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Damned if you do, Damned if you don’t

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(or Why I choose to write about the ‘damned’ emperors.)

Alright, you’re going to argue with me from square one, but in my opinion, if we can call Augustus an emperor, when he never acknowledged himself as one and assiduously kept republican characteristics, then we might as well apply the same to the somewhat infamously dictatorial Caesar, his great uncle.

I trust we need not delve too much into the history of this man. His life and death are fairly well known by even the least academically minded. Et tu, brute. Infamy, infamy… they’ve all got it infamy! And so on. So, yes, Caesar was not an official emperor, yet he bears all the hallmarks of it. By his death he held unshakable power in Rome, and the laws had been repeatedly bent or ignored entirely to allow him to continue his rule. It was rumoured that had he lived, he intended to move his centre of power away from Rome to Egypt, which was likely one of the contributing factors to his assassination.

Though Caesar never suffered the specific Damnatio Memoriae that later emperors enjoyed, his death was no murder by a power-hungry opponent or a personal beef settled with a blade. Caesar was stabbed 23 times, and each blade was wielded by the great and the good of Rome. After his death, Brutus addressed the crowd with the words ‘We are once again free.’ If this is not being damned by the senate of Rome, then I don’t know what is, so we’ll proceed with that justification and classify him as damned.

And it’s important that I do, because that’s where it all began. I came to write about Caesar through the eyes of one of his officers in the Marius’ Mules series, the first novel I ever wrote, back in 2003. Up to that point, I had viewed Caesar as a bold and heroic character. A genius and a general supreme. Essentially, history’s common view. And unlike most of my forays into the world of such characters since then, where I have had to look beyond later character assassination to redeem a human within, in Caesar’s case it is more a matter of finding fault with a man given to us as a perfect Roman, because the sources we have for Caesar generally praise him. Once the civil war that followed his death had settled, it was his own blood who controlled Rome for the next century, and the entire imperial system owed itself to Caesar and his direct successors, so while emperors may later have reviled some of their predecessors, Caesar remained on his pedestal throughout. As such, accounts of him were guaranteed to be positive. Perhaps most of all, the account we have of the high point of his career was written by the general himself. There may, therefore, have been something of a bias involved.

As such I spent my time throughout the series glimpsing tantalising images of a less perfect man, and tried to portray him as such. Caesar loses his temper a few times, yes, but he is always gracious and merciful, brave and powerful, shrewd and resourceful in his writings. Surprise, eh? But the first works to cover his campaigns that were not written by him were the “Alexandrian War” and the following “African War”, both of which were probably written by his deputy Aulus Hirtius. In those two works, Caesar’s actions often come across as rash, hasty and ill-thought out. In both cases he still wins the day, but unlike the earlier texts of Caesar himself, they portray a man who essentially ****s up the entire campaign and only survives through a combination of thinking outside the box and blind luck. Add to this the fact that Caesar had many lovers, possibly several love-children, and three wives, the last of whom was still his wife when he was messing around with Cleopatra, and the image that begins to form is of a rather less than perfect man for all his genius and glory.

This is why I loved to write about Caesar, and this is what has spurred my interest in other such cases. The sheer fascination of delving into a well-recorded character and trying to reassemble a real person from the caricatures of history.

Next up is Caligula. This was my first foray into truly studying a damned emperor. Most people will be aware of Caligula, at least as a raving lunatic, a murderer and a weird porn character played by Malcolm McDowell. There probably has not been an emperor damned after his death who became as famous as this man. He is given to us as the man who made his horse a consul, who fought a war against the sea god, who made his men gather shells and stones and bring them back to Rome as spoils of war, of an incestuous weirdo who slept with his sisters.

Alright, so that is what we’re told. Caligula ruled for four years and upon his assassination, he was the first emperor to suffer what we now call Damnatio Memoriae, in which his name was erased from everywhere, his statues smashed, his laws repealed, his coins defaced, his very name condemned, and he being denied the right to ascend to godhood. He was stabbed by members of his own Praetorian guard, who suspiciously found Claudius hiding nearby and proclaimed him emperor immediately. It might be noted that Claudius was Caligula’s uncle, who was undoubtedly rather put out for those four years that the imperial throne had completely bypassed him. He was not treated well by Caligula, and so a suspicious man might suggest that Claudius was behind the plot to murder his nephew. Otherwise it’s all a little too convenient.

