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Those who followed Emperor Claudius--through Graves' novels or the TV series--may have ended up with a yen to follow the story for at least another generation. And though this ""documentary novel"" is just-competent at best, it does deliver enough fascinating material (courtesy, chiefly, of Tacitus and Suetonius) to hold the interest of those new to 1st-century A.D. Roman history. Graves and Maier use much the same sources; so the first section here, on Claudius' final days (Messalina's fatal adulteries and treasons, Claudius' marriage to his pushy niece Agrippina, mother of Nero), closely parallels the second Claudius book. But once Claudius is dead--poison mushrooms and poison enema--Maier quickly moves on to the horrid reign of young usurper Nero, who's at first a pawn of mother Agrippina (despite sage tutelage by philosopher Seneca). Soon, however, pock-marked Nero is striking out on his own: poisoning Claudius' son (Seneca says, ""The first real decision he made on his own. . . and look what he did!""); bedding Poppaea, his best friend's wife; murdering his mother (after two black-comic failed attempts); dabbling in the lively arts and bisexual orgies. And, throughout, Maier balances these evils with the career of noble Flavius Sabinus, a soldier-senator who becomes Rome's lord mayor under Nero while remaining untainted himself: he resists seduction by Agrippina, staying true to sticky-sweet wife Plautia; he defends the new Christian sect (Plautia's mother is a convert), winning freedom for Paul of Tarsus. But finally Sabinus will be forced into action--in the aftermath of the Great Fire of Rome. Rumors blame Nero for the fire (during which he sings a ""mournful dirge"" but doesn't, in fact, fiddle); he reacts by using the Christians as scapegoats (Peter is crucified, hundreds are fed to the lions); and Sabinus, whose wife is now a Christian too, joins in bloody conspiracies against Nero. . . who is finally toppled. Much of this history is speculative, of course--so Maier conscientiously appends notes that distinguish fact from fiction. But the overall effect is in fact no more ""documentary"" than most such historicals, especially since (as in Pontius Pilate, 1968) Maier's dialogue is so unconvincing: stilted, packed with anachronisms, sometimes ludicrous (as when Nero yells at Peter, ""Oh, shut up, you. . . you maddened misanthrope!""). Still, while those seeking a Christian epic will be disappointed--the religious saga is merely a subplot--readers of popularized ancient history will find this fairly well-paced, rich in spice and gore (yet primly tasteful), and generously informative.

Pub Date: July 17th, 1981
Publisher: Doubleday