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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A different gem, 30 May 2014
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This review is from: Iron and Rust (Throne of the Caesars, Book 1) (Hardcover)
This is a superb gem from Harry Sidebottom, the author of the Ballista series and a professor of history at Oxford. It takes place some twenty years before “Fire in the East”, which was published in 2008, and is a prequel of sorts, although you can perfectly well read “Iron and Rust” - a quotation from Cassius Dio about the hard times that the Roman Empire was experiencing - without having read any of the author’s other books.

Although there are a few similarities with Sidebottom’s other books, this one also stands out as very different, to the extent that some other reviewers seem to have been surprised, dismayed, and perhaps even a little disappointed.

The first similarity is of course the period chosen by the author, the so-called and mostly little known “Crisis of the Third Century” (sometimes also termed “Military anarchy”), which started in AD 235 and is traditionally ended some fifty years later with the beginning of the reign of Diocletian. This happens to be the author’s “special” period and, once again, he shows to what extent he knows it like the back of his hand.

The specific period chosen for this novel (AD 235 to AD 238) is also original, and even less known than the Sassanid attacks and invasions that were the main feature of the first three books in the previous series featuring “Ballista/Dernhelm”. It shows the beginnings of this progressive descent into chaos, starting with the vivid murder of the last Emperor claiming to be of the line of Septimius Severus (Severus Alexander) and of his power hungry mother, and followed by the major part of the reign of Maximinus, the first of what some historians have called the “soldier-emperors.”

One feature that seems to have dismayed some reviewers is that there is no single “hero”, as there was in the previous series. Instead, you have three or perhaps even up to five or six main characters whose stories, actions and reactions to the events that are weakening and disrupting the Empire are shown sequentially. This feature allows the author to present within a single volume what is happening throughout the Empire, whether on the Rhine and Danube frontiers, as we follow Maximinus’ single-minded campaigns and hard-won victories, in Africa, as we meet the Gordians and their friends and associates fighting against Moorish raiders, Pupienus in Rome or Priscus (and the yet to be Emperor, his brother Philip the Arab) who has to cope with the increasingly bold and aggressive Persians with too few troops to hold the Eastern frontiers. One character – Themistius (of which we will certainly see more in the next volume) – moves from the northern frontiers to the East and to Rome.

Some common elements link all of these characters together, despite their various backgrounds and origins, from the humble and secretive die caster to the most noble patricians and Senators, to the jumped-up Emperor and the “little Greek” (Themistius) equestrian. The main ones are total uncertainty and fear, which at times turns into terror. This is perhaps one of the book’s best features because Harry Sidebottom goes well beyond his usual skill for detail. He certainly manages skilfully to recreate life in various places in the Roman Empire at the time. However, he also recreates the dreadful atmosphere of total mistrust, deadly politics, ruthlessness, fear and terror that grips all of those in positions of power. These include those favoured by their (often huge and therefore very temping) fortunes and birth-rights (the Senators), those holding powerful civilian posts, governorships or (mostly) military commands that they hold, or simply the descendants of past emperors, with their ancestors making them into potential threats for whoever happens to be on the throne, even they are otherwise harmless.

It is this atmosphere of mistrust, paranoia, plots and rampant treason that runs through the whole of this book and gives it its fundamental unity, much more than any single “hero”, and this atmosphere is conveyed in such a way as to make the whole story come alive. The painting of the human characters, and the very human ways in which they react to these very pervasive climate of total distrust, fear and rampant paranoia is also simply excellent. None of these characters are entirely sympathetic, largely because of the ways they react to this constant climate of fear, but they appear as eminently human in their various strategies of survival. The younger Gordian drinks and tries to find oblivion in multiple pleasures, until the day when he has to make an irreversible choice. Themistius intrigues and betrays others in order to survive, keep his enemies at bay, and stay in favour of the increasingly unpredictable and erratic Emperor, while the Emperor himself follows his increasing fixation for more wars to secure the northern frontier at just about any cost.

All three (and others) face their constant fear of being killed in various ways, with Themistius quite vividly “starring down the rodent” (his fear). Perhaps the most sympathetic of the three, although none of them really are as they all seek to survive yet a little longer by using whatever means are available to them, is Maximinus, the giant of a man who did not want to become Emperor, but was given little choice by those who murdered his predecessor. Here the author has deliberately chosen to portray the old (but talented) soldier, of which we know very little, as trying to do his duty and to hold things together, and increasingly failing despite his victories. If anything, Maximinus, who was much blackened and decried in the (mostly senatorial) Roman sources, appears as a dutiful but tragic character. He very ruthlessly puts down one rebellion after another, loses the few that he can trust, and has less and less faith in all the others that surround them. Despite his (considerable) military talent and personal bravery, he is hopelessly out of his depth in the political arena and each of his moves to punish treason and procure resources to pay the army just creates more enemies plotting his demise to ensure their own survival.

Another interesting feature is the depiction of Maximius as a somewhat older, stronger and more powerful version of Ballista himself, with the senatorial wife, his bodyguard and his old man which have been by his side and guarding his back both literally and figuratively. In fact, sprinkled through the book, and for those that have read the series about Ballista, there are various hints to characters and events that will appear and take place in these previous books. There is a mention of a young barbarian hostage, the son of one Ysangrim, a chief of the Angles (the much younger version of Ballista). Also present in the book is a very young Acilius Glabrio, who you will come across again some twenty years later. Also, there is also a mention of the frontier town of Arete (the main location of the events taking place in “Fire in the East”).

Finally, there are the events themselves. These are presented and told with the author’s usual mastery, with hints and explanations both embedded in the text and presented in the author’s various historical notes, such as the growing financial pressures that the Empire was facing, as the army’s pay was jacked up time and again and the also growing pressure on the Empire’s frontiers, with the Empire unable to face several major threats simultaneously. Some additional features include the increasing use of legionary detachments (vexillatio) drawn from frontiers for far away campaigns and which left the defence of these frontiers seriously undermanned, or the larger role played by auxiliary units and cavalry.

Here, however, I will have to somewhat disagree with another reviewer who found that this book was essentially “a political thriller”. It is that indeed, but it is also and perhaps more than anything else, a grim fight for survival for just about all of the Roman characters involved. Moreover, there are no less than two major battles; these are Maximinus’ victories against the Germans and the Carpes and Sarmatians, respectively well beyond the Rhine and well beyond the Danube. There are also a number a sharp fights (four) in both Africa and the East, with perhaps one of these (in the East) counting as a major defensive engagement where the Roman forces managed to extricate themselves from the Persians’ death trap because of and as long as they kept their discipline. In addition to a handful of useful maps and a list of characters, the book also includes a fascinating note of the battle of Hartzhorn, whose battlefield has only recently been discovered. As you will see when reading the relevant chapter, the battle itself bears a few similarities with the opening (and very visual) scenes of Gladiator, except that here it is the Emperor himself that brings the victory at the head of his troops (and NOT “Maximus/Russell Crowe”, his top general).

So, while this book IS a political thriller, it is ALSO a rather magnificent “sword and sandals” novel AND a top class historical novel which will make you live, feel and breath the Empire’s rather deadly atmosphere at the time, at least that is how it worked out for me. Five hugely deserved stars.
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