And the odd thing, if we accept these stories at face value, is that Caligula seems to have been very popular with the majority of Rome. The army liked him. The masses liked him. The only people that didn’t like him were the senatorial crowd, who, you might note, were the ones who wrote all the stories of his madness after his death. Now, a suspicious man might be scratching his chin and wondering how much of what we know is actually complete garbage, and what the real Caligula (who’s true name, coincidentally, was Gaius Julius Caesar) was actually like.

Just to give a couple of examples of my research and conclusions on the real Caligula, we’ll first take his horse, Incitatus. There is no denying Caligula loved horses and the races and so, in fact, did many emperors. But what do we actually know of Incitatus? The horse is recorded in two sources. Suetonius tells us “Besides a stall of marble, a manger of ivory, purple blankets and a collar of precious stones, he even gave this horse a house, a troop of slaves and furniture, for the more elegant entertainment of the guests invited in his name; and it is also said that he planned to make him consul.” Very well, he spoiled the animal for sure, if Suetonius can be trusted. But even Suetonius, who repeatedly condemns Caligula only gives us a vague rumour that he would have made his horse a consul. Cassius Dio gives us “One of the horses, which he named Incitatus, he used to invite to dinner, where he would offer him golden barley and drink his health in wine from golden goblets; he swore by the animal’s life and fortune and even promised to appoint him consul, a promise that he would certainly have carried out if he had lived longer.” More of the same, and this time only personal opinion that he would have done such a thing. One might remember that Suetonius was writing imperial biographies in the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian, some 80 years after Caligula’s death. His source material was already biased, for Suetonius was not born until 30 years after Caligula’s death. Similarly, we might view Dio with suspicion, for he was even later, writing nearly two centuries after Caligula’s death and basing his tale on a long-held tradition of madness. Thus, our main sources are the equivalent of me now putting together a biography of a Hanoverian monarch, only with much less to work from. Both of those writers were working with an imperial agenda in mind that necessitated the condemning of Caligula and the Julio-Claudians, and if these recorded events ever actually happened, a tempting suggestion is that the whole thing was a rather acidic joke on Caligula’s part aimed at humiliating the senators.

Similarly, the story of the chests of shells and pebbles the legions carried back as plunder can be seen very differently, when one realises that Caligula had gathered his legions for an invasion of Britain, where they seem to have revolted against him on the French coast. What better humiliating punishment for soldiers who have rebelled than making them carry chests of stones all the way back to Rome as the spoils of their war? Again, this reeks of Caligula’s very dry and potentially dangerous sense of humour. Not a sign of madness, but an indication of a man not afraid of dark humour aimed at those who defied him.

Essentially, when one looks deeper at Caligula, one can see a character greatly different from the one presented to us. Oh, he was no god, for sure. His sense of humour seems to have been cruel and acerbic and to have missed the mark repeatedly. He was suspicious (but then any man who had watched his entire family arrested and executed in his youth might be suspicious). But he also appears to have been glorious, beloved of his people, brave and wily. One thing he does not seem to be, if you pull apart the sources, is insane. This, then, is what I love about damned emperors.

Next up is Domitian. The second son of the renowned Vespasian and brother of glorious Titus, Domitian never expected, and was never expected, to rule. He was . History has presented us with a quiet and bookish, yet also wicked and brutal, character. Domitian ruled for a good 15 years, in the end falling to a conspiracy of the emperor’s own freedmen. His character has come down to us mainly through the writings of Tacitus and Suetonius, both of whom solidly condemn him, and yet one might note, both of whom are writing in the reigns of the emperors who only owed their existence to the fall of Domitian and the Flavian dynasty, and who naturally vilified their predecessor in order to justify their own power.

If, however, one looks at the scant evidence we have of contemporaries who were writing during the time of Domitian, such as Statius, we find the emperor being praised and portrayed as a glorious figure. One must always be aware of bias in both directions with ancient biographies.

I have yet to write a novel centring on Domitian, though it is already planned and very much in my sights. However, in my first foray into non-fiction, I have biographised the general Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the father-in-law of Tacitus, and a man who served during Domitian’s reign. In researching this, I repeatedly came up against Tacitus assassinating the emperor’s character largely in order to heighten the glory of his subject. But often in Tacitus, while he attributes to Domitian a truly abhorrent character, when he actually provides detail, it often doesn’t marry up with that image.

