Book Review: Caesar’s Ambassador by Alex Johnston

I loved this book. Historical fiction as comedy. A belly laugh on every page. Caesar’s Ambassador is narrated by Marcus Mettius, who serves as ambassador along with Gaius Valerius Troucillus to the German chieftain Ariovistus. “I don’t know why you’re so worried, Marcus. Everybody knows that harassing ambassadors is against the rules. Anyway we treated his messengers like kings. Anyway your friends with the guy, Right?” Turns out that Ariovistus was not aware of these rules and didn’t count Marcus Mettius among his close buddies. Next thing you know: “Well, that went well,” I said to Gaius as we were adjusting our shackles, trying to get comfortable.
This was my favorite:”Anyway, the Gauls with whom I made the wine deal were all excited, and said that they were looking forward to a time when Gaul would be better known for creating fine wines than Italy! (‘Riigghhtt’ I thought, ‘and I’m looking forward to the time when I shit gold coins’”) I felt like they were expecting a response though, so I replied in the time honored language of a salesman, ‘Of course you are, and rightly so. I have no doubt whatever that such a day will arrive sooner than you think, gods willing! And I absolutely love the plaid tunics, by the way. I am equally certain that one day Gaul will be known as a center for fashionable attire as well!’” (“‘Jupiter, have I no shame?’ I said to myself. ‘how I keep a straight face, sometimes, I’ll never know.’ I fought the urge to add a comment about fine Gallic cuisine, thinking that even I couldn’t pull that off without bursting out laughing. I was glad that the Gauls don’t share the Romans’ keen appreciation for satire.”)
Alex Johnston takes his story directly from Caesar’s Commentaries and tells it in modern English, using such expressions as “freakout,” “tedious diplomatic bullshit,” and, “Caesar was once again indisputably acknowledged to be THE MAN.”
The only thing I found amiss about the story was the notion that an ancient German crone, whose ritual throwing of knuckle bones was supposed to decide whether the captured ambassadors were to be burnt at the stake, could possibly be literate enough to decipher Marcus Mettius’ missive explaining how it might benefit her to throw the game in their favor. In ancient Rome only about ten percent of the population was literate, and among German women of the time, the literacy rate was probably zero.


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