02 August 2010
Until a book is actually published you are never sure what kind of reception it will get, especially when it's the start of a new series. You hope for good reviews, but you know there are no guarantees.
Allan Massie is one of Britain's best writers of factual and fictional history and one of Scotland's most respected political and social commentators. This is what he thought of Hero of Rome in his review published in The Scotsman.
Book review: Hero of Rome
by Douglas Jackson
Bantam Press, 322pp, £12.99
As the title suggests, the novel is presented from the Roman point of view, though his hero, a young officer called Gaius Valerius Verrens, has a more generous sympathy for the subjugated Britons, and a keener wish to understand them, than was perhaps common in the Roman army.
This is fair enough. Valerius is not only brave and intelligent, but also virtuous – an unusual hero for our time. We meet him first engaged in a bout of arm-wrestling with a loutish and brutal centurion, whose hatred of him will deepen when Valerius interrupts his attempt to rape a girl and hauls him off.
Valerius's subsequent difficult, sometimes tender, relationship with the girl will be at the heart of the narrative, ending surprisingly.
The setting is well realised. Jackson's research has not only been thorough but – better still – has been fully digested so that it is only occasionally that it obtrudes. Though the Britons are seen for the most part through Roman eyes, and are therefore to be regarded as barbarians, they are given the opportunity to speak for themselves.
When they do so they eloquently express the resentment that a proud and conquered people must often feel for their imperial masters. "You would be amazed," an apparently Romanised Britain says to Valerius, "at how much talk there is of honour in places not far from here. We have lost much, but some people, some people believe it is not too late to restore it."
The opportunity to make the attempt comes because the new emperor, Nero, has lost interest in Britain. The army there is under-strength and ill-supplied, thus inviting rebellion. Valerius is soon uncomfortably aware of this, and knows that it will be stirred up by the mysterious and frightening Druids. It is, however, when Boudicca (whom we used to call Boadicea), the queen of the Iceni, is insulted and humiliated by the cruel and stupid treatment to which she has been subjected that the dry tinder bursts into flames, and Roman rule is threatened. Nobody will do more to rescue Rome from catastrophe than Valerius in his gallant defence of the city, Colonia. It is characteristic of him that, modestly, he thinks he does not deserve to be hailed as "a Hero of Rome".
Jackson is at his best in the battle-scenes, contriving to give a clear picture of strategy and tactics while also focusing on the experience of individuals. This is something that's difficult to carry off, but he succeeds triumphantly. The final battle against Boudicca's forces is as vivid and bloody as anyone might wish, and all the more convincing because Jackson gives both parties in the terrible struggle their due. He sees that there is right on both sides, and does not allow the reader to forget this.
He contrives also to keep an admirable balance while presenting the two faces of empire. On the one hand it is harsh: The Romans are conquerors and exploiters. On the other hand they believe in their mission – or at least Valerius believes in it; and this mission is to bring civilisation and the Roman law to a barbarous and backward land.
Tacitus might later give the Caledonian chief Galcagus the great line of ant-imperialist reproof, "you make a desert and call it peace", but the peace which the Romans established in South Britain, after the events recounted with such brio by Jackson, was genuine enough and led to a flowering of civilisation in this outpost of empire which lasted for some 300 years.
What next for Jackson? We are promised that this novel will be the first in a series featuring his hero, Valerius. Will he have him accompany Agricola on his campaign into what became Scotland? Will he send him back to Rome, and have him in middle age embroiled in the terrible year of the Four Emperors? Either is an enticing prospect.