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Damned Emperors

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I guess it’s slowly becoming my speciality. It all started with Marius’ Mules, written back in 2003, in which I portrayed (and continue to do so throughout the series) the great dictator Julius Caesar. History gives us a larger than life hero in Caesar, (and Caesar’s own writings do nothing to disabuse us of this notioin) though even the slightest reading between the lines shows us a man of more depth and considerably more ambition and callousness than that. But from Caesar I’ve explored so much further.

Caesar accepts the surrender of Vercingetorix by Royer (1899)

The next step came with Praetorian: The Great Game, in which I dared, against traditional opinion, to show a Commodus who was golden and glorious, and not at all a sadistic, wicked and megalomaniac emperor. Admittedly he was young then, and even the ancient sources tell us that he started well. But still…

Then, persuaded to it by my agent (an all-round genius) I moved on to a truly great villain: Caligula, and I was determined to try and find the real man amid the cruel legend, picking holes in the logic or veracity of sources and trying to distill a truth from their viciousness. I think I succeeded, not in finding a nice man, for I don’t think that is true, but a man driven to cruelty by his experiences, not at all insane, and more a victim than a lunatic. This was followed up by re-examining Commodus once more, this time in great depth for his own novel, and from an angle that considered the possibility that he was actually bipolar. This opened up a wealth of possibility in terms of what could have been the truth. I have signed on to write two more fictionalised and rehabilitative biographies of damned emperors for Canelo in the coming years. Watch out for more rehabilitation…

Commodus as Hercules

Now, with the release of Sons of Rome, I’ve managed to get my claws into another maligned emperor: the enemy of Christians everywhere: Maxentius. Of course, once again, the meagre evidence gives us a very different picture to recognised history. This is a man accused of persecuting the Christians and yet who allowed them to elect a pope? Hmmm. I shall leave you to read the book to see what I mean.

What is it, though? What actually is a damned emperor?

Those emperors who suffered what we now call Damnatio Memoriae were surprisingly common when one looks down the list, and do not always tally with what we see as a villain in history. To take an objective point of view, let us say that it matters not how an emperor lived, but more how he died, as to whether he was damned or praised. There are plenty of emperors who started so well but ended corrupt and wicked (Tiberius) or who did the most appalling things but are remembered as great men (Hadrian), so I don’t think we can safely say that being a good man was a ticket to herohood, while being a bad one would label someone a villain for history.

Come on Caracalla, give us a grin….

Essentially, when an emperor, for good or ill, ended up at odds with the senate, or a powerful family member, or often his own bodyguard, and eventually the knife came in the dark (Caligula), or in the toilet (Caracalla), or in the groin (Domitian) or poison was given (Claudius), or sometimes they were just openly hacked to pieces (Didius Julianus), their fate beyond death was decided. Of the 81 emperors, or successful usurpers, who ruled Rome from the foundation of the Principate to the fall of the city in 410, up to 35 may have suffered damnatio memoriae!

If they were popular, even if they had been assassinated and their assassin seized the throne, they might well be granted apotheosis, and be given rites and said to have risen to sit among the gods. They would be given their own cult, they would be remembered in festivals, have priests assigned to them and be generally godly from then on. If they were unpopular, or their enemies were powerful enough to insist upon a course of action in the face of public opinion, the opposite would happen, and they would be officially damned. For the record there were odd occasions that buck the trend. Tiberius was neither damned nor ascended, while damnation for Caracalla was popularly sought, but not granted.

The emperor’s apotheosis as he rises to the heavens, from the column of Antoninus Pius

What happened, then, when an unpopular emperor was damned? Well it was pretty thorough as evidence, or lack thereof, clarifies. Firstly their statues and busts were torn down and destroyed, as well as other images. A famous painting of the Severan family has the face of Geta scratched out after his brother first murdered, then damned, him. Many damned emperors have left remarkably few statues for their incumbency.

Where’d you go, bro?

My latest investigation, Maxentius, has left half a dozen statues at most. Why? Not just because they were smashed. After all, marble was expensive. Bronze statues of an emperor could be melted down and recast, but with marble that was more troublesome. The great colossus of Nero that stood next to the Flavian amphitheatre in Rome (and gave it its eternal name) was changed to a statue of Sol Invictus after his death, and then into one of Commodus in the late 2nd century before being changed again after that. One of the most famous statues in the Roman world is the colossal Constantine that survives as fragments in the Capitoline museum in Rome.

Errrr…. Constantine

The interesting thing is that an examination of the head shows that it is unrealistically shaped, much wider than it is deep. This is a clear indication that the statue was not originally Constantine and has been cut back to change the face. Originally, it was almost certainly either his opponent Maxentius, or possibly his son Romulus who had a giant statue voted to him by the governor of Sardinia. The reworking of statues is an incredibly common theme in imperial imagery, and not as troublesome as you might think. After all, the statues of rich ladies were occasionally tooled to allow for separate hairstyles that could be changed depending upon the fashion of the time. For reference, the only surviving full body statue identified as Maxentius is now in the museum in Ostia. Not a single statue or bust remains in Rome.

Maxentius in Ostia

So does it stop there with the image? No it does not. The unfortunate’s name also gets scratched out of public inscriptions and even things like milestones. There is a wonderful milestone in the Tullie House Museum in Carlisle (RIB 2291) which has been changed three times. The first inscription is now illegible but then, after that was defaced, a new one to Carausius (a usurper emperor who ruled Britain for a while) was added. When Constantine’s time came, the milestone was upended and that end was planted in the ground, a new inscription worked into the other. Another nice example of this practice is to be found in the museum in Alba Iulia in Romania, where Geta’s name has been erased from a monument.

Oops… there goes Geta’s name
The Carlisle Milestone

Is there more to it? So far a damned emperor is lucky to have his face come down to us for posterity, and his name has been removed from most things but the rather damning accounts of later vicious biographers telling what must usually be apocryphal stories. Often the defacing goes so far that coins are deliberately mutilated. Remember that at this time, a coin’s value lies in its inherent metallic content, so defacing it does not necessarily decrease its value. And wait… there’s more.

