Worshipped by Rome. Betrayed by love. Stalked by death. Rome is enjoying a period of stability and prosperity. The Empire’s borders are growing, and there are two sons in the imperial succession for the first time in Rome’s history. But all is not as it appears. Cracks are beginning to show. Two decades of war have taken their toll, and there are whispers of a sickness in the East. The Empire stands on the brink of true disaster, an age of gold giving way to one of iron and rust, a time of reason and strength sliding into hunger and pain. The decline may yet be halted, though. One man tries to hold the fracturing empire together. To Rome, he is their emperor, their Hercules, their Commodus. But Commodus is breaking up himself, and when the darkness grips, only one woman can hold him together. To Rome she was nothing. The plaything of the emperor. To Commodus, she was everything. She was Marcia.
Commodus by Simon Turney is the second in his The Damned Emperors series, exploring the lives of those emperors even Rome wanted to erase from history. The first in the series, Caligula was a fabulous and intelligent read that really made you think about the political intrigues of ancient Rome. Commodus is no less thought-provoking.
The thing that struck me after reading both Caligula and Commodus is why on earth would anyone want to be emperor – or even close to the emperor in ancient Rome. Yes, the job came with ‘phenomenal cosmic power’ (as the genie in Aladdin would put it) but you did not expect to die in your bed – unless it was from poison or an assassin in the night.
What makes The Damned Emperors series so unique is that Simon Turney uses the women close to the emperor to tell his story. In Caligula it was his own sister, Livilla, who witnessed her brother’s rise to ‘the purple’ and followed his story to an inevitable violent conclusion. In Commodus the tale is told through Marcia, a childhood friend who rose to be the emperor’s lover and consort, though not his wife and empress. Each woman is able to narrate the emperor’s life and the events which shape his personality and rule. Each book is a standalone.
‘I’m supposed to turn my other cheek to you, ignore your violence and forgive you. And because I want to be a good Christian, I’ll do that. I’ll forgive you but only this once.’
He made .to push me again, but perhaps something in my expression stopped him. Certainly, he stepped back. I was a freedwoman of the emperor Lucius Verus, and he was a slave. I had allowed him to get away with pushing me over in anger, but I had warned him not to do so again. For my part, I meant every word. I would punch him in the eye if he tried again. For his part, I suspect he thought I meant I would report his behaviour to the major-domo, which would have seen him beaten at the very least. Whatever the case, he walked away. As he reached the door, he paused and turned.
‘In the old days, they used to burn your sort.’
And then he was gone. I seethed, shaking, promising myself that one day I would settle that score. I received my second shock in a short space as Commodus emerged from the shadows near another door, confusion creasing his young, innocent face.
‘What’s a Criss-chen?’ he asked, stumbling a little over the unfamiliar word.
Hmm. I thought lessons would be cancelled today, what with Fulvus bedridden, but it seemed I was to teach instead. I thought long and hard on the question as he watched me with those intelligent, searching eyes.
‘We believe in only one God. He is the creator of all things and the world is made according to His plan.’ I shrugged, trotting out the words I’d heard so many times. ‘There’s more to it, but that’s the main thing.’
Marcia’s own story is as fascinating as that of the emperor she adores, and serves as an example of how power corrupts not only the leaders, but those around them. Marcia is an interesting character who uses necessity and love to justify actions that many would find questionable, if not downright abhorrent. And yet you can’t help liking and sympathising with a woman who had little real power and influence over her own life, let alone anyone the emperor’s!
Simon Turney is a master of intrigue and has a remarkable ability to get inside the head of the women who lived alongside these emperors. And then into the heads of the emperors themselves. You cannot help but have sympathy for these great men, who rose to such heights that they practically ruled the world, but could trust no one. His knowledge of Roman history is second-to-none and he puts it to good use in depicting not only the Roman psyche, but also the Roman way of life.
Simon Turney vividly recreates the streets of Rome, the buildings, people and events to the extent that you can practically smell the markets, the blood in the arenas and the wondrous aromas of the lavish meals served to the imperial family. As a consequence, you can also feel the despair and despondency of the poor and unrepresented populace – the plebs and the slaves – who are ignored and left to suffer famine and plague by their indifferent rulers.
Commodus is not always an easy read, but it is fascinating. It draws you in from the very first pages, and leads you on a journey of discovery, not only of the emperor himself but of the life of the imperial family. It is eye-opening! Beautifully written and addictive, it is one of those books that you can’t wait to finish – and yet, desperately want it not to end.
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About the author:
Simon lives with his wife, children and dogs in rural North Yorkshire. Having spent much of his childhood visiting historic sites with his grandfather, a local photographer, Simon fell in love with the Roman heritage of the region, beginning with the world famous Hadrian’s Wall. His fascination with the ancient world snowballed from there with great interest in Egypt, Greece and Byzantium, though his focus has always been Rome. A born and bred Yorkshireman with a love of country, history and architecture, Simon spends most of his rare free time travelling the world visiting historic sites, writing, researching the ancient world and reading voraciously.
Simon’s early career meandered along an arcane and eclectic path of everything from the Ministry of Agriculture to computer network management before finally settling back into the ancient world. During those varied years, Simon returned to university study to complete an honours degree in classical history through the Open University. With what spare time he had available and a rekindled love of all things Roman, he set off on an epic journey to turn Caesar’s Gallic War diaries into a novel accessible to all. The first volume of Marius’ Mules was completed in 2003 and has garnered international success, bestseller status and rave reviews, spawning numerous sequels. Marius’ Mules is still one of Simon’s core series and although Roman fiction features highly he now has Byzantine, Fantasy and Medieval series, too, as well as several collaborations and short stories in other genres.
Now, with in excess of 25 novels available and 5 awaiting release, Simon is a prolific writer, spanning genres and eras and releasing novels both independently and through renowned publishers including Canelo and Orion. Simon writes full time and is represented by MMB Creative literary agents.
Look out for Roman military novels featuring Caesar’s Gallic Wars in the form of the bestselling Marius’ Mules series, Roman thrillers in the Praetorian series, set during the troubled reign of Commodus, adventures around the 15th century Mediterranean world in the Ottoman Cycle, and a series of Historical Fantasy novels with a Roman flavour called the Tales of the Empire.
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©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly