AD 68. The tyrant Nero has no son and no heir.
Suddenly there’s the very real possibility that Rome might become a republic once more. But the ambitions of a few are about to bring corruption, chaos and untold bloodshed to the many.
Among them is a hero of the campaign against Boudicca, Aulus Caecina Severus. Caught up in a conspiracy to overthrow Caesar’s dynasty, he commits treason, raises a rebellion, faces torture and intrigue – all supposedly for the good of Rome. However, the boundary between such selflessness and self-preservation is far from clear, and keeping to the dangerous path he’s chosen requires all Severus’ skills as a cunning soldier and increasingly deft politician.
And so Severus looks back on the dark and dangerous time that history remembers as ‘The Year of the Four Emperors’, and recalls the part he, and those around him, played – for good or ill – in plunging the mighty Roman Empire into anarchy and civil war…
When in Rome… But in 68 AD Rome is far larger than the modern metropolis and there is a huge difference between the philosophical ideal of Rome and the reality of Rome, so doing what the Romans do has become far less attractive than it should have been. With all of what is wrong with Rome and Roman politics and society embodied in the latest heir of Julius Caesar to sit the throne, it is inevitable that before long a conspiracy rises to depose Nero and put a more deserving man on the throne, one who’ll take Rome back to what she should be. But who should sit that throne? In The Last Caesar we discover that that question isn’t so easily answered and that which was given by the Senate and the legions, can just as quickly be taken away.
The Last Caesar is told as a memoir by Aulus Caecina Severus or Caecina as he is known to his friends. It’s not just a memoir, it’s an apologia, written by Caecina to explain, and in some measure justify, his conduct during the events told in the book. As a consequence, he often breaks the fourth wall and addresses his reader directly. While I enjoyed these breaches, since they give glimpses of the older Caecina and his sense of self and humour, they might not work for everyone, especially if you’re expecting a straight narration. Because this is written as a memoir, the book is told in first person, which lends the narrative an immediacy and intimacy that compensate for the lack of tension as regards the safety of our main character, since we know he’ll survive whatever is thrown at him, as he’s there to tell the story. Caecina is a likeable fellow, who balances his sense of honour and duty with a healthy dose of self-interest and isn’t above playing the system, as is illustrated by his essentially committing fraud as a Quaestor to finance his later career, because it’s the done thing. I especially enjoyed his time spent among Vindex’s Gauls, in which his world is turned upside-down, not just by what he has to do, but by the realisation he’s come to care for some of these ‘barbarians’, who in any other circumstance would have been either beneath his notice or his enemy.
Caecina is surrounded by a varied cast of secondary characters, my favourites of which were Quintus Vindex, the old Vindex himself and Totavalas. Quintus is so young when Caecina first meets him and has to do so much growing up in a relatively short time. He turns into a good man, a loyal friend and a good leader and I loved seeing him grow. The older Vindex may not have been such a positive figure in the book, but I loved how Venmore-Rowland portrayed him as a man balancing between two cultures, wanting to belong to the new one and at the same time having a hard time letting go of the old. He’s a man who desperately wants to be better than he is, to be capable of things he just can’t manage and in trying to prove he can do them anyway makes some horrible decisions. Despite his actions, I don’t think Venmore-Rowland portrays him as evil, just misguided and incompetent. Then again, there are many more people who will lose their lives to misguidedness and incompetence than to true evil. Totavalas just stole my heart with his dry humour and his unbreakable spirit. He seems so accepting of his fate as a slave, but at the same time he isn’t afraid to speak his mind and contradict his master.
Venmore-Rowland writes some very cool battle scenes, both using Roman tactics and Celtic/Gaul ones and deftly intertwines political strands with the straight-up military decisions. The Last Caesar is very much a political beast populated by politicians of both the honourable and the not-so-honourable kind. Politics in Rome were a life-and-death affair and seemingly never more so than in the period covered in The Last Caesar. So while I enjoyed Venmore-Rowland’s battle scenes, it is in the political arena where this narrative shines. The book is filled with conspiracy, double-crosses, triple-crosses, betrayal and lies, but also with courage, friendship, loyalty and love. The author juggles all of these expertly, never dropping any of them and occasionally bringing elements back into play that completely change the pattern he’s weaving in the air.
My one gripe with the book was its ending. The story seems to end in medias res, though the cut-off point seems logical if this was the first of a sequence of books. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find out if this is the first in a series or whether it is a standalone. I do hope it’s the first in a series as Caecina’s story doesn’t seem finished and I’d love to be able to return to the world of this novel. Venmore-Rowland has managed to write an engaging debut novel and I look forward to seeing how he grows in his craft, as this first taste is very promising. The Last Caesar is a book about Romans, but not Rome and I loved its focus on the edges of the Empire, even if these edges influenced the heart in a major way. If you’ve an interest in the Roman Empire, this is a historical novel well worth your time.