It is twenty years or so since I read this book, but I could not leave a novel of this quality without a review. If you get a chance to buy this book, snap it up. Arden, better known as playwright or political agitator, has produced a gem of a novel.
The setting is the Roman Republic in the years 90-80 BC or thereabouts and the fatal conflict between the factions of Marius and Sulla, culminating in the legalised murders known as the Proscriptions. The story is told by a crippled actor turned stage director, called Ivory, who becomes swept up in the mayhem of civil war. The narrative is wonderfully picaresque, the dialogue as inventive as you might expect from such an accomplished dramatist, the action often extremely funny, the ultimate lesson sobering. Participants are presented by their nicknames (Sulla is the Stain after his blemished face, Marius, the Muledriver, presumably from his army reforms, Mithridates of Pontus, Old Strychnine, a good joke). The approach is resolutely anti-imperialist, as might be expected from this author, the characterisation more than convincing. There is a huge cast: actors, informers, spies, soldiers, politicians, rogues, dancers and prostitutes - many combining a number of roles. Most of the characters are from the subject races, Cuttlefish, a Nubian slave girl, Ivory himself, the Hellenised Paphlagonian son of an Arab tax collector, and most interestingly, HorseFury, a Cimbrian warrior first enslaved by Marius, then the instrument of Marius' vengeance on his enemies in the senate. Then there are the men who tear the world apart, the angry and crazed old soldier, Marius the Mule-Driver, and the cold, cruel Sulla, his stained face, sophisticated and aloof, with his love of theatre and an icy passion for retribution.
The title? Here are the opening words of the novel: "His exact words...the blood fouled old general, seven times consul, Gaius Marius the Mule-driver, staggering in the last malodorous days of his last term of office...'Inter arma leges silent': 'Once the weapons are out, the laws fall silent'. And, by god so they do."