Sunday, July 29, 2018

Review: Onslaught by Anthony Riches

A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2018


As I began listening to Anthony Riches' "Retribution" today, I realized I had not reviewed its prequel "Onslaught", the second in "The Centurions" series about the Batavian Revolt during the year of the Four Emperors, 69 CE. So, let's remedy that now.

Toward the end of The Centurions Book 1, "Betrayal", a sizable portion of the Batavian cohorts has been sent south from Germania Inferior to fight the forces of Marcus Salvius Otho, a young Roman aristocrat who has instigated the assassination of the short-lived emperor Servius Sulpicius Galba and now claims the purple for himself. The legions guarding the Rhine frontier, who initially marched south to fight Galba, are unwilling to accept Otho either, since they declared their own commander Aulus Vitellius emperor before hearing of Otho's coup. Now they plan to enforce their will regardless of which man the weak Roman senate ordains.

The forces clash violently at Cremona with Vitellius' forces victorious due in no small part to the ferocity of the Batavians.  As a reward, Vitellius orders the Batavians to return to their homeland.

But then word comes Titus Vespasianus, a general who has personally fought beside the Batavians in Britannia and even owes his life to them, has declared his intention to wrest control of the empire from Vitellius' tenuous grasp.  So, Vitellius changes his mind about sending the Batavians home to their prince.

This poses quite a dilemma for the Batavians as they have no real personal allegiance to Vitellius and they also know the Rhine legions he commands are determined to eliminate their prince Gaius Julius Civilis for his apparent collusion with Gaius Julius Vindex in an ill-fated revolt to support Galba a year earlier. Then, word leaks out that Vitellius plans to break up the Batavian cohorts and distribute them across his legions to blunt any threat they may present in the future.

Meanwhile, Civilis meets with envoys from Vespasianus including Pliny the Elder, and agrees to begin a rebellion to distract Vitellius and prevent him from ordering the remaining Rhine legions south to meet Vespasian's forces. Historically, this may have occurred, but is not specifically stated in any ancient sources.

Civilis knows it is a dangerous game he plays as Rome has always ruthlessly punished any tribal group who attempt to throw off the Roman yoke.  How far can he really trust Vespasian or even his own countrymen knowing he, himself, does not go unchallenged for leadership?  Much hinges on arrangements he has made with a long-time tribal opponent, Claudius Labeo. The plan is kept secret from even Civilis' closest kinsmen. Civilis wonders whether he can restrain his warriors from claiming Roman battle trophies and accept the defeat and plunder of Roman auxiliaries and fellow Germans instead.  Furthermore, for the plan to succeed, Civilis needs the rest of the Batavian cohorts now poised between returning to Batavia and continuing south with the forces of Vitellius.

His choice apparently made, Civilis sends a secret messenger to the Batavians in the south asking them to ignore Vitellius and continue their march north to join their countrymen and the game of thrones begins in earnest.

The grisly battle scenes, as is always the case with Riches' tales, keep you riveted to the action and guessing as to what Prince Civilis has up his sleeve. The characters are vibrantly drawn and  you can't help but feel empathy for them as they desperately battle their former comrades for the continued freedom of their tribe and even life itself.

I found myself still more partial to the Batavians than the defenders of the "Old Camp" and didn't really find a new Roman centurion called Aquilius particularly appealing either due to his brutal nature. But I know such characters really crank up the tension and realism of the narrative.

I am anxious to continue the Centurions' trilogy with "Retribution" and highly recommend this masterful series.


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