As examples, Tacitus tells us Domitian: “was by nature a man who plunged into violence“, of his “sinister intentions“, of “the emperor’s cruelty“. He tells us straight that Domitian resented Agricola’s success and popularity, and harboured a great hatred. And then in his text, he tells us also that for Agricola “Triumphal decorations, a public statue, and all the insignia that go with an honorary triumph were therefore decreed by the senate on the emperor’s command, coupled with a flattering speech.” For an emperor who had no trouble imposing imperial will, this seems rather at odds, as does the fact that when jealous opponents repeatedly accuse Agricola of crimes, the emperor throws out the cases. Most impressive of all, when Agricola fell ill in his last days, Tacitus tells us that Domitian sent court physicians and freedmen to attend him, and even that there were “more visits […] than is usual with emperors.” Though Tacitus tries to inflect all these events with sinister motives, it really does not add up, and what we are left with is the impression of an emperor who actually values and cares for his general.

I can’t wait to get my teeth into a full novel about this fascinating man who was so damned and despised after his death and yet who had been a secret agent, an overlooked second son, and who had inherited an empty treasury and left a wealthy Rome for his successors and a huge architectural legacy across Rome.

Emperor Commodus facts

Ok, you may not have recognised him from the name, but I bet the pic jogs a few memories. Commodus, portrayed above by Joaquin Phoenix in the movie Gladiator, was my second foray into fictional biographies, with an eponymous novel. Commodus was my attempt to delve into the sources and tear apart the chaff to find the real character, as I’d done with Caligula.

Commodus is given to us mainly by Cassius Dio, Herodian and the Historia Augusta. While not portrayed as an insane and dangerous lunatic as was Caligula, he comes across as a megalomaniac and a man given to wild notions and flights of fancy, often cruelly at the expense of others. Once again, though, we must beware of the sources. We can say with some certainty that Commodus came to blows with the senate more than once, and that there was a gulf between the two that was filled with resentment and distrust. As such, one might expect senators to be somewhat damning of the emperor who had so defied and belittled them. Cassius Dio was one of those very senators Commodus hated. Herodian’s career is not fully known, but there is solid circumstantial evidence that he too was a senator at that time. The Historia Augusta’s section on Commodus is likely based on the works of Marius Maximus who, you guessed it, was of senatorial rank during the reign of Commodus. Thus our three main sources were all naturally hostile towards the emperor. Can we trust what we’re told? In this case less even than in other such works.

In some places, these biographies clearly delve into the fantastical and ridiculous. The HA gives us the laughable event: “he put a starling on the head of one man who, as he noticed, had a few white hairs, resembling worms, among the black, and caused his head to fester through the continual pecking of the bird’s beak — the bird, of course, imagining that it was pursuing worms.” Dio tells us of Commodus in the amphitheatre that “On the first day he killed a hundred bears all by himself“. Herodian, at least, steers largely clear of such fanciful notions, but even he dips occasionally into hyperbole.

Of the accusations of megalomania, several of his acts are cited, and yet once again, a lot of this is down to the angle one takes on them. He is known (confirmed in inscriptions) to have changed the names of the months to his own twelve names: Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, Exsuperatorius, Amazonius, Invictus, Felix, Pius. Mad? Really? When the month of Quintilis had been renamed after Julius Caesar two centuries earlier, and shortly after that, Sextilis had been renamed for Augustus – July and August as they now are? One might suggest this is a little over the top, yes, but there was a solid precedent for it, and that its usage is recorded even out in the Syrian desert suggests that it was not really considered unacceptable by provincials. And how crazed was it that he refounded Rome after a disastrous fire and named the restored metropolis Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana after himself? Mad, right? So why do we honour and celebrate Constantine for refounding Byzantium as Constantinopolis? Is that not the very same megalomania at work? Or perhaps we should worry about his identification with Hercules, for he dressed as the god at public events. Surely that’s properly barking mad? And yet a bust of a young Commodus portrayed as Hercules as a boy can only have been commissioned by his father, the great Marcus Aurelius, and so was Commodus perhaps merely continuing his father’s vision? Moreover, the identification of emperors with that god arose once more a century later during the tetrarchy, so really this is not an isolated thing, but an imperial trend.

In my research I came to the conclusion that Commodus was neither wicked nor insane, but rather suffered Bipolar disorder (previously known as Manic depression), which would fit his darker moods and periodic withdrawal from public life, as well as his somewhat over the top glorious notions. Certainly, Commodus cannot be the monster we are given.

