Sidebottom, Harry. Lion of the Sun.

(Warrior of Rome, Book 3) NY: Overlook Press, 2010.

I take my history seriously so it’s always nice to find a writer of historical novels who cares enough about his craft to include another thirty-odd pages of commentary, context, discussion of original sources, and glossary at the back.

Sidebottom is a respected academic in the classics at Oxford and in the military history of the ancient world and the technical aspects of his continuing story (of which this is the third installment) are first-rate. Moreover, the occasional stiffness in narration in the first volume is long gone.

The focus of the story is Marcus Clodius Ballista, once a Germanic princeling and hostage for his chieftain father’s good behavior, but now thoroughly Romanized after twenty years at court and in the army. It’s the middle of the3rd Century, a traumatic time in Rome’s imperial fortunes, and at the end of the last volume the Emperor Valerian had been captured in battle by Shapur, the Sassanid Persian King of Kings. Valerian and all his officers were the victims of betrayal by Macrianus — you can think of him as the “Imperial Treasurer” — and his two sons, whom their father now arranges to be raised to the purple as co-emperors. (There were a lot of revolts of this sort cropping up during this time of weak, short-lived rulers.) Ballista is released by the Persians to convey a message back to the court at Antioch and, after much anguished thought, breaks his oath to return to Shapur in order to protect his own wife and sons — a decision that haunts him for most of the book; oaths have to be taken seriously and he worries about the gods getting even. So he ends up a general again, working for Macrianus against the Persians and various other rival pretenders. It’s a balancing act with everything at stake that’s important to Ballista. And hovering in the background is Gallienus, son of Valerian and now the sole legitimate emperor, who has his hands full in the West but is determined to punish the usurpers in the East as soon as he gets the opportunity.

It’s a very good story and nearly everyone in it of any rank is a real historical figure. But, since the sources for this period are so uncertain and the details are so sparse, Sidebottom has plenty of elbow room. I’ve been recommending this author unreservedly to friends who share my interest in imperial Rome and high-quality historical fiction. And he keeps getting better.

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