Fire in the East

by Harry Sidebottom

Reviewed by David Maclaine

Fire in the East kicks off Harry Sidebottom's superb "Warrior of Rome" series, set in the turmoil of the Empire's third century crisis. A short introductory chapter, more breathless in style than the controlled manner sustained afterward, relates the bloody deeds that catapult a one-time hostage from the distant land of the Angles into a position to rise in the Roman military hierarchy. This man, who takes the name Ballista, gets ample opportunity to employ the weapon of the same name, because he is charged with the unpleasant task of defending a city on the Empire's eastern frontier from assault by the Persian king's forces. Ballista and his circle of companions, a Greek, a Caledonian and a Hibernian, fend off the emperor's spies while they travel to their destination. There they must organize a hodge-podge of defenders whose loyalties are by no means certain. Soon the battle is on, and it is a very real question who, if anyone, will survive. Well, okay, this is a series, so there's some clue. But Sidebottom's convincing descriptions of the day-to-day challenges of an ancient siege generate steady suspense.

The third-party viewpoint wanders from character to character, so that we sometimes see through the eyes of a traitor without knowing who that traitor is. If you enjoy immersing yourself in the nitty-gritty of siege warfare, from the mechanics of maintaining ancient artillery while under heavy fire to the underground struggle as mine meets countermine, Fire in the East will be right up your alley. And if you want to learn more than you ever guessed there was to know about the Roman Empire of the late third century, you need only turn to the magisterial notes and bibliography Sidebottom provides at the novel's end. It's a rare treat to spend time with a scholar of stature who has also mastered the exacting technical craft of a first-rate writer of fiction. (2008, 432 pages)

More about Fire in the East at Powell's Books or

Fire in the East appears on the list of The 50 Best Historical Novels for a Survey of Ancient Roman History

Other novels about siege warfare:

Caesar by Colleen McCullough (1998), about Julius Caesar at the height of his power, during his wars in Gaul and against his rival Pompey. See review or more info at Powell's Books

Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell (2008), about an English archer who fights in the Battle of Agincourt; though Agincourt was not a siege, a vivid depiction of siege warfare occurs in the episodes leading up to that decisive battle. See review or more info at Powell's Books

The Gates of the Alamo by Stephen Harrigan (2000), about the Mexican siege of the Alamo during the Texas Revolution. More info

Nonfiction about the Roman Empire in the third century:

Rome and its Empire: AD 193-284 by Olivier Hekster (2008). More info

Aurelian and the Third Century by Alaric Watson (2004). More info

The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine by Pat Southern (2001). More info


Crisis of the Third Century, an article by Hugh Kramer at the Ancient Coin Club of Los Angeles website

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