12 February, 2007

Emperor series, by Conn Iggulden. Book review.

Series of four books:
The Gates of Rome
The Death of Kings
The Field of Swords
The Gods of War

Emperor is a four-book military adventure series based on the life of Julius Caesar, beginning somewhere around 92 BC and finishing with Caesar’s assassination on the Ides of March in 44 BC. The two main characters, Julius Caesar and Marcus Brutus, are historical. Other important characters are fictional, such as the gladiator Renius, slave-girl-turned-jewellery-maker Alexandria and the mysterious Eastern healer Cabera. Many of the secondary characters are historical, such as Servilia, Marius, Pompey, Sulla, Mithridates of Pontus, Octavian (later Emperor Augustus), Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Cicero, assorted Roman senators, though their careers and actions sometimes diverge from history.

The strength of the Emperor series is in its spectacular action set-pieces. Gladiatorial combat, pirate attacks, ambushes by robbers, street riots, and battles by land and sea in Greece, Gaul and Spain. It’s like an action movie rendered in words. In fact, it reminds me of films such as Braveheart and Gladiator –an exciting and enjoyable piece of entertainment as long as you sit back and enjoy the ride, and don’t expect it to be an accurate rendition of real events. Think of H. Rider Haggard or John Buchan, with togas.

The characters also have a larger-than-life aspect to them. Caesar and Brutus are military superheroes, particularly Caesar. Sometimes the portrayal of Caesar is a little over the top for me, for example in the pirate sequence in Book 2. When captured by pirates, Caesar’s companions are apparently unable to do anything to help themselves and fall into despair until Caesar recovers from his injury, rallies them, raises a legion from scratch, single-handedly defeats a rebellion and crucifies the pirates. Somehow, this superhero figure doesn’t capture my imagination. Brutus is a more interesting mixture of superhero and petulant teenager. He and Caesar are childhood companions, raised together almost as brothers, and Brutus is Caesar’s right-hand man through a succession of military dangers, including most of the Gallic wars. Brutus even wins a crucial battle while Caesar is incapacitated by an epileptic fit, and is with him at the historic crossing of the Rubicon – and then flounces off in a huff to join the other side of a civil war because he feels passed over for promotion.

The series takes some significant liberties with history. The ones that bother me most are the ones that affect character relationships and motivations. For example, the Emperor series makes Brutus and Caesar exact contemporaries, who grow up together on Caesar’s family estate in the countryside near Rome. However, Plutarch (writing in the first century AD) says that Caesar believed Brutus to be his son. Plutarch may or may not have been right about that – he was writing a century after the events – but it seems to me to be strong evidence that the two were of sufficiently different ages to make the assertion credible. Whatever the dynamic of the Brutus-Caesar relationship – and I agree with the author that it is worthy of exploration – if Caesar was old enough to be possibly Brutus’ father it could not have been derived from a shared boyhood. So for me the whole premise founders on this. There may be conflicting evidence that I’m not aware of that contradicts Plutarch, but the Author’s Note doesn’t mention the issue.

Similarly, the series makes Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) a generation older than he was, by making him Caesar’s nephew rather than great-nephew. Octavian was born in 63 BC, so at the Battle of Alesia in 52 BC he was aged 11. Yet the Emperor series has him as a cavalry commander in Caesar’s army. Again, this gives me real problems. Whatever relationship Caesar had with Octavian, it was not based on years of shared military service.

Caesar’s daughter Julia, wife of Pompey, died in childbirth in 54 BC. Whatever Caesar did when he captured the town of Dyrrhachium in 48 BC, it didn’t involve Julia facing down Pompey’s guards to invite her father into Pompey’s house. Moreover, having set up this fictitious but potentially interesting three-way conflict for Julia in the Caesar-Pompey civil war, pulled between her father, her husband (Pompey) and her lover (Brutus), the series then doesn’t do anything with it. Julia just fades away and never appears in the story again.

The series has Sulla poisoned by one of Caesar’s friends while still Dictator, whereas in reality Sulla voluntarily gave up the Dictatorship, held consular elections, handed over power and died in retirement. Sulla’s voluntary handing over of power casts a fascinating light on his character and on the society he lived in. It says much for Late Republican Rome that he did it, that society didn’t collapse as a result, and that his enemies didn’t promptly murder him in retirement. All this is lost in the Emperor series.

There are numerous others. The Marius-Sulla rivalry went on for several years and Marius died a natural death, whereas the series condenses it to a single attack on Rome during which Sulla murders Marius with his own hand. Cato dies years too early. Servilia, Caesar’s patrician mistress, is made the Madame of an upmarket brothel and provider of home comforts to Caesar’s troops in Spain. Octavian is made a thieving street urchin. Brutus and Caesar, blue-blooded scions of patrician families, serve in the army as centurions instead of tribunes.

