A remote prison in the scrubland outside Rome, 68 AD. The kind of place that you’re sent when the world wants to forget that you even exist. One afternoon, as young Marcus runs errands at the jail, he sees a new prisoner brought in. A man who has been blinded and brutalised, whom the guards treat with scorn as they leave, who has been brought here to be forgotten. A man named Nero. Eleven years later, Rome has settled into the rule of Vespasian, though the struggles of rival would-be emperors are fresh enough to make life difficult for his son Titus, who has taken charge of keeping the peace. Old factions die hard in Rome. And then, one day, news comes of a new arrival in the city. A senator from distant Spain, unknown to anyone. A blind man, with a young man named Marcus at his side, who has come with a great fortune to play his part in Rome’s future.
Speculative history is a wonderful thing, and Barbaree has chosen the perfect period. We’re told that Nero was deposed by his own guards and murdered, and that after the bloody Year of the Four Emperors, the people of Rome gladly submitted to the rule of Vespasian and his sons. But this narrative skims over a lot of jockeying for power, blood, ambition and plots. What, says Barbaree, if Nero hadn’t died? What if he was simply left incapacitated, in such a way that he could no longer be emperor, but with sufficient funds and supporters that he could gradually reintroduce himself into the bear-pit of Roman politics under another name? How would he escape, first of all? And how might he react? How might he take his revenge upon those who betrayed him? Vengeance is worth waiting for, after all. And this mysterious senator, Ulpius, has time on his side.
The story is told by several characters in first-person chapters: Marcus, Nero, Titus, the mercenary Calenus, to name a few. It also skips back and forth between ‘then’ and ‘now’, so that we gradually come to understand how ‘Ulpius’ came into being and what his aims might be. Fortunately it’s very clear who is speaking at any given time and when we are. The one thing I would say is that this technique sometimes takes away from the tension of the story as we get towards some of the more dramatic moments. But generally it does work, and it means that Barbaree doesn’t have to give away his narrative hand all at once.
History is written by the victors and Barbaree’s Nero is saner, shrewder and wiser than we might expect. On the one hand, I suspect Barbaree has a point here: Nero’s reputation almost certainly was tarnished by his successors as a way of legitimising their own rule. But there are moments when this Nero seems too sensible, too wise. It seems odd that such a well-balanced individual (give or take a few exuberant excesses) should have got himself into the position of being deposed in the first place. And I find it hard to believe that, in a place like Rome, Ulpius’ secret identity could possibly have remained secret for so long. But it’s a clever story, vividly told and full of atmosphere, taking you into the gritty, horse-trading world of first-century Roman politics.
It seems a fair summary to say that I enjoyed this while it was reading it, but it hasn’t changed my perspective on the Roman world in the same way that I, Claudius or the Boudica novels did. But Barbaree is an intelligent, knowledgeable author, comfortable enough with history to tweak it here and there, and the result is a perfectly solid piece of Roman intrigue with which to while away a gloomy winter evening or two. And let’s not forget that it’s his first novel, which makes it a pretty impressive debut.