If you enjoy a good political and military thriller which is also a historical novel, with plenty of action and violent death, this novel should appeal to you. The ancient world holds a deep fascination for the author, Robert Fabbri, who is a film director and theatrical producer. He seems to know his Roman literature well; for example, I found echoes of Seneca’s writing in his portrait of Claudius. Fabbri has had the good idea of continuing the story of imperial Rome with a series of “faction” novels revolving around the career of the future Emperor Vespasian; overlapping with, but going well beyond, the period of Robert Graves’ novel Claudius the God. Claudius appears in this novel, the sixth of the series, portrayed less sympathetically than he is by Graves; in fact, he is made out to have been an alcoholic and rather horrible with it.
- Robert Fabbri
At the mention of imperial Rome, our thoughts go immediately to the Julio-Claudians, yet they reigned for less than a century out of the four-and-a-half of the Empire’s existence. Augustus was proclaimed Emperor in 27 BC and Nero committed suicide in 68 AD. He was the last of the line: he had previously murdered all his close relations. Following AD 69, the Year of Four Emperors (Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian), in which several Roman Generals fought for the throne, Vespasian ended the civil war, restored order and established the new dynasty of Flavian Emperors. He was born in AD 9, five years before the death of Augustus, and he outlived Augustus’ dynasty. Given the homicidal tendencies of the Julio-Claudians, this was an achievement in itself. It is possible that the Flavians’ obscurity saved them; they were minor provincial aristocrats, who had usually made their careers in the Army. It probably did not occur to anyone that one of them might one day become Emperor. What we know about Vespasian is mostly to be found in Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars. Suetonius comments that “We have no cause to be ashamed of the Flavian record”: Vespasian is reckoned to have been one of the good Emperors. He was also a successful soldier; even a commander of genius. He played a leading role in the conquest of Britain, for which Claudius however took most of the credit.
Suetonius gives us only the bare outline of Vespasian’s career, so Fabbri is free to invent as many incidents, characters and details as he likes. And he does; this novel is a rattling good thriller. Rome’s Lost Son – the reference is presumably to Claudius’ son Britannicus, who never reigned because Nero had him murdered, and who appears in the novel - takes place in AD 51, when Vespasian brings back Rome’s arch-enemy, the British King Caractacus, as a prisoner and is awarded a triumph. But his future is not secure: Claudius’ evil wife Agrippina sees Vespasian as a threat. The real rulers of Rome are two Greek freedmen, now senior civil servants and both born intriguers: Pallas and Narcissus. Against his better judgement Vespasian becomes entangled in their plotting.
The Near East is in turmoil – some things never seem to change – and Vespasian is despatched there to sort it out with a mixture of diplomacy and military intervention. He is captured and imprisoned by the King of Armenia. Escaping proves to be very challenging and, even if he does escape, will he be any safer in Rome, given that Agrippina has unfriendly plans for him? Read on…