The Rome Novels: Book II
When I saw the second book in Manda Scott’s Rome series in the library, I pounced on it. It picks up the story in 66 AD, a couple of years after The Emperor’s Spy concluded. Nero is emperor; Seneca is dead; the Empress Poppaea is dying in childbed; and our subtle protagonist Pantera is heading south to Judea on the heels of the man who started the Great Fire of Rome. Pantera has wise and loyal allies, but he is the only one with the skills to track down the zealot Saulos. For Saulos, too, was trained as a spy by Seneca and Pantera knows that he is stepping into a cat-and-mouse game with a man as dangerous as himself, made even more lethal by the fiery convictions of faith. As tensions simmer below the surface in Caesarea and Jerusalem, it requires only one spark for the whole of Judea to flare into bitter internecine war. And Saulos, as we’ve seen, loves a good fire…
Pantera comes south with two faithful friends: the former centurion Mergus, who carries a hopeless torch for him, and the enigmatic Hypatia of Alexandria (not that Hypatia), Chosen of Isis, Oracle and Dreamer. She, unlike the two men, has come to Caesarea as an invited guest, sent by Poppaea to offer her advice to Berenice, Queen of Judea. Judea is in need of wisdom. Berenice’s unmarried, decadent brother Agrippa II has a weak grasp on his kingdom, where Hebrews and Syrians clash daily in the streets and the presence of a Roman garrison only inflames the anger. But now another factor has entered the fray. Saulos, duplicitous and fanatical, will stop at nothing to bring down Jerusalem in order to raise his own vision of the city in its stead. His adherents move among the bristling factions, spreading discord, whipping up the thirst for blood.
Saulos is the leader of a dangerous new cult, which worships Judas the Galilean, a Jewish guerilla leader who was crucified about thirty years earlier, seeing him as the promised Messiah. As we saw in the last book, Pantera knows only too well that the Galilean did not rise from the dead, as Saulos and his fellow cultists believe, and he also knows that the Galilean’s family do not condone the religion being spun around his memory. Indeed, Pantera will come to know the Galilean’s grandson, the charismatic rebel Menachem, the living man with the best claim to become King of Judea. He also comes to know Yusaf ben Matthias, a distinguished member of the Hebrew community in Caesarea, who in later years will take a Roman name and become more familiar to us as Josephus.
As Pantera strives to catch Saulos out, and to prevent the blood and war that he craves, he too is being hunted. The Berber huntress Iksahra has been drawn in by Saulos, with a promise of vengeance on the Herodians, and bides her time among the beasts and birds of the king’s menagerie. And the princess Kleopatra, spoiled and self-willed at fourteen, has her own reasons for keeping a close eye on the newly-arrived Hypatia and her unusual group of friends. Together, these characters find themselves swept into the chaos of the First Jewish-Roman War.
I really didn’t know what to expect from this novel – indeed, I assumed it would take place in Rome like the last one – so I was pleasantly surprised when I realised that the series was going to unfold in the Middle East. I know nothing about what was going on in Judea in the 1st century AD, beyond all the obvious stuff about Quirinius being governor of Syria and Pontius Pilate being Roman governor in Jerusalem. Scott’s historical note makes it clear that a startling amount of her plot is based on fact, from the slaughter of a dove outside a Jewish temple in Caesarea, to Menachem’s breathless assault on Masada (one of the greatest scenes in the book). Her main source is Josephus, of course, so it was fun to realise that he’d had a cameo role throughout the novel. It’s odd, but I tend to forget that there are historical records of this period in Judea, which throw a very different light on events from that given by the Bible. The Bible, of course, had its own agenda to promote. It’s worth saying that you probably shouldn’t read this book if you have any particular devotion to St Paul, because he doesn’t come out smelling of roses.
I wanted to read this book because it was by Manda Scott, and because I was intrigued by what I saw of Pantera in The Emperor’s Spy, but I now want to continue with the series to learn more about Jerusalem and Judea in this very volatile period. This series feels more action-based than the Boudica books which, despite their battles, had a contemplative edge which is less marked here. That isn’t to say that mysticism is entirely absent: Hypatia takes on the role that would be occupied by a British Dreamer in the Boudica novels (and, indeed, Hypatia was trained on Mona, giving us a direct link): but it’s less intrusive, for now, than it was by the end of the Boudica books.
Hopefully I’ll be able to dash to the library tomorrow morning, as I know they have the next two books in the series. I have a couple of train journeys coming up, so I might as well spend them in ancient Judea… Dramatic, adventurous, provocative and rich with historical detail, this is a series that I really think I’m going to enjoy.
Last in this series – Rome: The Emperor’s Spy