Often decrees, laws and declarations made by an emperor would be repealed. A prime example is Commodus’s renaming of everything but the family cat in line with his own appellation. Clearly the city remained Rome, and not Colonia Commodiana (though an altar found in Syria confirms that the changes had been accepted readily before his death.) Tellingly, Gaius (Caligula) was in absolute power over the empire for four years and we know from contemporary accounts that he had made reaching changes to seating organisation in theatres, amphitheatres and circuses. We know that he made huge changes in laws to allow his sisters precedence. Yet there are no new laws or statutes surviving from his reign. That he might play with the social order but not alter laws and statutes seems unfeasible, which tells us that after his fall his opponents repealed everything he had put into place.

To some extent then, since usually any remaining family were executed alongside the emperor, they were by and large removed from history entirely, other than the defaming carried out by later biographers. As time went on, and Christianity became more powerful and rooted, the damning of emperors takes on a new angle. Nero is also now remembered as an aspect of the Antichrist in the Catholic Church, Julian was not damned politically as of old, but was demonised and damned by the Church. And my personal favourite, Maxentius, was turned into a vicious hater of Christians by Constantine’s pet Christian writers.

Julian the (fabulous) Apostate

But to those of us who like to study such things, the challenge presented by damned emperors is too much to resist. We are given men portrayed as monsters, with little in the way of evidence, yet there are tantalising hints throughout that there is more to their story than we are told, that they were more rounded and human than history tells us.

I won’t stop investigating them and writing about them, as the damned emperors fascinate me. I hope you find them as interesting.

Four ‘bad’ emperors in a classic Horrible Histories song – (from left to right) Commodus, Nero, Caligula and Elagabalus

Written by SJAT

October 28, 2020 at 10:56 am

Book News

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So the big book news, I think, is that the 12th installment of the Marius’ Mules series – Sands of Egypt – is released today…


Winter, 48 BC. Caesar and his small force are trapped in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Caught up in the dynastic struggles of the House of Ptolemy, the consul has sided with the clever and ruthless Queen Cleopatra. Her brother and fellow monarch Ptolemy XIII languishes in the palace, a hostage of Caesar’s, while a huge army under the command of the Egyptian general Achillas closes on the city to free him.

With both the future of this ancient land and the safety of Caesar and his men at stake, Fronto and his friends face the terrible task of holding an unfamiliar city under siege, in the desperate hope that reinforcements will reach them before the enemy break in.

But Egyptian reinforcements gather too, and with the interference of the youngest princess, Arsinoë, the future is far from written. Trapped, besieged and outnumbered, time is running out for the Romans, as shadows loom across the sands of Egypt.

The book is available from Amazon here in paperback and kindle format, here on Google Books, here on Kobo, here on iBooks, here on Nook, and here for any other digital need.

But because I’m a little bit prolific, and one book to throw your way seems too little, how’s about I draw you to this too, which is now out in kindle format, with paperback to follow:


You like Roman fiction? This is for you. A collection of short stories from some of the very best Roman writers, including both myself and my partner in crime Gordon Doherty. And for my part, you Praetorian fans, the story is one of our friend Rufinus, set between the last book (Lions of Rome) and the next (The Cleansing Fire)

You can buy it on Kindle at the moment right here and here’s the blurb:

“Greater than the sum of its parts… Rubicon has something for everyone: action, humour and historical insight.” Michael Arnold

Ten acclaimed authors. Ten gripping stories.

Immerse yourself in Ancient Rome through a collection of thrilling narratives, featuring soldiers, statesmen and spies. Read about some of your favourite characters from established series, or be introduced to new writers in the genre. The stories in Rubicon are, like Rome, diverse and intriguing – involving savage battles, espionage, political intrigue and the lives of ordinary – and extraordinary – Romans, such as Ovid, Marcus Agrippa and a young Julius Caesar.

This brand new collection, brought to you by the Historical Writers’ Association, also includes interviews with each author. Find out more about their writing processes and what attracts them to the Roman world. View Ancient Rome through fresh eyes. Rubicon is a feast of moreish tales and a must read for all fans of historical fiction.

Authors & Stories Featured in Rubicon:

  • Nick Brown – Maker of Gold
  • Gordon Doherty – Eagles in the Desert
  • Ruth Downie – Alter Ego
  • Richard Foreman – A Brief Affair
  • Alison Morton – Mystery of Victory
  • Anthony Riches – The Invitation
  • Antonia Senior – Exiles
  • Peter Tonkin – The Roman
  • L.J. Trafford – The Wedding
  • S.J. Turney – The Praetorian

Praise for Rubicon:

“Rubicon is a declaration of intent to intrigue, inspire and entertain. For me, this collection of stories extols the camaraderie that exists amongst the historical fiction bother and sisterhood. It perfectly encapsulates a shared passion for the subject of Rome in all its abundance and varied manifestations, taking the reader on a guided tour through the familiar and the strange. Leading us wide-eyed through a genre which has never lost its lustre. 
This is the fiction equivalent of a box of chocolates, a celebration of diverse Rome stories drawing upon all the riches of that most extraordinary and enduring of civilisations. It is a treasure trove of tales, showcasing a wealth of talent.
I have been entertained by authors whose work I know and love, and I’ve discovered new voices too, writers whom I look forward to getting to know better. Indeed, if the purpose of this collection is to delight, distract and to whet the reader’s appetite, leaving us eager for more, it is a resounding success.
Rubicon is a rare treat which I thoroughly enjoyed. I don’t know what the official collective noun for Roman short stories is, but in this case I think it’s a triumph.” Giles Kristian.

