Sunday, August 21, 2016

Review: The Siege (Book One of the Agent of Rome Series) by Nick Brown

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2016

At just 19-years old, Cassius Corbulo is probably the youngest centurion in the Roman Army.  Has he won a civic crown or been the first over the wall of a besieged town?  No.  Actually, he spent a few too many nights wooing the young women of Rome, so his father signed him up for the Imperial Security Service, sort of the Roman emperor's version of the FBI.  No one, including Corbulo's father, ever thought he would end up actually leading troops in the field, especially not in Syria where Queen Zenobia's troops, trained in Roman tactics and under the leadership of the fierce commander, Septimius Zabbai, are wreaking total havoc from Egypt to Asia Minor.

But when Corbulo arrives to assume his role on the Syrian governor's staff, he is immediately dispatched to Roman outposts in the region to collect up what troops remain and escort them back to Antioch.  He is told to assume the role of centurion, since that is the equivalent rank he holds in the security service, but he feels painfully aware of his total inexperience and is embarrassed to be issuing commands to the grizzled veterans he collects.

Palmyran Loculus Cover 2nd century CE.  Photo by
Mary Harrsch © 2005
His uncle, a successful merchant in Antioch, has provided Corbulo with a knowledgeable man-servant from Gaul but, unlike other "sidekicks" in similar tales, Simo has no demonstrated skill in arms.  Corbulo, himself, despite being distantly related to the famous general, Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, and undergoing the Roman equivalent of basic training, is actually clumsy with a sword.  Fortunately, his behavioral perception and ability to judge men's characters are significantly beyond his years.  So, unlike Harry Sidebottom's Marcus Claudius Balista or Douglas Jackson's Gaius Valerius Verrens, both quintessential warriors, young Corbulo will need to use his wits and his courage rather than his brawn to outwit the opponents he will face as the story unfolds.

Corbulo receives a dispatch to proceed to a ramshackle Roman fortress named Alauran, guarding one of the precious wells in the region, and hold it until a Roman relief force arrives.  There he finds less than half of the original century assigned to the post still alive and only a drunken praetorian, a disgraced hero of Rome suffering from a severe intestinal disorder, the only remaining officer.  With no leadership, the men, who have not been paid in almost two years, have little discipline left and have little faith in a contingent of slinger auxiliaries made up of local tribesmen with whom they share the compound.  But every available man will be needed if Corbulo is to withstand an attack.

Byzantine-era silver plate depicting the world's most famous slinger Goliath.  Photographed
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Mary Harrsch © 2007
Meanwhile, Zabbai sends an elite contingent, under the command of one of the most celebrated swordsmen in Palmyra, to capture the Roman outpost.

Brown does an excellent job of describing the setting and developing the characters of Corbulo, Simo, the praetorian, the appointed squad leaders and the Palmyran swordsman and commander, Azaf.  I found it interesting to see how Corbulo was going to rebuild a fighting force by selecting men who would respond to his leadership efforts and help motivate the remaining men to mount a formidable defense.

When the attack begins, the action is non-stop and the suspense builds to a gratifying conclusion.  I was listening to the unabridged version of the audiobook and must admit, though, at one point I shouted "throw the caltrops!" as it looked like Corbulo had forgotten them when he was actually waiting for just the precise moment for maximum effect.

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