Vespasian proved to be quite a turn-up for the audio-books. Seldom have I not especially liked a book’s beginnings yet by the end been completely won over – it often happens the other way around but I am delighted to say that Vespasian managed this feat. And to try and explain why I think this happened I would first mention that the book starts fast and gets even faster before thankfully settling down. It initially put me more in mind of a screenplay than a novel, which is unsurprising considering its author, Robert Fabbri, has worked in film and TV for 25 years. So it was a bit like, “Yeah, it would make a good action movie, but this is a book, what about the characters, what about Rome and its politics?”. But, once the initial action was over, which involved the hunt for a priest required for “questioning” in Rome, the story became all about politics and intrigue, the characters really took shape and I found myself enjoying the rather grisly tale immensely.
Before I continue with the review, here is a little more about the story which begins in Thracia in the year AD30. Vespasian’s patrons in Rome have charged him with the clandestine extraction of an old enemy from a fortress on the banks of the Danube before it falls to the Roman legion besieging it. His mission is the key move in a deadly struggle for the right to rule the Empire. The man he has been ordered to seize could be the witness that will destroy Sejanus, commander of the Praetorian Guard and ruler of the Empire in all but name. Before he completes his mission, Vespasian will face ambush in snowbound mountains, pirates on the high seas and Sejanus’s spies all around him. But by far the greatest danger lies at the rotten heart of the Empire: at the nightmarish court of Tiberius, Emperor of Rome and debauched, paranoid madman.
Vespasian’s author Robert Fabbri has – as already mentioned – worked in film and TV for 25 years. As an assistant director he has worked on productions such as Hornblower, Hellraiser, Patriot Games and Billy Elliot but his life-long passion for ancient Roman history inspired him to write the Vespasian series and this passion really shines from the pages. Fabbri uses contemporary speech and this will always divide opinions – I personally found it a little strange at first but very quickly it felt natural. The narrator, Peter Kenny (who was uniformly very good) chose to give the Romans English accents and again, while it took a little getting used to it soon flowed nicely and my favourite character voice was that of Magnus (please forgive misspellings of names as was an audio-book and I had no access to the written text), who was given a decidedly Ray Winstone-like voice that worked really well. Kenny’s other stand out voices were Vespasian’s Uncles Gaius and the mad-emperor Tiberius but he also coped admirably well with the female leads, with Antonia, sister to the emperor, being particularly noteworthy. Kenny also uses clever -and authentic sounding -accents for the Thracians, Greeks and other races.
Once the setting moves back to Rome the politics of the time take centre stage. And the politics are probably not that different than those of today except for one important element – the body count. Death, and more pertinently execution, is a daily occurrence and once back in Rome the cast of Antonia, Tiberius, Macros, Sejanus and company (we mustn’t forget a young Caligula) are using any trick possible to get what they want – which is of course, as always, power and money. All this political intrigue was really well handled and fascinating to listen to. I don’t know how close to history Fabbri kept, much falls in line with what I have previously read but the portrayal of Tiberius seemed to have made use of a liberal amount of artistic licence. What the author does brilliantly is make it clear that these were very dangerous times to be alive, the life of a slave was meaningless to the elite but even those high-born were not immune to threat and could find themselves assassinated simply for having the wrong relatives or for supporting the wrong people. Death seemed to hover over ever character in this book.
It is hard, if not impossible, to find Ancient Rome anything but fascinating and this book covers a period which I knew little about and was delighted to learn more of. I had previously read books about Caligula so it was good to read about the years just prior to his turbulent rein. The book’s ending is exceedingly brutal and unpleasant and although I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it, there is no doubt it will remain within the mind for a long time afterwards.
Would I read another Fabbri book? Yes, I would, and I would certainly listen to another book read by Peter Kenny.
Vespasian: Rome’s Executioner by Robert Fabbri
Narrated by Peter Kenny
Length: 12 hours, 20 minutes
Publisher: AudioGO Ltd
The audio-book review copy of Vespasian: Rome’s Executioner was kindly supplied by AudioGO, the home of BBC Audiobooks.