As a schoolboy I was very fortunate to study Latin to O level. Even then, in the 1970’s, as a subject it was on the edge of the curriculum, with a reputation for being arcane, and dry. The caricature of a Latin teacher was of an old man, with grey hair, a bit batty, as marginally relevant as the subject he was teaching. Fortunately, our Latin teacher was nothing like that.
Dennis Dunkley (Double D to his students) was a big, burly, good looking man, who had served in the British Army in the intelligence corps as an officer. Not only was he a Classics linguist, he also lived and breathed Roman history. He had an all -consuming interest in the Emperors, and the Roman army. With some teachers, you could have a laugh and a joke, with others you could play them up. Not DD. He welcomed his fledgling Latin scholars as a Centurion would have greeted new recruits. Discipline, and instant obedience came first. Summary justice (often injustice) ensured compliance. And once his recruits were broken, then the learning began.
Although strict and uncompromising, his passion for Latin, and Rome, was infectious. His admiration for Domitian was voluble, and he aped the Emperor’s contradictory attributes of tyrant, and intellectual aesthete. When in his lessons, the sense of Rome as a place, society and civilization was as important as the language. As you learned the grammar and syntax of Latin, so you learned the culture of Rome and the Roman army.
That lingering interest in the Classics has endured in working out Latin inscriptions on monuments, and visits to Italy. Then one day I chanced upon a Simon Scarrow novel in a bookstore, “Gladiator”, lured by the prospect of revisiting my student studies. I took a chance and bought it. I have never looked back, and am busy devouring his published works.
The settings are authentic in terms of place and known historical events, the detail is faction, as Scarrow weaves his fiction within that framework. Dialogue however is coarse, and contemporary, no attempt is made at cod classicization of the way the characters, mainly soldiers, speak. Therein lies some of the appeal. Scarrow’s picture of the life of a Roman soldier is also the universal, timeless reality of foot soldiering.
The scale of the Roman Empire provides plenty of opportunity for the protagonists, the cerebral young Cato, and the gnarled visceral veteran Macro. Predominantly the action takes place in Britain, affording many opportunities to reconcile landscapes, places, and ruins with the action. It is here that Scarrow is at his best, as the noble sophisticated brutal Empire subjugates the brave , less sophisticated, less organised, British tribesman. Being British myself, there are plenty of moments of emotional conflict. Should I be cheering on Cato and Macro as they cut the British tribesmen down to size, both literally, and figuratively? Scarrow offers us little opportunity to cheer on the underdog.
Which is not to say that the locals don’t have their moments. Tribal King Caratacus leads a pretty charmed life, however his character is developed only enough to advance the plot, his lieutenants are anonymous factotums, which is a symptom of the only real weakness in the series. The concentration on Macro and Cato is so great that the drama of worthy, fully written, adversaries is largely absent. Emperors’ advisor and fixer Narcissus is the most prominent figure in the series after Macro and Cato, but still, outside of his interaction with our protagonists, we know little, which is both a shame, and an opportunity.
The series opens in Germany with “Under the Eagle” but moves to England before the book ends. Not only is it a convincing scene setter, it also only touches on the opportunities offered by the province, a matter which Scarrow will surely redress in the future. And so for five sequential books the British campaign is covered with Boudica and Caratacus prominent in a land of conflicting loyalties, and shifting alliances. The sixth “Eagles Prophecy” has our boys in the navy, and is amongst the least convincing in the series. Although the detail of Roman naval warfare is scrupulously covered, the premise of recovering some prophetic scrolls at all costs feel artificial and forced.
Thereafter we move to the Eastern Provinces. “The Eagle in the Sand” varies wildly from unconvincing sketches of early Christianity to powerful and compelling raiders on caravan routes, but in the following “Centurion” Scarrow finds his groove, set in Syria around Palmyra, in a tale of geographical influence and conflict which is still being played out today. In the Parthians there are worthy, and skilful adversaries. The geo-political stakes are stark. “Centurion” is amongst the very best in the series, rivalled by the following “Gladiator” in which a slave rebellion, led by Ajax, has to be crushed. From the drama of an opening ship wreck , to the uncertainties of incarceration in the hands of the enemy, the story never lets up.
Unsurprisingly, Scarrow finds the drama of Ajax too good to leave and in the following “Legion” Ajax has to be hunted down in Egypt as he terrorises the province on land and sea. Scarrow’s skill lies in battle scenes and a fast moving narrative, so when he sets an entire novel in Rome, in “Praetorian”, the proposition is somewhat different.
The intrigue and duplicity weaves and winds admirably, but as in the “Eagles Prophecy” which Scarrow uses as a platform to write about the navy, so this sometimes feels as though his desire to impart his knowledge of ancient Rome is greater than his desire for a convincing story as Macro and Cato become involved in action which seems above their station, joining the Praetorian Guard as spies. His description of a Naumachia is panoramic and informative but feels artificially bolted on to add zest to a story which otherwise is one of Court intrigue.
Having deserted our shores, Scarrow returns to Britain for three instalments, with the first the best book of the series, “Blood Crows”. Its plot echoes Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” as a Legion and its commander go native in Wales, trading excess with excess, creating their own fiefdom. Heading north in “Blood Brothers” the pursuit of Caratacus engages, the associated intrigue annoys.
Ending the series as of the summer of 2016 is “Britannia”, a tale of a vainglorious attempt by the Romans to eliminate the Druids in mountainous North Wales and Anglesea, the story works well, the campaign doesn’t!
“Invictus” is due out in November 2016 , finding our heroes in Spain.
Why has Scarrow been so successful? His books revel in battle, blood, guts and glory. Heroism reigns, the weak are crushed, but not without reflection. Empire might wins, but the price is acknowledged. The poor bloody infantry pay whether doing their duty for a noble cause, or acting as the fall guys for the ambition of their officers. Battle and death are forensically pored over, torture is touched upon, sexual violence largely ignored. As Sven Hassell exploited the Third Reich and Nazi’s in the 1970’s, so Scarrow explores the base reality of Roman conquest, with the sophistication and skill that makes it possible, but in slightly more sanitised form. The voyeuristic violence is always tempered by an objectivity, enabled through the character of Cato, which seeks to offer something greater than the transient impact of blood.
The adverse impact of invasion and colony is not ignored. The problems of conquest and occupation exposing lines of communication were as problematic in Britain for the Romans as they were for the Americans in Vietnam. Asymmetric warfare guerrilla style has been the response to superior forces ever since. The British paid the local militia not to attack them and protect them in Mosul, Iraq as the Romans did in England to loyal tribes. Scarrow’s understanding of both the historic practices and mores of the Roman military is matched by a sound sense of the broader truths of military strategy which transcend the ages seamlessly combining meticulous, authoritative research with rip-roaring adventure.
Simon is touring bookshops to promote “Invictus” in Novemeber including an appearance at Waterstones in Birmingham on Friday 18th – see you there.