Following the death of Commodus and the brief reigns of two successors, the next real power in Rome was Septimius Severus, but to secure his throne, he had to put down usurpations by Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus. Niger never managed to secure acceptance by the senate, and so was not truly an emperor, though Albinus was briefly legitimised by Severus.

I have yet to delve in depth into the lives of these two usurpers, though both have appeared in the Praetorian series, particularly Niger, in which they are portrayed simply as ambitious Roman noblemen. Let’s largely skip them for now and move onto more fertile ground.

For our last exploration, I’ve put the final two on my list together. Diocletian was the man who founded the tetrarchic system (splitting the empire in half and appointing a senior and junior emperor to each.) He ruled from 284 to 305 AD. Maxentius, one of several claimants to the western empire as the system collapsed again, reigned from 306 to 312. Both men are among the last to be damned, and their reputations have suffered in particular because of their opposition to Constantine. Their biographies come to us mostly through Christian writers who favoured their hero Constantine, and so any man Saint Constantine was set against is naturally vilified.

Of Diocletian, Eutropius says “He used his victory, indeed, cruelly, and distressed all Egypt with severe proscriptions and massacres. Yet at the same time he made many judicious arrangements and regulations, which continue to our own days,” gracing us with an unusually rounded image of a man both damnable and laudable in different ways. Cruel and dangerous, yet clever and an able administrator. Indeed, this juxtaposition is echoed throughout Eutropius: “He was willing to gratify his own disposition to cruelty in such a way as to throw the odium upon others; he was however a very active and able prince.”

Lactantius, on the other hand, not only gives us a very one-dimensional view of the emperor, but he also makes his bias very plain from the outset: “While Diocletian, that author of ill, and deviser of misery, was ruining all things, he could not withhold his insults, not even against God.” Thus, it is with extreme care that we have to consider anything Lactantius tells us. Diocletian was one of the greatest persecuters of Christians in history, and so the views of Christian writers are unlikely to be positive.

Actually, the evidence for Diocletian’s damnation is scant, for he retired and died naturally in a villa in Croatia, though an inscription found in Rome in which Diocletian’s name has been scratched out and replaced with that of Constantine hints that Diocletian’s reputation went the same way as his co-emperor Maximian, damned by Constantine even if he later rehabilitated the man’s memory. Diocletian is something of a bit part player in the Rise of Emperors series that I co-wrote with Gordon Doherty, an Emperor Palpatine to Galerius’s Darth Vader. In our work he is characterised as cruel and dangerous, possibly even mad. This may be a caricature, but given that even the more positive biographies of the man make him cruel, it seemed natural to follow the trend. Quite simply, even if you’re not a Christian, given that Diocletian presided over one of the most brutal and widespread persecutions in history, it is hard to see him as little more than a villain.

To the last of our emperors, then. Maxentius is the son of that very same Maximian mentioned above. Maxentius is my protagonist throughout the Rise of Emperors series, alongside Gordon’s Constantine, and with him I had to apply much the same system of research as with Caligula and Commodus. Maxentius has once again come down to us as the villain of the piece, a brutal and cruel usurper facing the sainted and wonderful Constantine. Our sources for Maxentius are universally Christian and therefore in Constantine’s pocket, and so it should come as no surprise that they damn Maxentius. The approach here, though, is different to those earlier emperors, for there is no accusation of madness among these biographies. Maxentius is simply wicked, dangerous, licentious and evil.

One might note from the outset that Maxentius had every bit the same claim to the Western Empire as Constantine. Both had been sons of emperors, and both had expected to be included in the succession. When they were not, both took matters into their own hands, Constantine proclaimed by his army in York, Maxentius proclaimed by the Praetorian Guard and the senate in Rome. There are, in fact, few lines in the sources at all on Maxentius. He is not well covered by contemporary writers.

Lactantius, one of Constantine’s great biographers, only deals peripherally with Maxentius, though he labels him from the outset “a man of bad and mischievous dispositions, […] proud and stubborn.” Though he treats the events of Maxentius’s reign only in snippets, even at the end, the demise of Maxentius is noted as “The hand of the Lord prevailed.” Thus is Maxentius presented to us as an agent of the devil, despite the fact that there is no real evidence of Maxentius’s cruelty towards Christians. Indeed, there is only actually one direct story of the man persecuting Christians.

