For those that have not heard of them, there is a group called the HWA "Historical Writers Association" . It is made up of many of the finest writers in the Historical Fiction genre. Robert Fabbri is one of these splendid authors.
For the last 12 months I have been convinced that this group of authors is having an impact on its self, a positive impact. I don't think its an overt impact, I just think that personalities, the discussions, the exchange of thoughts and ideas is impacting the styles, the depth, the quality and the final product. To the point that 2013 has led to some of the finest books ever released in the genre.
Robert Fabbri's Vespasian 4 Rome's Fallen Eagle is for me an example of that, easily the finest book in the series, a book that has taken another step up in quality of action, imagery, pace, prose and plotting. I was left mesmerised for hours at a time reading this book, I grimaced in pain, laughed out loud and cheered on Vespasian and his brother Sabinus with every page.
From the forests of Teutoberg and a story that should have screamed implausible, but had me on the edge of my seat, to the seat of imperial power and Narcissus, to the battle fields of Britain. This book packs in so much story line, and yet covers everything in such great depth and power i'm amazed the book isn't over 1000 pages long, it seemed to go on for ever and yet finished far too quickly.
This is truly one of the best novels you will read this year, and for fans of Simon Scarrow: the ending left me feeling I had been dropped at the start of Under the Eagle, I wonder how many people will be pulling out their copies for a re-read after finishing this book.
Very highly recommended, and i'm so looking forward to book 5
1. Tribune of Rome (2011)
2. Rome's Executioner (2012)
3. False God of Rome (2013)
4. Rome's Fallen Eagle (2013)
The Crossroads Brotherhood (2011)
The Racing Factions (2013
This is volume 4 in Robert Fabbri's series on Vespasian, one of the most "sympathetic" of all the Roman Emperors, to the extent that any of them could afford to be. As in the former instalments, the author tells a griping story where both Vespasian and his elder brother Sabinius take centre stage. Also like the previous episodes, the author has clearly done "his homework", researched the historical context and weaved his story within it in ways that are mostly or just about plausible.
The story starts with the assassination of Caligula, which follows the historical sources rather closely, except that Vespasian's brother is not mentioned as having been involved. The Senate did hesitate in nominating Claudius as his successor. As shown in the book, this was something that the new emperor resented and did not forget, despite his sometimes alleged "republican" inclinations. It certainly increased his paranoia which, given what he had been through before (a glimpse of it is shown in this book and even more in the previous one, with Caligula tormenting him and all the senators laughing at him), and the absolute power that the Emperor wielded, was probably part of the "job description" of any Emperor wishing to survive on the throne. As someone stated a while ago, the Julio-Claudian regime was an absolute monarchy mitigated by assassination, and this is very well rendered throughout the book.
The book is built around the recovery of the "fallen eagle", the third and last eagle of Varo's legions which were destroyed in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD and around the first phase of the invasion of Britain. The eagle was in fact recovered by Gabinius. The role played by the Flavian brothers in the recovery is the author's fiction. He is largely able to get away with it once again because we know rather little of Vespasian's and his brother's life and whereabouts before they took part in the invasion of Britain. It is therefore just about possible (although perhaps not very likely) that within the two year period between the murder of Caligula and the invasion, when Vespasian was Legate of the II Augusta on the Rhine (stationed at Argentorate - modern Strasbourg), he went on a secret expedition, as described in the book.
Anyway, whether likely or not, this expedition also allows Fabbri to present the state of Germania Magna at the time, the abandoned Roman province, and to tell the story of the Teutoburg disaster seen through the eyes of a legionary of Germanicus who reached the site of the battle half a dozen years afterwards, recuperated two of the three lost eagles in AD 14 and 15, and burried his comrades from the doomed legions. Here also, the author's careful research shows, including his knowledge of the archaeological findings of what was a multi-day running battle, with the last stand taking place near Kalkriese, not far from Hanover. One little glitch here is that the earth wall that runs parallel to the road taken by the Romans was more likely to have been prepared and manned by the Germanic tribes to box them in, rather than having been set up by the Romans in the heat of the moment to try to defend themselves.
