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Frank Castle

Avon, 1961


“The throbbing story of the mad Caesar whose lust for flesh and blood wrought a reign of violence unequaled in history.” Add to this cover blurb that Christians will be thrown to the lions, virgins will be raped and Nero will conduct orgies and you have a notion of what to expect. Factor in, from the back cover, “To a Rome ruled by sensuality and madness, riddled by rebellion and treason, burning in the shadow of its own greatness, came Marcus Severus, the young, fierce Tribune from the outposts in Gaul, pursuing his terrible and glorious destiny.” and you may be ready to put the book down unopened. Don’t. It’s better than the cover would lead you to believe, though the cover does indicate somewhat the treatment the story will receive. Our Hero, a tribune of the 9th legion, Marcus Severus, (no nomen given, but identified as the grandson of the Severus who held the bridge against the Germans after the disaster of Varus in 9 AD), has come to Rome in 68 AD from his post in Far Gaul to ask Nero to send more troops to reinforce their position and to warn him that the natives are restless there and elsewhere. Marcus is staying at the Esquiline house of his highly-placed cousin, Quintus Severus, whose daughter Pulchria serves as the mistress of the house, since her mother is dead. But the story opens with Marcus returning from a party at Nero’s palace and chancing upon an attempted abduction of the beautiful Camilla. He rescues her and carries her back to her house, only to be balked by her from coming in and enjoying her favors - at least just then, though Camilla is clearly interested. This the second time that night he had been done out of a woman that he wanted. He had been on the point of retreating from Nero’s banquet to a side room with the luscious and amply displayed Vipsania when Nero went off with a crowd of courtiers and one of them, Aemilius, stopped back to say that Vipsania, who was a Nero-favorite wannabe, was asked for by Nero. Vipsania trotted off after Nero; Marcus left the banquet and then had his adventure with Camilla. Returning thus early to the house of Quintus, Marcus finds it strangely deserted, with no one to answer his knock. When he lets himself in and encounters Pulchria, she asks him to go away for now. When he hesitates, he is grabbed from behind by an unseen assailant and a knife held to his neck. Men filter past him and out the gate and the final one is asked by the knife-wielder, “Does he die?” The voice from the gate says, “No!” To the question, But --! You know the risk?” the reply comes, “Of course I know it! Spare him!” The strangers take off swiftly & Quintus appears, asking what’s happening. Pulchria quickly scratches in the dust at Marcus’ feet the outline of a fish and explains that she had gotten up to let Marcus in, her dark eyes begging Marcus to keep silent. Marcus does and you, the reader, think you know where the story must be going but are a bit puzzled by the way it’s being handled, but you are wrong. The story involves an intense sexual relationship between Marcus and Camilla, ended only when Nero chooses her as his next favorite, after the enraged husband of his current favorite breaks into Nero’s throne room and kills her but is unable to reach Nero, though he does attempt to kill Servius Sulpicius Galba, governor of Spain, when Galba tries to wrestle him to the ground. Marcus saves Galba’s life and Nero’s German guards messily kill the outraged husband, whose wife Nero had taken away. Marcus earns Nero’s thanks and Galba mutters to Quintus that this assassination attempt might make everything much harder. Again Marcus is returning earlier than anticipated on a night soon after and finds the house again deserted and sneaks in, this time overhearing a plot against Nero, with the main plotters Galba and Quintus, with the double-dealing Aemilius in the inner circle but not privy to the date of the planned attempt. Marcus ponders what he might get from Nero if he revealed the plot, but Pulchria discovers Marcus and attempts to kill him to keep the plot a secret. She fails, but when Quintus comes up, he assumes Marcus is now on their side to right the wrong done him - Nero’s taking of Camilla. Marcus presumes it is against her will and comes to the palace to rescue her and kill Nero, only to find that Camilla has jumped at the chance of becoming Empress and to find himself overpowered by the guards, beaten, and thrust into the dungeons along with a batch of Christians, who are to be fed to the lions in the Circus Maximus the next day. Marcus is attended by a Greek