If you want an action-packed military adventure yarn with a broader canvas than the adventures of a fictional hero and his sidekick, Emperor is for you. If you want to understand the people and the forces that turned Late Republican Rome into Early Imperial Rome, in my view Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series does a much better job.

Exciting military adventure loosely based on the life of Julius Caesar, but be very wary of taking any history from it.

24 comments:

Constance said...

Thanks for the honest reviews, Carla. It's good to know where things stray - especially in light of all the recent blog conversations on history and fantasy.

I am no where near as knowledgeable on Rome as youse guys, but I'm sure the Brutus/Caesar/Octavian thing would send up alerts even to me. Do you see making them all contemporaries as an easy out for the writer? No need to be accurate, they were close enough in time sort of thing? Sloppiness? or something else? I admit to reading any books on Rome with my reference material close at hand. *g* Probably not the best idea.

Alianore said...

Hmm, I have considered trying this series, but maybe I'll give them a miss. I wonder why the author felt the need to make Octavian so much older than he really was - does he mention it in an Author's Note? I'm afraid that's the kind of inaccuracy that would really make me think twice about picking up any historical novel - if there's no dispute about Octavian's date of birth, why change it? Ditto the Julia father-husband-lover conflict, which sounds great in theory but would have me shrieking "But she's supposed to be dead by now!"

Bernita said...

"Think of H. Rider Haggard or John Buchan, with togas."
I like that line.
Sometimes I can forgive gross inaccuracies of time and roles easier than I can small impertinences.

Gabriele C. said...

Ouch, that's even worse than I suspected. I love me a fun adventure romp as much as any girl who filched her brother's Jack London and Traven books, but I know too much about that time in history to overlook so many incongruicies.

I don't even dare to ask what Iggulden did to Vercingetorix. ;)

Carla said...

Constance - I wouldn't think it's sloppiness (although a rather witty Amazon.co.uk review does). I assume the author knows a lot about the period. My guess would be that making the characters contemporary was considered to heighten the drama or provide more conflict or something like that, but that's only my guess. You probably could read Colleen McCullough with reference books at hand, but I wouldn't do it with Emperor :-)

Alianore - the Author's Notes only give very general reasons for the changes such as tightening the storyline or reasons of pace, and often don't give a reason at all. I guess he thought that the changes make a better story. Whether you agree is in the eye of the beholder.

Bernita - it's very much a matter of personal preference. What might annoy one reader will be absolutely fine for another.

Gabriele - I found it worked fine as an adventure romp if I read it as pure fiction none of which ever really happened, or if I thought of it as happening in a parallel universe like Guy Gavriel Kay's. I'm trying to think what he did with Vercingetorix, but I found the whole Gallic War section in Book 3 rather dull and very forgettable, so the only images my mind is conjuring up are from Colleen McCullough. Odd that those have stuck for years whereas Conn Iggulden's version hasn't stuck for even a few weeks (I reread the series in order to write the review, so Book 3 has largely disappeared under Book 4 in my memory). Since I didn't note anything down about Vercingetorix, either good or bad, the portrayal presumably didn't annoy me.

Gabriele C. said...

The problem is that the real names convey the real image for me. If he'd changed the names, even if you could still tell he means Brutus and Caesar, I won't feel like running after the author brandishing a history book. Or he could have introduced some magic stones or werewolves. :)

Though even in historical fantasy, I don't go as far as eliminating age gaps of a generation with historical characters. I only kill a king two years too early, and have a family/clan appear about hundred years before it is first mentioned in a charte (which doesn't say it didn't have been around already).

Looks like Iggulden missed to make the best out of a very interesting war. Too bad.

elena maria vidal said...

I always wondered what Colleen McCullough's novels on ancient Rome were like. Maybe I will give them a try first.....

Rick said...

Well, I would skip reading this book till I'd read some history and knew my way generally around the late Republic. As it is I know who guys like Sulla are, but only have an extremely sketchy mental timeline, so I wouldn't catch even major distortions/inventions.

Carla, I tend to agree (surprise!) that this kind of thing would work better in a fictional syno-Rome, where we know what is being evoked but don't expect direct correspondence.

Carla said...

Gabriele - real names have that effect on me, too. I prefer Guy Gavriel Kay's approach.

Elena - Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome novels are really excellent, in my view, if you want to explore Late Republican Rome. They're quite complex and you do need to pay attention, but well worth it. I think the series is best read in order; the first one is The First Man in Rome.

Rick - In a way, the Emperor series could be more enjoyable for people who don't know their way around Rome, because they won't be tripped up by "But surely it didn't happen like that?" every few pages. If you have even an approximate idea of the events, the divergences can be very annoying. I'd also prefer a synologue; and if it's supposed to be pure entertainment and readers are supposed to understand that it's fiction and never really happened, why dress it up as 'history'?

Alex Bordessa said...