Similarly, the invasion of Britain is well described, with the author having mainly used Brigadier John Peddie's book ("Conquest - The Roman invasion of Britain") and acknowledging it. Here again, the Flavian brothers' crucial roles in the battles fought to gain the crossing of the Medway and the Thames are based on the sources. There are however some instances where the author's interpretations seem to be a bit "borderline" and may have gone a bit too far.
One is his interpretation of the lame and physically handicapped Claudius, which the author repeatedly (and with some exaggeration) presents as a drooling fool. The extent to which he really was such a fool and let himself be influenced by warring factions (his Greek freedmen and Messalina) is somewhat controversial. So is the allegation that it was the freedmen who really ruled in his name, with Claudius being a mere figurehead. Using the freedmen as his henchmen was rather shrewd since the owed him everything. They had no power base of their own, they could not become emperors and they had no interest in overthrowing him. Also, and while Messalina was no Vestal Virgin and certainly ruthless and ambitious, what we know of her is what the sources written after her demise tell us of here: the picture is not a flattering one. It is also likely to have been a rather exaggerated one, as the Romans, when "blackening" the reputation of the "losers" in the latest power struggle, loved to heap all sorts of sexual depravations onto them. They did it with Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula. They would do it again with Nero.
Another far-fetched interpretation is when the author transforms the later stage of the campaign into a show, a piece of theatre with the sole purpose of propaganda for the benefit of the new regime. He assumes that Claudius was not even aware of it and really believed that the victory was due to his timely arrival. This is a bit much, especially since Claudius himself was well aware of the need for a military victory in order to shore up the legitimacy of his own regime. He was also a scholar and a historian, well aware that he was no soldier and, as mentioned before, quite unlikely to have been the utter fool and moron that Fabbri makes him out to be.
It also seems that the battle on the Thames was not brought to be by an over-ambitious legate trying to steal the glory for himself. Instead, Camulodonum (Colchester) was attacked, besieged and stormed after quite a bit of real fighting, as opposed to being a complete sham, as the author has chosen to show.
Another little glitch was to show the elderly Aulus Plautius (he would die sometime between AD 47, when he returned from Britain and was awarded his ovation and AD 51) just "losing it" towards the end of one of the battles and cutting through Briton warriors at the head of his cavalry as some Roman version of Conan the Barbarian. This was also a bit difficult to believe.
Apart from these glitches, all the rest was at least fine, and often great and superb. Even when not entirely plausible, the plots and action made this book into a real "page-turner", one of the ones that you just cannot drop until you have finished it. Although perhaps not quite as good as some of the previous volumes (or is this just me being fussy?), I still found that this one was just about worth five stars.
PS: for those wanting to learn more about the events covered in this book, I can recommend the following:
- John Peddie's book on the Roman invasion of Britain, which I have already mentioned in the review
- For the Teutoburg disaster, Major Clunn's book "In Quest of the Lost Legions: the Varusschlacht" (1999) and the corresponding Osprey Campaign title "Teutoburg Forest AD 9", by Michael McNally (2011)
- Regarding the Emperors, the (very scholarly) biographies of Tiberius, Claudius and Vespasian, by Barbara Lewick, the one on Caligula, by Antony Barrett, all published by Routledge, and
- for the story about the conquest of Rhetia and Germania before Teutoburg, "Eager for Glory: The Untold Story of Drusus the Elder, Conqueror of Germania" by Lindsay Powell (Drusus the Elder was the brother of Tiberius and the father of Germanicus and of Claudius)
on 2 June 2015
Caligula lies dead by the hands of assassins. Claudius, the drooling fool is proclaimed Emperor but his rule will be a short one unless he wins over the legions. To do that his three conniving freedmen, Narcissus, Pallas and Callistus, concoct a scheme of breath taking magnitude. Thus we find Vespasian and his brother Sabinus on a seemingly impossible mission to find and return the lost Eagle of the 17th Legion; lost 30 years prior in the Teutoburg Forest massacre. What follows is a masterful story of danger, excitement and unrelenting action coupled with the snake-oil, behind the scenes plotting of the powers behind Claudius; not only of his freedmen but of his devious wife Messalina. Mr. Fabbri has created a compelling tale of Vespasian and his ever increasing belief in himself and his destiny. His leadership qualities and his abilities as a warrior come to the fore in this volume of what is a great series of books. From the vast and dark forests of Germania to the savage battles fought for Claudius' benefit in Britain, Rome's Fallen Eagle takes the reader on a splendid ride indeed. 5 stars
There are two events in particular from Roman history that have always fascinated me - the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, which resulted in the loss of Varus, his three legions and their eagles and the Claudian conquest of Britannia. In Rome's Fallen Eagle, the fourth in Robbert Fabbri's excellent series on Vespasian, these events are both key and the result is a novel that I did not want to let out of my sight.
