Iggulden, Conn. Emperor: The Gates of Rome.

NY: Delacorte, 2003.

Ever since I first became seriously interested in history (living overseas at the age of ten did that), I’ve also been an avid reader of historical fiction. A skillful author, one who understands both writing and history, can communicate a great deal about the past and can do it in an interesting and even absorbing way. Someone like Cecelia Holland can put solid meat on the bones. But there are a few basic rules which Iggulden, a first-time novelist, seems not to have grasped.

First, the theme of this book is the life of Gaius Julius Caesar, about whose early life very little is known beyond the facts of his parentage. Only after he was given his first military commission did the stories about him begin to arise. And since so little is recorded, that’s an entirely legitimate place to insert fictional events. A good author will think, “What might have happened to him early in his life to create the person he became later on?” No problem there. According to Iggulden, Gaius spent his first fifteen years on a small but prosperous estate near Rome, under the tutelage of his unbending father and an estate manager who began life as a slave, then was trained as a very successful gladiator, and then was able to buy his own freedom. Tubruk is a well-developed and completely believable character, as is the elder Julius, and Iggulden makes it clear their unrelenting hardness toward the boy is what was expected at that time and place. Renius, another retired gladiator, and the one who trained Tubruk, is brought in as Gaius’s arms master, and he’s also an interesting character, at least at first; he becomes rather unpredictable later on.

But then there’s Gaius’s closest friend, his blood-brother, in fact — Marcus, bastard of unknown parentage whom Gaius’s father took in and promised to raise as his own. The two boys, who are the same age, go everywhere and learn everything together, expecting to remain a team for life, even though Gaius will inherit the estate and Marcus has no such expectations. But Marcus, as a reader familiar with the period will suspect before the first chapter is past, carries the surname “Brutus.” And the real Marcus Junius Brutus was not a bastard. He came, in fact, from a well-established noble family with substantial connections in Roman society; his father, a leader in the Senate, was executed by Pompey for political reasons. The real Marcus was also about fifteen years younger than Julius Caesar (who even was rumored occasionally to be his father). The author has the young Marcus, after becoming close to the Consul Marius (who was Julius’s uncle, though that relationship is tampered with here, too), go off to a post as junior officer in a legion — mostly because he has no other options. The real Marcus Brutus, in fact, went to Cyprus to serve as secretary to his own famous uncle, Cato the Younger.

A major part of the background is the civil war between the two consuls, Marius and Sulla, which was the first major blow that led to the crumbling of the Roman Republic. It’s a fascinating piece of history, seeing how far Rome was willing to go in discarding liberty to secure its safety (there’s a lesson for the 21st-century United States there), but Iggulden can’t leave well enough alone there, either. He has Marius killed in battle when Sulla first attacks Rome — which didn’t happen. He even has Sulla die more than a decade before his time (thereby changing the fundamental shape of the civil war) because, he says, he didn’t want to have to introduce more minor characters. (What would you think of a novel in which Stonewall Jackson was killed at First Manassas because it was more convenient for the author?) And it goes on and on.

The basic rule is, YOU DON’T REWRITE HISTORY. Not unless you’re Harry Turtledove and you’re deliberately concocting an “alternate history” plot. If the author wanted a counterbalancing character to serve as Gaius’s best friend, he should have invented one from scratch and developed him for that role. If he wanted to tell the story of the decades-long struggle between the rival consuls, he should have planned to make the novel a hundred pages longer and done it properly, instead of cutting the war down to what seems like about eighteen months, which is not at all convincing. It’s bad enough for the reader who knows something about the history of the period and the people involved. It’s much worse knowing that less-informed readers are being misled, and for no good reason.

I admit it: Iggulden’s cavalier disregard for historical reality and his apparent contempt for his readers really, really makes me angry.

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