"Caesar truly comes to life . . . ."– Kirkus Reviews
This fictional biography portrays Julius Caesar as a brilliant military leader and strategist.
In his debut novel, Paone casts himself as a high school Latin teacher forced into early retirement by declining interest in his subject. He moves to Rome and, in a scene reminiscent of Indiana Jones, discovers a hidden trove of scrolls from Caesar’s time. He uses the scrolls to write an account of the final years of Caesar’s life, starting with his rise to military power and subsequent civil war against Pompey the Great. The story begins in earnest with Caesar’s arrival in the famed city of Alexandria in 48 B.C.: “It is the center of all Greek learning, with its fabulous library and academy where scholars from all over the world study, discuss everything, and write books.” The Alexandrians present Caesar with the severed head of his enemy Pompey, but rather than gaining his admiration, the greeting repulses him. He takes Cleopatra’s side in the war between brother and sister for the throne of Egypt. While under siege in Alexandria, the two rulers begin a love affair and lifelong friendship, engaging in intellectual debates and strategizing how to expand their power. Caesar also befriends two Chinese scholars, who show him a new weapon and tell him tantalizing stories about the Far East. (In an intriguing subplot, after hearing about Caesar, operatives of the Chinese emperor hatch a bizarre scheme to topple him.) Paone relies heavily on dialogue to provide historical context and explain the complex relationships among the many characters, which tends to bog down the action. Occasionally putting modern terms—e.g., “weirdo” and “bookworm”—into the mouths of ancients seems anachronistic. Regardless, Caesar truly comes to life on the battlefield; at the battles of the Nile and Zela, he brilliantly outmaneuvers his enemies. After Caesar returns to Rome, a group of conspirators plot against him. Cicero, portrayed as a self-serving ditherer, is the most interesting of the bunch, but he enters the book too late to fully develop as the story rushes on to Caesar’s well-known ending.
A lot of history packed into a short novel.