S.J.A. Turney's Books & More

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Commodus in the Times

Times review

Commodus by Simon Turney

Simon Turney has previously written a strong fictionalised account of the life of the emperor Caligula. His new novel takes on Commodus, another of the bad boys of Roman history, best known to modern audiences as the mad emperor in the film Gladiator. The narrator in Commodus is Marcia, a young freedwoman whom Turney found mentioned in original sources. She grows up in the imperial palace alongside Commodus, the young and precocious son of the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius. The young man is beset by tragedy. His twin brother, his favourite uncle and his mother die in quick succession. He is prone to fits of bleak depression, and only Marcia can talk him round.

When the boy becomes emperor he swings between a manic energy and a desperate gloom. In his highs he courts Roman disapproval by fighting as a gladiator; his lows annoy the senate as he leaves his freedmen to run the city while he hides in the country. Rome lurches towards bankruptcy and rebellion, and there are many plotters seeking his downfall. Commodus provides a nuanced portrait of an intriguing emperor.

Orion, 496pp; £20

Written by SJAT

June 7, 2019 at 11:09 am

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