Sunday, February 1, 2015

Review: Hero of Rome by Douglas Jackson

A historical fiction review by  © 2015

When I first met Gaius Valerius Verrens in the opening chapters of "Hero of Rome" by Scottish author Douglas Jackson, he was leading his cohort into a Silurian hill fort bristling with Celtic spears on a hilltop in Nero's Roman Britain.  In this first novel of a new series, Jackson skillfully fleshed out his new protagonist with a backstory that included tutelage by the famous philosopher Seneca, a deep sense of honor instilled by his patrician father and a warrior's courage developed over his course of service with the XXth Legion.  It was also quickly apparent that Valerius was respected by his men because he, in turn, respected them - all except a particularly nasty centurion named Crespo, who would eventually create the flashpoint for Boudicca's famous revolt.

I had not read any summaries of the novel before I started listening to this tale (this review is based on an unabridged performance recorded for Audible.com) but I immediately knew what was going to happen to Valerius when he is sent with his cohort to winter in Colonia - Camulodunum - the scene of the first massacre of the Boudiccan Revolt.  Knowing this was a first novel in a new series, however, I just wasn't sure how Jackson would extract Valerius so he could fight another day, as the Celtic destruction of Camulodunum was quite complete according to the ancient sources and evidenced by the destruction layer found by archaeologists.

When Valerius arrives in Colonia, he finds the thriving town, then capital of Roman Britain, protected by rather aged and grizzled Roman veterans from the original invasion of the island by the emperor Claudius, equipped with rusty swords and disintegrating armor.  Falco, the veteran centurion, quickly demonstrates how tough his men can be, however, when he challenges Valerius' men to a shoving match.  Valerius also meets the local Trinovantes chieftain, Lucillus, who is trying so hard to be accepted as an equal to the other Roman residents.  Then, Valerius is instantly captivated by the chieftain's auburn-haired daughter, Mave, and begins a subtle campaign to win her heart.

Again, Jackson carefully sculpts these characters to bring them to life for the reader.  I especially liked Ciaran, an Iceni nobleman who already realized there was little hope of actually defeating the Romans so was trying his best to develop a peaceful relationship with them.

But these first attempts at reconciliation are thwarted when the greedy Roman procurator, Catus Decianus, attempts to seize all of the Iceni land when the Iceni King, Prasutagus, dies.  Leading Romans, including Seneca, had also suddenly recalled loans to the British elite resulting in brutal property seizures, just as portrayed in the novel.

Seneca by Joseph Wilton.  Photographed at the
J. Paul Getty Museum by Mary Harrsch © 2005.

Decianus, the provincial procurator of Roman Britain,  is said to have been based in Colonia at the time of the revolt but the ancient sources said he "sent" only 200 men when he received the town's plea for help, so scholars assume he must have been in Londinium at the time.  This is reflected in the novel as well. The depth of Douglas' research is obvious from the narrative's detail.

Although Decianus is villified as greedy, both in the novel and in the ancient sources, his failure to recognize any claim by Boudicca was not unusual. Both H. H. Scullard, in his 1982 work "From the Gracchi to Nero", and John Morris, in his 1982 work "Londinium: London in the Roman Empire", point out that it was normal Roman practice to allow allied kingdoms their independence only for the lifetime of their client king, who would then agree to leave his kingdom to Rome in his will. This occured in the eastern provinces of Bithynia and Galatia.  Roman law also allowed inheritance only through the male line, so Rome would not normally have allowed the ascension of a client queen.  Boudicca may have thought otherwise, however, due to the Roman support of the Brigantes queen, Cartimandua.  Of course the flogging of Boudicca and the subsequent alleged rape of her daughters was obviously over the top.

Statue of Boudicca near Westminster Pier as commissioned by Prince Albert and
executed by 
Thomas Thornycroft
 in 1905. Image by Mary Harrsch © 2006

Jackson handles this brutal event with sufficient detail to dismay the reader but does not appall the reader with excessive gore. Likewise, Jackson's battle scenes are absolutely taut with tension.  At times I felt as emotionally spent afterwards as Valerius must have been.

By the climax of the battle at Colonia where Valerius struggles shoulder to shoulder with his comrades to prevent the wildly shrieking Britons from storming the temple of Claudius, I felt such a bond with Valerius that I feared the inevitable - after all, I had read the history!

The Temple of Claudius in Camulodunum was beseiged by the Britons for
two days before it fell and defenders were massacred.
Ultimately, though, Jackson succeeds at believably extracting Valerius from the jaws of death, but at a terrible price, both physically and emotionally, leaving an imprint on his character that will obviously affect his behavior in subsequent novels.

I highly recommend this novel and have become so captivated by Valerius I have already started the second book, "Defender of Rome."

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