Roman rulers brought to life … and death
“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-