The somewhat fanciful legend of Saint Catherine of Alexandria says that she went to Maxentius when he instituted persecutions. She argued her stance and managed to out argue 50 pagan philosophers summoned by the emperor. At this point he loses his temper and begins to imprison and torture he, eventually leading to her death, when her body oozed something like milk instead of blood. Quite apart from there being no evidence of a Maxentian persecution, the story holds less water than a cotton colander. And just to hammer a nail into that coffin, the Christians of Rome had been forbidden to elect a high priest (a pope) under Maximian, yet Maxentius saw the investiture of three popes. Hardly the actions of a persecutor of Christians.

Beyond Lactantius, various Panegyrics do Maxentius little service, though one of the other main sources is the 5th century historian Zosimus. Zosimus periodically has a stab at Max’s reputation here and there with phrases like “conducted himself with cruelty and licentiousness” and yet his treatment of the actual events is surprisingly neutral, and even tips in the direction of admiration occasionally with moments like “They would have destroyed the whole city, had not Maxentius soon appeased their rage.”

The simple fact is that whether the sources are entirely damning or just a little dubious, Maxentius is given to us as a hater of Christians, a bane to Rome and a dangerous and unacceptable usurper. No one has a good word to say about him, and yet we have to remember that all those writing do so under the aegis of his enemy and successor, Constantine. So if Maxentius the hater of Christians, the tyrant and the despot is a fiction of vilifying biographers, what do we know of Maxentius the real man?

Actually, the most telling thing about Maxentius comes from surviving archaeology and geography. While Galerius, Constantine, Licinius, Daia, and every other weasel barking during the tetrarchy, sought imperial power, each and every one imagined the seat of that power somewhere in the provinces. Serbia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Germany, each emperor ruled from a court somewhere in their heartland. Maxentius was something different. Though he had been born into a once humble family from the Balkans, it was Rome for which he stood and which became the heart of his domain. The only Roman imperial sceptres and regalia ever found have been attributed to him. At the very end, when facing Constantine, he consulted Rome’s most ancient scriptures and fought to protect Rome, even turning its walls into the impressive specimens we can see today. Logic and a little investigation suggest that despite his provincial origins, Maxentius was the only claimant of the era who represented Rome.

Furthermore, Rome had seen only a few eras of great public building in 300 years of emperors, and these projects were all attributed to great men. Augustus remodelled the forum and began to fill the Campus Martius with monuments. Vespasian and Titus extinguished the excesses of Nero and replaced them with magnificent public buildings. Trajan filled Rome with great works for the people. Other rulers constructed buildings in scattered numbers, but only the greatest of emperors embarked on city-changing projects of grand public works. And the last one to do so? The last emperor to embark on a plan of public buildings in Rome was Maxentius. And were the works mere self-aggrandizement? Alright he may have built a villa with the mausoleum of his son on the Via Appia and a new private bath on the Palatine. But he also built or reconstructed all of this:

If one looks at the archaeology and tries to ignore the worst of the propaganda, what comes out of it is the image of a traditionalist. In a world where emperors are trying to change the administration, the geography, the capital, even the religion of the empire, Maxentius stands for Rome, as an echo of the great emperors of the past. In a way, he is the last great pagan emperor of Rome. Indeed, he is the last emperor to rule from Rome, and the last emperor to reside on the Palatine. Maxentius is, to me, the last true Roman emperor.

So that’s it for now. I shall in time investigate and rehabilitate others, and certain names are already in my sights, but if you want to read about the emperors so far, here are the books. All are available through online stores such as Amazon and the iStore (except Agricola which is available as a pre-order only), and Caligula, Commodus and Sons of Rome are available in your local bookstore also. Happy reading and let’s reform the reputations of a few great men…

Written by SJAT

April 9, 2021 at 9:07 am

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

Welcome to the Palladium

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Ever heard of the Palladium? No, not the theatre, nor the metal. The ancient Palladium, I mean. Well oddly it’s cropped up twice recently for me, after never previously knowing anything of it. Firstly, when I was writing the H360 book A Song of War, and then more recently in my biography of Commodus (which will be out in April – nudges you towards the pre-order button.)

