Posts Tagged With: Historical Fiction

Galba Hominum*

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Roughly halfway through her new book, Galba’s Men, there is a passage describing the new emperor’s reaction to attending games in Rome:

“Galba had no particular love for the games. He’d seen real action and considered gladiator bouts as mere play: overdone and false. Yet he attempted a tight smile and waved as required.
It appeared genial to the palace staff, who were used to their grim-faced master. But the people, accustomed to cheery, flamboyant Nero, were not so enamoured of their new emperor. Casting sly looks at him in-between the entertainment, they saw a hook-nosed, scrawny old man with thinning white hair who looked almost bored by the proceedings.”

This, in a nutshell, encapsulates a number of issues faced by Galba and many other emperors, especially those who assumed power during the Year of the Four Emperors. There was a fine line to be traversed, negotiating the balance between pleasing the Senate, the people, and the military. Here, by being less adept publicly than the previous, crowd-pleasing ruler Nero, Galba is already failing to win over the public. He soon also has issues with the military, thus quickly tipping the balance in favour of a new (or, to be historically accurate, two new) usurpers of the imperial throne.

In her second book chronicling the tumultuous year of AD 68-69, L.J. Trafford once again combines history and fiction to bring forth an accurate, yet hugely entertaining narrative of the lives, loves, and quite a few deaths, of those whose lives revolve around the heart of Roman rule. Picking up a few months after the deaths of Nero and Sabinus, the Praetorian Prefect who led the revolt to install Galba as told in Palatine, Rome eagerly awaits the arrival of her new emperor. Many of the slaves and freedmen who keep the imperial bureaucracy running are still reeling from the fallout of the events earlier in the year, but are eager to start over, and hope for a return to normalcy. A similar desire is echoed amongst the military men and citizens we encounter. Galba, unfortunately, is plagued from the outset not only by the normal intrigues and machinations of his underlings, but also by his stubborn belief in a return to the moral, economic, and traditional view of Rome that few of its citizens seem to share with him.This, in effect, is what ultimately leads to his downfall.

In a note concluding the book, Trafford, echoing the words of Tacitus, indicates that Galba was, on paper at least, capable of being an outstanding emperor. He is a serious, older man, with years of military and political experience, who had served under four emperors (he first took public office as a praetor in AD 20, during the reign of Tiberius). He wanted to eliminate bribery of the Praetorian Guard and the army, the flashy displays of gladiatorial games and athletic contests, and restore the treasury that Nero had decimated with wanton building programmes and gifts. In other words, Galba wanted to get down to the serious business of restoring Rome to the good old days before the debauchery and carelessness of Caligula and Nero, but found a citizenry that had little recall, and even less interest, in his plans. Enter Otho, a man (as Trafford portrays him), with all the charisma, good-will, and charm that Galba lacks and then some, who devotes most of his time to winning favour amongst the Senate, the people, and the Praetorian Guard. Though somewhat hapless in some of his dealings (Poor Philo! Poor Straton!), Otho seemingly gets the necessity of striking the right balance, and is eagerly anticipating being named Galba’s heir so that he will have a chance to help the people of Rome in the manner he sees fit. When Galba passes him over, Otho is understandably mortified, and the rest, as is said, is history.

Thus, the book plays out over the seven months from when Galba seized power to his death, when Otho, with the help of the Praetorian Guard, the army, and a mob of Roman citizens, took control of the city. Like the first in the series, the story is woven of real and fictional characters, largely focusing on the slaves and freedmen who comprise the day to day workforce of the government and the imperial palace. This allows a certain amount of freedom for creating characters and situations that are necessary for attracting an audience and keeping them engaged from book to book (Really, what will Sporous get up to next? And how has that flibbertigibbet Mina survived so long?), but I think also is quite clever for historical purposes. Despite the lack of visibility on the historiographies of the period, it is likely that the turmoil of this year was felt most keenly by those closest to the rotating seat of the emperor: the members of the imperial household and the guard. It is the Praetorian Guard particularly who, like with the downfall of Nero, play a major role in the end of Galba’s reign. Otho seemingly understands the importance of having these people on side, and looks to be in place to be the kind of emperor that Rome both wants and needs. Unfortunately, the book ends with a note that Vitellius is on the march from Germany….

Despite knowing the history, I can’t wait to see what happens next.

 

*Disclosure: The author, L.J. Trafford, asked if I would be willing to review this book as I had the first in the series, and thus sent me a copy so that I could do so.

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On Palatine*

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If you are going to have the great misfortune of spending the better part of a week in bed with a terrific cold (really, if anyone finds my voice, please return it), it helps to find yourself in possession of a good book. In this regard, I lucked out.

Palatine is the first of a series of four historical fiction novels set in the tumultuous period known as the year of the four emperors (AD 68-69) written by Linda Trafford. The series begins in the final months of the reign of Nero, the last of the Julio-Claudian line that began with Augustus, whose overthrow leads to a period of government instability in which the Senate, governors, generals, and the Praetorian Guard all play a part in figuring out (repeatedly) who should ultimately have control of Rome.

Historical fiction – of which I admit I’ve read more than my fair share over the years – toes a fine line between being an accurate portrayal of the period and figures at its heart and simply being a stonking good read as only fiction truly can. And as any ancient history undergraduate could tell you, the intrigues and behind the scenes machinations of the imperial court at Rome has always provided fodder for a tale of the most outlandish soap operatic heights. A story set in Nero’s court could easily and quickly become ridiculous, and with good reason.

What Trafford, however, provides her reader is a series of characters – real and created – who each have their own story, their own circumstances to deal with, surrounding and leading up to the death of Nero and the seizure of the throne by Galba. What we get is a novel driven largely by the guardsmen, freedmen, and slaves whose lives were integral to the running of the Imperial household as well as government itself. Sure, there’s a bit of toga-ripping, recollections of the more debauched activities Nero’s court was infamous for, and some of the over-wrought dramatics one would expect from Sporus, the eunuch pretending to be Nero’s dead wife Poppea, but at the heart of the novel, there’s history. As an historian, I recognise the re-tellings of anecdotes from Tacitus, Suetonius, and Plutarch. As an archaeologist, the descriptions of both the Palatine palace and Domus Aurea are as many reconstructions have imagined them. Trafford has a degree in ancient history, and her familiarity with first century Rome is apparent from these pages.

I often disregard historical fiction from ancient Rome, simply because I can see the holes too easily, and thus fail to enjoy it at all. This was not the case at all with Palatine. I enjoyed it simply for the fiction, for the story that is told, but more to the point, I appreciated it on the level of an historian who could recognise the (undoubtedly) painstaking research behind the story, the accuracy of the historical points, and that for those unfamiliar with this period in Rome, the fiction was done well enough to foster an interest in the history. In other words, read it. Terrible cold keeping you in bed to do so: completely optional.

*I should probably preface this by saying a actually won my copy of the book from Linda in a Twitter contest, but she in no way asked for (or is even aware as of this writing) of this endorsement of her work.

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