The Last Caesar by Henry Venmore-Rowland
AD 68. The tyrant emperor Nero has no son and no heir.
Suddenly there’s the very real possibility that Rome might become a republic once more. But the ambitions if a few are about the bring corruption, chaos and untold bloodshed to many.
Among them is a hero of the campaign against Boadicea, Aulus Caecina Serverus. Caught up in a conspiracy to overthrow Caesar’s dynasty, he commits treason, raises a rebellion, faces torture and intrigue – all supposedly for the good of Rome. However, the boundary between such selflessness and self-preservation is far from clear, and keeping to the dangerous path he’s chosen requires all Severus’s skills as a cunning soldier and increasing deft politician.
And so Severus looks back on the dark and dangerous time that history remembers as ‘The Year of the Four Emperors’, and recalls the part he, and those around him, played – for good or ill – in plunging the mighty Roman Empire into anarchy and civil war…
When the novel begins Severus is a young war hero who has already proven his worth as a solider on the bloody fields of Britain. Full of ambition, but very much on the periphery of events, he is keen to prove himself. He is given the opportunity to take on a far safer posting on the European mainland, but as the plot unfolds he is drawn further and further into the shadowy conspiracies that start to appear everywhere. As Severus becomes more embroiled with the various factions that are all vying for power, his influence slowly, but steadily begins to grow.
Like the old saying goes “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and I noticed a definite change in Severus as story continued to unfold. Though perhaps not totally corrupted by the power plays that are going on around him he does still find something almost intoxicating about the influence that he gets to wield. It’s nice to see a character driven by less than altruistic motives for a change. Severus realises he is in the prime position to have direct control over the events that are shaping the entire Roman Empire but at the same time make something of himself.
Meanwhile there is also a conflict that develops within Severus himself as he tries to hold true to his own ideals. Is there really a place in a man for honour and loyalty whilst being complicit in a rebellion? This internal dialogue makes for an interesting counterpoint to main plot. While he is perhaps not always the most likable of protagonists Severus does come across as realistic. He makes mistakes, sometimes lets anger cloud his judgment but always tries to stay true to himself.
Most of the other characters fall into exactly the same group as Severus. They share the same drive to gain as much for themselves as they possibly can. The air of decline in the Empire is almost palpable and in the vacuum left by the fall of Nero senators plot and scheme against one another viciously. Severus is forced on numerous occasions to think on his feet in order to try and turn a potentially disastrous situation to his advantage. This is where I think the novel excels, all the political machinations and Machiavellian infighting are engrossing to read.
Recently I read Rome – The Eagle of The Twelfth by M.C. Scott and like that, The Last Caesar takes time to explore the differing very structured, levels that existed within Roman society. Your station in life was very much defined by who you were and what was expected of you. Breaking through these barriers was a nigh on impossible task. Those strict class divisions work as an effective backdrop to a story that is all about the corruption that comes with power.
This is Venmore-Rowland’s first novel and I have to admit I was quite impressed with how easy it was to get caught up in the drama. If you are looking for a story that captures the essence of these turbulent events, I’d check this out.
The Last Caesar is published by Bantam Press and is released in the UK on 21st June 2012.