Review by Richard Blake
Karnac Books, London, 2016, 430pp, pb, £12.99
I look for two things in an historical novel. The first is mastery of the sources. The second is an ability to go beyond the sources, and to create characters who are alive and whose concerns make sense. In my view, L.J. Trafford has clearly managed the first of these. She knows her Suetonius and Tacitus, and Juvenal and the third century Greek historians. She also appears to have read Forburg’s De Figuris Veneris, with its accumulation of all the smut bequeathed to us by the Ancients, plus all the relevant archaeological and topographical works on Late Julio-Claudian Rome. I have a nose for poor research, and two readings of Galba’s Men have failed to show any obvious defect. As for the second, I feel, with the slightest pang of envy, that she has come close to triumphing.
This novel covers the reign of the first of the three Emperors who came in short order after the death of Nero. The Republic has been dead for just over a century. Augustus, the first Emperor, was accepted because he put an end to the civil wars, and did a fair job of keeping his dictatorship hidden. Tiberius, who followed him, was a sort of relative and was, on the whole, a safe pair of hands. Caligula was mad, but was soon put out of the way. Claudius was another safe pair of hands. Nero, however, not only ran out of friends, but died without any relatives fit to step into his shoes. With him, the whole dynasty came to an end. The question now is what next? The two secrets of the Empire are laid bare. The first, as Tacitus said, is that an Emperor can be made other than in Rome. The second is that, without an Emperor, the whole system is unworkable. There can be no going back to the Republic. For all their faults, Augustus and his successors had legitimacy. They might kill each other, but no one outside the Imperial Family had any chance of pushing them all aside. Now they are all dead, and the Empire is up for grabs by anyone able and willing to bribe a big enough army to stand by him.
First to step into the vacuum is Galba. He turns up from Spain to be proclaimed Lord and Master of all the world anyone thinks worth ruling. His problem is an empty treasury and barely a shred of legitimacy. What he has done anyone might do, and there is any number of others who feel inclined to try it.
What makes the novel so compelling is that Galba hardly ever appears, except to make increasingly catastrophic mistakes. The whole narrative is focussed on the various agents of business and pleasure who fill the Imperial Palace. They live in a world of their own, and the government of Empire is largely a by-product of their rivalries for position. There is Tiberius Claudius Philo, an honest and plodding bureaucrat. There is Straton, the thuggish overseer. There is Alex, the slave boy. There is Sporus, whom Nero castrated and married, and who now has to stay out of sight. There is Otho, who fancies himself as the next Emperor. But I cannot go on with a listing of the cast. It is too huge. I asked the author if she had been influenced by the television soaps in her telling of the story through endless cutting from one sub-plot to another. Her answer was that she was a fan of Tolstoy. Whatever the influence, she manages her cast with practised skill, and keeps all the plot lines moving to the same nasty but inevitable conclusion.
[[Plot spoiler: Galba runs out of friends even faster than Nero, and Otho finds himself clutching an unexpectedly poisoned chalice.]]
Another strength is that, if she feels the need, the author mentions certain sexual practices that I will not describe if I want this review to go up on Amazon. She also makes her characters speak in keeping with who they are, which involves much effing and blinding.
In all, this is Roman fiction as I really like it – told from the gross underbelly of Imperial Court politics.
© 2016 – 2017, richardblake.
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