And I tell you what, folks… the news doesn’t end there! Here’s some lovely little titbits that I KNOW some of you have been waiting for:

  • I have signed the contract for the audio versions of Praetorian: Lions of Rome, as well as for book 5, as yet unwritten. Book 4 is already in production and will be out soon, so more on that in due course.
  • I’ve also signed a deal with the interactive audio guide company Bardeum, which produces immersive audio tales that guide you round historical sites. Next year you’ll be able to lose yourself in one of my tales as you walk the hill of the Palatine in Rome.
  • I’ve just completed the contract for the release of both Caligula and Commodus in the United States. Yes, the Damned Emperors will soon be available in the US too!
  • And currently, three of the four Praetorian books are available on kindle in the UK for the bargain price of 99p. That means you can own the whole set for less than £5.50. Now’s the time to get them (which you can do here)


  • Next year you’ll be able to read my first non-fiction work, a book on the great Roman general Agricola, through Amberley publishing. The man who made Roman Britain is a figure of fascination for me. It’s also, believe it or not, the first time I’ve written a book about the Romans in my own country!

And that’s book news for today. Hope that’s enough for you, folks.


Caesar’s Emissary

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You might remember that some time back I reviewed the first short story in this series with mixed feelings due to the heavy use of modern vernacular. Well, recently I have been reading pre-publication manuscripts, my own work for heavy edits and very serious research texts, and so with a couple of days free, I picked up the second book, and thought ‘I’ve done too much heavy stuff recently, so why not?’

I’m glad I did. I cannot be certain whether it was because this time I was prepared for what I was about to read, or possibly that with a second story, Johnston had honed his craft some, but I enjoyed Caesar’s Emissary far more than the first book.

These, by the way, are very much not serious, heavy Historical Fiction. If you are looking for another Ben Kane or Conn Iggulden, you’re looking in the wrong direction. But if you’re looking for an entertaining light read to fill in a few hours, then look no further.

The humour in these books is akin to Ron Gompertz, I would say, if a little more direct. There is an odd undercurrent of the old ‘film noir voiceover’ in the way they are written. In this volume, Mettius is talked into going to Alexandria to sort out the grain shipments there. In the process he gets himself tangled up with the Ptolomaic rulers and all sorts. The highlight for me was a scene in a bar with a local comedian doing his skit.Sounds barking mad, but for some reason it worked and was a truly entertaining scene with some real laugh-out-loud lines.

This, for instance, is a joke from the sketch about the Ptolomaic dynasty:

“The other night [my wife] said she wanted to have sex with her brother. I told her I wasn’t in the mood.”

And here’s part of his description of Alexadria, which I love:

“Wild statues of bird gods and those weird animals with human heads they called sphinxes were everywhere. It was as if some deity had grabbed a cauldron and mixed Greek aesthetics, the Egyptian fascination with the afterlife, a pinch of balmy climate and a shitload of money…”

I think I am rapidly warming to these short, humorous episodes. And if you are a student of the era you will find a lot of in-jokes and colour that will sit well with you. Johnston’s stories have become my palate cleanser of choice between larger works.

Written by SJAT

November 11, 2016 at 10:35 am

Roman research – en Francais

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Something a bit different for this Thursday’s review. I’ve been tidying the bookshelves of my office and four of my research texts in particular caught my eye. Why? Because they’re the four I have that are in French. I’m not a fluent French speaker, by the way. I have ‘holiday French’ along with more specialised Gallo-Roman-connected French. This means that when I need to read a book on Rome in French, I can instinctively translate about every third sentence at a glance, and the other two I will need to work on. Hard work? Yes. Especially for research. But rewarding? Well yes. Let me explain why, for each book:


A comic book! Gods, yes. Some consider it a lesser form of literature, and maybe if you’re talking about Dennis the Menace I might nod, but this graphic novel of Rome vs Gaul at the last great stand is really a very high quality read. This was one of the books I bought when I was writing Marius’ Mules VII, which centred on the siege of Alesia, and it influenced my vision of the battle and the warriors as much as any archaeological or topographic research. The authors and illustrators have put such passion into the detail, that it is impossible to not appreciate it. The armour and equipment are authentic. The oppidum of Alesia itself is spot on, having walked the site a few years back, and the Roman siege works are very well done. What’s the story? Well, I couldn’t tell you in truth. I didn’t read it as a story. For me this was a visual thing. And as a series of images of the events leading up to Alesia and the battle itself, it is hard to beat. Some day I will read it as a novel too. Hopefully it won’t disappoint. I have the feeling it won’t.


Another text I bought for Marius’ Mules VII. This, however, is a serious text book. An archaeological treatise with a focus on the site and its remains rather than the famous battle that took place there. And this book I read whole chunks of. Not everything, since it is all encompassing, right down to dealing with the trial excavations in the days of the Second French Empire. For me it’s a 4* book, rather than 5, as it tends to be a little rambling at times, and could be more organised and focused. A two page spread on Napoleon III, I deemed rather unnecessary, for instance. And many pages are given over to antique illustrations connected with the subject (woodcuts and 19th century maps for eg). But as far as it lags in that respect, the upsides of this book are fabulous for anyone interested in Alesia. The archaeological work in the book is covered in such detail even a true expert would learn something. And the topographical illustrations are excellent, too. My interpretation of the Roman defences in my own account is almost entirely based on this book.


Moving on from Alesia, this is a book I bought when writing Marius’ Mules VIII. Roman Marseilles is not a subject that is heavily covered in books, and certainly not in any depth. I bought this, expecting something a little like the Alesia one above – a graphic novel with some nice illustrations. It’s not. And any other books in the Voyages d’Alix series that cover places I will write about, I shall most certainly buy. The series covers many, many places in ancient times, from Jerusalem to Mexico, even! And it is not a graphic novel at all. It is a proper research book – just written for kids. Now that suits me down to the ground, since it meant it was picture heavy and much easier to read/translate. Each two page spread through the book covers an aspect of ancient Massalia, from religion to the port, to trade, to baths and so on. And along with a good descriptive text, it is illustrated with photos of remains and finds, and with reconstructions of the style and quality you can see on the cover above. Best of all for me, it had two panoramic views of the city, one during the period of Greek control and one later, under the Romans. Without this book, my view of Marseilles in MM8 would have been very different. And it will come into play again next year, when I get to MM10 and the siege of that same city.


