Defender of Rome, the second in Douglas Jackson’s ‘…of Rome’ series, was an absolute pleasure to read, from start to finish.
The calm, assured, precise and evocative prose is dotted with little hints of Rome’s history - and continuing relevance. In fact, there is clearly such a deep knowledge of the Rome of AD63, the period in which the book is set, that it sometimes seems like it could only come, as the book says about Valerius himself on more than one occasion, from someone from born and bred in Rome. But Douglas Jackson is, I know, a proud Scotsman. And lives now. So the level of thoroughly assimilated background research of what Rome was looked, smelled and felt like for a Roman in AD63 is something to be marvelled at.
At first glance, it seems like less out and out action than previous one. Certainly, a move from the turbulence of Britannia on the edge of the Roman Empire, to the Empire’s heart, would seem to herald a calmer life for Valerius. Wrong. After returning, or rather being returned, to Rome, as a ‘Hero of Rome’, Valerius is finding life as a lawyer, the politicking, wheeling and dealing in the city where the scandal never sleeps, not entirely to his taste. He has to work for Nero, not an easy job at the best of times, but at this time, it’s even more tricky. The new fledgling religion of Christianity is making its way into Roman circles. And it and its practitioners must be stopped. Well, actually, Nero wants Valerius to root out Christians and for ’stopped,’ read ‘killed.’ So he’s to defend Rome against this new threat (now you see where the title comes from).
So, if you were a true believer of the Roman gods, believing Nero is your Emperor appointed by those gods, like Valerius, surely no problem? Wrong. As you may have guessed, it’s not quite that simple. Valerius’ sister is gravely ill. He is recommended to go look in the seedier side of town for a Judean healer. He finds this healer. The healer turns out to be a Christian. So the person he desperately needs to save his sister, is the person he needs to bring to Nero’s justice. To be objective for a moment, Nero is right. The new Christians are a threat to his power. That is, his power as Emperor as he’d like to wield it. Think about it; Christianity was a threat to Rome. A threat to the way Rome has been for the last several hundred years. A threat to the way of life of ordinary Romans brought up in and functioning in the Roman system as it has been for hundreds of years and as they believe it will be for hundreds of years more. So, as not all Romans who live and work within the system, would be power-crazed, megalomaniacs, like the monkey at the top of the tree, even ordinary, honest, hard-working, decent Romans might also find themselves on the same side as Nero and see Christians as a threat to the certainty of their lives and Rome as it is. And see that as something worth defending. Slaves and the downtrodden might take issue and see it another way and that would explain Christianity’s attraction to the powerless and dispossessed. However, in Defender of Rome, Valerius quickly finds out, it isn’t just the poor who have fallen for the new religions promises of better times to come.
But then, when it looks like it’s settling down to be a really quite intriguing tale of juicy intrigue and the conundrums for Valerius of rooting out early Christians - the story quite literally moves away from the political cesspit Rome is, to the plains of Dacia and it becomes something else entirely. A trilling, white knuckle ride, a just one more page, one more chapter then, read through the night action thriller. By turns tense and exciting, nervous and explosive with some heart-stopping action sequences, though I guarantee, not of the type you’re thinking.
This is a(nother) wonderful book from Douglas and as I say, reads like it’s written by one who also trod those very Roman streets Valerius knows so well. With first ‘Hero-‘ and now ‘Defender of Rome,' the series has got off to a flying start, and if they aren’t on your shelves already, they really should be. Very soon. Do it now, in fact.