Blood & Steel
by Harry Sidebottom
Harry Sidebottom continues his “Throne of the Caesars” series (begun in 2014’s Iron & Rust) with his new novel, Blood & Steel, and reading the intense drama he crafts out of the tumultuous events of the Roman Empire in AD 238 is a reminder that we’re lucky to have these books. Sidebottom is a genuine Oxford don, a classical history teacher who’s published widely in the scholarly literature about the Roman Empire – he might reasonably have been expected to publish studies of the third-century empire in learned journals or else as heavily-footnoted works of history, read only by fellow scholars and miserable book reviewers.
Luckily for his readers, he’s decided instead to spin out an entire bookcase of Roman-era historical novels. And for the “Throne of Caesars” series, he’s refreshingly chosen to dramatize the Empire at during an era that virtually all historical novelists of ancient Rome tend to avoid in favor yet another novel about Julius Caesar. Sidebottom turns his attention in this series to the ruthless rise to power of career legionary Maximinus, who’s the main character in these books. In Blood & Steel, he’s away from Rome fighting on the Sarmatian Steppe in the far North, whereas half a world way, in Africa, a father and son of ancient stock, both named Gordian, have been declared co-emperors and are trying desperately to assemble the kinds of forces they need in order to take the Empire from Maximinus before he can respond to their usurpation with deadly force.
Following the thoughts of Gordian the Younger as he listens to priests droning on about good omens, we see the easy skill Sidebottom has developed over the years at weaving large amounts of exposition smoothly into his ongoing narrative:
Agitated, despite himself, Gordian could find no meaning in the words. Had the gods existed, Gordian would have prayed for news. Events were beyond his control. Everything now depended on what was happening elsewhere; in Rome, in governors’ palaces across the empire, and with the army in the distant North. At least three governors were closely bound to the house of the Gordians. Claudius Julianus of Dalmatia, Fidus of Thrace, and Egnatius Lollianus of Bithynia-Pontus had no legions, but their example might sway the undecided. And in Rome the plebs urbana would be well disposed. Some time ago, his father had distributed a hundred Sicilian and a hundred Cappadocian racehorse among the Circus factions. And he had endeared himself across Italy by giving four days of stage-plays and Juvenalia in the cities of Campania, Etruria, Umbria, Flaminia, and Picenum, all at his own expense.
But for all the wide scope of Blood & Steel and for all its cast of dozens of well-drawn characters (including the large amount of stage-time given to the Gordians), these books really belong to Maximinus, who’s portrayed as savagely temperamental and brutal and yet never allowed to degenerate into a mere stage-play villain. Oddly enough, he’s a creature driven by beliefs, and although he’s an unhesitating psychopath, Sidebottom writes him with such evident empathy that it’s actually hard to dislike this particular military dictator:
When he was first promoted to high command, a fellow officer had asked him why he still worked so hard, now that he had attained a rank where a certain leisure was permissible. The greater I become, the harder I shall labour, he had replied. Back then – the reign of the glorious Caracalla – he had joined his men at their wrestling. He had thrown them to the ground, one after another, six or seven at a sweat. Once a tribune of another legion, an insolent young man from a Senatorial house, but big and strong, had mocked him, claiming his soldiers had to let him win. Challenged to a match, Maximinus had knocked him senseless with one blow to the chest, a blow delivered with an open palm.
These are tightly-constructed and action-packed novels, but increasingly the “Throne of the Caesars” series is complicating into something more ambitious and enjoyable than potboilers would have been, however skillfully performed. This is an era of Roman history for which we have less reliable primary source histories than we’d like; it’s the perfect playground for a novelist, and it’s found a superb dramatist.