the Western parts of the Empire. Aulus is very like George MacDonald Fraser in that he is an unashamed name-dropper but I won’t bring in all the characters he names or describes! However, the GMF style soon drops away to leave a story in the author’s own style.
Following his time in Briton with the Legion, Aulus moves on in his career and is posted to Hispania as Questor (junior official) to learn his trade as a Roman official and to make some money! Shortly after settling in to this nice lucrative post he is summoned to see Galba who, after taking him into his trust (partly) entrusts Aulus with a role to go to Gaul/Germania to help foment a civil war, but not to allow it to become a civil war with one legion from Gaul versus another legion from Germania. Politics, eh?!
Aulus travels from Hispania to just south of what is now the city of Lyon and meets up with the local Governor – Vindex, a Gaul who has thrown in his lot with Rome and been granted Roman citizenship and Governorship of his territory. Vindex has been encouraged by Galba to raise an army of Gauls to oppose Rome thus making it look like the Emperor is losing control of his Empire and needs changing – for Galba! Aulus is to be Galba’s man ensuring that Vindex does not overstep the mark.
The author then takes some time to explain how an army was raised and trained by Romans in the Roman way and gives a good explanation of weapons, tactics and order of battle. The politics of the era and sensitivities of the non-Roman people of the time are also well covered. Although Vindex has gone over to the Romans, not everyone in Gaul has! Aulus finds himself extended fully trying to ensure that the men are trained, armed and ready for battle while ensuring that the battle does not actually take place, However, all does not go to plan and legion faces legion, although it is more like militia verses regular solder and there is only one outcome. Aulus is then in the position where he has to use all his cunning to ensure that this does not escalate into full-scale civil war and he talks the Roman Legion into accepting they have won and to just leave it at that for now! Again, the politics of the time are fascinating and well described by the author. The events that are the subject of this book actually took place which makes the book even more readable; although to be fair, some parts and participants’ roles have been altered to go with the story.
Galba duly overthrows Nero to become Emperor and looks after his protégé Aulus giving him early promotion to Legate and command of a Legion on the German border – well away from Rome. The final part of the book is about how a Legion worked but is mainly about how Roman politics worked and Aulus suddenly finds himself in extreme danger and having to decide whose side he is on.
This is a very well put together book, easy to read yet covering an extremely volatile time in the life of Rome and the complexity of Roman politics. What is all the more surprising is that this is the author’s first novel. He is to be commended for bring out such a good book and one which introduces such an interesting character. I hope that we get to see much more of Aulus Ceacina Severus as there is huge scope for a series of books covering the career of this fascinating person and the times he lived in.
If you like reading the books by Simon Scarrow, Anthony Riches and Co then this is a definite book for you. Well up to the task of showing Roman life as it was.
4 MRHs from me.
The Last Caesar by Henry Venmore-Rowland published by Bantam Press