I read the first one, and reckoned it was well written, but couldn't quite understand why he had taken liberties with the history. I wasn't sufficiently interested in the subject matter to read the others.

Carla said...

Alex - I wasn't in a great hurry to read on after the end of Book 1 either, but I was curious to see what he was going to do with all the alterations. In the end, I found the first book the weakest, perhaps because it had rather a lot of boyhood pranks.

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

I read the first book and thought it silly, shallow drivel.

I did an Email interview with Conn Iggulden for Solander in which I asked him why he'd made Caesar and Brutus exact contemporaries. He said no one knew for sure when Caesar was born, not even Suetonius who said Caesar was 55 in 44BC -- so Conn was entitled to make it up, obviously. After all, Suetonius was writing 200 years later (as if that was a reason to dismiss him).

The editor titled my interview "Fleshing Out The Emperor", which was inaccurate on two counts.

Conn Iggulden did me the discourtesy of forgetting to do his responses for this interview. Then after I sent a reminder via his publicist, some slapdash copy arrived without even an apology. Not that this coloured my view of his book at all. Oh, no.

Gabriele C. said...

Looks like he didn't like some of your questions. We've had the same experience with him on RAT.

Carla said...

Sarah C - I saw an interview with him in either Solander or the HNR, maybe it was yours? I can't find the magazine issue now. It's always possible that the source is wrong, though someone writing 200 years after the event is a good deal closer to it than we are 2000 years after.

Gabriele - what's RAT? I'm guessing Roman Army Talk? What sort of questions were you asking there?

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I started reading the first book but found the writing style wasn't for me. When you grimace as you read, you know a book isn't for you and I gave up. Perhaps it's a case of me being picky, and perhaps I should have persevered, but I didn't want to. My assessment would be the same as Sarah's. I've left it in my husband's TBR for now rather than ditching it, just in case he has a different opinion.

Hazel-rah said...

Colleen McCullough's novels are masterpieces, and I do not use the term lightly. Marius, Sulla and all the rest are depicted with such verve that you feel like you've met them.

I won't be reading Iggulden's series. The liberties he has taken with reality are obviously way too over the top for my taste and would annoy me greatly.
So thanks for the warning!

Carla said...

Elizabeth - it's not being picky to give something a try and decide you don't like the style and it's not for you. I think you'd have got a pretty fair idea of the type of novel in a few chapters, and it's definitely a series that concentrates on action above anything else. Will be interesting to see if your husband likes it - the packaging seems to be positioning it clearly as a 'guy' type of novel.

Hazel-rah - I'd share your view of Colleen McCullough's series, and they were on the list of favourite historical fiction I posted last summer. Emperor is a quite different type of series, so if the review's helped you make a choice, that's what it's for!

Gabriele C. said...

It's a pity the history jars so badly. I'm all for guy style action :)

Carla,
I don't remember the details, but there was a discussion that left me with the feeling that writers should better not defend their work. Probably not an easy thing, and it was not half as bad as Anne Rice's or LKH's reaction.

Carla said...

Well, you can get the action if you ignore the history :-) I have to say I don't know how accurate the military tactics, fight scenes, weapons and armour are, though I daresay Roman Army Talk would know.

Maybe it would depend on the context of the discussion. If someone's said "This book stinks" there's not a lot the author could possibly say to that beyond a pantomime exchange of "Oh no it doesn't!" "Oh yes it does!", so it's likely best to keep out of it. On the other hand, if someone's said "Why did you do it this way?", the author could choose to answer. It needn't get nasty unless there's somebody involved who won't accept any opinion as valid but their own and won't agree to differ. Not everybody likes everything, otherwise there'd be no need for more than one novel on any subject, no?

Kailana said...

hm, I thought this was only a trilogy and that I had all the books for when I wanted to read them. I will have to figure out which one I am missing.

Carla said...

Hello Kailana, and thanks for dropping by. It's definitely four books. I think the titles are the same on both sides of the Atlantic, so hopefully you'll be able to identify the missing one from the list of titles at the top of the post. If you have any trouble, then if you can give me a few clues from the blurbs of the ones you've got I should be able to help you work out which one you're missing.

Carla said...

PS - the one you're most likely to be missing is Book 4, The Gods of War, because it was only published in January 2006 in the UK so if you bought the books before then it probably wasn't available.

Anonymous said...

Yes lost me when Marius NOT married to a Julli ...Caesars Aunt and not childless had a son which is without doubt historically in arguable and Caesar had sisters which is why we have Augustus not bothering to read past book 1

rnelson said...

ITS BAD ........ Marius married to someone else and childless.....Caesar an only child when he had 2 sisters hence Augustus his heir.....Marcus Brutus his childhood friend when he might have been his son by Servilia and he was very rich anyway ALL VERY WEIRD not reading rest of series and re reading Colleeen McCullough RIP to clear my mind