Top positive review
More of the same?
on 1 September 2013
This is volume six of Anthony Riches' "Empire" series which take place at the end of the second century AD and will ultimately also cover the first decades of the third century as well. In this volume, the action takes place in AD 184.
The book has the same ingredients as the other previous episodes. It is essentially one of these "swords and sandals" (well, Roman boots anyway!) adventure stories books, but it is one of the better ones, or, perhaps more accurately, one of the ones that I prefer. The main reason for this is because Tony Riches is one of these authors who happens to be just as good as a story teller and as a historian. His historical note on the Antonin Wall (much less well-known than Hadrian's Wall) is rather excellent. His description of the Roman army, the relationships between legions and auxiliaries, between tribunes, centurions and troopers and between senators and equestrians are also well grounded and thoroughly researched.
Some readers might dislike the rather abundant "profanity" in the dialogues, with lots of swearing, slang and biological and sexual terms. One other reviewer took exception to what was seen as a transposition of the behaviour and vocabulary of modern British soldiers. The author certainly has made this assumption, and quite deliberately. However, it does "rings true" and seems rather plausible, to say the least. We do know that Roman soldiers were made to be though, rough and coarse. Assuming they weren't already so when they enlisted, they certainly became so, or else they did not last very long. In modern parlance, you could say that this was part of the "job requirements". Anyway, who expects Roman soldiers, whether legionaries or auxiliaries, to be gentile, nice and sweet, polite and well brought up?
The book does however take a while before the actions (fight against the Venicones tribe) starts coming thick and fast and finishing with Marcus Aquila (our "blue-eyed boy" Eagle) getting at least part of his revenge. The plot and machinations of the Praetorian Prefect Perennis are, to some extent, invented although quite plausible and also partly backed by the sources. The portrait that Tony Riches draws of Emperor Commodus is also a rather plausible one with his unwillingness to rule, his (rather understandable) paranoia and his bout of murderous rage.
Tony Riches has also done something similar to what Harry Sidebottom has done in his recent "Ballista" volume. There is a clear allusion to Rosemary Sutclif's classical Roman novel - another Eagle has been lost and needs to be retrieved. One of the secondary characters in this volume is a camp prefect called Artorus Castus. This was a true historical character who did serve in Britain at about that time, and NOT during the Fifth century AD contrary to what is shown in the film "King Arthur".
So, to a large extent, this one is "more of the same": if you liked the previous episodes, then you know what to expect. You will also like this one (just as I did!), although you might find that the first a hundred pages or so are a bit "slow going". Be aware, however, that it is preferable to read these volumes sequentially, and this is perhaps even more the case for this one.
Four solid stars.
PS (added on 25 September 2013): those wanting to learn more about the Antonine Wall can usefully read Osprey's "Rome's Northern Frontier AD 70-235" which presents just about enough additional context to go with this book to suit the vast majority of readers. Anyway, it worked rather well for me, so I hope it might also work for you...