The jewel of the collection. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, even if you’ve not a word of French. Anthony Riches, author of the excellent Empire series, put me onto this book and I bought it immediately, and have opened it at least once a week now for years. It is a complete visual topography of Rome in the age of Constantine. It is organised by region and nowhere is left out (most books covering this sort of subject focus on the famous bits and gloss over the rest.) Whole sections of very informative text, accompanied by lovely glossy photos of the current city’s remains, are punctuated with fold out maps in the form of panoramic reconstructions (again such as on the cover above.) But these are great big and very detailed images. Better still, each one is unlabelled and clear (again as above), but is accompanied by a copy of the same image a little washed out and with each location labelled. I cannot stress enough the value of this to anyone trying to understand the ancient city of Rome. Praetorian 1 and 2 were both written using this as an almost constant research text. Not so Marius’ Mules, as the book concentrates on the early 4th century city, and the Rome of Julius Caesar would look a great deal different. But…. well, just buy it and look at it. Try not to drool on the pages!

So there you go. Four French books in one review. If you’ve an interest in the subject, they’re all recommended, each for different reasons.

Back to normal next week with a 20th century historical novel review.

Written by SJAT

April 14, 2016 at 9:48 am

Amulet 4

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I’m new to the Amulet series, dropping in at book 4. And while the cover didn’t scream Roman military adventure at me, I have confidence in the quality of Fred’s writing, from his earlier Galdir books. For me the amulet series seems to have sprung from nowhere and goes to show how prolific Fred is.

Ignore the strapped-up Vin Diesel on the cover and go into the book (or probably more usefully the first in the series) with an open mind, and you will appreciate what is a good tale with well-fleshed-out characters, well written.

As I said, I’ve rather jumped in at the deep end in book 4, but it was not too hard to get the hang of the backstory, especially since this is my current working era of Rome, so I know the general lay of the land. This is the tale of a veteran of the legions during the time of Caesar’s rise. Books 1-3 have covered Aulus Veridius Scapula‘s early days, his time in the 9th legion, campaigns in the Caucasus, with Caesar in Gaul, and with Crassus in Parthia. Scapula wears an amulet that is his only remaining link with his father (if I’m right, this is his ‘bulla’, the symbol of boyhood that is cast aside when taking the toga virilis and becoming a man.) Now a rich man, Scapula has a complex history, not only in terms of service, but in his personal life. He is a widower, re-married. He has two sons,, one from each relationship, but even this is far more complex than that. And in book 4 this is truly important.

I did not know what to expect. The book started calmly in peaceful Italy, then there is the shadow of Caesar looming at the far side of the Rubicon and heavy suggestions that Scapula might want to support his former commander, and perhaps fund him. Then Scapula’s son goes missing. After time searching, Scapula ends up with Caesar at Massilia, involved in the siege there, still grieving for his lost son, until Caesar’s agents turn up some info. His son was seen with Pontic ne’er-do-wells, being bundled aboard a ship in the south of Italy. Given Scapula’s history with the Pontic king, he realises that his son has been taken by the man by accident. His other son shares blood with king Pharnaces. Thus begins a fairly epic mission to retrieve his son from the palace of the king of Pontus, who is on a war footing, planning to conquer neighbouring lands while the Romans are all busy kicking each other senseless in civil war.

Well, that’s what you’re looking at in essence. If you’ve read any of Fred’s stuff, you’ll know he can tell a tale with the best of them, and this book kept me turning the pages from beginning to end. Amulet 4 is a good read. Don’t me put off by the cover – remember the old adage after all. Perhaps go to the Amazon page and download a sample to see for yourself.

Back for another review tomorrow with some Halloweeny fun with ‘October 32nd’

Written by SJAT

February 25, 2016 at 11:24 am

Empire 8: Thunder of the Gods

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Looking back over the series from the start I am struck by just how far we’ve come with young Marcus Aquila. The series began (and stayed for 3 books) in northern Britannia, in the cold and the damp with hairy bearded barbarians instigating wars and troubles and our hero hiding from the Emperor’s fury under an assumed name, sheltered by friends of friends. How long gone are those days now? For here, in book 8, with all the momentous changes we have witnessed in between, we find our hero and his friends in the dusty, exotic east, facing the might of dreaded Parthia at the very behest of those Imperial authorities from whom Marcus spent so many years hiding. Not only at their behest, I might add, but even carrying their authority, delivered by the Praetorian fleet and with the power of (the power behind) the throne. Yes, we have certainly come a long way. Which sits well with me. I have noted several times recently in reviews how long series need to change, grow and refresh to keep their pace and interest. And the Empire books are doing that. Indeed, I would say that book 8 is the finest in the series so far, vying mainly with book 5 for me.

So what’s the book about? Well if you’re new to the series, I probably threw a few spoilers at you there. Stop now and go buy book 1. Book 8 takes us to new lands and with new style. The whole feel of the book is more exotic than previously. And given the fact that for the first time our heroes are facing not hairy barbarians or sneaky Romans, but an adjacent empire every bit as old and cultured as Rome, there is a new feeling of sophistication and style about it. Marcus and friends land in Syria, sent east by the Imperial chamberlain on an ‘offer they cannot refuse’ sort of basis. As I said, they have authority now. Scaurus is to take command of the legion there and is faced with corruption, crime and downright deviousness at the highest levels of both military and civil control in the province. But our heroes have no time to unpick all the threads in this web of corruption, for they have an urgent task to perform. A powerful border fortress is in danger from a Parthian army. Due to the troubles he finds, legate Scaurus will have only half the legion to help him take and hold the fortress of Nisibis against the greatest power in the east. And through an unfortunate series of incidents our young Marcus finds himself once more evading arrest, though this time by the governor instead of the throne. Can our friends hold Nisibis? Can they even get there intact? After all, the Parthians are one of the fiercest nations on Earth and have seen off more than one Roman army in the past. Well, you’ll have to wait and see how that turns out, as I’m not spoiling it for you.

