Giulio Cesare: George Frideric Handel (1724)

Handel: Giulio Cesare

(directed by David McVicar, Glyndebourne, 20 July 2018)

It’s always nerve-racking when you go to see something you love live for the first time. What if it doesn’t live up to expectations? What if one of the cast has a sore throat? What if, horror of horrors, the manager comes onstage to announce a substitution? But at the same time, how can you resist? My opera buddy H and I had decided that we would pay virtually anything to see the revival of David McVicar’s marvellous Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne, and our resolution was put to the test when the more affordable seats were snapped up within seconds after going on sale. However, our budget-stretching seats in row B were absolutely worth the cost. Many of the cast from the 2005 production returned, with Sarah Connolly triumphant in the title role, and we could admire every little detail. Coupled with a lavish picnic and a gang of equally excited friends (inevitably christened Team Giulio), it made for a perfect day out, and I can promise you that it did live up to all those months of anticipation.

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Roman Blood: Steven Saylor

★★★½

Roma Sub Rosa: Book I

Time to meet another pioneering Roman detective, this one operating some decades earlier than Lindsey Davis’s engaging Falco. It’s 80 BC when we first encounter Gordianus, called the Finder, a man known in a certain section of society for his ability to find not only things but truth. Gordianus has previously worked with some of Rome’s leading advocates, but he’s always been fully conscious of his status as persona non grata in polite circles. This is usually reinforced by the status of the go-betweens sent to deal with him. And this is why he’s surprised when a very well-bred young slave arrives at the door of his sprawling, shabby old house one morning, offering him work. The slave’s name is Tiro. And the man who wants Gordianus’ help is Tiro’s master, a fresh young advocate just starting out on his career, named Cicero.

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Caligula: Douglas Jackson

★★½

As a counterbalance to philosophical tales of European angst, I turned to this historical novel set in ancient Rome, hoping for a diverting dose of swords and sandals. The cover is misleading: the main character is not a soldier but Rufus, a young animal trainer whose gift with exotic creatures brings him into the orbit of the emperor Gaius, usually known as Caligula. There are swords, certainly, thanks to the Praetorian Guard; sandals, presumably; and some sand, courtesy of the arena. There’s even an elephant. But what this story really lacks is soul. Relying on coincidences, handily-overheard monologues and a rather lacklustre romance, it never really takes flight.

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New Pompeii: Daniel Godfrey

★★★

New Pompeii: Book I

Any book which begins with a murder attempt at the British Museum is bound to catch my attention. Nick Houghton, a specialist in Roman history who’s struggling to find tenure at a university, is unwillingly caught up in the chaos. With one of his friends deeply implicated in the plot, he expects to be arrested; but instead the unthinkable happens. He is offered a job by the CEO of NovusPart, one of the most powerful and controversial companies in existence. For NovusPart has developed a technology that can cheat history, plucking people out of the ‘timeline’ and transporting them forward in time, saving them from plane crashes, death or disaster. And they’ve decided that Nick is just the person to help them out with their most recent and most ambitious project: the wholesale relocation of the population of Pompeii (in 79 AD) to the present day.

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Imperium: Robert Harris

★★★★½

Cicero: Book I

This book has roosted patiently on my shelf for some time and I’m not quite sure why it’s taken me so long to get round to it. Perhaps I just couldn’t stomach yet another version of the fall of the Roman republic? Or perhaps, shamefully, I felt that a novel about the life of Marcus Tullius Cicero would be rather dry? I was wrong, of course. I was utterly, completely wrong and am glad to be so. Harris’s novel has all the drama of a modern political thriller, underpinned by conscientious faithfulness to place, time and character. It’s superbly paced. Seen through the eyes of Cicero’s devoted secretary Tiro, this is the story of a brilliant man, a tireless, probing and ruthless lawyer, whose desire for rank brings him into the orbit of the most powerful – and infamous – men in Rome. It is a mixed blessing. With the help of such men, Cicero can rise to the heights he has always dreamed about. But at what cost?

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Caligula: Simon Turney

★★★

The Damned Emperors: Book I

Simon Turney (usually billed as S.J.A. Turney) has built up quite a following with his e-books set in the Roman army, especially the Marius’ Mules series. They’ve been at the edge of my consciousness for a while, so I welcomed the chance to have a taster of Turney’s writing via this new novel. It’s the first in a series which will focus on the deliciously colourful emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. In tackling Caligula, however, Turney takes the same approach that Margaret George did with Nero, attempting to cut through the accretions of centuries of propaganda and legend, to reveal the man beneath. It’s a noble attempt, but not without its problems, as the Julio-Claudians are always at their most interesting when they’re barking mad.

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Madonna of the Seven Hills: Jean Plaidy

★★

Lucrezia Borgia: Book I

I’ve always felt I should read Jean Plaidy’s books. She’s ubiquitous in the historical fiction sections of bookshops and libraries, and she writes about periods that I find interesting. It was only a matter of time. Last winter, I went slightly wild at the Book Barn and came away with a pile of her novels, which I’m only now starting to tackle. I chose to begin with the first of her two novels about Lucrezia Borgia, which may have been a mistake, as it hasn’t done much to win me over. Over-seasoned, two-dimensional and extremely dated, it feels like stepping back in time for all the wrong reasons.

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Lavinia: Ursula Le Guin

★★★½

As a child, I read Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet, which I loved for its wizards and fantasy (I hope to reread it soon). In my early twenties, I read her Left Hand of Darkness, which was one of the first books that made me think seriously about gender. And now I’ve turned to what I thought would be a comparatively straightforward historical novel: her book about Lavinia, princess of Latium, who becomes the wife of Aeneas. But Le Guin is never simple. Her Lavinia is a bright, demanding person: full of questions. She probes at the limitations of the way she has been preserved for posterity, rebelling against the strictures of a poem in which she doesn’t even get to speak. Playful, intelligent and just a little bit angry, this novel reimagines one of the great epics of the Western tradition. Le Guin, and Lavinia, take Virgil to task for his omissions but this isn’t just a scolding. It’s also a great love letter from one author to another: a tribute to the power of story-telling, which can give the figures of the past a voice.

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Rome: The Art of War: M.C. Scott

★★★½

The Rome Novels: Book IV

You certainly can’t accuse Manda Scott of doing the same thing over and over again. The first two novels of this series were written in the third-person; the third was in the first person; and this book is knitted together from an interweaving series of first-person testimonies from a dizzying number of characters. Nor do we remain in Judea, where I was just getting settled in. Instead, we’re whisked back to Rome for the final showdown in the Year of the Four Emperors, as the anxious Vitellius clings to power on the Palatine, and Pantera attempts to smooth the ground for his chosen candidate Vespasian to take the throne. But forces are at work against Pantera, led by an enemy as cunning and ruthless as himself. More to the point, someone in his inner circle is betraying him…

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Rome: The Eagle of the Twelfth: M.C. Scott

★★★★

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.

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