The lives of an ambitious soldier, a patrician heiress and a future emperor fatefully intersect.
Ex-gladiator Vix, short for Vercingetorix (after Julius Caesar’s Gallic nemesis), has just returned to Rome. His parents, in the Roman equivalent of a witness-protection program for their role in the assassination of tyrannical Emperor Domitian, have retired to Britannia, where they have a villa and a garden. Vix seeks out the protection of his parents’ protector and co-conspirator, Senator Norbanus. Hired as a guard, Vix is enticed into the bed of Norbanus’ daughter Sabina, who at 18 has still not chosen a husband. After Sabina marries Hadrian, ward of the current Emperor Trajan, Vix joins the Tenth Legion and is off to Germania. When Hadrian and Trajan arrive to put down a barbarian rebellion, Sabina tags along, and is soon marching with the legions herself. Since Hadrian is preoccupied with male lovers, spirited Sabina is free to share the campfire and cot of Vix, forging convivial friendships with his comrades, including her former suitor Titus, a reluctant military tribune. Vix hopes to advance through the ranks despite his plebian status, but his only chance of making Centurion is to distinguish himself in battle: this he does by finding the weak spot of a fortress under siege, and killing the barbarian king. Promoted to aquilifer (bearer of the legion’s eagle standard), Vix’s joy is short-lived: His treasonous affair with Sabina is very nearly exposed. Hadrian’s meddling mentoress, the Empress Plotina, convinces Hadrian to curtail his wife's freedoms. Years later, Vix, on the verge of attaining his dream, Centurion-hood, returns to Rome, where Sabina remains under tight surveillance by Hadrian and the Empress. Titus advises Vix to steer clear, particularly if he wants to join Trajan’s next campaign of conquest in Parthia. However, soon Sabina, Vix and Titus dare to flout Hadrian, who, if Plotina’s schemes bear fruit, will occupy the imperial throne (and Quinn’s next book).
I, Claudius it’s not. Still, Quinn handles Imperial Rome with panache.