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Emperor series, by Conn Iggulden

Posted: Tue September 23rd, 2008, 3:26 pm
by Carla
Series of four books:
The Gates of Rome
The Death of Kings
The Field of Swords
The Gods of War

Emperor is a military adventure series based on the life of Julius Caesar, beginning somewhere around 92 BC and finishing with Caesar's assassination on the Ides of March in 44 BC. The two main characters, Julius Caesar and Marcus Brutus, are historical. Other important characters are fictional, such as the gladiator Renius, slave-girl-turned-jewellery-maker Alexandria and Cabera, a mysterious Eastern mystic with some kind of supernatural healing power. Many of the secondary characters are historical, such as Servilia, Marius, Pompey, Sulla, Mithridates of Pontus, Octavian (later Emperor Augustus), Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Cicero, assorted Roman senators, though their careers and actions sometimes diverge from history.

The strength of the Emperor series is in its spectacular action set-pieces. Gladiatorial combat, pirate attacks, ambushes by robbers, street riots, and battles by land and sea in Greece, Gaul and Spain. It's like an action movie rendered in words. In fact, it reminds me of films such as Braveheart and Gladiator - an exciting and enjoyable piece of entertainment as long as you sit back and enjoy the ride, and don't expect it to be an accurate rendition of real events. Think of Rider Haggard or John Buchan, with togas.

The characters also have a larger-than-life aspect to them. Caesar and Brutus are military superheroes, particularly Caesar. Sometimes the portrayal of Caesar is a little over the top for me, for example in the pirate sequence in Book 2. When captured by pirates, Caesar's companions are apparently unable to do anything to help themselves and fall into despair until Caesar recovers from his injury, rallies them, raises a legion from scratch, single-handedly defeats a rebellion and crucifies the pirates. Somehow, this superhero figure doesn't capture my imagination. Brutus is a curious mixture of superhero and petulant teenager. He and Caesar are childhood companions, raised together almost as brothers, and Brutus is Caesar's right-hand man through a succession of military dangers, including most of the Gallic wars. Brutus even wins a crucial battle while Caesar is incapacitated by an epileptic fit, and is with him at the historic crossing of the Rubicon - and then flounces off in a huff to join the other side of a civil war because he feels passed over for promotion.

The series takes some significant liberties with history. The ones that bother me most are the ones that affect character relationships and motivations. For example, the Emperor series makes Brutus and Caesar exact contemporaries, who grow up together on Caesar's family estate in the countryside near Rome. However, Plutarch (writing in the first century AD) says that Caesar believed Brutus to be his son. Plutarch may or may not have been right about that - he was writing a century after the events - but it seems to me to be strong evidence that the two were of sufficiently different ages to make the assertion credible and were not contemporaries. Whatever the dynamic of the Brutus-Caesar relationship - and I agree with the author that it is worthy of exploration - if Caesar was old enough to be possibly Brutus' father it could not have been derived from a shared boyhood. So for me the whole premise of the series as historical fiction founders on this. There may be conflicting evidence that I'm not aware of that contradicts Plutarch, but the Author's Note doesn't mention the issue.

Similarly, the series makes Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) a generation older than he was, by making him Caesar's nephew rather than great-nephew. Octavian was born in 63 BC, so at the Battle of Alesia in 52 BC he was aged 11. Yet the Emperor series has him as a cavalry commander in Caesar's army. Again, this gives me real problems. Whatever relationship Caesar had with Octavian, it was not based on years of shared military service.

Caesar's daughter Julia, wife of Pompey, died in childbirth in 54 BC. Whatever Caesar did when he captured the town of Dyrrhachium in 48 BC, it didn't involve Julia facing down Pompey's guards to invite her father into Pompey's house. Moreover, having set up this fictitious but potentially interesting three-way conflict for Julia in the Caesar-Pompey civil war, pulled between her father, her husband (Pompey) and her lover (Brutus), the series then doesn't do anything with it. Julia just fades away and never appears in the story again.

The series has Sulla poisoned by one of Caesar's friends while still Dictator, whereas in reality Sulla voluntarily gave up the Dictatorship, held consular elections, handed over power and died in retirement. Sulla's voluntary handing over of power casts a fascinating light on his character and on the society he lived in. It says much for Late Republican Rome that he did it, that society didn't collapse as a result, and that his enemies didn't promptly murder him in retirement. All this is lost in the Emperor series.

There are numerous others. The Marius-Sulla rivalry went on for several years and Marius died a natural death, whereas the series condenses it to a single attack on Rome during which Sulla murders Marius with his own hand. Cato dies years too early. Servilia, Caesar's patrician mistress, is made the Madame of an upmarket brothel and provider of home comforts to Caesar's troops in Spain. Octavian is made a thieving street urchin. Brutus and Caesar, blue-blooded scions of patrician families, serve in the army as centurions instead of tribunes.

