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By Allan Massie
“To C. Cornelius Tacitus, Senator:
I confess that I do not know whether I am more honoured or more amazed: that you, the distinguished author of the Dialogue on Oratory, and of the ever to be admired Life of your father-in-law, the Imperator C. Julius Agricola, should turn to me and request my help in preparing the materials for the History of our own terrible times, on which you tell me you have audaciously embarked.”
Thus begins the gripping story of “Nero's Heirs” and the Year of the Four Emperors.
The person enlisted by Tacitus is the – fictional – M. Aemilius Scaurus, exact contemporary and former playmate of Domitian, and natural son of Narcissus, the secretary to the Emperor Claudius.
Still in exile, by now self-imposed, he tries to compose his recollections of the fateful year for Tacitus, and is confronted with his personal memories of those months. The story alternates between letters to Tacitus and recollections, not fit for the eyes of Tacitus, often painfully relived.
Living with his impoverished Claudian mother in Rome, the sometime lover of Titus and of Domitilla is in close contact with Domitian and Flavius Sabinus throughout the events, and a correspondent to Titus. As emissary of the Emperor Otho to Vespasian, he also meets the future historian Josephus.
Aside from the Flavians, Allan Massie, the author of “Augustus” and other novels of the era, paints a vivid picture of the city of Rome and the other main actors in this drama: Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Mucianus – and in flashbacks, the poet Lucan. One can only too easily imagine the city of Rome of 68 CE and all the terrors it involved having to live through those days.
But the book is more than that. In Scaurus, Massie has created a protagonist who transcends the immediate history of the era, a human being confronted with his past and still not certain of the validity of his own life and actions. To add to that, an uneasy confrontation with Christianity presages future internal conflicts.
Of the historical novels by Allan Massie, beginning with “Caesar,” this is the one I liked best. It seems to me the most rounded one, maybe because Massie presents to the reader a person from within his own mind, not from history. Here, history is the prop to a personal journey. The language is elegant and compelling, with fewer use of today's vernacular than in Massie's earlier books. He also follows the sometime tradition of historical translators to substitute French for Greek terms.
© 2001 Irene B. Hahn
Also by Mr. Massie: Caesar
Augustus a Novel
Tiberius: The Memoirs of the Emperor
Articles & Essays by group members & friends
Roman History Reading Group