So what was the Palladium? Well, let’s go back into some mythology to find it. You’ve heard of Athena, right? Greek goddess, connected with Athens and owls, worshipped in Rome as Minerva, sprouted from the head of Zeus like a pretty and rather powerful boil? Well did you know that she was raised by the sea god Triton and raised alongside Triton’s daughter like a sister. That sister-friend was called Pallas, and one day when soft play went wrong, Athena accidentally killed Pallas. In her grief, she made a divine wooden likeness of Pallas. This, then, was the Palladium. But how does it fit into my tales?

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Cassandra clinging to the Palladium in the temple in Troy (a painting in Pompeii)

Well, ‘A Song of War’ was the H360 tale of the fall of Troy, and it so happened that the Palladium fell from the heavens and landed in Troy, where it was worshipped, stored in the temple of Athena. So when we wrote of the sack and the fall of Troy, it inevitably involved researching  some of the greatest treasures and sacred objects of the city. As legend would have it, the Palladium survives the fall of Troy. In our tale, the team told of Odysseus and Diomedes’ theft of the Palladium (or Palladion in Greek.) So I read of this most reverent wooden statue in the terms of Vicky Alvear Shecter’s amazing tale of Odysseus. So the Palladium leaves Troy with the great intuitive Greek and his lion-skin-clad mate. But somehow it leaves the city after the war, and not via Odysseus, since he heads back to Ithaka in order to drink some Ouzo and relax as he imports washing machines cheap from Albania.

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Diomedes and Odysseus stealing the Palladium (from the Louvre)

Now here the tales seem to peter out. Somehow the Palladium leaves Troy, though it doesn’t seem to be in the hands of Odysseus. It perhaps left with Diomedes, who is recorded as ending up in Italy, or perhaps with Aeneas somehow. However it went, the next time it appears in the Historical/Mythological record is in Rome. Exactly how it stops being a Graeco-Trojan religious focus and becomes Roman is something of a mystery, but then the Romans were ever masters of claiming older valuable things as their own, a bit like Melania… I personally blame Virgil, who seems intent on making Troy Rome’s ancestor at any expense. Either way, the Palladium eventually ends up in the Temple of Vesta in Rome, where it is one of the city’s most sacred relics. There it is kept inviolable and hidden, away from the masses.

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Nike and a warrior either side of a pillar topped by the Palladium (in the Louvre)

And this is where, for me, it turns up a second time in my research. I have just finished writing Commodus, my second book for Orion, in which I re-examine that infamous emperor in a new light, and lo and behold but what should suddenly crop up in my research but the Palladium!

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Commodus as Hercules (in the Capitoline Museum)

I shall try and avoid spoilers of course, but suffice it to say there is, during that story, a fire in Rome. Let’s face it, Rome burns every ten minutes. Fires in ancient Rome are more common than non-sequiturs in a Richard Ayoade monologue or failures in Anglo-American government. This particular fire threatens the forum and the Palatine, and in the process catches and incinerates the temple of Vesta and the house of the Vestals. I give you my source material, the ever-entertaining Herodion:

“1.14.4 After consuming the temple and the entire sacred precinct, the fire swept on to destroy a large part of the city, including its most beautiful buildings. When the temple of Vesta went up in flames, the image of Pallas Athena was exposed to public view – that statue which the Romans worship and keep hidden, the one brought from Troy, as the story goes. Now, for the first time since its journey from Troy to Italy, the statue was seen by men of our time.

1.14.5 For the Vestal Virgins snatched up the image and carried it along the Sacred Way to the imperial palace.”

Rome

Rome burns

So there you have it. I wrote a tale set 1600 years BC in Anatolian Greece and it involved the Palladium. Then I wrote a tale set in the late 2nd century AD, almost two millennia later and half a known world away, and lo and behold there again is the Palladium.

Interestingly, I have since found a reference that Constantine (about whom I am also writing with the indomitable Gordon Doherty), when he founded the new Rome, moved the Palladium to Constantinople where he buried it below his column (hur, hur, hur – said in a Beavis and Butthead voice).

The Palladium, then. A battered wooden image of Pallas fashioned by a god, which seems fated to crop up in what I write. Bet you’ll remember it now when next it crops up.

