The Caspian Gates

Written by Harry Sidebottom
Review by Gwen Sly

In 262 AD, the mighty city of Ephesus lies in ruins after a devastating earthquake, and mob rule has taken over. The barbaric Goths, seizing the change for unchallenged pillage, have set sail to create further destruction. This emerging threat exacerbates the turmoil within the Roman Empire which is struggling to recover from civil war. Ballista, now Praetorian Prefect and 40 years old, seeing the chaos around him, makes plans to defend the near cities of Miletus and Priene. Having lately become an object of suspicion since briefly taking over the Purple, he awaits the clemency of the Emperor Gallienus. Instead of exile, Ballista is sent on a mission to retain the Imperium at the far edge of the empire. He is to repair the Caspian Gates, the pass through the Caucasian Mountains. Against overwhelming odds his task, if completed, will contain the barbarians, pacify the local tribes of Alani and Suania, and build a diplomatic relationship with Persia.

This fourth novel in Harry Sidebottom’s Warrior of Rome series does stand alone, but the list of characters will be a necessary reference. The glossary and maps are essential. The period detail reveals the author’s command of his subject. Sidebottom specialises in the classical and cultural history of ancient Rome but is at his best when describing siege warfare. The battle scenes are brutal and bloody; the Persian boat torture tangibly ghastly; the Black Sea episode a master class in Roman seafaring. His characters are more realistic, humour is creeping in, and the women are staying on the scene for longer.

Skilfully bringing an ancient world to life, The Caspian Gates is immensely readable. Fiction can overlap nonfiction, and it is useful to remember it is a novel, events moveable sometimes invented. The story is not yet ended.