However, in terms of the story’s content, there are various things I will say. The addition of a new character – a young tribune not too different from our own protagonist 8 books ago – is a win. Varus is an instantly likeable and sympathetic character. The Parthian princes and their senior men are well-rounded and very interesting. In fact, one prince’s bodyguard, who will play a large part in the book as it unfolds, truly captured my imagination and was a joy to read.  But the icing on the cake in this story goes to the portrayal of the emperor of Parthia – the King of Kings himself. He is a cultured, urbane, clever, witty, easy, very realistic character. Don’t get me wrong – there is a constant air of threat, for this man could have nations killed with a snap of his fingers, but being dangerous does not stop him being fun or interesting. Kudos in particular to Tony for the King of Kings.

There is the usual bloodshed. Don’t worry, you battle-a-holics. Tony is unrelenting in bringing you the brutal side of Rome and its military skill. But know also that this book is far more than just military fiction. It is surprising, deep, explores to some extent the similarities and differences between ancient cultural enemies, and utterly refuses to bow down to the ‘Rome good, barbarian bad’ shtick that has for so many decades plagued the world of ancient fiction. Not only are his characters thoroughly three dimensional, but so are his nations as a whole. The plot is well crafted, with a few true surprises here and there, and runs off at breakneck pace, dragging you with it. I sat down for ten minutes’ read after lunch one day and put it down an hour later. It is that addictive a read.

I find that most good novelists truly hit their stride at about book 3 or so in a series, and while they may continue to get even better over time, often they plateau at an improved level of ability for the rest of their series. I thought Tony had done that with book 4, when the series began to change from straight military fiction to a more varied, deeper level of plot. Yet now, with book 8, he has taken things up a notch again in my opinion. I was already impressed and addicted to the Empire books, so now I’m hopelessly lost. In short: Thunder of the Gods is Riches’ best book to date, a landmark in the series and a totally engrossing read.

Written by SJAT

June 25, 2015 at 2:47 pm

The Emperor’s Knives

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What can I say by book 7?

If you’re a fan of the Roman era and you read books, then if you haven’t started the Empire series by now, I can only assume you’ve been living in a darkened closet hiding from the CIA and living on pizza pushed under the door. Riches has solidly secured himself a place among the giants of Historical Fiction, vying with the likes of Ben Kane, Douglas Jackson and Manda Scott in terms of style, plot, character and readability.

If you are that pale frightened figure in the closet, risk the CIA spotting you, and rush out to a bookstore tomorrow. Or pre-order from Amazon today and have it delivered to your door. It’s worth risking the possibility that Chuck and his black-suit-clad pals will find you. And here’s why:

Most writers have trouble with such a long series, I think. Even the greatest (witness Sharp for example) hit a lull where it becomes formulaic and sags for a while. To keep things fresh through seven books it quite impressive on its own.

The ‘EMPIRE’ series has managed just that. In fact, I would say now, looking back over the series, that the first three books are much in a vein with one another as straight military history beat-em-ups with a little betrayal and secrecy stuff and a smattering of politics thrown into the mix. From book 4, however, Riches clearly decided that more could be done with his characters and began to expand the scope of the series. From German bandits and sacred woods to Romanian gold mines and Imperial betrayal and then back to Britain for a book and a covert mission that will overturn everything and leave our hero in the eternal city, the series exploded into variety and excitement on a previously undreamed-of level.

The characters became more complex and understandable, the settings more exciting and vivid, the plots more twisty and turny and fascinating, and all in all, the books endlessly readable.

The Emperor’s Knives is the culmination of one particular story arc in the series. This is not a shock to anyone keeping up, just from the title. If you’ve got through, say, four or five of the books, you probably already have an inkling of what’s coming in this volume.

If you’re new to the series, check out reviews of the others and then come back. If you want to avoid the chance of spoiling things in the series so far, look away now and come back to the red marker…


Look AWAY, I said!

Yes, Corvus/Aquila being back in Rome gives him the perfect opportunity to put old ghosts to rest and deal with the infamous group of imperial covert killers who have been murdering the aristocracy on imperial orders and acquiring their cash and land for the throne. A senator, a mob-boss, a Praetorian officer and a champion gladiator. All marked for death by our hero. But how will he go about it?

New characters are introduced, about whom we are already aware (including those who originally trained Marcus in the martial skills) and old enemies reappear in stunning ‘Bastard-o-colour’.

Yes, this is the culmination of the ‘Aquila family betrayal and murder’ plot, but then you knew that from the title! In this case, it’s not about the destination, but about the journey. And what a ride. Corvus is about to get revenge in spectacular fashion.


Be prepared. If you know Riches’ work then by now you’ll know he’s got a tendency to throw in a few curveballs to wrong-foot the reader and screw his expectations. You’re gonna get that. In spades. Several times in this, I found myself saying ‘Oh? Oh, right. Well, then…’ and then going back to the story.

Corvus/Aquila doesn’t grow as a character, because he doesn’t need to. At this point he’s as fully fleshed out as he ever needs to be. More would just be OTT. But he does get some fantastic scenes, speeches and moves. And the supporting cast DO grow. Particularly Scaurus, who I already loved. New characters have appeared, some of whom will likely run through more books in the series, and some of whom are the stronger characters Riches has yet created.

The tale completes the aforesaid particular story arc but goes beyond, tying in more threads, and the end puts in place something for book 8 that I’ve been waiting for for ages. It is very easy when tying up a massive plot arc to leave it feeling either twee or contrived or both. This does not do so, though. This volume concludes in a most satisfactory and not entirely expected manner, leaving a couple of threads for future books and the reader feeling sated.

