AD 43-51. Emperor Claudius desperately needs a resounding military victory and Britain is his target. Only a union of the island’s warlike tribes will have a chance of repelling an invasion by the mighty army of Rome. Caratacus is the only tribal leader capable of creating a union solid enough to face the terror of Roman warfare. Between these two men, Rufus, a valiant but frequently terrified young slave, has charge of the Emperor’s secret weapon, the loyal and intelligent elephant Bersheba. Caratacus, beset by disloyalty and ultimately betrayed by Cartimandua, the woman he once rejected, pays the price demanded of a man holding outdated notions of honour against the iron pragmatism of Rome.
The author has been justly praised for his superb recounting of the vital battles that went to shape Britain; they are vivid, detailed and precise, horrific and bloody. The dreadful aftermath is given its full place in the reality of war. Tiny details remain in the memory: the corpse who died cross-eyed; a slaughtered woman whose features retain only mild irritation. Hopefully Rufus’s beloved son, Gaius, a silent and docile three year old, will not have been traumatised after living through such horrors.
This is an ambitious, praiseworthy novel but in spite of plenty of back-story, it would be best read after the prequel Caligula. The sequel Boudicca will be worth waiting for when the powerful woman, so far very much in the background, will take full and formidable part in the story of Britain.