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John Maddox Roberts (1947 - )

Nobody Loves a Centurion
2001
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Reviews:

A top-notch mystery and an informative historical novel, Roberts’ sixth volume in the SPQR series is satisfying on all counts. As always, the breezy manner but core seriousness of our narrator and sleuth, Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger, now a cavalry commander in Caesar’s army in Gaul at the time of the Helvetian migration, keeps the tone of the novel light, but serious matters are still dealt with, including loyalty, treachery and difficult choices. In the previous five novels in the series, there has always been a murder mystery to be investigated by Decius. Sometimes the murder mystery was central,while at other times they were mere accompaniment to political conspiracy. In this novel, political conspiracy is at the heart of the murders, but does not occupy a large part of the plot, since we don’t find out about the political connections until the end. This is more a novel about life in the Roman army and the often conflicting interests of Romans, Gauls and Germans. Certainly Decius’ investigation of the murder, and his need to clear the son of one of his clients of the charge, is the focus of the book and of Decius’ actions, in the course of which we meet not only Julius Caesar and his legatus Titus Labienus, but also the German king, Ariovistus, whose own time on-stage is short, but whose associates are main players in the plot. Clodius does not appear in this adventure, because it is his tribunate back in Rome that prompts Decius’ departure for Gaul. Since Decius is still engaged to Caesar’s niece, Julia, Gaul is a logical place to go for someone who has already had military experience in Spain. What I said in my review of Saturnalia also holds true for Nobody Loves a Centurion: “If you like Saylor's Gordianus and Davis' Falco, you will like Roberts' Decius. Like the other two, Decius is able to take care of himself in a fight but differs in being upper class. Decius is not as wise-cracking as Falco nor as closely tied to family as Gordianus, but all three make good narrators that we care about. You don't need to have read the ... previous episodes in the SPQR series (all starring Decius) in order to follow this episode, but there are some back-references that are clearer if you've read the first three, which you should probably do anyhow.” I liked Roberts’ presentation of Decius in the first five novels, but I think our hero is even better this time around. Maybe it’s just because he is getting older and more serious, though still keeping his wit. I liked the complexity of the murder mystery and especially the double twist at the end. I had anticipated whom Decius would meet at the German camp, since the characters were too vivid to just drop out of the story, but I thought Decius had announced the correct solution to the murder of Vinius in his summing up. It turns out that there is more still for Decius to find out. The definition of Caesar’s role in it was a nice touch. In my review of Sacrilege I had spoken of Caesar as “a rogue, but a fascinating one, who never kills a man for mere pleasure or whim”. I have my own view of Caesar, and it is perfectly in keeping with both sides of the portrait of him given here. There are some minor mistakes in the text (like confusing a horn with a horn player) but the most striking mistake occurs on the dust-jacket blurb, inside flap. The “I came; I saw; I conquered.” is attributed to Caesar in relation to his conquest of Gaul. It actually came much later, in 47, after his lightning victory over Pharnaces at Zela. I recommend this to the general reader as a murder mystery and as a novel giving a feel for characters of the time. Because the military details given are so persuasive, I recommend it especially to those who teach Caesar in high school, for use as a supplemental volume to be assigned to any student who wishes to see how the Roman army worked. Fred Mench 8/2002

- Fred Mench, 8/1/2002

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