doctor among the Christians and, although a follower of Mithras himself, is impressed by the love and faith of these despised followers of the dead Jew. He also discovers the Christian use of the fish symbol and remembers Pulchria. Marcus is not thrown to the lions but fed to the gladiators instead. When Marcus has killed the 2 best gladiators (Germanicus the secutor and then Polycarp the retiarius), the rest are unleashed by Nero and Marcus is dragged off through the Gate of Death. But this is only page 98, so you know we haven’t lost him yet. Hidden with Christians in the catacombs, where he once hears Paul preach, Marcus regains his strength under the care of the young sweet and virginal Livia. Pulchria comes to visit him there, tells him Quintus and Galba are still pursuing their plot against Nero, and they have an intense sexual meeting. Nero is continuing his anti-Christian campaign and soldiers storm the catacombs but are beaten back. Pulchria goes back to her father’s house and Marcus also leaves, but has to find his way to Quintus’ house past mobs and soldiers, while Christians (including Livia) are set alight as torches on pediments. He finds Quintus and all his household dead, killed on the order of Nero when Aemilius revealed the plot. Meanwhile a contingent of Praetorians has tried to attack the palace as part of Galba’s plan, but other Praetorians and Nero’s Germans oppose them. Marcus finds that Pulchria has been carried off by the Germans to the palace for some sport and goes after her. He finds Aemilius dying and the Germans running riot through the palace, killing all the courtiers, whom Nero assumed to be false. Marcus cuts his way through to Pulchria, through the men who had been raping her, and they escape. They find the situation murky, with some evidence that Nero was mustering faithful troops and Galba was defeated, but there is other evidence that Nero is still fleeing. They find out the truth when they come upon Nero with Camilla and one courtier. Marcus’ sword fight with Nero is difficult because Nero is a good swordsman and Marcus is still not back to full strength, but Marcus finally hazards a bold move which works and he runs Nero through (a seeming departure from the normal historical record.) At this point, Galba and a troop of cavalry ride up. He has been successful so far and is ready to move on Rome, but he will take the Germans back on as his guard and he will cover up Marcus’ killing of Nero (which could prove dangerous to the tribune) and give out the story of Nero’s failed attempt to commit suicide and his death at the hands of his attendant. Marcus requests and receives permission to return to his legion in Gaul and Galba has bitter portents that he himself will not last long as emperor, that Rome is too wild an animal to accept the stern measures she needs. Camilla departs with Galba and his troops and Marcus finds that Pulchria is gone. As he rides alone toward Gaul, he pauses to say his morning prayer to Mithras and finds he cannot, and knows that he now has found the one true God, led by the faith of Livia, Paul, Linus and Philo. Pulchria then rides up to join him, saying she will follow him to Gaul. He says she will be his wife and “their laughter mingling, they rode on, very close together, through the bright golden morning.” That closing sentence to the novel suggests a bit of the purplish prose that creeps in from time to time, but it’s not constant, and he tells a pretty good tale. There are a few minor details that might not be accurate, but overall the main actions and the background depictions (including even the shipload of sand arriving amidst a grain shortage) seem correct. I do wonder what the nomen of Marcus Severus was. Castle never gives him (or Quintus Severus) one. Should it be Pulchrius? Also, the role of Vindex in Gaul (mentioned from time to time) is obscure in the novel, but so is the role of Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian. Clearly Castle is not much interested in political events outside Rome, or even among the praetorian commanders. Basically, he ignores these men, so he’s not incorrect but incomplete. As for treatment of the story, there is a slightly uneasy mix in the novel of spicy sex and praise of Christianity, but neither should keep readers, high school and up, from enjoying the novel. If you want action and opulent debauchery, reasonable character portrayal and acceptable prose, if you are interested in Nero, you might well like this. It’s much better than the cover would lead you to believe. -Fred Mench 8/99

- Fred Mench, 8/1/1999

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