Reviewed by David Maclaine
If you're a fan of military adventure and want to explore army life during the early Roman Empire, Simon Scarrow's series of novels beginning with Under the Eagle is just the ticket. They are the historical-novel equivalents of those "buddy flicks" you see in the theaters every summer, in which an experienced cop or crook, financier or athlete, takes a rookie under his wing. In this case the duo are an experienced Roman soldier named Macro - he'd be a sergeant of some sort in the modern system - and a gawky teenaged recruit named Cato, an educated freedman who must grow up quickly to survive in the harsh world of the legions defending the Empire's perimeter. Scarrow understands both the genre and the ancient world, and he provides engaging stories full of suspense. The characters must try to survive both the plots spun by unscrupulous characters and the desperate life-or-death battles that punctuate their life on the front lines.
While these stories unfold, the reader also learns a great deal about the Roman Army and the campaigns in which the heroes fight. The first five novels of the series are set in Britain, during the island's conquest, but the settings shift eastward after that, so the reader gets a look at the varied lands and peoples that came under Roman rule. For readers who know a little history, an amusing feature of the books is the appearance of supporting characters who will go on to play much bigger roles in history down the road. The army was what kept the empire going, and there's no better way to become familiar with the workings of the legions during their glory days than to follow Macro and Cato in their travels. The series nicely complements other novels set in the era. While Claudius the God, by Robert Graves, offers a view of the empire from the top, Simon Scarrow follows the men with swords in far-off lands who kept Claudius' realm secure.
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