Corgi Books, 2011 (US paperback)
“She did not look like a man in woman’s dress,” we’re told. “She was tall, certainly, and well-built, but the turn of her wrists was graceful and the waving curls of red hair escaping from her four braids stirred against a face that was neither cragged nor harsh.”
That’s one of the first Roman’s-eye-view descriptions we get of that notorious figure from the colonial history of ancient Rome, Boudicca, in Pauline Gedge’s massive 1978 novel The Eagle and the Raven. Quite contrary to my expectations, The Eagle and the Raven has held up well upon subsequent re-readings; it’s a full-bodied multi-viewpointed look at the massive native revolt that convulsed Roman Britain in A. D. 60-61, perhaps the single most famous military uprising against Roman rule this side of the Spartacus revolt. One of the biggest reasons why the British revolt has been so famous is its leader: Queen Boudicca (once upon a time known as “Boadicea” and pronounced with all five syllables), the Iceni leader who was unjustly whipped by her vicious Roman overlords (who were supposed to be allies) and forced to watch as both her daughters were raped by legionaries. In righteous fury, she led a grand and comparatively well-organized revolt that swamped the scattered and demobilized Roman colonists in and around Norwich, sacked the town of Colchester, and threatened London.
One picturesque detail in the story made famous by Tacitus: a small 200-man detachment of Roman troops got trapped in the marble temple in Colchester dedicated to the deified emperor Claudius (those of you of a certain age will remember with delight the harrowingly good episode of “I, Claudius” called “A God in Colchester”) and eventually routed from their makeshift sanctuary.
Douglas Jackson tells the story of that ill-fated detachment in his fantastic historical novel Hero of Rome – the hero in question being the tribune Gaius Valerius Verrens, who’s sent to shore up the local defenses with an entirely inadequate troop-count – sent, of course, by the requisite foppish, oblivious superior:
[Verrens] pointed out the elementary error. “This doesn’t say how many cohorts I’ll have under me.”
“Cohorts? I do not believe we need think in terms of cohorts,” Decianus sniffed. ‘You will have one hundred and fifty men from the Londinium garrison, and such other troops as are on leave or in transit. Enough to provide a stiffening for the militia and stay the panic in the quaestor’s heart until such time as the governor considers it necessary to move a vexillation of the Ninth legion to Colonia.’ He smiled disdainfully. ‘You see, Verrens, I take no chances. The governor is informed, a solution suggested and a reinforcement sent. What more should I do?’
‘Sir, with respect, two hundred men is -’
‘Appropriate to the threat, and as many as you will receive.’
The book is the first volume in a series about Verrens, who’s cut from the standard stalwart hero cloth, and Jackson does a wonderful job fleshing out the book’s small coterie of supporting characters. There’s some very good atmospheric scene-setting and some snappy interplay, but of course the main momentum of the book tends toward that siege at the temple of Claudius. Jackson bottles his heroes up in its confines and ratchets up the tension, wisely choosing to let the violence wait until one climactic moment:
The door exploded inward in a shower of sparks and flame followed instantly by a howling wave of warriors. Valerius killed the first man with a single thrust but the sword blades and the spear points were too many to resist and they came at him from every angle in a flurry of bright metal. He heard Petronius’s death cry at his side as a blade hammered his ribs. Roaring with pain and made with fear and rage he smashed his sword hilt into a screaming, wild-eyed face. The blow left his right side open and, as he backswung in an attempt to parry a blur of metal that hacked at his eyes, he knew he was an instant too slow. A lightning flash of brilliant colours exploded in his head and he felt himself tumbling into darkness. Death reached out to him and he welcomed it. The last thing he remembered was a face from his worst nightmares.
Verrens survives to return to Rome, although at great cost to himself, and eventually the legions are sent to put down the rebellion itself. This is a tough-fisted addition to the long shelf of novels about this rebellion (although Hero of Rome is only second and third-hand about Boudicca herself, which is kind of refreshing in a way), and an effective opening segment to the series. We’ll see if the BPL can deliver the next volume.