Commodus (The Damned Emperors)
My all-time favourite kind of historical novel is the kind where I learn about a real person I know very little about, and his or her environment. When you add in a gripping story with a great character arc, tons of action, and a strong female protagonist – I’m sold; and then when I get to the back of the book and a well-researched author’s note describes a new, and very plausible, explanation for the actions of the Emperor, I’m ecstatic.
Simon Turney’s Commodus is simply the most interesting book on Rome I’ve read for a long time. It’s told from the viewpoint of freedwoman Marcia, and we first meet her as a young girl playing with the imperial children. We follow the deepening relationship between her and the boy Commodus as he grows into his father’s role – a life that puts tremendous strain on them both, living as they do through plague, flood, war, and the challenges of Commodus’ increasingly erratic behaviour. The history of Rome is full of eccentric emperors, but Commodus may have been one of the maddest. He was the son of a ruling emperor, and was made co-emperor with his father, Marcus Aurelius, when he was 16; from 180 AD he ruled alone. You may have come across him in the movie Gladiator – where they had to tone down his excesses. Turney’s sympathetic treatment of his reign, and its worse than usual bloodlust, seen through the eyes of the woman who loves him, is very well done and persuasive. After all, history is written by the survivors; maybe Commodus was simply a victim of a smear campaign!