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Zulu in Roman Syria
on 28 March 2013
I was wary of beginning Nick Brown's 'Agent of Rome: The Siege' and put it off for a long time. Having read the blurb, it looked to me to be ridiculously close in plot to Harry Sidebottom's first Warrior of Rome, in that both involve a Roman site under siege from an eastern power at almost the same point in history. The locations are close, both in Syria. The times are roughly a decade apart.
I needn't have worried. There are similarities, yes, but... well let me put it this way: I could give two artists the brief to paint a picture of a tree on a hill in September, and one might look like a Monet while the other might be a Braque. So that's that dealt with. The two stories are dissimilar enough to make comparisons pointless.
Brown has taken on an interesting premise for the main character, selecting a member of the Imperial Secret Service; one of the (in)famous Frumentarii or grain officers. What he has done is to tackle the service in the style of a sensible, sensitive young nobleman with only the best intent at heart. This is not the sly, devious, murderous, dangerous view of that organisation we are used to. There is very little reference in detail to the service in this book as, despite being an officer of it, Corbulo is thrown into a situation where he is more active as a military officer.
As usual, I won't push the plot other than to say that it involves a tiny Roman garrison at the far eastern edge of Syria, full of misfits and laxity, which faces a siege by the forces of the newly expansionist Palmyrene empire. More need not be said and indeed should not, lest the plot be ruined.
What I can say is that Brown has created a believable and fascinating view of frontier life in third century eastern Rome, full of well-painted and interesting characters, each driven by realistic needs and desires, thrown together into a horrendous situation.
In short and as an incentive to go read it - The Siege was reminiscent of that most excellent of all siege movies: Zulu, and I can think of no higher praise than that.