The Legate's Daughter

Wallace Breem

First published 1974. Edition reviewed: Phoenix, 2005, ISBN 0-75381-895-7. 310 pages.

The Legate's Daughter is set in Rome and Mauretania (North Africa) in 24 BC, against the background of a fictional political intrigue in the reign of Emperor Augustus. Several secondary characters are historical figures, including Augustus' wife Livia and daughter Julia, King Juba of Mauretania and his wife Cleopatra Selene (daughter of Cleopatra of Egypt and Mark Antony), and various important Roman senators including Marcus Agrippa. All the main characters are fictional.

Augustus is ill and has no heir, and the senators of Rome are plotting in factions to gain the succession. When a senior Roman legate in distant Spain is killed and his daughter kidnapped, it is a serious embarrassment to Augustus' government. Curtius Rufus, a failed centurion with a taste for gambling, drink, women and trouble, is despatched by Marcus Agrippa to find and rescue the girl. Together with his friend, a Greek secretary and aspiring poet called Criton, and a reluctant detachment of Praetorian Guards, he arrives at the court of King Juba and Queen Cleopatra Selene in Mauretania. Curtius soon discovers that all is not what it seems, as he uncovers a complex web of intrigue and deceit whose threads reach not only to the highest levels of the Mauretanian court but all the way to Rome itself.

The Legate's Daughter is a political thriller, and doesn't have the military setting or the action of Wallace Breem's famous The Eagle in the Snow. The plot is driven by the slow disentangling of layer upon layer of lies and half-truths, and Curtius Rufus is frequently in the dark and having to guess at what is really going on. People speak in veiled allusions and cryptic references, which may (or may not) become clear in time. As a result, the reader needs to be alert to every detail and nuance to have any chance of following the story. I read the book twice before I pieced some of the plot together, and I suspect there are still intricacies that I missed. This is a book that needs concentration; think John le Carre rather than Simon Scarrow.

The street scenes are superb, both in Rome and North Africa. Sharply drawn vignettes bring the bustle and variety of a big city to vivid life, such as the beggar boys waiting like starlings for the baker to overload his cart so they can grab the spilled bread without being accused of stealing. The political shenanigans in Rome and in North Africa are well, if slowly, brought out (provided you pay attention), and an atmosphere of threat and menace builds gradually to the tense climax.

Despite the title, the legate's daughter is hardly mentioned for the first third of the book, and appears only in a brief and rather pathetic glimpse towards the end. The focus of the story is Curtius Rufus, and although the narrative is in third person it's mainly his viewpoint that the reader sees. Curtius is intriguing and contradictory, always wanting the opposite of what he presently has. When he has a steady job he is bored and resents its restrictions; when he loses the job he doesn't know what to do with himself. When on his mission in North Africa he longs for his irresponsible life in Rome; when living on his wits in Rome he yearns for the stability of a respected role. Clearly very able when he chooses, as shown when he has to carry out emergency repairs to an aqueduct in imminent danger of collapse, he has nevertheless managed to fail at every career he has tried. He treats women badly, but somehow remains irresistibly attractive to them. The ending, like the rest of the book, is ambiguous, with more questions than answers: will Curtius make a new start, with a respectable job and the love of a good woman, or will he drift back to his precarious life in the slums?

Tense political thriller set in Ancient Rome, with layer upon layer of deceit, intrigue, plot and counter-plot.