Book Review: Janus Pater by Alexander Findlay

The year is 60 A.D. during the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero. Boudicca, the Queen of the Iceni tribe has amassed a huge army of tribal folk and is rampaging throughout Southern Britannia annihilating Roman controlled settlements. Camulodunum, Londinium and other towns have already felt her wrath. Rome’s entire presence in the British Isles is under dire theat.

The Romans need all of the military manpower they can get, and they even call up the evocati, retired soldiers who have settled on the land. These men are generally in their late thirties or in their forties. In this book the story is told in the first person by one of these evocati, Gaius Veturius Drusus. Veturius, as we will refer to him, is 39, has recently retired from the legions, and is married to a woman of the Dubonni tribe. He and his wife and three children have settled on land granted to him as a result of his 20 years of service in the legions. He gets along well with his Dubonni in-laws and speaks the language well. When the news reaches him of the Boudicca rising, he assembles all of the local evocati who are still fit for services and takes his place as their centurion.

Anyone familiar with the Boudicca affair will realize that with just a minimum amount of moderation and good-will, the Romans would have spared themselves and the natives of Britain this cataclysm. Veturius is probably aware of this fact, but he doesn’t dwell upon it. Instead, he focuses upon his duties and upon his relationships with the men with whom he has long served. Veturius perceives himself as a divided personality, one of which is a beast, and hence the name of the book Janus Pater, referring to the two-faced god of the Romans. One suspects that in order to serve in the Roman military a person had to have had some amount of beast within him. Veturius is not proud of his bestial aspect and generally tries to suppress it, but in all honesty, he feels compelled to acknowledge it.

But Veturius is also human and is certainly possessed of some of the more noble sentiments that a man in his situation might experience, such as his grief over the body of a dead Iceni child. “I suddenly look down and to my right as a motion catches my eye. I see the body of a little girl being trodden under our boots into the mud. She is bleeding from multiple stab wounds to her chest. Blue eyes lifeless, blood spattered blond hair. Just lying in the mud, a shell of a child devoid of life, clinging to a limp straw-stuffed toy. This moment does not end for me. I am trapped in this Hadean pit of shame and despair! I do not see Lucilla, despite her similar age and physical attributes. I do not see an enemy and I do not see a reason for her death. I see a child who has been murdered. A child who deserved better. It is as if the beast within me has gone silent, and now, starting from my chest, a malignant feeling of self-loathing begins to creep through the rest of my body, a feeling that no amount of stoic self-discipline and mental training seems able to dispel.”

I recommend this book to those who are interested in Roman history and those who wish to explore the universal psychic dilemma of the soldier in wartime.

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