Levin’s novel blends the history of the Second and Third Punic Wars with a richly detailed peek into ancient Roman culture.
In the novel’s first of three sections, Levin textures scenes in which young Lucius Tullius Varro prepares for the Second Punic War with details ranging from Roman dress customs to typical wartime psychology. In his training, equestrian-class Lucius befriends the Consul’s patrician son, Publius Correlius Scipio. At the recommendation of young Scipio, Lucius is accepted to the Consul’s cavalry; his chief regret is that he must leave his newly pregnant wife, Silvia. In war, Lucius records information gathered by Roman scouts. In consideration of the extremes that the enemy would go to extract this information from Lucius were he caught, he’s equipped with a flask of poison. When the time comes, however, it’s the agile Celtiberian girl Ala who saves Lucius, installing herself as Lucius’ mistress-for-life. After situating Ala near his home, he explains her to the heroically levelheaded Silvia. At times, the sweeping conveyance of battle, even as it constitutes a fascinating description of events, eclipses Lucius as a character. In the second section, Lucius’s cousin Enneus reports his capture from Consul Flaminius’ cavalry and his subsequent 21-year stint as a Greek politician’s slave. Before the end of this section, we’ve witnessed the emancipation of Enneus and his rise to a respectable degree of prosperity. The final section repeats several previous conversations nearly verbatim; while these are shared through the perspective of Enneus’s son, Ectorius, his perspective does not seem to meaningfully color them enough to justify their repetition. While it would benefit from further polishing, this novel comprises worthy historical fiction. Naturally, readers already interested in the Roman-Carthaginian wars will find this account gratifying; however, those less steeped in knowledge of the era may also find themselves rapidly engaged owing to the three accessible and riveting narrators.
Intricately described, well-plotted historical fiction set in ancient Rome.