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'The Last Caesar' is a historical fiction novel by debuting author Henry Venmore-Rowland, published this year (2012). Being a classics student who loves Ancient Rome I've read my fair share of historical fiction set across the period. This particular novel takes place in a short but overlooked time in Imperial Roman history, later to be known as 'The Year of the Four Emperors', so of course I snapped it up!
Our protagonist is Aulus Caecina Severus, a former Roman hero in Britannia but now a seemingly disgraced old man, writing his memoirs that look back on this period of huge political upheaval.
It's 68 AD. Emperor Nero has no heir to succeed him, leaving the future of the Empire open to the influential and ambitious. Serving in Spain as governor, Severus is summoned to join in a rebellion against Nero led by the ageing Senator Galba. Set on a mission of treachery and danger by checking a Gallic army who are part of the resistance, Severus must overcome many obstacles to paving the way for his patron's claim to rule. But as the situation grows more complex, Severus's skills and loyalty are tested to the limit. Are his actions in the interests of Rome, or himself?
'The Year of the Four Emperors' was, as you can imagine, a treacherous and bloody period as ever within Roman history with figures trying to put themselves on the throne with the support of their armies. Venmore-Rowland conveys the political struggle well within his novel, as we see people of Severus's standing being unsatisfied with the infamous Nero and fearing for their lives, so they are more than happy to support the wealthy, influential Galba as a potential successor. However Severus's task is never easy and he is faced with his own fair share of enemies and backstabbing throughout the novel, which do catch you by surprise. The memoir writing style is a bit awkward at first but I got used to it and the moments of hindsight or wishful thinking do give the narrative an edge.
My main problem with the book however is that most of the key historical moments historically take place beyond Severus's perspective; we only hear of Nero's suicide or Galba's movements towards Rome because Severus is based on Spain and then Gaul, which is outside the main political action. Although Severus's course of events are somewhat crucial to the main gist of the rebellion he is still outside of what's happening in the centre of it all and I felt like I was missing out on what really went on if the main character was someone who'd been much closer to Galba during his journey.
Severus himself is a flawed, but still balanced and likeable, protagonist. At the start of the novel he is a veteran of the Boudicca campaign but is, as his older self remarks, a bit naive with regards to politics. He helps Galba through the promise of glory and popularity for his family, especially as Galba gives him a crucial role and later in the novel he gets and elevation as commander of a legion. Yet it's clear he is more self-interested than his defence for his actions being "for the good of Rome" imply. He does become more disillusioned by the end due to events that I can't spoil here, so he is well-developed. Some of the choices made at the end of the novel don't make him sympathetic to me, but he's still understandable.
The supporting characters are mostly made up of real life figures of the time, although personally I found the fictional ones (such as the Gallic warriors Severus befriends) the most interesting as our lead character really bonds with them. Most are developed well, although some are little more than cameos to remind historical buffs that 'Hey! You know this guy? Well, Severus knew him too!' Examples of this are the notable Roman commander Agricola, a friend of Severus who is solely introduced to help him on his way in Gaul, and even Galba himself disappears into a third of the way into the book. However, given that the scope of this book only covers the rule of the first of the Four Emperors (and mentions the second and third) I guess we will see them again in the sequel(s)...?
'The Last Caesar' is definitely a good read for lovers of Ancient Rome. It keeps to the facts and whilst there is the occasional info-dump I still found them interesting to read rather than being skippable. I just wish it had a larger scope of the events going on, and across the whole year rather than a fraction of it. It seems as if the publishers are relying on a sequel to this book despite my expectations. Given this book is 312 pages long I felt some more time could've been covered, but that's just me, I guess.