Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Review: Sword of Rome by Douglas Jackson

A history resource article by  © 2015

When we left Gaius Valerius Verrens at the end of Book 4 of the "Hero of Rome" series of novels by Douglas Jackson, Valerius was attempting to elude the Roman Emperor Nero's assassins in Antioch and escape to the safety of Vespasian's headquarters in Africa. He has been charged with the care of the daughter of his former commander and mentor Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo who was ordered by Nero to commit suicide  and he and his faithful freedman and former gladiator, Serpentius, are determined to keep the lady (and future empress) safe.

I thought the next book, "Sword of Rome", would take place in Africa where Valerius would serve as a cavalry commander under Vitellius, but instead we discover it is 68 CE, the Year of the Four Emperors, and Valerius is leading a small contingent of cavalry escorting Marcus Salvius Otho to Rome where Otho's fellow conspirators are preparing to end Nero's tyranny and install the aged patrician traditionalist, Galba as the new ruler of the Roman Empire.

Roman emperor Marcus Salvius Otho
Photographed at The Louvre by Mary Harrsch
© 2008
Galba was childless and Otho has been assured by one of Galba's favorites, Titus Vinius, that Otho would be adopted by the old general if Otho would secretly marry Vinius' daughter.

The problem with "too many caesars" though, as Octavian once put it, is that troops loyal to different imperial claimants often run into each other in the surrounding provinces.  Such is the case when Valerius' troopers encounter a squad of Batavians still loyal to Nero and in the ensuing struggle Valerius kills the brother of a high-ranking Batavian commander.  The resulting blood feud shadows Valerius' missions throughout the rest of the novel.

When Valerius finally arrives in Rome, he is asked to secretly meet with Nero's vile Praetorian Prefect, Tigelliunus, who has accepted a bribe from the rebels to betray his longtime benefactor. Valerius finally has the opportunity to exact vengeance on the now cowering and terrified emperor, Nero, who ordered Valerius' father figure Corbulo's suicide.

Jackson then introduces a group of Roman sailors who Nero has promised the opportunity to become a new legion.  Valerius meets these men and, although they are not properly trained in the use of arms, Valerius is impressed by their courage and loyalty and assures them that he will try to get the new emperor to recognize Nero's pledge.

Servius Sulpicius Galba.  Image courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons.
But the pompous Galba will have nothing to do with them and orders his troops to slaughter many of the men when they confront Galba during his triumphal procession into the city.  Among other mistakes Galba makes is his tight-fisted refusal to pay a promised donative to the Praetorian Guard. Then Galba names a feckless patrician youth as his heir instead of Otho and Otho incites the Praetorian Guard to put an end to Galba's blunders.

Valerius is torn by his soldier's sense of duty and honor between Galba and Otho since, by now, he has already pledged the military sacramentum to Galba.  So, Valerius is caught right in the middle of this maelstrom of violence and he and Serpentius barely escape with their lives.  As history tells us, Galba was not so fortunate, however.

Otho finds among Galba's papers reports that the gluttonous Vitellius, now governing Germania Superior, has been declared emperor by the Renus legions.  So, in exchange for Valerius' life he asks Valerius and Serpentius to travel to Vitellius' headquarters as Otho's envoy to try to avert civil war.

The so-called pseudo-Vitellius at The Louvre,
a 16th century copy of an ancient bust thought to
be the gluttonous Roman emperor Vitellius.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The rest of the novel is focused on Valerius' journey to and from Germania Superior ending with the climactic battle of Bedriacum that leaves Valerius an "Enemy of Rome", the title of book five.

Once again Jackson has fleshed out the meticulously researched events of history with vibrant characters and breathtaking battle sequences.  Although I was aware of the key players in the "Year of the Four Emperors", I had not studied it in depth even though I have an, as yet unread, text on the subject, "The Year of the Four Emperors" by Kenneth Wellesley.  Jackson's narrative, however, has seared the events of that momentous year into my memory as no textbook could.

Once again, I am anxiously looking forward to the next novel in the series "Enemy of Rome" although it has not yet been released on audio which is my favorite format.  I keep checking my Audible.com offerings and hope it will show up there soon.



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