Emperor series: The Gates of Rome; The Death of Kings; The Field of Swords; The Gods of War

by Conn Iggulden

Series of four books:
The Gates of Rome
The Death of Kings
The Field of Swords
The Gods of War

Emperor is a military adventure series based on the life of Julius Caesar, beginning somewhere around 92 BC and finishing with Caesar's assassination on the Ides of March in 44 BC. The two main characters, Julius Caesar and Marcus Brutus, are historical. Other important characters are fictional, such as the gladiator Renius, slave-girl-turned-jewellery-maker Alexandria and Cabera, a mysterious Eastern mystic with some kind of supernatural healing power. Many of the secondary characters are historical, such as Servilia, Marius, Pompey, Sulla, Mithridates of Pontus, Octavian (later Emperor Augustus), Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Cicero, assorted Roman senators, though their careers and actions sometimes diverge from history.

The strength of the Emperor series is in its spectacular action set-pieces. Gladiatorial combat, pirate attacks, ambushes by robbers, street riots, and battles by land and sea in Greece, Gaul and Spain. It's like an action movie rendered in words. In fact, it reminds me of films such as Braveheart and Gladiator - an exciting and enjoyable piece of entertainment as long as you sit back and enjoy the ride, and don't expect it to be an accurate rendition of real events. Think of Rider Haggard or John Buchan, with togas.

The characters also have a larger-than-life aspect to them. Caesar and Brutus are military superheroes, particularly Caesar. Sometimes the portrayal of Caesar is a little over the top for me, for example in the pirate sequence in Book 2. When captured by pirates, Caesar's companions are apparently unable to do anything to help themselves and fall into despair until Caesar recovers from his injury, rallies them, raises a legion from scratch, single-handedly defeats a rebellion and crucifies the pirates. Somehow, this superhero figure doesn't capture my imagination. Brutus is a more interesting mixture of superhero and petulant teenager. He and Caesar are childhood companions, raised together almost as brothers, and Brutus is Caesar's right-hand man through a succession of military dangers, including most of the Gallic wars. Brutus even wins a crucial battle while Caesar is incapacitated by an epileptic fit, and is with him at the historic crossing of the Rubicon - and then flounces off in a huff to join the other side of a civil war because he feels passed over for promotion.

The series takes some significant liberties with history. The ones that bother me most are the ones that affect character relationships and motivations. For example, the Emperor series makes Brutus and Caesar exact contemporaries, who grow up together on Caesar's family estate in the countryside near Rome. However, Plutarch (writing in the first century AD) says that Caesar believed Brutus to be his son. Plutarch may or may not have been right about that - he was writing a century after the events - but it seems to me to be strong evidence that the two were of sufficiently different ages to make the assertion credible and were not contemporaries. Whatever the dynamic of the Brutus-Caesar relationship - and I agree with the author that it is worthy of exploration - if Caesar was old enough to be possibly Brutus' father it could not have been derived from a shared boyhood. So for me the whole premise of the series as historical fiction founders on this. There may be conflicting evidence that I'm not aware of that contradicts Plutarch, but the Author's Note doesn't mention the issue.

Similarly, the series makes Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) a generation older than he was, by making him Caesar's nephew rather than great-nephew. Octavian was born in 63 BC, so at the Battle of Alesia in 52 BC he was aged 11. Yet the Emperor series has him as a cavalry commander in Caesar's army. Again, this gives me real problems. Whatever relationship Caesar had with Octavian, it was not based on years of shared military service.

Caesar's daughter Julia, wife of Pompey, died in childbirth in 54 BC. Whatever Caesar did when he captured the town of Dyrrhachium in 48 BC, it didn't involve Julia facing down Pompey's guards to invite her father into Pompey's house. Moreover, having set up this fictitious but potentially interesting three-way conflict for Julia in the Caesar-Pompey civil war, pulled between her father, her husband (Pompey) and her lover (Brutus), the series then doesn't do anything with it. Julia just fades away and never appears in the story again.

The series has Sulla poisoned by one of Caesar's friends while still Dictator, whereas in reality Sulla voluntarily gave up the Dictatorship, held consular elections, handed over power and died in retirement. Sulla's voluntary handing over of power casts a fascinating light on his character and on the society he lived in. It says much for Late Republican Rome that he did it, that society didn't collapse as a result, and that his enemies didn't promptly murder him in retirement. All this is lost in the Emperor series.

There are numerous others. The Marius-Sulla rivalry went on for several years and Marius died a natural death, whereas the series condenses it to a single attack on Rome during which Sulla murders Marius with his own hand. Cato dies years too early. Servilia, Caesar's patrician mistress, is made the Madame of an upmarket brothel and provider of home comforts to Caesar's troops in Spain. Octavian is made a thieving street urchin. Brutus and Caesar, blue-blooded scions of patrician families, serve in the army as centurions instead of tribunes.

If you want an action-packed military adventure yarn with a broader canvas than the adventures of a fictional hero and his sidekick, Emperor is for you. If you want to understand the people and the forces that turned Late Republican Rome into Early Imperial Rome, Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series does a much better job.

Exciting and undemanding military adventure loosely based on the life of Julius Caesar, but be very wary of taking any history from it.