Suetonius says that at age 25, sailing to Rhodes to study rhetoric, Caesar was taken by pirates and held for 40 days, “to his intense annoyance.” First-timer Panella gives fictional voice to the episode in a book that deserves its place on the shelves of the historically minded.
Politics underlies everything, and, declares Caesar, “I can trace my presence on this island directly to our civil war.” He means not the famous tumult that he himself is later to begin, but the war between populists and aristocrats that’s draining Rome’s strength, thus giving free rein to anti-Roman pirates in their work of prey at sea. When Caesar is taken, his unscrupulous captives think only they’ve gotten a rich young man, but soon the greater truth is known, and pirate-chief Cutter can exclaim, “We have here a Julian!” Cutter’s own hatred for all things Roman is boundless (his missing right hand plays a part in the bitter and dramatic story he’ll later tell), but it’s possible that while he waits for the gold to arrive that will release his prisoner, he comes gradually to respect him, even if he is Roman. As for Caesar’s part, he will ponder his prospects, ambitions, health, piety—and sexuality, as he dreams (explicitly indeed) of making love again not so much to his wife Cornelia as his widowed and passionate lover Servilia. Will Caesar, after his ransom, return to slay his prior captors? Will the bond that seems to have grown between him and Cutter prove illusory, real, or a little of each? Panella stumbles from time to time—into movie dialogue, for example (“But that means you! Don’t you understand, we’re tied together. If I fall, then you fall!”), but, overall, the psychology he gives his figures rings true, as do the details he summons of this long-ago world, including those of its cruelty.
On balance, promising as worthy kin of Mary Renault and Steven Pressfield.