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One day I’ll be here, receiving an award…. 😉

 

 

Written by SJAT

September 15, 2018 at 8:59 am

Lucius Verus by M.C. Bishop

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Sometimes books just appear at serendipitous times. Last month this book was released, penned by one of the top scholars in his field, a man whose work I trust implicitly. I happened to have just finished writing my novel on Commodus and sent it to my editor. But since Verus was the uncle of my emperor and has an important role in my tale, I simply had to read this. Glad I did. There was so much in here that I needed to add to my story, and fortunately I had that opportunity during the editing stage. ‘Lucius Verus’ was something of an eye-opener.

Bishop starts out on his journey through Verus’ life by explaining that he is not attempting to ‘rehabilitate’ Verus and remove the stigma that history has left, but rather to remove the chaff from accounts and reveal only what truths or perceivable truths lie beneath the endless bias of biographers ancient and modern. In a way, he might have failed in that task in the nicest possible way, because by the end, I found Verus thoroughly rehabilitated and sympathetic. Much, fortunately, like the character in my novel. Phew.

This book is actually two subjects rolled into one, as the title suggests. It is at one and the same time a detailed and as accurate as it is possible to be biography of the man who co-ruled the empire with the great Marcus Aurelius, and a military narrative on the Parthian campaigns of the 160s AD. That it achieves both aims smoothly and without feeling at odds with one another is superb.

For those who are unfamiliar with Verus, you will probably be aware of his adoptive brother Marcus Aurelius and his nephew Commodus. From 161 AD until his death in 169, he shared the rule of the Roman empire with Aurelius, the two working in consort as co-emperors. Verus is not one of those emperors who was damned by the state (with whom I am gradually dealing) but perhaps by dint of being an easy comparison with his famous brother, he has been somewhat tarnished and sullied by biased historians after his death in much the same way the damned emperors were. Aurelius is the great philosopher-king, an emperor who shunned war, yet spent much of his reign on the borders fighting the enemies of Rome. A man of wit and wisdom and a calm and mellow one, even. Verus has ever been painted as the dissolute playboy prince. He is presented to us by historians as a drinker, a hedonist, lazy and a poor comparison to Aurelius. Bishop set out to pull apart the clear bias and try to find the real man beneath. An admirable attempt, I have to say. Throughout the text, Bishop repeatedly shows two facets that make his work stand out:

  • An almost unparalleled knowledge and understanding of the Roman world, which manifests in every tiny detail he produces being presented with clarity, sureness and relevance.
  • A wry wit and easy style that prevents any danger of the book slipping into dusty irredeemable academia.

The book begins by explaining its purpose and goals. Bishop then goes on to examine in detail all the sources on Verus’ life and evaluate them carefully. From there, he moves onto a biography of the emperor’s life until his accession to power with his brother. We then learn of the situation in the east and are treated to a little history of the borderland. An examination of the joint emperors’ rule and the nature of their sharing of power follows before we head east with Verus to examine his campaign in more detail than I expected. On the conclusion of that, Bishop then goes on to tell us of Verus’ life from there until his untimely death, before evaluating the ‘wastrel’ emperor and presenting his conclusion to the reader. The appendices are as interesting and important as the rest of the text, too, including copies of the emperor’s letters ans, most impressive of all, an attempt at redacting the infamous Historia Augusta, trimming the chaff and presenting a more factual, more reasonable selection within it.

I am not going to go into any further detail on the contents here, though I will say that there was not a section or even a page that I was tempted to skim over. And I challenge anyone to read the book and not have their opinion of Verus altered. In short, the book is probably my favourite of Bishop’s works (and I have a dozen or so), and as a clarified biography of a maligned man, it matches Winterling’s Caligula, which was the main basis for my own last imperial work. Pride of place on my shelves and a more than worthy exploration of a man who has been largely ignored thus far by historians.

HIGHLY recommended.

Written by SJAT

June 15, 2018 at 11:47 am

Praetorian: The Price of Treason

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An empire controlled by an evil powermonger. An elite fighting force clad in white. A small band of rebel heroes racing to bring freedom and truth to the empire… sound familiar?

No, not Star Wars. But while you’re standing in the queue today, eager to see Kylo Ren, you can order Praetorian: The Price of Treason online  for £2.49 on Kindle or £8.99 in paperback.

396 pages of intrigue and danger in the Rome of the emperor Commodus. Good Praetorians, bad Praetorians, weird prefects, vengeful sailors, ambitious legates, defiant senators, wicked politicians, Rufinus, and a dog…

Yes, Rufinus is back.

