Book review: Sword Of Rome by Douglas Jackson

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THERE were four Roman emperors in 69AD, and if you go back only another six months, there were five: difficult days indeed if you wanted to stay on the right side of the most powerful man on the planet.

Sword Of Rome by Douglas Jackson

Bantam Press, £14.99

This is the story of how Gaius Valerius Verrens, Hero of Rome, did just that and worked out who to support as the empire was torn apart by civil war. He was a key player in rallying support for his chosen candidate and carried messages between rivals.

In his Histories, Tacitus wrote that this period was “rich in vicissitudes, grim with warfare, torn by civil strife”. The rebels knew who they didn’t want to lead them but they couldn’t agree on who should.

Valerius supports Marcus Sabius Otho, Governor of Lusitania, and supports his plan to replace Nero with the elderly Servius Sulpicius Galba, who will make Otho his heir. The Praetorian Guard has been keeping Nero in power and Valerius’s job is to slip into Rome to buy them off. Quite how he manages to be unobtrusive on this and his later missions when he is best known for having an artificial hand made of walnut is not quite clear. Nero is duly executed; Galba succeeds and soon shows himself to be as brutal as Nero.

Galba was murdered after 221 days. Otho was acclaimed as emperor but was not in full control. There was a significant opponent in Aulus Vitellius. Valerius is a close ally of Otho, a relationship he describes as “like having a cobra for a house guest; always interesting but ultimately fatal”. He is dispatched to visit Vitellius to persuade him to support the new emperor. Much of the book is devoted to his arduous and dangerous journey accompanied by his trusty freed man Serpentius.

Valerius does not impress as an authentic figure, and his endless escapes are increasingly unlikely. That said, the story’s background is detailed and carefully researched, and clearly conveys what it must have felt like to live through an era that despite (or because of?) the blood and gore continues to fascinate readers.