Wednesday, September 30, 2009
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
The invasion of Britain by the legions of the Emperor Claudius, under the command of General Plautius, which began in A.D. 43, represented the first sustained attempt to bring the northern isles permanently within the confines of the Roman Empire (following upon earlier expeditions, beginning with Julius Caesar). The struggle pitted the battle-hardened, highly disciplined legions against the fiercely independent British tribes led by the chiefs of the Catuvellauni, Togodumnus and Caratacus.
Simon Scarrow has created an excellent series of historical-fiction novels centered on the exploits of two Roman officers, Lucius Cornelius Macro and Quintus Licinius Cato, in the invasion of Britain. Macro is a veteran centurion whose inadequate literacy causes him to lean heavily on Cato, the son of a freedman who had been employed in the Roman bureaucracy. Cato starts out as Macro’s optio (executive officer) and eventually, in spite of his youth, earns promotion to centurion in his own right.
Scarrow is a historian and teacher who brings to his fictional works an enormous amount of comprehensive scholarship in establishing the setting for the series; but equally, if not more, importantly, he is a fine novelist, extraordinarily skilled in spinning out enthralling yarns. I have just finished the fifth book in the series, The Eagle’s Prey, and it is one of those novels that made it a genuine pleasure to get out of bed in the morning, in anticipation of diving into the action during the morning commute to Washington.
In this story, we follow the legions as they attempt to definitively destroy the army of Caratacus; however, General Plautius’ battle plan goes awry when the third cohort of the Second Legion, under the unsure command of Maximius, permits Caratacus to escape with several thousand of his troops. General Plautius, advised (or rather, threatened) by Narcissus, a highly-placed Greek slave who has become the Emperor’s closest advisor, to make an example of the third cohort, sentences the unit to decimation (over the objections of the Second Legion’s commander, Vespasian). Cato is one of the unfortunate soldiers who draws a losing ticket in this lottery of death, and how he and his men escape and redeem themselves forms the bulk of this exciting novel.
In addition to the fine plotting and non-stop action, Scarrow’s books are a (sometimes comical) testimony to the fact that many of the basic features of army life have been the same since time immemorial. The dreary marching and countermarching, the constant drilling, the ferocious sergeants, the enlisted man’s disdain for officers, and the keen insight into the average soldier’s toughness in battle (he’s not fighting for his Emperor or his unit’s standard, he’s fighting to keep himself and his friends alive, and to avoid the shame of succumbing to an often heart-felt desire to run away).
If you haven’t had the pleasure of slogging along with Macro and Cato, you’re in for a treat. Start with the first book in the series, Under the Eagle, and go from there.