Two years have passed since the emperor’s loyal Praetorian guardsman Gnaeus Marcius Rustius Rufinus foiled Lucilla’s great assassination plot. Plagued by the ghosts of his past, Rufinus has enacted his own form of justice upon the praetorian cavalrymen who murdered the imperial agent Dis two years earlier.

But the Fates will not let Rufinus rest. Rome is beginning to seethe with rumour and conspiracy as Perennis, the prefect of the Praetorian Guard, and Cleander, the imperial chamberlain, continue to play their ‘great game.’

With the tide of opinion turning against their commander, Rufinus and his friends embark upon a mission to save the Prefect’s family, only to uncover a plot that runs deep… to the very heart of the empire. Armed with rare and dangerous evidence, Rufinus faces insurmountable odds in an attempt to bring the truth to light. To save his prefect. To save Rome. To save everyone he cares about.

You can buy it here

Merry Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Winter to everyone.

Si

Written by SJAT

December 17, 2015 at 11:27 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

Praetorian: The Great Game

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Praetorian Blog Tour

So today Praetorian is released into the world, and the blog tour begins. Who better to kick it off than me, eh?

So what is Praetorian: The Great Game, and how did it come about? Well some years ago, I spent many months sweating through a tale I called Legion 22. It was atmospheric, evocative and character driven. It was also, when I was 90% through it and went back to read through so far, complete rubbish! Oh it was a nice tale, but to pull it together and make it workable would take almost as long as it had taken to write in the first place. Consequently, I gave up in disgust and assigned the book to ‘File 13’.

Rubbish basket full of white crumpled papers

(Legion XXII’s final resting place)

So I was left without a project that I had poured a lot of time and effort into. I was not quite ready to write the next Marius’ Mules or Fantasy novel, and I had an agent showing some interest if I could produce a new unpublished series. I foundered. And as I do at times like that, I procrastinated and filled my time with perusing Roman books for fun. And I toyed with the idea of trying to write a novel about either Caligula, Nero or Domitian and making them the good guy, their reputation ruined after their death by enemies. Not such an outlandish possibility, of course. And while doing this, I came across Commodus. I knew Commodus, of course, and not just from ‘Fall of the Roman Empire’ or ‘Gladiator’. I’ve always seen him as the starting point of Rome’s decline (something we have Gibbon to thank for, I suspect.) But the thing is, this is not all there is of Commodus:

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Commodus doing his Gene Simmons impression

Commodus started his reign looking good. He was popular and had all the credentials. If one looks at recorded events and reads between the vilified lines, it is rather easy to produce a picture, not of a complete barking mad barnpot like Elagabalus, but of a man who wanted to rule, but was disinterested in the minutiae of doing so. Commodus wanted to set the empire’s grand policies, and wanted to make Rome great, but beyond that he wanted to watch the races, the games and generally have fun. To this end, he trusted the actual running of his empire to a series of advisers, each of which turned out to be worse than their predecessor. It is therefore easy to see the emperor as a good, if slightly credulous, man who came under the unhealthy influence of some awful men who turned him into what history remembers. After all, very few of history’s notable figures are pure ‘white hat’ or ‘black hat’ good or bad guys.

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Alright, maybe in some cases it’s a bit clearer…

So I had my era and a character. But I had done my writing about famous Romans. After all, Caesar and his cronies had figured a lot in the Marius’ Mules series. I wanted a new, unknown character. I was perusing the varied and interesting events of Commodus’ reign and an event leapt out at me. There was a plot against the emperor at the outset of his reign that is largely ignored in Hollywood’s treatments of the man, largely because they are intent on vilifying him and making his sister Lucilla a saint. She was not. But enough about that. Don’t want to ruin the plot, after all… But in reading about the plot, I discovered that it had been stopped by the emperor’s guards. What if I could write the tale of that man. So, the character of Rufinus was born. Again, I won’t delve too deep there for fear of spoilers. But the note at the end of the book picks up from here and tells you everything else. I had my plot, my era, my hero and my villain. From there, a story was in the making. And so, to give you a taster, click HERE to download a PDF copy of the first chapter. I hope you enjoy it.

Don’t forget to check out the next blog on the tour tomorrow (http://bantonbhuttu.blogspot.co.uk/) for a review of the book

And because every good blog post should end with a smile…

 

Written by SJAT

March 12, 2015 at 11:40 am

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…

So….

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.

OK. BACK TO THE NON-SPOILER STUFF

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