This was another selected item at the book club I go to, and in stark contrast to the previous choice (The Garden of Evening Mists – which I reviewed on January 5th this year), I found The Last Caesar to be a profound disappointment. Henry Venmore-Rowland had, I think, carried out a considerable amount of background research, but the end result was, to me at least, rather uninteresting.
Most of the book could easily have been presented as a wiki entry or series of blog posts rather than a historical novel, and there were very few places where I had a sense of a unique insight into the past. The writing is solid and uninspiring rather than delightful or poetic. Conceivably this reflects The Roman Way of Life, but I have read other books set in the classical period which have managed to portray a lighter and more delicate world.
This story is set in a turbulent year, when the family line of Augustus Caesar spluttered to a halt with Nero. This triggered a struggle between several contenders for the imperial mantle, and the main character in this story – Aulus Caeccina Severus, apparently loosely based on a historical individual – is part of that struggle, supporting one or other faction in turn as his own ambitions and anxieties indicate. But do not be fooled by the title – the book is neither about the last emperor of Rome (which one might have thought), nor Nero himself (who technically was the last member of the Caesar family). Severus appears to be at best a marginal figure in the imperial struggle and spends the whole book in the provinces and nowhere near the heart of the action in Rome. The front cover image has essentially nothing to do with the story but has the appearance of a boilerplate Roman image from a photo stock agency.
To my eyes the fictional Severus is a rather improbable figure, who succeeds in regularly rising above a whole series of problems and challenges without too much difficulty. This causes a mixture of admiration and envy in other people, but incredibly the surrounding characters who might have most reason to distrust or turn on him inevitably accept his unlikely explanations and receive him back into their collective fold. His chief flaw is a rather unwavering trust in his superiors (until they betray him), which leaves him vulnerable to their machinations.
That book is totally dominated by male characters. The few women who appear are either buxom, conveniently available tavern wenches of uneasy virtue, or else extraordinarily beautiful wives, typically with slightly sinister ambitions. The overall effect is to give the impression of a laddish game being played out without feminine counter-balance, and without any real concern for the human impact following on from the rough and tumble. Again, this might possibly be a fair reflection of the Roman world, but it left me cold.
The Last Caesar also stops quite abruptly, and you discover a page or two from the end that actually you only have half a book in your hands. The story continues in another volume (The Sword and the Throne), but I have not been wooed into acquiring it and will cheerfully let the story remain unfinished.
Readers who like Roman history might possibly get more out of this than I did. Or maybe readers who like books which don’t involve women to any real degree. If you like subtle books with a good balance of the sexes, or writing of flair and beauty, it would be well worth looking elsewhere. For me, it just didn’t work as a book. I am, however, prepared to give it three stars despite all this, because it was well researched, well produced and friends who know the period assure me there are no glaring historical errors.