Book Review: Watchmen of Rome by Alex Gough

Watchmen of Rome takes the reader to the mean streets of Ancient Rome during the reign of Tiberius. Elissa is a priestess of the Carthaginian deities Baal-Hammon and Tanit, having received training from her mother, religious lore passed down in secret since the destruction of Carthage some 180 years before. She has a plan to destroy Rome to avenge Carthage, and she requires a human sacrifice to secure the co-operation of the gods. She has chosen Fabilla, the red haired child of her red haired slave Rufa. She has a small but devoted cult following and has gathered enough incendiary material to destroy all of Rome. She plans to strike on the last day of the games, when the Urban Cohorts will all be engaged in crowd control.
Carbo is a veteran of the Roman legions, newly returned to Rome from long service. He was prior pilis of his legion and supremely adept in martial skills. Upon returning to Rome he goes to his mother’s home in the lower class district of Subura, only to find that his mother has died months before. He wanders into a tavern. The tavern owner, Publius, has two slaves, Marsia and Philon, who help him run the tavern. Publius, however, is prey to a protection racket run by one Manius and his sons Cilo and Balbus. Cilo come into the tavern demanding an outrageous extortion and demanding to bed Marsia, who normally does not bestow such favors except on her master. Carbo intercedes and kicks Cilo out. He then purchases the tavern along with the slaves with money he has accumulated from his long stint in the legions. It is not long before Manius and Cilo return to re-establish their patron-client relationship and extort money. Once again Carbo fends them off, this time assisted by Lucius Vedius Vespillo, tribune of the Vigiles, and his men. The Vigiles are an organization founded by Augustus for the purpose of maintaining fire safety and putting out fires. They are the lowest rung of the Roman military/police system. Vespillo has been in the legions and he and Carbo had quickly become friends.
Rufa, in the meantime has overheard the plans that her mistress Elissa has made for the sacrifice of her daughter Fabilla as a burnt offering to the gods, and she decides to take her daughter and run away. Another slave has told her about Carbo, and she remembers him as a friend of her father who was also in the legions. Before he died, her father made Carbo promise to look after Rufa is she was ever in difficulty. She flees with her daughter to the protection of Carbo, who reluctantly takes her in. Elissa believes that the sacrifice of Fabilla is crucial to her plan to destroy Rome, and will go to any lengths to get the child back.
Watchmen of Rome is a fast paced, exciting novel which reveals a multitude of details about daily life in Ancient Rome, centered, for once, in the realm of the lower classes rather than the wealthy. The novel offers everything you might want in a work of historical fiction.
Modern readers may wonder if child sacrifice was actually practiced in Ancient Carthage before its destruction in 146 B.C. While it can’t be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the preponderance of evidence indicates that it was. The “tophets” or child cemeteries of Carthage contain urns in which the remains of animals and remains of children from newborns to three years old were stored. Studies of the human remains reveals that they were all male. How extensive and how common this practice was is difficult to ascertain. Carthage was founded in 814 B.C. and we don’t really know whether infant sacrifice took place at all times during the course of around 650 years of its existence. Both Roman and Greek sources mention infant sacrifice, but curiously, Polybius, who rather admired the Carthaginian system of government, and who witnessed the destruction of the city, does not mention it. No written records other than inscriptions on stellae survived the destruction of Carthage so we have no insight into Carthaginian practices or their own views on the subject of child sacrifice. Alex Gough’s priestess Elissa seems to be stretching the rules a bit by sacrificing a seven year old girl, but 180 years after the destruction of Carthage she may have been a bit unclear on the concept.

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