Ro­man rulers brought to life … and death

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

“Skip the Julio-Clau­di­ans,” I urged Colleen McCullough after she pub­lished Antony and Cleopa­tra, the sev­enth in her Mas­ters of Rome se­ries. There’ve been too many nov­els about Rome’s first dy­nasty, I told her, the sto­ries of Au­gus­tus and his wife Livia, the first im­pe­rial fam­ily and their heirs — Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius — all the way to Nero and his mur­der in AD69.

Ev­ery in­flec­tion of Sue­to­nius or Tac­i­tus has been squeezed dry, be­gin­ning with Robert Graves and his two nov­els on Claudius fol­lowed by John Wil­liams’s Au­gus­tus, Allan Massie’s six nov­els from Cae­sar to Nero’s Heirs Har­ris’s Cicero tril­ogy.

“Go straight to the golden age,” I urged Colleen. “Be the first to bring Tra­jan and Mar­cus Aurelius to life.” But the great tale-spin­ner died, leav­ing un­touched a “king line” that only ends with Ro­mu­lus Au­gus­tu­lus, over­thrown by the Ger­mans in 476, the last em­peror of the West.

Among nov­el­ists only Mar­guerite Yource­nar in Mem­oirs of Hadrian (1951) and Gore Vi­dal in Ju­lian (1964) have dealt with the ma­ture em­pire.

Harry Side­bot­tom is an Ox­ford clas­si­cal his­to­rian, author of The En­cy­clopae­dia of An­cient Bat­tles. But his nov­els are crafted and cin­e­matic. They would need to be, drama­tis­ing the Ro­man cri­sis of 235 to 238: seven em­per­ors in three years.

Side­bot­tom opens Throne of the Cae­sars at the end of the Sev­eran Dy­nasty, with the bod­ies of Severus Alexan­der, a “boy em­peror”, and his mother Mamea, bleed­ing into the rich car­pet of the im­pe­rial pav­il­ion on the north­ern fron­tier. Power passes to Max­imi­nus Thrax. He is the and Robert cen­tral fig­ure in Side­bot­tom’s story. He is not a philoso­pher-gen­eral like Cae­sar, Hadrian or Mar­cus Aurelius. He is a peas­ant from Thrace (Bul­garia), a phys­i­cal gi­ant who could pull a cart with heavy loads. He was the first em­peror to rise from the com­mon sol­diery. He has learned the great truths. That tak­ing power is like tak­ing a wolf by the ears: you can never let go. You trust no one, es­pe­cially the Sen­ate, “a reek­ing sta­ble, mired in long gen­er­a­tions of filth”. Above all, he has learned, “En­rich the sol­diers. Ig­nore ev­ery­one else.”

In his short reign he is forced to bat­tle en­e­mies along the Rhine and Danube, leav­ing Rome seething with up­per class fury at his ex­ac­tions to fund his cam­paigns. But not just dis­af­fec­tion in Rome. In North Africa Side­bot­tom draws us in to the world of Gor­dian, the 80-year-old Ro­man pro­con­sul, and his son. They make a bid for the throne hand­i­capped by a cru­cial weak­ness: there are no big ar­mies in Africa. The Gor­dini­ans lack le­gions.

In Rome two se­na­tors, Pupi­enus and Balbi- nus, also get drawn into con­spir­a­cies against Max­imi­nus while he bat­tles the Goths and Ger­mans. But in any fight for the throne the ar­mies in the East­ern em­pire are go­ing to be cru­cial — east­ern ar­mies in­stalled em­per­ors in the past — and Side­bot­tom yanks our at­ten­tion to the muddy Me­sopotamian fringe of the em­pire where Ro­man gover­nors fight off the ris­ing power of the Sas­sanids, or Per­sians.

Side­bot­tom’s ex­per­tise in an­cient war makes his ac­count of the bat­tles fleet-footed and con­vinc­ing. He has one of his com­man­ders note, “A mounted charge in a wedge, wins ev­ery time; no ir­reg­u­lar troops will stand up to it, let alone a herd of na­tives from the desert.” There are count­less clashes to prove or dis­prove the the­ses. But they may not make the reader won­der, as with McCullough’s The Grass Crown, how many more sieges to come?

As in Dick­ens, well-cho­sen verbs drive the story. Torches gut­ted, flesh jud­dered, war­riors were cara­col­ing their horses. The breeze soughed through the grass and reeds. A ro­man maid-

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