King of Kings

Written by Harry Sidebottom

‘Sidebottom’s prose blazes with searing scholarship,’ proclaims The Times. As an academic who tries to write historical fiction I am naturally awestruck by one who has succeeded – a lecturer in Ancient History at Lincoln College, Oxford, no less.

Writers of historical fiction generally divide into two camps. There is the hairy chest school, concerned with fighting and its adjuncts – forced marches, murder plots, and other deadly intrigues – and the morning sickness school, whose subject is the female condition and whose pages are full of disastrous love affairs and deaths in childbirth. Dr Sidebottom is unambiguously in the former camp, and the setting he chooses, the eastern Roman Empire around 250 AD, gives him plenty of scope. Indeed, the book begins with a forced march and enemy pursuit, as his hero, Ballista, breaks out of the besieged city of Arete just before its fall. Soon there is fighting and gore aplenty – those with delicate stomachs should think carefully before tackling the Warrior of Rome series. Ballista is the target of several murder attempts, but who is responsible – is it the effete young tribune who holds him guilty of causing the death of his brother? Or one of his other enemies at the court of the ineffectual Emperor Valerian? Soon Ballista is on campaign against the Sassanid Persians again, but there is then a slightly unconvincing digression when he is posted to Ephesus to persecute the local Christians (unconvincing in the sense that it doesn’t quite fit into the rest of the plot). Then it is back to campaigning as Valerian leads the army against the Sassanids.

‘Gruesome,’ remarks another reviewer. Certainly. But this is an entirely fair description of ancient warfare, and armchair warriors will revel in this book.