TOP 100 REVIEWERon 20 October 2013
With this little novel (his first to be published), historian Philip Matyszak tries his hand at historical fiction. The action takes in 105 BC, as the Germanic Cimbri and the Teutones migrate from the north in their tens of thousands and approach once more the borders of Italy. The hero is one Lucius Panderius, an ex-military tribune who has served in Africa during the war against Jugurtha, and who is the proud owner of one of the most posh brothels in Rome when the story begins, in addition to being one of Sulla's clients.
The story evolve around the "Gold of Tolosa", the huge stock of plunder that the Tectosages, a Gallic tribe that settled around Tolosa (modern Toulouse, in France), had brought with them after plundering Greece in 279 BC (and the temples in Delphi in particular). This treasure was stolen and it has never been elucidated exactly what happened or who did the deed. Quintus Servilius Caepio, the proconsul commanding the Roman army that attacked Tolosa, was accused of being the culprit. Only the silver (in itself a huge amount) reaching Rome whereas the convoy with the gold was waylaid and vanished. He then took part in the battle of Arausio against the Germanic tribes where his conduct was partly responsible of the disaster.
The point here is that, for those who like their novels that way, the basis of the story is historically accurate. The first part of the book, which takes place in Rome, allows the author to give his readers more than a glimpse of the (often squalid) living conditions in the great city. You also get glimpses of the sharply divided and unequal society in Italy, with the plebeians, the aristocratic senatorial families, and the Italians. The second part of the book takes place in Gaul, around Tolosa and Narbo (the Roman colony that is modern Narbonne). The last piece of the book - the battle of Arausio - is as griping and realistic as anything written by Siddebotom, Scarrow, Cameron or Riches (to name but a few).
There are, however, a couple of additional features that make this book stand out. One is the way the book is written, as a memoir by the plebeian Lucius Panderius, in a rather unrefined way (expect lots of swearing and lots of "biological" terms). It is also witty, amusing, and, at times, hilarious (at least that's how it worked out for me!). Another interesting and amusing feature is the way in which the social relationships in Rome and the Roman patronage system are presented through the eyes of the somewhat cynical hero. Interestingly, we also come across the historical characters of Sulla and Sertorius, with the latter in the (historic) role of an intelligence officer among the Germans and the Gauls.
The behaviours of the latter and their Galatian cousins are also historically accurate, although often bordering on the caricature in order to be funny. However, they were clearly at a loss when besieged and confronted with the Roman war machine. This is something that the book shows rather well. Also of interest to me was the depictions of religion during Antiquity and the extent to which people were "superstitious" (at least this is how we would see them nowadays). Finally, the character of the priestess of Aphrodite was also fun and rather talented in getting her own way and putting Panderius in trouble. I will refrain from mentioning anything more, to avoid spoilers.
At times, the author may give the impression of going a bit "overboard" when writing the story. A couple of very anachronistic examples are a reference to "kebabs" and to a "job description". There are a handful of similar expressions ones as well. To be fair, however, there were not enough to annoy or to detract from what was a hilarious romp. Playing "Devil's advocate", it could also be just about possible to contend that these were introduced by the author himself when he translated the original manuscripts into plain English...
Well worth the read and great entertainment. Five stars.