The Rome Novels: Book III
War! Blood and dust! I hurried straight on to the next book in Manda Scott’s Rome series which, again, took me to a place I wasn’t expecting. Disconcertingly, after two novels focused on Pantera, we step away from him completely for much of this volume and instead follow Demalion of Macedon, a young horse-trader turned legionary in the XIIth Legion. If the first book centred on Rome and the second on Judea, this volume takes us to even more exotic regions: to Armenia and Hyrcania under the rule of the Parthian King of Kings. Knowing that I was in good hands, I pushed impatience about Pantera to the back of my mind, and let Scott unfold her story in her own compelling time.
Demalion of Macedon is the descendant of ten generations of horse traders, who can trace their lineage back to a man in the 4th century BC who sold a certain horse named Bucephalus to a certain young prince of Macedonia. Demalion lives and breathes horses, but Fate has obliged him to leave his ancestral trade and become a legionary. He resents that; but in the winter of 56 AD he resents even more having been dragged away from his comrades by a spy named Pantera, along with the centurion Cadus, and carried off to Hyrcania in Parthia. Using the guise of horse-traders as a cover, they have a mission to complete, one which brings them the favour of the King of Kings, Vologases I. They have fulfilled their business, but their reward seems more like a punishment. Pantera is sent to Britain to infiltrate the tribes there, while Demalion and Cadus return, not to their former legion of the Vth, but to the much-derided XIIth.
Their role is to add backbone to a legion which has become shameful, a laughing stock, and from this point on Demalion’s story becomes a familiar one of legionary life – of bonds made and broken, of trials endured, of friendship and growing loyalty to the Eagle under which he marches. He faces the challenge of ignorant generals and sadistic centurions, but also the joy of a true band of brothers: his cohort, Syrion, Horgias, Sarapammon, Proclion and Tears. There are echoes here of other similar books – of Ben Kane’s Eagles trilogy, but also (due to the interactions with the Parthians) Christian Cameron’s Long War series. The tribute to Rosemary Sutcliff, implied by the title, is made explicit by the dedication, while in Demalion’s ancestry I saw a nod to Mary Renault as well. Yet Scott is only ever truly herself. In a novel with virtually no female characters (until the end), she creates men of convincing, complex humanity, ever engaging.
Here, more than in any other of Scott’s novels so far, war dominates. The battle scenes, whether between different legions while on manoeuvres, or against the Parthians or other enemies, are superbly written: visceral and gritty. I was particularly fascinated by the Parthian cataphracts, the heavy armoured cavalry with their lances, who would in due course inspire the mounted, jousting knights of medieval Europe. There are also Scythian bows, siege towers, ballistas, slingers and catapults, to the extent that some parts of the book made me think back fondly to my teenage days of playing Age of Empires. While this probably isn’t a novel for those who dislike battle scenes, it’s very well done; and Scott has a gift for evoking the blood and dust of war, but also its glory.
Once again, Josephus is the source for much of the action, although Scott also draws on Tacitus. My advice would be not to read the blurb on the back, or the author’s foreword, as these actually give away more than three-quarters of the book’s plot, and you don’t need to know this in advance. All you need to know is that this isn’t a complete diversion: Demalion’s story does become important for the main thrust of the narrative arc, and he’s worth spending some time with.
I have the final book in my bag but I’m trying to pace myself by reading something else first, just to prevent myself plunging deep into the Roman Empire without trace… Besides, it’s rather lovely to know that one has a real treat of a book lined up still to read.
Last in the series – Rome: The Coming of the King