The Last Caesar
This story of the uprising against the emperor Nero in AD 68 is in the form of a memoir by Aulus Caecina Severus. At the opening of the novel, Severus is the new quaestor of Hispania Baetica. His post is his reward for his pivotal role in the recent rout of the Britons. But from the off, Severus is not portrayed as a gilt-edged hero. He is content in relative obscurity, ‘milking his province’, but is candid in his memoir that he is never one to turn down an opportunity. So when the governor and ex-consul Galba approaches Severus to join a revolt against Nero, Severus agrees. Severus is tasked on two fronts: one to secure a political ally in Agricola, the other to serve as military adviser to Vindex in Gaul.
Venmore-Rowland portrays the complex politics underpinning the revolt very well. Through Severus, we experience the intrigue and scheming first-hand, with the ever-constant threat of execution should his plans fail. But it is the portrayal of Severus in the role of military man where the author excels. The training of ordinary Gauls to become a fighting force and the battle in which they are fatefully engaged are superbly done, as is further conflict in Germania. Venmore-Rowland has a particular skill in conveying the sounds of an army, and there are times when it seems to echo from the page.
Severus is supported by a large cast of secondary characters. Of these, it is the slave Totavalas that most intrigues, though his introduction was, disappointingly, quite late in the novel.
It is to be hoped that this novel is the first of many for this talented debut author.