This is volume five in the « Vespasian series ». I thoroughly enjoyed the four previous volumes and could not let go of any of them before finishing them. However, I had a few problems with this one, which I did not enjoy quite as much as the previous episodes.
One reason for being slightly disappointed is a certain lack of originality for which the author cannot really be blamed, given his choice of topics. Essentially this episode and its author come after similar books from Manda Scott and Simon Scarrow so there is a sense of “dejà vu” that creeps up, with similar stories about the Romans fighting in Britain, and having a rather hard time of it, and the intrigues and plots in Rome.
I was interested by the mystique pieces about the druids although I could not help feeling that the author had somewhat caricatured them into murderous “arch-villains”. I also felt that the ways in which some of their gods were depicted as lesser demons that were servants of the Son of the Morning (I will not give his other name to avoid spoilers) was not quite convincing. The author does make an interesting use of the legend of Joseph of Arithmatea, which in fact goes back to the 12th century, is not part of the Scriptures and according to which he took refuge in Britain, together with the Grail, and with some other very “special” refugees, which I will also not name to avoid spoilers.
To be fair, however, the rather ghastly picture of the Druids could be explained not only by the author’s creative license but also because of his Roman viewpoint, since his hero is Vespasian. Precious little is really known about the druids, and most of it is either through unflattering and presumably biased Roman written sources or through archaeology. Both seem to confirm, however, that they did practice human sacrifices to their gods, at least occasionally, but then so did many others during the Iron Age, including the Romans, with the original gladiatorial games “starring” prisoners of war that were made to fight against each other to the death being originally a form of human sacrifice.
Regarding the historical context, the first part of the book deals with Vespasian’s campaigns in Britain as the legate of the Second Legion Augusta. His role in subduing the south western part of the island by storming the Britons’ hill forts one after the other is very well described: a series of hard but victorious fights with Roman discipline and siege warfare always getting the better over the natives’ courage. Whether Caracatus was really opposed to Vespasian is more doubtful, however, since he seems to have been leading the Welsh tribes and facing Aulus Plautius in the north-west. Even if part of the author’s creative license, Robert Fabbri does nevertheless show rather well – as both Scarrow and Scott did in their own books - that the Romans did not all have it their way and that it was no walk over.
Also well shown is the fact that Roman legates, but also their tribunes, centurions and even the soldiers to a lesser extent, could expect to enrich themselves during such conquests and that the main way to achieve this was through the slave trade. This had happened in just about every victorious war that Rome had fought under the Republic and it continued during the Empire at least for the first couple of centuries. It was part and parcel of the Roman way of making war, with Roman commanders seeking fame and glory, but also spoils and captives that would enrich them.
The second part of the book is about the power fights and intrigues in Rome between the Emperor’s three main freedmen who governed the Empire in his name and Messalina, the Empress, right up to the downfall of the latter. Here also, the author has mostly kept to the “known facts”, meaning that he has followed the sources. This is even the case for Messalina’s outrageous behaviours although whether these sources really told the entire truth or exaggerated is, however, another story, and where he has not, he has mentioned it in his historical note and has mainly sought to put his hero at the centre of events. The attitudes and behaviours of the Senators – a mixture of fear for their lives and fortunes and sycophancy - are well shown, as such behaviour was quite literally vital and commonplace, including the story’s hero, as shown in the book
There are however a number of instance where the author’s license and “creativity” went a bit too far (in my view, of course), and makes parts of the story somewhat incredible.
Sabinus, Vespasian’s brother, does not seem to have ever exercised a senior military command in Britain and it would be very unlikely for any Emperor or any of his freedmen to send two brothers to the same front at the same time. I am not even this ever happened during the whole of the Empire’s history. Another piece which is hard to believe – to put it mildly - is having a Roman general rushing of almost on his own to gather intelligence about the whereabouts of his missing brother in the middle of a battle. A third piece that did not quite work for me was the depiction of Emperor Claudius as an utter drooling fool who was largely if not entirely unaware of his wife’s excessive behaviours. In fact, the author does not seem quite convinced by this himself and hints, at times, that Claudius may have known more than he cared to admit but preferred to turn a blind eye, partly because he may have been in love but also perhaps mostly because the scandal would show him up very badly. Another piece which is very difficult to believe is the final apparition of the Druids bent on settling scores with Vespasian and his brother, although here again, I will stop to avoid spoilers. Four stars.