Commodus by Simon Turney

Commodus Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 11 June 2019)

Series: The Damned Emperors – Book 2

Length: 482 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Acclaimed historical fiction author Simon Turney catalogues another infamous ruler of Rome in the second book of his The Damned Emperors series, Commodus.

Rome, 162 AD. The Roman Empire is in a rare period of peace and stability, with two brothers, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, both ruling as Emperor. The future also looks bright, as for the first time in Rome’s history, two male heirs have been born to a ruling Emperor. However, only one of these children is destined to become Emperor and make his own mark on history. His name is Commodus.

Raised as Rome’s golden child, Commodus eventually succeeds his father as Emperor following a period of war, rebellion and disease. Beloved by the people and loathed by the Senate, Commodus styles himself as Hercules reborn, becoming a great patron and competitor of gladiatorial fights, chariot races and other feats of martial strength. However, behind the scenes, Commodus’s life has been filled with tragedy and despair, and he hides a darker side beneath his golden exterior.

As Commodus succumbs more and more to his inner demons, Rome is rocked by power struggles and plots, as his family and servants attempt to control or usurp the unpredictable Emperor. Only one woman, Marcia, truly understands Commodus and can keep his mind together. Born a simple palace servant, Marcia was the love of Commodus’s life and a skilled player of Roman politics. However, not even Marcia can contain Commodus’s self-destructive urges forever, and eventually she must decide whether she will die at the hands of her great love or make the ultimate betrayal.

Commodus is the second book in Turney’s The Damned Emperors series, which takes a look at some of the most tragic, infamous and self-destructive rulers of ancient Rome. After presenting an exciting tale of insanity and vengeance in Caligula, Turney now takes a look at one of the most intriguing emperors in Roman history, Commodus. The result is a powerful, well-written and captivating piece of historical fiction that I absolutely fell in love with and which easily earns a full five-star rating from me.

Commodus is truly one of the more fascinating figures in Roman history, which is saying a lot. While most would probably know him as the villain in the movie Gladiator, as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, he actually had a long and controversial reign, with many events that are hard to believe. As a result, a book focusing on his life is bound to be interesting; however, Turney goes above and beyond, presenting a well-researched and deeply compelling novelisation of Commodus’s life. Not only does Turney explore some of the more extraordinary aspects of Commodus’s reign, such as his devotion to becoming the new Hercules, his exploits in the arena or the cult of personality he formed around himself, but Turney also attempts to explain why he may have done them. This results in a clever and thought-provoking look at the entirety of Commodus’s life, including several formative events that are known, or are likely to have happened, and which may have led to some of his more extreme actions later in life. I really enjoyed the potential scenarios that Turney came up with to explain Commodus’s personality, and his justifications featured towards the end of the book are really quite interesting and very compelling. There are also some interesting historical tweaks to some of Commodus’s actions, but I feel that these work in the wider aspect of the story and help to create a more believable narrative. The end result is an outstanding examination of this fascinating historical figure which will allow the reader to see Commodus in a whole new light.

Turney has done an amazing job telling this story, thanks in part to the use of an excellent point-of-view character. The story is told from the perspective of Marcia, the women in love with Commodus, and is set out as a personal chronicle of Marcia’s actions, which run parallel to the life of Commodus. Turney takes more historical liberties with this character and re-imagines Marcia as a close childhood friend of Commodus. The use of Marcia as the story’s narrator and the subsequent re-imagining of parts of her life story are done extremely well, allowing the author to have a single, consistent narrator who is constantly close to the main character. This was the best way to tell the complete story of Commodus’s life, and it was an amazing storytelling device from Turney which completely justifies historical variations in the character.

