30 September, 2012

The Road to Rome, by Ben Kane. Book review

Arrow, 2011.  ISBN 978-1-8480-9016-3. 540 pages.

Third in the Forgotten Legion trilogy, The Road to Rome is set in Egypt, Asia Minor, North Africa and Rome in 48 to 44 BC, against the background of the Roman civil wars and the plot against Julius Caesar.  Caesar, Decimus Brutus* and Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) are important secondary characters, and various other Roman senators and military officers have minor parts.  The main characters are fictional.

Romulus, ex-gladiator and runaway slave, has escaped from a battle in distant India and is making his way homeward to Rome in search of his twin sister Fabiola, accompanied by his friend Tarquinius, the last Etruscan soothsayer.  Reaching Alexandria, they are forcibly recruited into Caesar’s legions during a desperate battle for the city.  If Romulus survives the fighting, he risks execution if anyone finds out he is a runaway slave.  Meanwhile in Rome, Fabiola is the mistress of wealthy senator Decimus Brutus, and is seeking revenge on Caesar, the man she believes raped her mother and who once tried to rape her.  As Caesar gains a monopoly of power in Rome, Fabiola sees her opportunity in the plotting of a group of disaffected senators – but an ill-judged affair with Marcus Antonius and a feud with a street thug place her in great personal danger.  As the storm-clouds gather over Rome, Romulus, Tarquinius and Fabiola all find their paths leading them to the Senate on the fateful Ides of March…

The Road to Rome is the third book in the trilogy that began with The Forgotten Legion (reviewed here earlier), describing Romulus’ adventures with Crassus’ ill-fated invasion of Parthia and then serving the Parthians in Central Asia, and continued in The Silver Eagle (reviewed here earlier) as Romulus fights battles in India and joins a wild beast hunter procuring animals for the Roman arena in East Africa.  Like the first two, The Road to Rome is a larger-than-life all-action adventure.  The narrative cuts back and forth between the storylines involving the different lead characters, and every chapter ends on a cliffhanger with one or more of the main characters facing deadly peril.  It reminded me of an action film in book form.

Caesar’s campaigns in the civil war provide the opportunity for numerous graphic blow-by-blow battle scenes, especially in the first two-thirds of the book where Romulus is fighting with Caesar’s legions across Roman North Africa and Asia Minor.  Readers who want to imagine fighting scythe-wheeled chariots or battle elephants will find much to enjoy.  A wild beast fight against a rhinoceros in the arena provides another spectacular set-piece action sequence.  In the last third or so of the book, the scene switches to Rome and the conspiracy against Caesar.  Even in Rome, street brawls and gang warfare provide plenty of scope for violent action.

A big plus for me was that there seemed to be much less mysticism in The Road to Rome than in the previous two books (especially The Silver Eagle, which I thought tipped over into historical fantasy).  The characters believe in gods and omens, and Mithraism is present as a sort of first-century freemasonry, but there is little in the way of actual supernatural events.  Another big plus for me was that although the civil wars lasted four years, the book doesn’t artificially compress events, instead making use of the ‘Three months later’ technique to skip over time periods that are not directly related to the plot.

The book is written in modern English, e.g. Fabiola thinks of Marcus Antonius as ‘…an alpha male from his head to his toes….’, with a sprinkling of Latin terms.  Readers unfamiliar with the period may like to bookmark the useful glossary at the back of the book that explains the Latin terms.  I only found the glossary after I finished the book, although that didn’t matter as I found I either recognised the terminology or could work it out from context.

A map at the front shows Europe and Asia, though oddly it doesn’t show the locations of some of Romulus’ important battles such as Thapsus and Ruspina.  A helpful Author’s Note summarises some of the underlying history and explains where fictional events and characters have been slotted in.  Most of the plot threads from the preceding instalments have been resolved by the end, though one question remains open and there may be potential for another adventure (though not for all of the characters) in the future.

All-action historical adventure set against the background of the civil wars and the plot to assassinate Caesar in first-century Rome

*A relative of Marcus Brutus, of ‘Et tu Brute?’ fame, who also makes an appearance as a minor character.


Rick said...

I don't know quite what to think of such distinctly-modernisms as 'alpha male.' In principle they could be illusion breakers. On the other hand, the trope that Rome was in some ways very modern is well established - e.g. the whole stylistic logic of the Falco books.

Carla said...

Yes, if modern English is going to stand in for 1st-century-BC Latin et al, why not use the full range of modern English idiom? No doubt Latin slang at the time had some sort of expression equivalent to 'alpha male'. Lindsey Davis uses the same argument in the Falco novels. It did pull me up, which is no doubt why it stuck in my mind when I wrote the review. I'm not quite sure why. Perhaps because I associate it so strongly with modern fields of study like behaviour in social animals, though I have no idea how long the term has been in use.

Rick said...

Maybe there are subtleties of connotation. Swear words are sort of timeless, but I learned 'alpha male' as a scientific term, well before it slipped out into the general language. Which makes it seem a bit odd.

Perhaps someone young enough to have first learned 'alpha male' as a vernacular term would have a different reaction!

In any case, a literal translation into Latin (vir alphanus?) would make instant sense to a Roman, even with the vaguely academic Greek flavor!

Carla said...

Good point. I've no idea where I first came across 'alpha male', but I associate it mainly with behavioural science, which is perhaps why I noticed it.

Out of interest, did 'alpha' have the same connotation of 'top', 'chief' in Greek/Latin as it does in modern English, or did it just mean the first letter of the alphabet or 'beginning'? I have no idea.

Rick said...

The possible connotations of 'alpha' are waaay above my classical studies pay grade! But just being first in order surely lends itself to some sense of primary-ness.

For what it's worth, the Christian religious connotation of 'alpha and omega' is not quite the same thing, but at least suggests the alphabetic sequence could carry some symbolism.

So my feeling is that literate Romans would have picked up on 'alpha male' quickly.

Carla said...

Yes, I was thinking of the 'alpha and omega' phrase, which as I understand it indicates the beginning and the end. So it seems alpha could be a metaphor for 'beginning', hence I wondered if it could also be a metaphor for 'top' or 'chief' at the time, or if that came in later. Not that it matters in the context! Even if there wasn't a direct translation of 'alpha male', there may well have been an equivalent phrase.