Riches’ books, though, have two strengths which have always been in evidence and only grow with each release: They are break-neck paced, in the same fashion as Mike Arnold’s civil war books, dragging the reader along in breathless admiration. And they are so realistically readable. There is simply no effort involved. You open the book and let go and the story whisks you along without any hard work. All in all, Riches is clearly still getting better with every book, which by book 7 is quite impressive!

It’s out tomorrow. BUY IT, or I’ll tell the CIA where you live and stop the pizza deliveries! Oh, and as a special incentive, the hardback includes a short story that you DO NOT WANT TO MISS!

Written by SJAT

February 12, 2014 at 9:00 am

Wonder Of Rome

with 35 comments



In my head, I found myself strolling through the list of Rome’s Emperors (I can recite as far as the year of the 6 emperors by rote) and wondering whether they would make an interesting blog entry. That, in my middle-of-the-night blurry mind became something of a challenge to myself. I would take the list of Emperors and try and find something positive – an achievement – that came from the reign of each one, even the ones traditionally hailed as monsters. An intriguing proposition, eh?

I realised afterwards that I was going to have to limit myself to the emperors who managed at least most of a year in power and therefore had time to achieve something! You’d be surprised how many that knocks out of the list. I also decided to quit around the time of the introduction of the Tetrarchy, given the fact that we then have four rulers on the go at any given time, just to complicate the issue. Just a note ahead of time: this blog is light-hearted in its approach. If you are seeking Oxford monographs, look elsewhere folks. Otherwise, prepare to learn a few new facts and perhaps treat yourself to a little giggle now and then, and look out for the competition and links at the end.

So without further ado, here we go.

Augustus (27 BC-14) – How easy is Augustus? (as the actress said to the bishop). The man who ‘found Rome brick, but left it marble’? Well from my personal point of view, given what I write, I would credit him mostly with the creation of Rome’s legendary standing army in the form that persisted for centuries.


Tiberius (14-37) – May have been a depressive fruitcake, but he built a lovely set of palaces, including one on the Palatine, one at Sperlonga, and the vertiginous Villa Jovis on Capri (from which he supposedly hurled people to their deaths, but we’ll overlook that for comfort. After all, he did!)


Caligula (37-41) – Perhaps the most maligned of Rome’s rulers. An early incarnation of Joffey Baratheon. And yet after the autocratic rule of Tiberius, he found time to reinstate a proper democratic process for public officials. Now if only he’d left his sisters alone…


Claudius (41-54) – Clubfooted and stammering fool? I think not. There are many achievements of Claudius to choose from, not least the fact that this land I sit upon became Roman because of his expansion of the Empire. But I think I’d have to go for the Tiber canal works and the expansion of Ostia and Portus for trade as his greatest achievement.


Nero (54-68) – Nero (Christopher Biggins) is a toughie. And yet despite being hailed as the Antichrist by the Catholic church and having been almost universally hated throughout history, bear in mind that this evil man set a cap on the fees charged by lawyers. And who’s the greater evil: he or they?


Vespasian (69-79) – It’s hard to dislike the fat jolly genius general Vespasian. It’s easy to find positives, too. Think I’ll go with the construction of the Colosseum (not completed until after he died, but his project nonetheless.)


Titus (79-81) – Beloved of the people. In his short but eventful reign, Titus managed more than some Emperors did in a decade. But probably the thing he SHOULD be remembered for is his efforts to alleviate the suffering in the aftermath of Vesuvius’ eruption.


Domitian (81-96) – despite an unsavoury reputation in history, Domitian left Rome with some of its greatest structures. Remember him for a building program that produced the great palace on the Palatine, the Odeon and Stadium in the Campus Martius, and several temples in the forum.


Nerva (96-98) – Hard to dispute the positive value of Nerva’s new policy of adoptive heirs, selecting the best man for the succession rather than attempting to breed him (a system that had turned the Julio-Claudian dynasty into inbred 3-toothed hillbillies.)


Trajan (98-117) – One of the greats. If Domitian is to be remembered for the great buildings he left behind, then he will be eclipsed by Trajan. The Market? The Forum? The Column? I think I’m going to go with the fact that Trajan left Rome at the end of his reign at its greatest extent, never to be achieved again. Some feat.


Hadrian (117-138) – No. I refuse to use the wall. Too easy. In fact his building program empire-wide is a little easy really. But that itself was part of a massive reorganisation and repair of the infrastructure for the entire empire. Would that he could tour Britain now, eh? Our local roads are apparently corrugated.


Antoninus Pius (138-161) – Well I think we’ll have to go with Tony P’s wall across Scotland, expanding the border in Britannia to its northernmost permanent frontier in history. Probably the first man to have an erection in Glasgow.


Marcus Aurelius (161-180) – Again, only a difficult one because of too many options to choose from. I would settle for his Meditations – a philosophical tome that rivals the great Greek thinkers and showing unusual depth for a politician!


Commodus (176-192) – Good old megalomaniac Commodus is a toughie. Might be an achievement to say he left us at least 2 Imperial villas, or allowed the army to wield axes. But I’d go for – whatever you say about the effects of his conciliatory policies – the fact that the Empire had peacetime enough to breathe for the first time in decades.


Septimius Severus (193-211) Our first in many ways. The first of a far-reaching dynasty. The first African Emperor. But despite his vaunted military facets, and even his forked beard (sign of a classic movie villain), I’d remember him for embellishing the provincial city of Leptis Magna  and turning it into one of the grandest atchitectural gems in the Roman world – a fact still visible in its remains.


Caracalla (198-217) His memory may be damnatio, and he may be a fratricide, but old gloomy-pants Caracalla made every freedman across the Empire a citizen. Might have had selfish reasons, of course, both financial and military, but it was still nice for the freedmen, I’m sure.


Macrinus (217-218) – Despite a short and generally unpopular reign, Macrinus managed to positively revalue Rome’s currency. And the policy outlasted him, unlike previous attempts such as that of old hairy Pertinax (not listed here due to the brevity of his rule.)


