Friday, April 15, 2011
Vespasian: Tribune of Rome by Robert Fabri
Sixteen-year-old Vespasian leaves his family farm for Rome, his sights set on finding a patron and following his brother into the army. But he discovers a city in turmoil and an Empire on the brink. The aging emperor Tiberius is in seclusion on Capri, leaving Rome in the iron grip of Sejanus, commander of the Praetorian Guard. Sejanus is ruler of the Empire in all but name, but many fear that isn't enough for him. Sejanus' spies are everywhere - careless words at a dinner party can be as dangerous as a barbarian arrow. Vespasian is totally out of his depth, making dangerous enemies (and even more dangerous friends - like the young Caligula) and soon finds himself ensnared in a conspiracy against Tiberius. With the situation in Rome deteriorating, Vespasian flees the city to take up his position as tribune in an unfashionable legion on the Balkan frontier. Unblooded and inexperienced, he must lead his men in savage battle with hostile mountain tribes - dangerous enough without renegade Praetorians and Imperial agents trying to kill him too. Somehow, he must survive long enough to uncover the identity of the traitors behind the growing revolt
The idea of Rome in its heyday is a glorious one- the Forum, the Colisseum, the fountains, togas, slaves to do your bidding. Hollywood has a lot to answer for in respect of the image of Rome until recent times, when the reality of it has been looked at more closely: the basic sanitation, deathtrap housing, overcrowding, cutthroat politics (literally in many cases), dangerous streets and the constant threat from all sides.
It’s the latter version of the world that Vespasian is born into. The youngest son of a reasonably well-off family making a living from a successful mule-breeding business, he grows up on the farm, content with what he has, enjoying the peace that he has while his elder brother Sabinus is away serving in the army. Sabinus’ return, however, sets events in motion that will see Vespasian uprooted and sent to Rome, to earn his way as a man and fulfil his obligations and honour of his family. It’s a deadly adventure that quickly sees whatever illusions he had about life stripped away and offers little respite from the danger that surrounds him.
It is an adventure though, with more than its fair share of dirty, bloody battles, both large and small, a thunderous chariot race on a grand scale twith echoes of Ben Hur, narrow escapes, and intrigue aplenty. But it’s the way that it’s all brought together that makes it work.
Fabbri has a very clear image of life in the Roman world fixed in his mind, and sticks to it throughout. The world doesn’t revolve around Vespasian, and there’s a clear sense that life would go on if he wasn’t there, and while there are a couple of eyebrow lifting moments, it’s this atmosphere that was ingredient X for me, a literary MSG that kept me turning the pages and cursing whenever my train arrived at its destination.