by Conn Iggulden
The supposed last words (or nearly last words) of Julius Caesar are best known from the play by William Shakespeare. Whether he said anything of the sort – or anything at all – when he was fatally stabbed, remains in doubt. But, of course, Shakespeare was writing drama, not history.
Latin isn’t taught much in British schools nowadays. You’ll often hear the argument: school days are short, and there are so many other important things for our kids to learn; why bother with a useless subject, a language that isn’t spoken today anyway? What’s the point?
Like in so many other arguments, it’s a matter of perspective. If you’re interested in languages at all, including your own, Latin (and Greek, for that matter) has a lot to teach. If I’m being honest, I have to admit that I’ve forgotten most of the Latin I learned at school. However, one thing the Latin class did do for me was to stimulate an interest in Roman history. Through the medium of simple Latin narrative, and later more difficult stuff that left me floundering, I learned about Romulus, the Kings, the Consuls, and inevitably, Julius Caesar.
And it was knowing a little about Caesar that drew me to read Conn Iggulden’s novel Emperor, The Gates of Rome, the first of several (five, I believe) featuring the great Roman general and politician.
Emperor, The Gates of Rome tells the story of Caesar’s boyhood and youth. There are two main characters, Caesar himself, who for most of the book is called Gaius, and another, equally well known from the pages of Shakespeare – Marcus Junius Brutus. Conn Iggulden depicts them as growing up together, sharing their training in discipline and military skills and, in Gaius’ case anyway, learning to be a member of the nobility.
The background to the novel is the power struggle between two decorated generals, Marius and Sulla, for control of the Roman senate. Both existed; you can check. It’s strong stuff, with lots of political manoeuvering, corruption and back-stabbing (both literal and figurative). Most of the early scenes are invented, but it is considered invention, and we get a very credible picture of what the young men’s lives might have been like, growing up in the Rome of that period. The power struggle and the civil wars that followed are manipulated and condensed for dramatic effect, and it works as a story, dropping both Gaius and Marcus where they need to be in order to make a comeback in a later volume.
If you like lots of graphic killing in your fiction, then Emperor, The Gates of Rome is a book for you. I find it a bit bloodthirsty but it is certainly exciting as a historical novel. One of the most engaging characters is Renius, the ageing, no-nonsense ex-gladiator charged with making men of Gaius and Marcus. He is the sort of man you begin by hating for his cruelty but end up admiring for his endurance.
Iggulden gives female characters too little space but two stand out. Alexandria, a pretty slave-girl, probably fictional, is determined to be free and charts her own course through the turmoil that is Rome in order to earn enough to buy her freedom. I also admired Cornelia, the daughter of Cinna (both real people), who challenges conventional morality and her father’s authority to bed Caesar and eventually marry him in the novel’s bloody climax.
Though I enjoyed reading The Gates of Rome, I don’t think I’ll read the rest of the series. I’m going to vote for Shakepeare and my school Latin class!