The Bay of Naples, August, A.D. 79, at the Roman Imperial summer residence. The Flavians, now under Emperor Titus, have ruled Rome since the overthrow of Nero, who was assassinated in A.D.68 – but was he? Two men will claim to be the deposed Nero. One, posing as a blind Spanish merchant, Alpist, has become a senator. The second has raised an army in Parthia, Rome’s ancient enemy, and plans to invade Italy. The Sibyl, a mystic, has predicted that when Nero crosses the Euphrates, mountains will fall. The arrival of Parthian emissaries at Titus’s summer court arouses the suspicions of Admiral Pliny, already concerned about rumours that a man claiming to be Nero has entered Italy. A violent Parthian attack on the wedding of Domitilla, Titus’s sister, throws the court into chaos. And then Vesuvius erupts.
Each of the many characters relates events from his or her perspective. These multiple narratives result in only a few, Pliny, Domitilla and Alpist, having distinct voices; however, the various confusing and contradictory threads of the plot are juggled skilfully with the help of a cast list and welcome maps. Roman life, rich and poor, slave and free, is excellently pictured. The casual Roman attitude to cruelty and bloodshed is portrayed but not overdone. Pacy prose propels the plot, and when the action heats up, the novel is unputdownable.
This is the second of a trilogy based on the possibility of a bogus Nero. Obviously Vesuvius is a hard act to follow, so if the ending is an anticlimax, we may assume Barbaree will pick it up in Volume Three, something to look forward to. Highly recommended.