So, the same friend who recommended I read the Song of Ice and Fire series (and was oh so right) has recently been raving about Conn Iggulden’s books. Iggulden is a writer of historical fiction, probably most famous for his Conqueror series, about Genghis Khan, and his Emperor series, about Julius Caesar. Having only recently read a decent biography of Julius Caesar by Adrian Goldsworthy, and in the mood for something epic to read, I decided to give the Emperor series a whirl. Boy was this a mistake. I began the adventure a little bit excited to be re-entering the world of ancient rome, but a lot skeptical of fictionalizing the story of Julius Caesar. After all, why would you need to? The real thing is fantastical and dramatic enough to shame the most ambitious of soap operas. But having since finished the first book of the Emperor series, Gates of Rome, I am now utterly convinced that the story of Julius Caesar needs no embellishment, and a bit annoyed at Iggulden’s ham handed attempt.
As the first book in the Emperor series, Gates of Rome is meant to be an introduction to both Julius Caesar and Rome. It starts with Caesar as a boy on his father’s estate, and, with the aid of huge gaps in the story, continues until just after the civil war between Sulla and Marius, when Caesar is barely an adult. It provides an adequate introduction to the world of Rome, however, and let’s get this out of the way, Iggulden is not faithful to the story or mythos of Caesar at all. The book is so rife with historical inaccuracies that Iggulden has written a disclaimer at the end. Many of the these inaccuracies are annoying; for example, why the hell is Marcus Brutus depicted as Caesar’s childhood friend when Caesar was actually 15 or so years older than him? This only serves to muddle history, and adds a type of hollywood neatness and drama that is completely unnecessary to longer forms of storytelling. Similarly questionable is why Iggulden decided to include the character Cabera, a Gandalf wannabe that walks around predicting things and healing people. The inclusion of the mystical and magical only serves to undermine the amazing feats that Caesar actually managed to accomplish even as a young man. The inclusion and alterations of such characters only serve to reduce Caesar from a singularly talented and iron-willed human being to just another member of the A-team. How can anything he accomplished really have been that great when he has a future seeing wizard ready to heal him, waiting to back him up?
And this, I think is the real tragedy of Iggulden’s portrayal of Julius Caesar; he has reduced Caesar to a rather banal character. Iggulden’s Caesar is not a charismatic charmer, he is a shy and sheltered lordling. He isn’t a womanizer, but the typical loser from a teen coming of age film. He is not a self made man, but someone entirely lifted up by his uncle, supported and out-shined by a retinue of outsized characters. He does not even command the central role of his own story, but must fight for it tooth and nail with Brutus – who is not only elevated in age, but made Caesar’s equal and often his superior.
I have to admit some of the fight scenes, and especially the fight training, are some of the best examples of battle description I have encountered. But this doesn’t make up for the general lack of description, a story that jumps through time with little reason other than expediency, an overwhelming simplification of the war between Sulla and Marius, and all of the inaccuracies. It is true that fiction is hard pressed to capture the horror of the truth, but Iggulden has gone a step further and somewhat spoiled the truth. Go read a Song of Ice and Fire.
Title: Gates of Rome
Author: Conn Iggulden
Pages: 368 (Paperback)
Josh’s Rating: 1/5
Amazon Link: Gates of Rome