Book Review: Emperor: The Gates of Rome by Conn Iggulden

Conn Iggulden is a top notch novelist and The Gates of Rome is fast paced and absorbing. It is the story of young Julius Caesar, his arduous training for the rigors of the Roman soldiery and his early involvement in Roman politics at the side of his Uncle Marius.

Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer the history in my historical novels to have some resemblance to events as they actually happened, and for some reason, Iggulden chooses to depart substantially from the known occurrences of the time. Iggulden has read Plutarch and Suetonius and he knows that Caesar’s mother, Aurelia was not a pathetic invalid but was a strong and formidable presence in Julius Caesar’s life. He knows that Marius was not Aurelia’s brother but was married to Julia, his father’s sister, and that the marriage produced a son. He knows that Marius was not captured and killed in a battle for Rome against Sulla, but died in his bed during his last consulship. He knows all of this and yet chooses to present an entirely altered version of the history.

Iggulden tosses in tidbits of Roman history from time to time, but without any regard as to whether the statements are true. For example, this gem: “Even Hannibal had preferred to meet Roman legions in the field rather than assault the city itself. It had taken a man like Scipio to take his head and that of his brother.” Scipio took neither the head of Hannibal nor the head of his brother. Hannibal’s brother died in the battle of Metaurus at the hands of the forces of Nero and Livius. Scipio was in Spain at the time. Even he couldn’t be everywhere at once. As for Hannibal, he took poison to avoid capture by the Romans in 183 BC, the same year Scipio Africanus died at Liternum.

Iggulden even repeats the old canard that the Romans salted the earth around Carthage to prevent the city from ever rising again. There is no evidence in ancient literature that they did this. In fact, the pragmatic Romans would not have wasted salt, which was a precious resource, and would not have wanted to despoil land which could be farmed to feed the growing population of the empire. Twenty-five years after the destruction of Carthage, Gaius Gracchus, as tribune, attempted to found a Roman colony at Carthage. It failed for various reasons, but it wouldn’t have been attempted if the ground had been salted. (The Romans finally rebuilt Carthage under Augustus.)

As I said, maybe it’s just me, but I prefer my historical novels to stick to the historical facts as far as they can be gleaned from the literature.

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