Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Review: Defender of Rome by Douglas Jackson

A historical fiction review by  © 2015

Gaius Valerius Verrens has returned to Rome after surviving the brutal Boudiccan Revolt in Britain.  Although his emperor, Nero, has bestowed upon him the corona aurea, pronouncing him a hero of Rome, Valerius finds Nero's court filled with treacherous, ambitious men who consider him a threat to their dreams of power.  He also finds his sister on the brink of death from a lingering illness and his father strangely distant.  All he wants is to return to the legions now that he has been fitted with a walnut fist to replace the hand taken from him in payment for his life by the woman he once loved and an Iceni nobleman he once called friend.

But Nero is a creature of perverted fascinations and toys with Valerius, hoping to add a hero of Rome to his stable of conquests.  So, Valerius spends his days retraining to become a left-handed swordsman in a local gladiator school, hoping to somehow convince the emperor to reward him with a new military posting instead.

One day, a summons arrives and Valerius is astonished to learn from the Praetorian Prefect that he has been assigned the task of finding the hiding place of Petras, a follower of a crucified Judean rebel called Christus.
The 1st century CE Roman Emperor Nero
Photographed at the Capitoline Museum in
Rome, Italy by Mary Harrsch © 2005

Mr. Jackson had told me the second book was quite a bit different from the first book in the series, so at this point I had reservations about the direction the story was going.  I had bonded with the warrior protagonist in the first book and I certainly didn't want him transformed into some meek pacifist.  But, as it turns out, I didn't need to worry about that.  Valerius' pursuit of Petras becomes a tense cat and mouse game complicated by the efforts of the powerful Praetorian Prefect and his nasty henchman to spy on Valerius so they can stay one step ahead of him and ultimately capture Petras themselves to garner any laurels that are to be had from Nero and hopefully destroy Valerius in the process.

Their betrayal is not the only forces working against Valerius either.  During his investigations he discovers his old neighbor and tutor, Seneca, has designs on Valerius and his family's estates as well.

As the search progresses, Valerius inadvertently reveals some highly placed members of the Christus cult and he is horrified to witness Nero's disposal of the cult members in a gruesome orgy of slashing teeth and seering flame.  Valerius begins to loathe his assignment, but is threatened with the destruction of his entire family if he does not continue.

Nero's torches by Henryk Siemiradzki

Historical note - Faustus Cornelius Sulla Felix, a descendant of the famous Roman general, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, was executed by Nero in 62 CE, although he was cut down by assassins sent by Tigellinus at dinner, not in the way described in Jackson's story.  He was also not a beautiful, golden-haired youth but gray and balding at the time of his death.  It is said that Nero would tease the remains of the ill-fated Sulla's head, as the head was kept in the palace for a time,  despite the fact that Sulla had been married to the Emperor Claudius' daughter and Sulla's grandmother was a niece of Augustus, making him officially a member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

Also, at one point in the narrative, Valerius becomes aware of the torture of a patrician noblewoman thought to be conspiring with the Christus sect.  The woman is being held in the deepest recesses of the Praetorian's prison and, although such clandestine torture did occur, torture was not typically used against Roman citizens, especially the elite, in the early Imperial Period.  The protection of Roman citizens against pre-condemnation torture was essentially assured by the lex Julia de vi publica, passed into law during the Republican period.  This protection was not significantly eroded until the Severan Period.

"Whereas only slaves could be tortured as suspects about their own crimes, the basic rule remained constant, at least from Augustus to Hadrian, albeit abused in maiestas inquisitions, that no free Roman citizen should be tortured before condemnation" - Janne Pölönen, Plebians and Repression of Crime in the Roman Empire: From Torture of Convicts to Torture of Suspects 

 Finally, Nero threatens to kill Valerius and all of the Judeans in Rome if he does not capture Petras within ten days.  The taut climax is every bit as exciting and ultimately gratifying as Valerius' courageous defense of the Temple of Claudius in the first novel.

Once again I highly recommend this book, the second in the series.  Jackson's characterizations are absolutely vivid. His Nero made my skin crawl.  Likewise, Jackson's action sequences are perfectly choreographed to keep the reader in excruciating suspense until the last moment and the plot twists keep you guessing until the final pages.  I am so hooked on Jackson's "Hero of Rome" that I have already begun book three, Avenger of Rome!

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