Top positive review
Roman invaders and Briton allies
on 15 April 2016
This is book 4 of Simon Scarrow’s “Eagle of the Empire” series. The first phase of the conquest of Britain has ended but Caradoc, the chief of the Catuvellani and heart of the resistance against Rome has escaped capture and retreated to the North-West (to what is now Wales) with the remnants of his army. The bulk of the Roman forces with Aulus Plautius have advanced to confront him while Vespasian (and Macro and Cato) with the Second Legion have “pacified” the South-West and taken dozens of hill-top forts and towns in the process. The problem is that the Roman supply lines have become extended and the territory behind the lines is far from being totally subdued.
The story begins as Cato and Macro are recovering (especially Cato, grievously wounded in the previous episode) at Calleva, the Roman rear base and supply depot. The King of the Atrebates – Verica (a historical character) is pro-Roman but not all of the Atrebates are and many fought against the Romans. Because the Romans cannot spare enough soldiers to garrison Calleva, Cato and Macro are tasked with forming and training two cohorts of auxiliaries out of the Attrebate warriors, cohorts which will fight hard and give their best against the common enemy.
This is probably one my favourites titles in the whole series. It includes the usual themes developed by Simon Scarrow, such as the rough bantering and friendship of the comrade-in-arms Cato and Macro and the usual desperate fighting. One valuable element with this is to make the story more plausible and to show that the conquest of Britain was no “walk in the park”. Resistance was fierce and Romans suffered setbacks, as shown in the book. It also helps to explain why it took so long (about a decade) to subdue only the southern part of Britain.
This volume, however, also introduces somewhat different themes. One is the fact that Rome was in fact supported by a number of chieftains and at least part if not all of their respective tribes. Rather skilfully, Rome exploited old rivalries, hatreds and the settling of old scores against the Catuvallani which had previously been dominant and seem to have caused the exile of Verica King of the Atrebates. The point here is that such support certainly helped the Romans although, as shown in the book, it may not have been wholehearted. No levy and formation of auxiliary cohorts of Britons to fight against Britons from other tribes are recorded although, given the circumstances described in the book, this could have taken place since the fall of Calleva to Caredoc would in fact have cut-off the Roman forces from their supplies and any reinforcements.
Another more moving theme is that of loyalty, trust and the warrior ethos as the Wolves develop a sense of a new common identity and pride under the harsh training of their Roman centurions. The way the author presents their faithfulness and their fate is rather moving and not exactly to the credit of the Roman command, although the latter’s behaviour is perhaps understandable given the dramatic circumstances.
The battles, both outside and within Calleva, are simply griping. An interesting feature used by the author in a number of his novels is to show that the noble warrior elite were “professionals”, probably just as well armed as the Romans and just as dangerous, as shown for instance in the last battle. The intrigues and plots within the ruling caste and families of the Atrebates, with the divide between pro and anti-Roman matching rivalries for leadership, is also well done.
Easily worth five stars.