Elagabalus (218-222) – Oh now HERE’s a fruitcake supreme.  But did everyone’s favourite Syrian weirdie leave anything of lasting benefit? The simple answer is no. Sadly, he is my real stumbling block in the list. In four years he is remembered as having done nothing that was not in some way destructive. The best I can do is note how his attempt to make Sol Invictus the prime God of Rome brought that cult to a formerly unthought of prominence for good and therefore likely influenced later Roman Christianity.


Severus Alexander (222-235) – As a personal choice, I remember him for the enormous fountainhead of the new Aqua Alexandrina, standing tall and imposing still in the Park in Plaza Vittorio Emmanuel II in Rome. The first time I saw it it lodged in my mind and stayed there.


Maximinus Thrax (235-238) – Not much positive to say about the Thracian giant. The best I can manage is that at a time when the security of the northern frontier was beginning to crumble he campaigned, won battles, and managed to secure the border for a while. That and you wouldn’t mess with him in a bar fight!


I’m going to skip the brief reigns of Gordian I & II, Pupienus, & Balbinus, but I had to mention them, just so that I could pronounce ‘poopy-anus’ aloud while reading this back and then laugh like Beavis and Butthead. Bet you’re re-reading it and guffawing right now.

Gordian III (238-244) – Despite a reign spanning six years, young Gordianus Pius managed to achieve remarkably little, due to his youth and the fact that other men governed for him throughout the period. One thing we can ascribe to him worth noting, is the ‘palace’ of Gordian at Volubilis in Morocco.


Philipus Arabs (244-249) – Despite a reign that left little of value, Philip had the honour of holding the most important (and last ever) of the Ludi Saeculares in Rome. A huge pageant involving games, races, fights, plays and more to celebrate another century in Rome, Philip’s celebrated the city’s thousandth anniversary.


Decius (249-251) – It would be nice to laud the political and religious reforms of the miserable-looking old sod Decius here, but sadly his reign was cut rather short (much like his body), and the planned reforms were never instituted. So we will have to go with the baths of Decius on the Aventine, the only great show of public works within a period of several decades of strife.


Trebonianus Gallus (251-253) – Remembered chiefly for one act of charity, when plague ravaged Rome and the Emperor paid for the decent burial of its victims, even the impoverished. In my own mind, he’s chiefly remembered for that heroic nude statue of him that makes him a pretty peculiar shape.


Valerian (253-260) – (Trying not to tut at the stupid ends some Emperors meet). Caesar Publius Licinius Valerianus Footstoolius Augustus! The most positive thing I can say on Footstool’s reign is that he reconquered the lost land of Syria. And he was probably nice and comfy.


Gallienus (253-268) – Really, in the mid 3rd century, it could be said that Gallienus’ greatest achievement is having reigned continuously for 15 year without a knife in the back. In lasting terms, Gallienus seemed to anticipate the changing nature of warfare and shifted the focus of the army towards cavalry for the first time. It might be said this was the first major step to the new field armies of the late Empire.


Claudius Gothicus (268-270) – In a time faced with breakaway states and numerous invasions and incursions, Claudius II can be remembered with pride for having begun the course of putting the Empire back together. He fought the Goths back over the Danube and restored Hispania to the Empire, weakening the breakaway Gallic Empire.


Aurelian (270-275) – Bulgarian provincial, able cavalry commander and wearer of the pointy crown, it would be nice to laud him for the reunification of the empire, conquering the breakaway states of Gaul and Palmyra. But a chunk of the acclaim for that has to go (and has gone) to Claudius II. And anyway, there is a more physical reminder of Aurelian’s reign in the form of the great impressive brick walls and gates that surround Rome to this day. The Aurelian walls rightly hold a place in the great fortifications of history.


Probus (276-282) – You may not think it, but this obscure gruff soldier emperor from the backwaters of the Balkans gave us one great gift perhaps above that of all other emperors. In order to keep his armies busy between wars, he had them plant vineyards in Gaul. By extension, he is directly responsible for seventeen centuries of French viniculture. Probus is the father of the French wine. Bet you’ll remember him now!


Carus (282-283) – Carus holds two distinctions in my eyes. Firstly, despite a short reign, he is one of very few Emperors who achieved a solid victory in Persia, holding the Sassanids at bay and avenging many years of humiliation at their hands. Secondly, he was the first Emperor to be served flambé courtesy of a lightning strike!


Carinus (283-285) – Apparently the only positive thing that can be said to have come from Carinus’ short, brutal and somewhat unpopular reign is the grandest Ludi Romani (annual games) for half a century. The fact that he held a huge party and that was his great achievement somewhat condemns the man.


Diocletian (284-305) – Diocletian’s achievements are so numerous and so far-reaching that it would be difficult to even attempt to list them. We will therefore, in order to bring proceedings to a close, go with the foundation of that most complex and bureaucratic system of rule: the Tetrarchy. While it may have inevitably collapsed through the power-hunger of men like Constantine, the changes instituted by Diocletian took a failing nation and revitalised it, giving it an edge that would keep it going another century and birth the Byzantine Empire. And… of course… he retired to grow cabbages!


So there you go. Not a comprehensive list, but it goes to show that no reign should ever be viewed in monochrome.



If you enjoy the world of Rome, you may wish to take a look at my books (top right of the blog) and perhaps visit my main website and have a read of a sample. And as a special treat, here’s a giveaway for you. Comment on this blog and tell me the most interesting achievement you can think of that came from the daddy of the entire Imperial system – Julius Caesar – and the most interesting (true) answer will receive either a signed paperback copy of my latest release (Marius’ Mules V) or the full set of 5 books in E-format, your choice. Get commenting!


If you’ve had fun reading this, read on for more Rome on the sites of my good friends on the blog hop!

