Book Review: Galba’s Men by L.J. Trafford

L.J. Trafford’s account of life in Caesar’s palace on the Palatine Hill is a sort of Upstairs Downstairs writ large. Upstairs are Caesar and his family, cronies and sycophants; downstairs are a multitude of slaves and freedmen, some of who are influential enough to influence the course of affairs of state. Keeping track of, and disciplining, this multitude of slaves is the task of the freedman Felix, ably assisted by his brutish enforcer, Straton.
In her first book of this series, Palatine, Trafford vividly describes this system and introduces an array of characters whose stories are carried on into this volume. Among these are Epaphroditus, the late emperor Nero’s personal secretary and his wife Aphrodite, Philo, Epaphroditus’ able erstwhile assistant, Artimina, towel girl to Nero’s wife Statilia Messalina, Lysander, announcer for the late emperor, Sporus, Nero’s Eunuch who substituted for Nero’s late wife Poppea, and Alex, a messenger boy.
As the book opens, the new emperor, Servius Sulpicius Galba is on his way to Rome from Spain to claim the throne. He is preceded by his freedman secretary Icelus and by Cornelius Laco, whom he has appointed to head the Praetorian Guard. Neither Icelus nor Laco display the slightest competency for their new positions. Accompanying Galba are Titus Vinius and Marcus Salvius Otho. Otho has the distinction of having been a close friend of Nero and the former husband of Nero’s deceased wife Poppea. Otho has ambitions. He is angling to have Galba adopt him and declare him his successor. Although a rake and a libertine, Otho had done a creditable job as governor of the province of Lusitania in farther Spain.
Epaphroditus, who had assisted Nero in his suicide is laying low and his assistant Philo has taken over his duties. Sporus is confined in the Temple of the Magna Mater among a group of whirling eunuchs. It was charming at first but now he is getting bored. His talents are wasted there. Sporus is the inventor of the SPORUS, an erotic maneuver so potent as to induce the most reluctant of potential bride grooms to instantly propose marriage upon its completion. (Unfortunately, details are not given.) Mina has been promoted from her position as towel girl to Statilia Messalina but she believes that both Epaphriditus, her lover, and Sporus are dead. Her friend Alex knows differently but declines to tell her. She has formed an unlikely friendship with the brutish Straton who is teaching her how to wield a whip. Straton has confided in her that he is in love with a man and has recruited her to help him woo him. The man he is in love with is the recently freed Philo, whom he has been abusing for years. Straton is deluded that his affection is requited, but Philo is also being wooed by his landlord’s daughter Teretia, a far more attractive choice.
One would have to search far and wide to find two people more different than the late Caesar Nero and his successor Galba. Nero was frivolous, vain, a libertine, a spendthrift, violent and a pervert. Galba was old fashioned, grumpy, stern, serious, all business and a tightwad. There was no question that the transition from Nero to Galba would be a major shock to the palace staff and to the people of Rome. Nero had left the treasury with 20,000 sesterces, enough to buy “a third floor rickety apartment in a dubious area of the city.” Given the state of the treasury, Galba declined to pay the Praetorian Guard the bonus that they had been promised by the late Nymphidius Sabinus in exchange for supporting Galba’s coup d’etat. He also made himself unpopular with the soldiery by enforcing discipline with decimation. The one thing Nero and Galba have in common is that they both sow the seeds of their own destruction by their excesses.
Galba’s Men is both historical and highly entertaining. Purists may frown at the frequent use of modern British slang terms like snog, fagged, and cor, but we Americans have seen enough movies to know that the Romans spoke with a British accent.

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