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)