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Ive been reading quite a lot of what could be termed historical fiction lately, having been pleasantly surprised by the first few Flashman novels and recently impressed by the first of the Lucifer Box Edwardian secret agent mystery I thought Id travel further back in time to the period where the Roman Empire was in its final death throws.
The last legion is set in 476 AD a time of huge turmoil in Europe. The Roman Empire has by now divided the East is now ruled by the Byzantines from the great capital of Constantinople; the West has in effect crumbled in to a pale shadow of its former glory. Barbarian tribes have overwhelmed the dwindling Roman armies and now through one sided alliances control what is left of the Empire. An emperor still exists in title if nothing else but the true power lies with the invaders. In one last final attempt to resort the greatness of Rome a patrician Flavius Orestes who had served under Attila the Hun decides to revive the ideal of the Roman legion, secretly recruiting thousands of hand picked men and training them in the Old disciplines to make then the most feared military force on the continent the Nova Invicta Legion. With this force he vanquishes the puppet Emperor Nepos and his barbarian hordes and tries to restore his version of the old Empire with his young son as the future emperor. Unfortunately the best laid plans even those of a great Roman general go astray and the legion is wiped out. The young emperor Romulus Augustus (based on the historical character) finds himself with his trusted Druid tutor Ambrosius imprisoned by Odoacer the barbarian leader. The legion has been defeated but one man Aurelieus has survived. Can he gather together the remaining Roman heroes and stage a daring rescue? Can he save the boy emperor from certain death or a life of imprisonment and give him the chance to one day rule what is left of the Empire of the West or will the overwhelming forces against him be too much for the small group of brave men and one exceptional woman to overcome.
That is the premise at the heart of this entertaining novel.
Manfredi an academic is rigorous in his historical detail and this lends the text an added gravitas even when dealing with the more improbable turn of events.
Manfredi is well placed to provide the reader with an accurate and realistic setting for his novel. He is a professor of classical archaeology at the university of Milan and has taken part in many excavations. His knowledge of the subject is obvious throughout the story and many of the passing details that he provides us such as the mention of the mysterious Greek fire an ancient secret preparation that could burn under water all add to the overall rich fabric of the story he tells.
If you are going to write a novel set in Roman times it is tempting to do so in the times of the great leaders Caesar, Augustus, Constantine or the excesses of Nero or Caligula but Manfredi takes us to a period which although not so well known by the ordinary reader is just as fascinating. He paints a picture of civilisation in severe decline. The great engineering works that the Romans were famous for to maintain their complex infrastructure are now neglected. He gives passing examples of this for instance when an aqueducts huge water cistern now empty of water is being used to stage brutal gladiatorial games which had previously been banned by Constantine.
The end of the Western Empire was a disaster for culture and learning in Europe as many of the advances that the Romans had made in science and medicine were lost for centuries but with the fall of one great empire we can see the beginnings of the rise of other civilisations. Manfredi sets part of the story in the marshland north of Ravenna the then capital of the Western Empire. This is a land of brigands and rebels that use the harsh geography of the area to their advantage. The fog, the impenetrable waterways and the network of islands are home to a growing population of seafaring people that have named their community Venetia later to become one of the most dominant forces of Europe the state of Venice, which would rival and superseded the Byzantine Empire.
Manfredi also hints at how the balance of power in the western Empire had by now shifted from the politicians and Barbarian kings to the powerful Christian Church still based in Rome.
The story about a young boy struggling to fulfil his destiny with the help of a mysterious wise old man and a warrior of great strength and skill wielding a sword of near magical properties does sound familiar and there are certainly overtones of the Arthurian legend in this novel but the novel backdrop to the tale does still make The Last Legion fresh and innovative.
This is the first novel I have read by Manfredi. I see from the book info that he has previously written a fictional trilogy based on Alexander the Great and a novel about the Spartans. I enjoyed this novel and after reading The Last Legion I am tempted to read the rest of his works. The mixture of historical fact with fictional accounts of event was expertly put together and the inclusion of some magical strands to the story and one of two of its characters did not spoil the realism that Manfredi had obviously strived for. This was a time when the certainties of the past and the advances of the Roman culture were being replaced by increased power in the hands of the spiritual rulers. The Church profited from the decline of scientific reason and the loss of ancient knowledge and with it mysticism was on the increase so the inclusion of characters with usual almost supernatural power was very much in context with the realism of the story.
Ive got a keen interest in ancient history and for me this novel was a real treat but I dont think a keen interest is essential to get a good read out of this. The Last Legion is an intriguing mix of politics, brutal conflicts and a little romance that will appeal to many. Anyone who likes a well-written adventure story liberally sprinkled with clashing swords and hacked limbs will find this to their liking and the added mysticism and nods to the Arthurian legend will also appeal to fans of the fantasy genre.
Despite it 425 pages it is a quick read and riveting with it. Originally written in Italian this edition is translated by the authors wife Christine Feddersen. I found no problems with it and the language used in this English translation seemed fluid and natural to me. The story is fairly well paced but the attention to realism and detail can sometimes slow down the proceedings a little if you are one of those reader not totally interested in this aspect of the story, I personally had no problem with this.
Overall this is a good read and I can recommend it.
The Last Legion by Valerio Massimo Manfredi is on sale at Amazon for £3.99 (+p&p) at the time this review was written and is great value.
© Mauri 2006