As Mount Vesuvius smokes and rumbles ominously in the distance, Lucius Quinctillius Claudianus, a frail old historian, writes what he knows will be his last volume of Roman history. Having chronicled the 10 emperors whose reigns encompassed his long life, Lucius is finally ready to tell his own story, one that reaches back to the time of Augustus Caesar and the great wars with the rebellious Germanic barbarians, which Lucius saw firsthand as a young soldier.
Veteran author (and frequent Q&Q reviewer) John Wilson uses this framing device to good effect to tell the many sides of the barbarian uprising. Lucius contextualizes the socio-political situation in the Germanic provinces while bringing to life his younger self, a naïve teenager filled with stories of his father’s martial heroics who comes to realize the terrible cost of war, as well as its fleeting but powerful glories. Lucius also fills in the story of his onetime friend Freya, a young female Germanic warrior.
Freya and Lucius’s powerful friendship and the grim descriptions of battle humanize the drawn-out military campaigns and strategic moves and countermoves. Freya is an especially engaging character: proud, intelligent, brave. She shares with her unlikely Roman friend Lucius the ability to sympathize with both sides of an argument, a virtue that could get them both killed when they are eventually forced to pledge their allegiances. Wilson plays up these conflicts of sympathy with a few too many passages of expository dialogue, but this does little to detract from his intriguing introduction to the tangled world of Roman and German history.