Nobody Loves A Centurion (S.P.Q.R. VI) - John Maddox

I read Nobody Loves A Centurion immediately after Saturnalia, and in my post on Saturnalia I talked about how the SPQR series infuriates me. Well, I'm glad to say that this installment of the Roman Republic mystery series reads a lot better, and I enjoyed Nobody Loves A Centurion quite a bit. True, Decius' tale is still told in a dry, detached manner, but at least this time the man shows some emotion, and there is much less sense that the characters are simply reciting historical research that the author has done. Roberts' stiff, overly-sardonic characterisation of Decius has improved, and I actually found myself liking the man.

Clodius is now a Tribune, and so our hero, Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger, a Senator of junior rank but immense breeding finds it ... convenient ... to be absent from Rome for a while. His family are mostly backing Caesar, and Decius himself is to marry into Caesar's family. Despite Decius' considerable support from Milo's faction, life under the tribuneship of his political enemy is going to be awkward, and as Caesar is just embarking on his infamous Gallic campaign, the family think that it seems like a good time for young Decius to re-acquaint himself with the military life. He has served before, in Spain, but rather more will be expected from him to further his political career, and as a Metellus he will have a career.

I know it's traditional for the hero of any historical series to manage, somehow, to be at all the interesting events within several years, and several thousand miles, but I welcomed Decius's unwilling return to service as signalling the emergence of a continuity within this series. Oddly, although Saturnalia foreshadowed Decius joining Caesar's army, Nobody Loves A Centurion misses several opportunities for reference previous episodes. For example, Decius comes into the contact with the Druidic religion, and is horrified at the practice of human sacrifices - yet it's not as though he's never come across the same thing much nearer to home...

Decius is serving as a junior officer with Caesar, but of course the real power within the army lies with the Centurions, and in particular those of Caesar's beloved tenth legion. The First Spear is Titus Vinus - and Decius and Vinus fall out almost at once... For daring to look at his female slave, an astonishing German beauty, Vinus breaks a vine staff or two on a son of one of Decius' family's clients. Words are exchanged between the grizzled veteran, who of course can do whatever he likes to his troops, and the aristocratic officer. Naturally, Decius comes off worst and settles down a routine of punishment duties and writing up Caesar's histories (which I chuckled at, having read them just recently myself).

When the First Spear turns up dead shortly after, it falls to Decius, with his past successes in Rome known to Caesar, to sort the morale destroying mess out before the tenth have the unenviable task of beating some of their comrades to death. Oh, and there's the minor matter of the Gauls and Germans massing outside the camp. Oh, and Caesar himself is off trying to raise more legions to get his war off on the right foot. So, no pressure then Decius, no pressure...

Those who have read within the genre, or are perhaps familiar with the sources, might find the plot rather obvious, but it's handled with considerable aplomb, and Roberts manages to avoid the usual overly talky ending - typically, he writes Bond villains, who enjoy explaining all before they try to kill Decius.

I find it interesting that there was more human depth to the main character in this episode, when our hero is away from his family and friends. Certainly, there seemed to be more depth to the man's friendship with his Gaulish cavalry than, say, there was between him and his fiancee in Saturnalia. I look forward to reading the next one and seeing if this improvement reflects an improvement in the author's writing, or whether it is instead due to the militaristic subject matter coming more easily to him than romance. I certainly think Roberts seemed more comfortable with the setting. His relentless info-dumping onto the reader was noticably improved, with the details of military life being discussed in a much more natural manner. Certainly, there are still odd "As you know Bob..." comments to Hermes, but as the slave is new to the military this is a forgivable, and time-honoured!, way of slipping in some detail.

In summary, I think I'm surprised to find myself actively recommending this one!

Posted: Sun - July 27, 2003 at 10:06 PM