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Hoses of the Holy in the Parallel Universe

May 15, 2006

Emperor: The Gods of War by Conn Iggulden

This fourth (and supposedly final) book in Conn Iggulden's Emperor Series picks up the fictionalised telling of the life of Julius Caesar just after his crossing of the Rubicon and takes it to the end, to the stabbing in Pompey's theatre. There is no aftermath: the assassins walk away, and that's it. You don't find out "what happened next" unless you read the Historical Note in the back of the book, in which Iggulden tells you some of the liberties he's taken with the story.

From the very first book in the series, which retells the boyhood of Caesar, Iggulden has refused to let the facts get in the way. This is fine by me. But rather than embellish the facts, Iggulden has in fact simplified them. The real story of Caesar is so much more complex, so much more amazing, that it probably just wouldn't be believable in the form of fiction.

In the first book, the author went into painstaking detail in telling the tale of Caesar's youth, sparing none of the brutality and visceral detail. This level of detail seems to have been toned down in the later books, especially in this last. Caesar's decisive battle against Pompey in Greece is told almost offhand, a mere sketch rather than a detailed oil painting. Possibly, this is because it's just impossible to imagine how Caesar might have won. Pompey had twice as many foot soldiers and four times as many cavalry. And yet he was routed. In the novel, Iggulden proposes a number of reasons for this. The principal one is that Pompey was so ill that he just wasn't functioning; this failure of leadership caused morale within his ranks to be low, so it was ridiculously easy for Caesar's forces to prevail.

Probably the detail that vexes me most is the friendship between Brutus and Caesar. According to history, Brutus was 15 years younger than Caesar, and within Roman politics was on the opposite side. They weren't Brown and Blair, then. More like Kinnock and Hague(!). It's hard to believe they were all that close; Brutus fought with Pompey because they were in the same political party, if you like, rather than because he was angry with his bestest friend. I don't know. I'm no historian.

In the end Iggulden's story is about the love of two men, one of whom ends up betraying and killing the other. It's a kind of homoerotic, Roman, 1984.

As an ending to the series, this is disappointing. The truth is, so much goes on in the period covered by this book that -- had Iggulden maintained the pacing and detail of the earlier books -- there should have been six in the series and not four. Too much is covered - the civil war, the adventures with Cleopatra in Alexandria, Caesar's Grand Tour, his attempts to reform Roman politics, betrayal, political intrigue and death. Too much for one book.


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