Driven by the desire to repay the treachery of his former patron, the Emperor Galba, and to keep his rival Valens in check, Severus leads his army against barbarian rebellions and against the mountains themselves in his race to reach Italy first. With the vast Po valley almost in sight, news reaches the army that Galba has been killed in a coup, and that Otho has been declared Emperor by the Praetorians who he had bribed to murder their own emperor.
But there is no turning back for Severus, even if he wanted to. The Rhine legions want their man on the throne, and they won’t stop until they reach Rome itself. Even once Otho is defeated, the battle for supremacy between Severus and Valens is far from over. The politics of the court and the mob is the new battleground, and Severus needs the help of his wife Salonina and his freedman Totavalas in this constant game of thrones. When stories spread of a new power in the east, Severus has to decide where his real loyalty lies: to his Emperor, to his city or to himself?
In 2012 I read Henry Venmore-Rowland’s debut The Last Caesar, the first book about Aulus Caecina Severus, and enjoyed it very much. Its sequel The Sword and the Throne languished somewhat on my TBR-pile even though I did truly want to know what happened next, so it was one of the first titles I put on the list for my Historical Fiction Month. And it was certainly good to return to Severus’ story, though it is a very different one from The Last Caesar. Where that book was about Romans but not Rome, this book is still about Romans, but Rome is very much part of the narrative. It is also a far bleaker story than Venmore-Rowland’s debut with its protagonist growing older, wiser, and increasingly bitter.
Severus’ development is very well done. He truly changes, yet the reader can still see glimpses of the more sympathetic younger Caecina and thus don’t completely lose her sympathy for him; because he does become somewhat unlikeable. He becomes a little paranoid, very “why me?” and rather refuses to really look at his actions and motives with a critical eye. This resistance to honest self-examination is displayed most plainly in how he views Valens. Severus absolutely hates him and doesn’t trust him at all, but at the same time exhibits exactly the behaviour that he abhors in Valens. He slowly falls apart and especially in the last third to quarter of the book I found myself exasperatedly wondering what he was thinking.
Fortunately, Severus had at least some companions who tried to keep him honest in Quintus and Totavalas. Ironically, both of them are considered barbarians and certainly not civilized, Roman insiders. We also get to see what Rome’s corruption does to these two. Lovely Quintus who grew into such a good man and leader in the last book is completely crushed by the dishonourable actions taken in the name of the good of the Empire. And Totavalas – who we learn isn’t actually named Totavalas, but is called that because the Romans can’t pronounce his Hibernian name – has to balance his loyalty to Severus with his own conscience and tries to steer Severus right, but in the end even he has an eye out for the bottom line and advancing his own interests. Severus’ treatment of Salonina and Domitia was disheartening, particularly as he doesn’t even realise how much of the problems between him and Salonina are his fault. And it’s sad to see him dismiss her so easily.
Venmore-Rowland manages to walk the fine line between making a character unsympathetic and making them unlikeable. Not just in his treatment of Severus, but also in his treatment of Valens and Vitellius. Severus portrays both Valens and Vitellius as less than honourable men; he actively dislikes Valens and merely tolerates Vitellius because he can be useful to him. Yet despite Severus’ unkind portrayal of them and his ascribing mostly unflattering motivations to them, Venmore-Rowland manages to slip in little glimpses of humanity and decency in their characterisation, which serve to make the reader consider the reliability of Severus’ narration. That isn’t to say that Valens and Vitellius aren’t grasping and power-hungry, because they are, but they are more nuanced than the unremitting black Severus paints them with.
The book is written as an apologia and as such Severus breaks the fourth wall quite often and consciously. It’s an enjoyable form, and more than last time we get the sense throughout the book that this will be a tragedy instead of a triumph. The book is bleak and once things go into a spiralling tail spin for Severus the reader gets swept along in the almost helpless feeling that comes over Severus that he is unable to stop what is happening. Bad decision follows bad decision and at times I just wanted to shake some sense into the man. When we reach the end it is both sudden and dramatic and allows Severus at least some chance at redemption.
The Sword and the Throne is the finale of a wonderful debut duology for Venmore-Rowland. I loved these books and admire the risk the author took in the way he developed Severus’ character. This story is complete, but in his historical note Venmore-Rowland hints that he might return to the characters of Aulus and Totavalas, something I sincerely hope he does as I’d love to learn more about this indefatigable Hibernian prince. If Roman historical fiction is your reading sweet spot then this is a series you shouldn’t miss.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.