Rome: The Art of War
This is the fourth in a series of novels set in the 1st century AD featuring the enigmatic spy Pantera, ‘The Leopard’ (HNR 51, 57 and 61). It’s now 69, the Year of the Four Emperors, and Pantera’s spy network led by Jocasta, ‘The Poet’, is tasked with replacing the third of these emperors, the indolent Vitellius, with doughty General Vespasian, who may be the best man put an end to vicious civil war. The real enemy, however, isn’t Vitellius but his more ruthless brother, Lucius. Meanwhile, legions loyal to the opposing factions are poised to march toward Rome and, as tension rises, it looks as if one member of the spy ring is plotting to betray it.
The novel takes the form of depositions given by nine of the characters, from Vespasian’s beloved mistress, Caenis, to various soldiers, an innkeeper and a corner boy. Their statements are split, then spliced to form a chronological narrative, bookended by Vespasian himself. In less capable hands, so many first-person narrators would make for a chariot-crash of a story. But here the technique creates a coherent forward momentum that grips the reader and doesn’t let go.
Scott deploys her fictional characters and their adventures convincingly amongst attested ones, and her Rome feels real. Although quills and velvet are dubious in the period, the booby-traps of Roman nomenclature bite less often than in other novels set in this era.