Sidebottom, Harry. The Caspian Gates.

NY: Overlook Press, 2011.

When an historical novel closes with not one but two glossaries, plus a discussion of original sources, it’s a pretty good indication that the author takes his work seriously. In this case, Sidebottom is also an historian at Oxford and a recognized authority on the period about which he writes — Roman politics and military events of the mid-3rd Century.

It probably comes as a surprise to many nonspecialists that Rome pursued geopolitical interests as far away as what later became the Soviet Union, but that’s where Marcus Clodius Ballista, a talented general and military engineer, finds himself in this fourth volume of a fascinating and deeply involving series. Having been hailed emperor at the end of the last book, even if only for a few days and only for strategic reasons in suppressing a usurper, Ballista is nevertheless being looked at askance by the real emperor, Gallienus. Should he be exiled? (There are several discussions of just what that might entail and how people regarded it.) Or should he simply be killed, just to be safe? (Well, Ballista has friends in low places, so he’s spared that.) No, better to get some further use out of him, they decide, out on the edge of the civilized world. So off he goes, somewhat glumly.

But compared to the first three books, the narrative unity of this one leaves something to be desired. First, Ballista is caught with his family in an earthquake in Ephesus, then he’s down the coast in Miletus, defending the city against Gothic sea-raiders, then he’s doing it again at the Temple of Apollo at Didyma, then he’s evading yet more Goths while traversing the Black Sea as part of a diplomatic mission to the Caucasus (hence the title) — and all this before we’re even halfway into the book. And in between this multitude of rather brief episodes, we witness from a different viewpoint a struggle for political power via assassination within the ruling family of the small kingdom of Suania, in what is now Georgia. The real meat of the story doesn’t really appear until the last hundred pages or so, with Ballista quixotically having to turn to Rome’s enemies, the Sassanid Persians, for assistance. That’s all a bit annoying from the reader’s point of view, but I guess it happens.

Also, as it happens, Ballista — who was, in fact, a real person, though very little is actually known about him — apparently died (or was killed) about the time this story is set, but one can’t really expect the author simply to get rid of a successful character. (Maybe history is wrong. Or something.) Well, it appears Ballista is going to have to venture farther out onto the steppe and deal with the horse-nomad Alani, so I’ll be in line for the next installment.


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