The series has reached the early 40s AD, Caligula is dead, assassinated by a circle of conspirators that may or may not have included Vespasian's brother Sabinus. The lame, dribbling Claudius is now Emperor and he is not without his own portion of his nephew Caligula's madness. Three freedmen eclipse the power of the senate, steering Claudius while fighting amongst themselves in a dangerous game for dominance. Chief among their pawns are Vespasian and Sabinus. Their mission, if they wish to save their skins by bringing glory to a foolish emperor, is to find and return the third of Varus's lost eagles from deep within the barbarian forests of Germania. Should they survive that place of Roman nightmares then there is an even bigger eagle to claim for Claudius - the island of Britannia.
From the very first chapter, set in a blood-soaked Roman theatre, ravaged by Caligula's maddened, grief-stricken Germanic bodyguards, Rome's Fallen Eagle grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck and hauls him or her through the most dangerous fringes of the empire, made worse by the scrambling for power amongst those closest to Claudius and his wife Messalina, and into the unknown.
Robert Fabbri never shies away from the gore and horror of life and death during these most dangerous of times. It's a miracle that Vespasian survived to become emperor himself but it was by the skin of his teeth. After the insanity of Tiberius and Claudius (I found parts of the last novel False God of Rome difficult to read at times thanks to these men), it's almost a relief to find Vespasian forced out of Rome. At least in the Germanic forests or on the river shores of Britannia Vespasian can fight back. But the dangers come from every side and there are moments here of such spine-tingling terror, I literally gasped out loud more than once. The scenes in the Teutoburg Forest are especially horrifying and brilliantly done. But they are rivalled by the battles of Rome's conquest of Britannia's chiefs and kings.
Throughout the novel, Fabbri expertly and lightly weaves together action with the strategy of what is happening. We are privy to the battle plans, the arrangement of different types of troops, Roman and auxiliary, as well as the historical background of Varus's defeat and the political context of Claudius's invasion of Britain. We get to know Germanic chiefs as well as `British' kings and in addition to Rome's venal administrators we also have its scheming generals. Through the middle of it, always in the midst of it all, is Vespasian and his brother and their companions, sometimes making mistakes but always at the front. What we are shown here are the origins of Vespasian's great skill in the field, the stirrings of an idea in his head of potential greatness. The omens of previous novels are referred to as are events which have repercussions now. This is a clever series. Events in one novel can affect future events, two or three books down the line, with Fabbri obligingly nudging our memories. And yet, if you wanted to read Rome's Fallen Eagle as a standalone novel you certainly could.
Above all else, Rome's Fallen Eagle is one of the most exciting novels I've read in 2013. The action does not let up a jot as one adventure turns into another while all the time we are in the company of well-rounded and colourful personalities, Roman and barbarian. I have enjoyed the whole series but without doubt Rome's Fallen Eagle is my favourite. It is never less than compelling, it is always well-written and time and time again jaw dropping. I couldn't read its pages fast enough.
on 30 November 2013
I have thoroughly enjoyed the previous books in this series albeit they have to be taken with a large dose of historical salt. In this book, however, there is the first appearance of a problem that Fabbri will have to tackle as the series progresses. For the earlier books Vespasian is a blank page on which Fabbri can weave whatever historical fiction he wants. As time progresses, however, Vespasian becomes much clearer in the historical record such that the author is now constrained by actual historical events. In this case it's the invasion of Britain. There is still some scope for fictional elaboration but the second half of the book, which covers the invasion, consists of a series of battles in which legions wheel, pila are thrown, swords stab, heads are decapitated and guts spilt. I must confess to speed reading some of the latter battle scenes desperately hoping I didn't skip some detail that would drive the plot on.
I will definitely read the next book as I am keen to see how the author takes Vespasian's story forward, but more liberties will need to be taken with history if the series is not to become repetitive.