BOOKS: Swords and sandals
Eagles of the Empire: Invictus by Simon Scarrow
The world has never seen a civilisation as dominant as Rome in its prime and pomp, and the history of the Roman Empire is fertile ground for stories of scheming senators, rebellion and retribution, military might and battlefield gore.
This is the 15th book in Scarrow’s Eagles of the Empire series, yarns of strategies and campaigns to enforce Rome’s power and dominion in the century after its conversion to an imperial entity. Neophytes to the series will easily grasp the context and characters’ backstories. The politics of the military, its immersion into — and importance within — traitorous succession battles and power plays, assassination attempts and mob rule: these are well-known hallmarks of Rome’s recorded history.
Invictus continues the adventures of Scarrow’s protagonists Cato and Macro, soldiering centurions who see action in far-flung regions of the realm. This time they are dispatched to Hispania in 54AD, where widespread revolt has broken out, threatening the Pax Romana as well as Rome’s hold on a silver mine in the territory. Their mission is crucial, not least because the bullion pays the Praetorian Guard, thus ensuring its loyalty to the emperor. The Praetorians can be bought and bent, meaning there is a taut, febrile atmosphere as the political class conspires to curtail Emperor Claudius’s reign.
Scarrow, a former history teacher, strikes a balance between fictional drama and respect for historical truth. For Invictus, he has probably taken inspiration from the commencement, in 29BC, of a 10-year insurgency — the Cantabrian Wars — in the Asturias region of northwest Spain. The Celtic tribes fought a valiant guerrilla war which eventually compelled Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, to dispatch seven legions and to take command himself, sagaciously securing the gold deposits of the area for Rome.
Scarrow’s books are often compared to the Emperor novels by Conn Iggulden, rooted within the same subject and epoch. Iggulden, for dramatic effect, acknowledges a wide deviation from documented fact, but he is more descriptive and expansive in tone, and his characters are better nuanced. Scarrow’s heroes are lionlike: powerful, brutal where necessary, survivalists — and one-dimensional, employing dialogue such as "We’re fighting to defend something bigger than ourselves. And that’s why the gods are on the side of Rome."
Legions of fans
But his books are hugely popular, and, judging by his website, which invites download of a game featuring his champions, the appeal spans different generations. He alludes to the cruelty of Roman conquest and the repressive cunning of the Pax Romana. But these are nods to the sensibility of modern times. Ultimately, Scarrow knows how to keep his loyal readers engaged: Eagle devotees appreciate his forthright style and evocations of a time when destiny could be shaped and glory earned.
Evidently, the combat chapters are crucial to the books’ appeal. In Invictus, Scarrow incorporates the strategy of siege warfare. The siege was one of the Roman army’s expert engineering innovations, notably in its three-year blockade and eventual annihilation of Carthage and Julius Caesar’s siege of Alesia, which expedited the conquest of Gaul in 52BC. Scarrow has neatly inverted attacker and defender: the outnumbered centurions must repulse the rebels’ clever siege to secure the silver mine and then quell the uprising.
Invictus is a fast-paced, formulaic, macho escapade with just a modicum of plot intricacy. Those relishing frequent descriptions of the savage nature of military engagement against the backdrop of cracks in the Pax Romana, will find reward in this uncomplicated page-turner. But it underwhelms in its predictability: the protagonists, of course, will survive to serve the empire on another front.
A television series is rumoured to be under commission. There have been many movies and TV programmes within the genre and setting, but film may bring greater depth to the themes, mood and characterisation of Invictus, and producers may be encouraged by the recent commercial success of series such as Vikings.
Meanwhile, Scarrow’s legions of fans can take comfort from the meaning of this instalment’s title: invictus is the Latin word for unconquered, or undefeated. The book’s ending is tepidly transparent in paving the way for the next sequel. Will it be set in 64AD, when Claudius’s successor, Nero, becomes deranged and ignites the great fire of Rome? Or can Scarrow stretch the durability of his heroes to 67AD, and immerse them into the siege of Jerusalem? Episode 16 beckons.