If you want an action-packed military adventure yarn with a broader canvas than the adventures of a fictional hero and his sidekick, Emperor is for you. If you want to understand the people and the forces that turned Late Republican Rome into Early Imperial Rome, Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series does a much better job.

Exciting and undemanding military adventure loosely based on the life of Julius Caesar, but be very wary of taking any history from it.

Posted: Tue September 23rd, 2008, 10:45 pm
by Telynor
Thanks for the run down on this one. I think I will stay with Colleen McCullough's novels -- at least she doesn't jiggle the facts without saying why.

Posted: Wed September 24th, 2008, 3:22 pm
by EC2
I read the first few pages of the first novel and it was so badly written int terms of style that I didn't want to go any further. Husband wall-banged it too.
Having read and enjoyed Wolf of the Plains by the same author, (husband too) I have to say that he has improved dramatically since those early days!!

Posted: Wed September 24th, 2008, 4:16 pm
by donroc
[quote=""EC2""]I read the first few pages of the first novel and it was so badly written int terms of style that I didn't want to go any further. Husband wall-banged it too.
Having read and enjoyed Wolf of the Plains by the same author, (husband too) I have to say that he has improved dramatically since those early days!![/quote]

See thread about worst HF -- glad someone agrees.

Posted: Wed September 24th, 2008, 6:00 pm
by annis
Thanks for another excellent review, Carla.
I'm one of the people who can't cope with Con Iggulden's deliberate deviations from history. We can call his style historical fantasy I guess, and this is his M.O.- he takes a recognizable story from history and manipulates it. He does a reasonable job of writing a good fast-paced action story, and I know a lot of people love his work, but it just drives me to distraction. Maybe I'd find it easier if i wasn't so familiar with Roman history- I found the Genghis Khan stories ("Wolf of the Plains" et al) more manageable because I don't know the details as well.

Posted: Fri September 26th, 2008, 10:32 am
by Carla
Annis - I'm the same. The distortions in the Emperor series irritated me intensely, especially as I couldn't help thinking the real history was a lot more interesting! E.g., if Caesar stood to Brutus as some sort of father-figure, as Plutarch suggests, exploring why Brutus joined the assassins could have been absolutely fascinating. Pity - but then you don't go to an action flick for subtle characterisation :-) Or for elegance of style, as others have pointed out!

I wouldn't personally call it historical fantasy because there's not much magic in it - only Cabera's weird supernatural healing powers. Historical fantasy to me means history with magic that works, dragons, wizards and so on. Like Naomi Novik's Temeraire series. I tried to define the differences between historical fiction, historical fantasy, altenate history, fantasy etc a while ago ( ... ntasy.html). I'm not a great fan of historical fantasy, though sometimes it can be good fun to read it as pure fantasy. Conn Iggulden's Emperor series is (for me) historical fiction with not much regard for the history. I didn't try to come up with a category for that, perhaps because it's a sliding scale. Hollywood history, perhaps?

I had a look at the first book in the Genghis Khan series and the beginning looked to me like a rehash of "The Dangerous Book for Boys", which in turn had reminded me of some of the sillier boyhood pranks in the first book in the Emperor series, so I put it back on the shelf. Does it get more interesting later?

Posted: Fri September 26th, 2008, 3:56 pm
by Alaric
It definitely gets more interesting after Temujin and his family are exiled. I've flicked through an online copy of The Secret History of the Mongols and he hasn't deviated much from it, only minor things like Temujin being a hostage for a few days instead of two or so months, but that's also for the sake of the story and understandable.

It's worth reading once you get beyond the childhood stuff, which isn't far into the book. Yesegui dies at about page 140 odd. He's more accurate in Wolf of the Plains than he is in any of the Emperor series which is why I've liked them more. I have a review of the first one on my blog. :)

Posted: Fri September 26th, 2008, 4:59 pm
by Alaric
I just read your blog on historical fantasy, Carla, and I'd have to agree. I couldn't suspend my belief to have Nelson survive Trafalgar (as it apparently does in Temeraire). While this may sound a little harsh Nelson's death at Trafalgar is one of the reasons the battle has become so renown, it's part of its mystic and romance. Changing that just doesn't sit right with me.

Re: Emperor series, by Conn Iggulden

Posted: Sun December 20th, 2015, 2:23 am
by windwalker9649
These books made me think of someone who did a book report on Julius Caesar in 8th grade, then tried to write a book on him 30 years later using only what they could remember from that earlier book report. Julius Caesar and Marcus Brutus are the same age and foster brothers? Sulla dies from being poisoned? Caesar defeats Mithradates? Uhh... okay?
Seems to me, this guy lived a life that needs no embellishment to make interesting. These did him no service.

If you think Caesar invented genocide, you need to look back at the Assyrians, the Israelites and Jericho, the Sea Peoples and well... almost all the cities of the late bronze age. Been around way longer than him.