Using Marcia as the point-of-view character also allowed Turney to tell an addictive historical tale of love, revenge, ambition and tragedy. Marcia is a tragic character in this book, and her storyline is really quite powerful. The daughter of a servant in the Imperial Palace, Marcia is allowed to grow close to Commodus, becoming his childhood friend and confidant before circumstances conspire to keep them apart. However, Marcia’s determination to be with Commodus results in a series of power plays, plots and other nefarious actions as she tries both to free herself and to deal with other people who wish to influence the Emperor. Despite some of the terrible actions she commits, Marcia comes across as a very sympathetic character in this book, and your heart goes out to her with some of the setbacks she encounters. Her romance with Commodus, while caring and filled with love, is also very dramatic, as Commodus’s moods and the influences of others in his circle often place strains and boundaries on them being together. The final, tragic result of this story is told extremely well, as the reader gets to see the highs of their love, swiftly followed by the swift, one-sided deterioration of their relationship. This results in a devastating conclusion to the book, and the reader is left reeling at how this romance comes to an end.

In addition to the story of Commodus and Marcia, Turney also does an excellent job exploring Roman history and events during the span of Commodus’s life in the second half of the second century. Some truly fascinating events occurred during this period of Roman history, including wars, plagues and the reign of proxy tyrants such as Cleander and Perennis. The author covers these events in some detail, and it is really interesting to see how some of the events unfolded, how long they lasted and what actions led up to them. Commodus is also filled with a number of intriguing depictions of Roman life, and the various ancient Roman settings proved to be an amazing background for this great story.

Commodus is a first-rate novel and easily one of my favourite pieces of historical fiction for 2019. Turney is an incredibly skilled author whose dedication to historical detail pairs well with his amazing ability to tell a dramatic and powerful story. Commodus comes highly recommended, and I cannot wait to see which flawed ruler of Rome Turney focuses on in his next instalment of The Damned Emperors series.

Emperor of Rome by Robert Fabbri

Emperor of Rome Cover

Publisher: Corvus (February 2019)

Series: Vespasian – Book 9

Length: 349 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

After eight years of being one of my favourite yearly highlights of the Roman historical fiction scene, Robert Fabbri brings his bestselling Vespasian series to an end with the ninth and final book, Emperor of Rome.

Rome, 68 AD. Vespasian started his life as the second son of a rich but rural Roman family from the Sabine Hills. Looked down upon by the older Roman families for his family’s humble origins, Vespasian was never expected to obtain any major power in Rome. But after nearly 40 years of political intrigue, unusual adventures and a distinguished military career, Vespasian may actually be in a position to claim the ultimate prize: becoming Emperor of the Roman Empire.

Ever since he first arrived at the city of Rome at the young age of 16, Vespasian has lived under several unhinged or easily manipulated emperors of the Julio-Claudian line, each of whom was worse than the last. The latest of these emperors, the ruthless and insane Nero, has ordered Vespasian to put down a major rebellion in the Roman province of Judaea. However, this appointment is the ultimate no-win situation. If he fails in his task, his family’s prestige and political future are over. But if he succeeds in bringing the rebellion to an end with a successful military campaign, he will incur Nero’s lethal jealousy for obtaining glory that could make him more popular than the Emperor. As Vespasian debates what course of action to take, news from Rome will change everything.

The rebellion of several legions and their noble commanders has forced Nero to commit suicide, and his death results in a massive power vacuum. Vespasian, being in charge of two legions and having allies governing key provinces, is now a major contender for the throne, especially with his brother Sabinus lobbying for him back in Rome. Moreover, for years Vespasian has been gifted with signs and portents of his eventual rise to power, and he wants to claim his destiny. However, Vespasian is not the only person with dreams of imperial power, and several others are marching on Rome. The Year of the Four Emperors has begun, and only one man will be left standing.

Robert Fabbri’s Vespasian series are fun and at times over-the-top novelisations of the life of one of Rome’s most important emperors. The main series is made up of nine books, but there is also a related standalone novel, Arminius: The Limits of Empire, as well as the ebook-only Crossroads series. I have been a huge fan of the series for some time and have read and reviewed several of the books in the series, as well as the Arminius novel, although only my review for the previous Vespasian novel, Rome’s Sacred Flame, is currently featured on my blog. This series really has been a favourite of mine for some time, and I have been looking forward to Emperor of Rome for a few months. Unfortunately, this book does mark the end of the series, as Fabbri brings his epic story to a close and finally brings his chosen Emperor to the throne.

