Gaius Julius Caesar is back in the third of Iggulden’s projected tetralogy (Emperor: The Death of Kings, 2004, etc.), and he’s kicking Gallic butt and taking unpronounceable names.
It’s midpoint in the first century b.c. Having ranged widely throughout the eastern stretches of the Roman Empire, having put down slave revolts and attempted coups, having come and seen and conquered much of the known world, Caesar is still far from Rome, where fellow triumvirs Pompey and Crassus are enjoying Falernian wine and the other delicacies of the capital. Caesar has work to do, though, before he can join in the fun: when this installment opens, he’s in Spain among men who, unaccountably, bear modern Spanish names, but soon he’s in the field battling rebellious Romans and then off to the north to attend to successive swarms of Germanic and Celtic warriors, all with points of their own to prove. Iggulden has read Caesar’s Gallic Warscarefully, and most of the particulars here are supported, or at least hinted at, by the soon-to-be capo, who had the uncommon virtue of self-criticism and a good eye for detail. Where Iggulden really shines, though, is in putting flesh on historical bones and reading between the lines, providing, along the way, motives for old Brutus to be ticked off, not least of them a few costly tactical errors: “Brutus looked over the heads of his men, his heart pounding with anger. If he survived the retreat, he swore Julius would pay for the destruction of the Tenth.” Brutus holds his anger in check, however, and he and his fellow soldiers have many a merry day slaughtering everything they see; think of the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, and you’ll have a good idea of the tenor of Iggulden’s expertly rendered—and unfailingly exciting—battles.
Less psychologically sophisticated than the granddaddy of all Roman historical fiction, Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, but a pleasure for those for whom the words “alea jacta est” mean something.