David Blixt – Author of the Colossus books

Petrea Burchard – Author of Camelot & Vine

John Henry Clay – Author of The Lion And The Lamb

Gordon Doherty – Author of the Legionary & Strategos series

Heather Domin – Author of The Soldier of Raetia

Ruth Downie – Author of the enthralling Ruso mysteries

Tim Hodkinson -Author of Lions of the Grail &

Helen Hollick – Author of the Pendragon’s Banner series

Scott Hunter – Author of The Serpent and the Slave

Alison Morton – Author of Inceptio

Fred Nath – Author of the atmospheric Galdir novels

Mark Patton – Author of An Accidental King

David Pilling – Author of Caesar’s Sword & various others

M.C. (Manda) Scott – Author of the acclaimed Rome & Boudicca series

Elisabeth Storrs – Author of The Wedding Shroud

Brian Young – Author of The Eagle Has Fallen

Written by SJAT

August 15, 2013 at 8:00 am

The Last Caesar

with 12 comments

Howdy everyone who’s probably forgotten I exist. Sorry for my prolonged absence from the blogsphere. Quite simply, between Callie (our 6mth old baby girl) and my book deadline, I’ve had about ten minutes free time since New Year.

However: update. I have now finished the book I’ve been working on which, due to a disastrous prior attempt, has actually taken 10 months, a timescale hitherto unthinkable for me. This is the reason for my heavy concentration on the writing to the exclusion of almost everything else. News about that book will be forthcoming as appropriate. In the meantime, I’m announcing my return to the blog world. This week I’m adding the frosting to the top of the book, and next week I begin Marius’ Mules IV in earnest. However, I can now relax my pace a little and allow a half day each week to blog and catch up with all my friends who I have unforgivably abandoned.

So to open with, and because the timing is propitious, I’m blogging about a book on the day before its release in an effort to make you buy it…


It’s a rare thing to be in on a secret from square one, and so I feel sort of privileged to have had a heads’ up about a new author of Roman fiction considerably prior to the release of his debut work.

I heard about The Last Caesar by Henry Venmore-Rowland from a couple of friends who are both renowned reviewers of books (Kate & Parmenion – click names for their sites.) Both had had early proof copies of the book for review. My own pile of books to read is currently vying for world’s tallest structure so, while I was looking forward to the release, I was also grateful that the delay would give me time to get through a few tomes first.

And then I received unexpectedly and from a friend, a proof copy of the Last Caesar. Dutifully, I shuffled it into my TBR pile close to the top, and then launched into it.

It’s always a gamble reading a debut novel. They can be good, and they can be appalling. Whichever it is, it’s expected for you to be nice to them. This is compounded by the fact that I met Henry in person at the book launch less than a month before I received his book, and found him to be a charming, intelligent, self-effacing and engaging fellow.

So I read The Last Caesar. And I read it in a few short days. It was a good enough read that I found myself reaching for it whenever I had a minute or two free, and I therefore have no trouble recommending it. I’ve posted my review of it, and copied it below, but first: here are some pictures and links. You see, the Last Caesar is officially released tomorrow (although, for some reason, Amazon will sell you it today – perhaps they like it as much as I do.)

Go buy it and read it.


Images: Henry (stolen from Kate with thanks) & his new book.

Read Henry’s blog here.

Buy the book from Amazon UK here.

Follow Henry on twitter here.

Henry’s Facebook page is here.

Product Description (from Amazon)

AD 68. The tyrant emperor Nero has no son and no heir.

Suddenly there’s the very real possibility that Rome might become a republic once more. But the ambitions of a few are about to bring corruption, chaos and untold bloodshed to the many.

Among them is a hero of the campaign against Boudicca, Aulus Caecina Severus. Caught up in a conspiracy to overthrow Caesar’s dynasty, he commits treason, raises a rebellion, faces torture and intrigue – all supposedly for the good of Rome. The boundary between the good of Rome and self preservation is far from clear, and keeping to the dangerous path he’s chosen requires all Severus’ skills as a cunning soldier and increasingly deft politician.

And so Severus looks back on the dark and dangerous time history knows as the Year of the Four Emperors, and the part he played – for good or ill – in plunging the mighty Roman empire into anarchy and civil war…

My review:

I managed to secure an early proof of Henry’s debut and set to reading it as soon as I could.

My main concern before I started was not the unknown quantity of a new author, but more the fact that, being set around the end of Nero’s reign and the year of the four emperors, the ground has been covered from several angles before by others.

As usual, with my reviews, I won’t go into too much detail as I don’t like to risk spoilers – I hate having things revealed to me before I read a book.

In essence, the book follows the actions and journeys of a young Roman nobleman in relatively minor posts, and who yet plays a pivotal role in the end of a dynasty and the complicated succession.

For me, the main character (from whose retrospective viewpoint the story is told) is solid and the reader can often empathise with him (he has a few flaws that give him extra interest), though he perhaps stands out less than some protagonists of other major Roman histfic novels. This didn’t really matter, though, as I found Henry’s supporting characters to be so lifelike and engaging and well put-together that I relished their every appearance.

In addition to the cast of supporting characters, I would say the main strength of the novel for me was the narrative style. There is a ‘stream-of-consciousness’ to the main character that really worked for me. Sometimes he rambles off subject or peters out, and I really enjoyed that. It made the book very engaging.

Add to this turns of phrase that often made me smile, a sprinkling of particularly powerful scenes (one of which was heart-wrenching and you’ll know to which I refer when you come to it) and the solid descriptive, and it all pulls together into a rather excellent debut.

If I have a concern with The Last Caesar, it is that the book is only half a story (or possibly less). Very clearly, a second book will pick up where this one left off, and might take us to a solid conclusion. When you reach the end of TLC, the final page might as well say “Next week, on The Last Caesar…” That’s no bad thing, of course, but it leaves me grumbling about the fact that the sequel has only just undergone its initial completion and is a year or more away yet.

Simply, I was suitably impressed with The Last Caesar, and I expect any lover of the era (particularly the principate period) will thoroughly enjoy getting their teeth into it.

Roll on the next book, Henry. The First Flavian?


Parmenion Books’ review here

Still not convinced? Read Kate’s review here

Written by SJAT

June 20, 2012 at 12:15 pm