Book Review by Margaret Richardson
Conspiracies of Rome
Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2009, 356pp, £7.99 (pb)
When released in hardback, this novel was described as "the publishing
sensation of 2008". According to L. Neil Smith, the giant of modern
It's simply the best historical novel I've ever read, perhaps short of
C.S. Forester. It's a very great deal better than any of the ancient
Roman detective novels I've seen.
According to Derek Jacobi, one of the greatest actors of his generation,
and star of I Claudius and, with Russell Crowe, of Gladiator,
[It is] fascinating to read, very well written, an intriguing plot and I
enjoyed it very much.
The first printing sold out within three days, and the export paperback
had to be diverted to the British market to fill the demand. Even so,
copies were selling on E-Bay at five times the cover price.
Now available in paperback, the novel is selling faster in W.H. Smith
than The Diary of Anne Frank, which has just had an entire week's outing
on the BBC.
What has made this book such a success? Well there is in the first place
a very well-constructed plot. Rome in 609 AD. The Empire has fallen. The
City itself is rapidly falling into ruins. The streets are blocked with
filth and rubble. Killers prowl by night. The Emperor, far off in
Constantinople, has other concerns. The Church is the one institution
left intact, and is now flexing its own imperial muscle.
But for getting that girl pregnant, and but for King Ethelbert's
"suggestion" that he try his luck elsewhere, Aelric might never have left
Kent. Now he is in this post-imperial snake pit-as secretary to Maximin,
a priest sent back to gather books for the new English mission.
A chance encounter on the road to Rome sucks them into a mystery. There
is fraud. There is pursuit. There is murder after murder. Soon, Aelric is
involved in a race against time to find answers. Who is trying to kill
him? Where are those letters and what do they contain? Who is the
one-eyed man? What significance to all this has the Column of Phocas, the
monument just put up in the Forum to celebrate a tyrant's generosity to
Holy Mother Church?
Blundering via lechery, drunkenness, blasphemy, drug abuse, market
rigging and pedantry, Aelric at last gets his answer. What he chooses to
do with that answer will shape the future history of Europe and the world
But so much for the plot. If you like historical thrillers, this one is
about as good as they get. What I found so striking about the novel is
its imaginative reconstruction of a vanished world - but a world that is
often disturbingly close to our own.
The sort of Rome we normally read about in historical novels is the Rome
of the great days, or at least the Rome of early into its decline. The
Empire is still building up, or holding firm, or perhaps in danger of
being wrecked by some profligate individual. But this is a Rome after its
Imagine how it must have been to live in Rome during the seventh century.
For a thousand years, your city was the centre of the world. For good or
ill, everyone looked to your government to see what it would do in any
situation. Your ancestors could boast that they were a race of
conquerors, of lawgivers, of poets and architects and engineers, that
they had imposed their ways and language on a large part of the world.
But that is all over.
Your city that was once the capital is now a border town in a continuing
Empire that is ruled from elsewhere - an elsewhere run by people who call
themselves your heirs or brothers, but who never liked you and who lose
no opportunity now to let you know that you are fallen from greatness.
All the arts and other ancient virtues are visibly dying. The city is
falling, physically as well as morally, into ruins. Your own territory is
filled up with often dangerous immigrants who do not share your ways or
are actively hostile.
The one flash of brightness is that the city is host to an organisation
that exercises a non-military sway over much of the former Empire. Its
ideals are different from those of your ancestors. Its personnel are
mostly foreign. Such natives as rise high within it do so by suppressing
all feeling of patriotism or other local pride. But this remains a great
organisation, and it is useful for providing the money that keeps most
Are there any resonances here? I think there are. But then, if science
fiction is often a critique of the present, so too is historical fiction.
It allows things to be said openly and bluntly in ways that would not be
tolerated in mainstream fiction.
But I come back to my question. What is it like to live in a place from
which all its ancient glory has departed? One answer given in
Conspiracies of Rome is that life goes on for most people much as before:
Choosing at random, I took one of the exit streets, and walked briskly
past arcades of bright, cheerful shops. I'd normally have stopped and
looked in these. Rome, you see, wasn't just a depopulated slum. If much
fallen away from its old magnificence, it was still, here and there, by
any other standard, a great and wealthy city. There was a continuing
demand for goods and services that had to be satisfied somewhere. And
I'd wandered by accident into one of the few districts where life went on
much as it always had. But I was in no mood for shopping.
I walked, it seemed forever, through the sometimes crowded, sometimes
dead streets of Rome, I stopped at last by one of the crumbling
embankments of the Tiber. I sat down on a stone bench and looked across
to the far side.
You could see that there had once been elegant gardens there-trees and
shrubs brought in from the limits of the known world, carefully arranged
paths, little grottoes, and so on but nature had long since reclaimed the
site, and I looked over at a jumble of local and exotic foliage that
seemed to owe nothing to human action. The vividness of the flowers
aside-and that glorious Italian light that even I, in my present frame of
mind, couldn't wholly ignore-it reminded me a little of the forests back
home in Kent.
Down by the river, slave women and the poor did their washing. Some
children ran in and out of the water. Their faint cries of joy floated up
to me on the still, warm air. These joined the louder chattering of the
birds across the river. Closer by, the respectable classes of Rome went
about their business-exchanging gossip, doing business, getting up an
appetite for lunch. I sat watching in the bright, hot sunshine of a day
late into the Roman spring. Everything was surprisingly normal.
Life goes one. And where there is life, there is hope. Indeed, while this
novel is set after the collapse of a great civilisation, and while the
Narrator has no love of the present, there is no simple contrast here
between ancient glories and modern squalor. The civilisation that has
fallen was grounded at all times and in all respects on systematic
exploitation of the weak. Even now, slavery remains an omnipresent fact.
Those most attached to the past are also those most attached to the view
that slaves are brutes in human form.
Rome has fallen. The world is sinking lower by the year. But one day, the
Narrator is convinced, there will be a recovery, and this will be better
than what has fallen.
Where there is life, there is hope.
To buy Conspiracies of Rome (Released in paperback on the 8th January
To buy The Terror of Constantinople (the sequel, released 5th February