Emperor of Rome is a fantastic new addition to this awesome series. It tackles the chaotic period following the death of Nero, known as the Year of the Four Emperors. I felt that Fabbri did a fantastic job finally showing the ascension of Vespasian to the throne and covering a number of other interesting historical events, many of which would have widespread implications in the future. The overall story is a great blend of action and politics, and it also ends the story of several important characters from the series, as well as the rise of some of the next generation of Roman politicians and rulers.

Emperor of Rome is primarily told from the point of view of its protagonist, Vespasian, as he campaigns in the east of the Roman Empire. This allows for Fabbri to tell a different story to some of the other historical fiction novels that feature the Year of the Four Emperors. Rather than get bogged down in the politics happening in Rome, the focus is instead completely on Vespasian and his companions as they observe the chaotic events occurring in Rome from afar while trying to decide the best time for Vespasian to make his move. I thought that this was a rather clever way to look at the story as it let Fabbri examine the potential political, military and personal implications of each of Vespasian’s actions during this period, especially as early moves on Vespasian’s part might have seen him be overthrown by some other potential candidate for the throne. Emperor of Rome also showcases the early reign of Vespasian to a degree, and it was great to finally see the character gain the throne after nine books.

In addition to the examination of Vespasian’s bid to become emperor, Fabbri also focussed on Vespasian’s campaign in Judea, which is a significant event in Middle Eastern history. For much of the book, the province of Judea (modern Israel/Palestine) and its Jewish population are in revolt against the Romans. Vespasian, and later his son Titus, lead a particularly vicious campaign against the population, killing or enslaving thousands. Fabbri spends quite a lot of time describing the events of this conflict, sometimes known as the First Jewish-Roman War, and mostly relies on the accounts of the Romano-Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote several works on the subject and actually appears as a character in Emperor of Rome, as a basis for this story. Fabbri does an amazing job providing an account of this conflict. A number of key events of this war are covered in this book, including several ridiculous events that apparently actually occurred around the siege of Jotapata. I was greatly intrigued by the author’s novelisation of this conflict, as I had not read too much about it before in other works of historical fiction. The author brings a gritty realism to the conflict and does not hold back on the probable violence, cruelties and dehumanisation of the Jewish people that would have occurred during this war. This was a captivating but essential part of Vespasian’s story, and one that was necessary to explore in order to fully understand the actions required to become Emperor.

Several of the previous books in the Vespasian series have had an enjoyable supernatural edge to them, as the protagonist encountered ancient gods, prophets and sorcerers, as well as some biblical figures from early Christianity. This is continued in Emperor of Rome, mainly in the form of omens and prophecies that Vespasian has received in the previous books that show he is destined to be a great ruler, such as his viewing of a phoenix while on a mission in Africa. In this book, many of these signs come together, encouraging Vespasian to finally make his bid for Emperor. The look at the influence of such omens and prophecies added an intriguing element to the overall story. I also liked how some of the prophecies and predictions of the some of the characters were relevant to larger historical events in the future, such as the spread of Christianity or the current conflict in modern Israel/Palestine. These supernatural elements have always been one of the things that helped distinguish the Vespasian books from other Roman historical fiction series out there, and it was great to see so many of the events from the previous books finally come together here in the final chapter of the book.

Emperor of Rome is an amazing conclusion to this outstanding and entertaining historical fiction series. Fabbri has always had the fantastic ability to turn historical fact into wild and captivating tale filled with action, intrigue and historical excesses, and in this final book he once again takes several intriguing historical events and uses them to craft another excellent story. I will miss reading the Vespasian series each year, but at the same time I am also very excited, as Fabbri’s next series, The Alexander Legacies, is set to be released next year, and it sounds like it will look at some other exciting times in ancient history.