Recently I read Palatine, the first book in The Four Emperors Series by LJ Trafford. It is an outstanding novel, well written, fast paced and totally absorbing. I love this period of Roman history, the utterly convoluted nature of the political arena with those jockeying for power, all within a year. Set just prior to the death of the Emperor Nero, we see how the events affected those ‘behind the scenes,’ the bit-players as it were, some of whom became vitally important in the ensuing chaos – the imperial staff, the slaves, the soldiers and their families.
I read this first book so quickly, I had to go back and read it again, to make sure I hadn’t missed anything and was really looking forward to the sequel, which did not disappoint. In fact, much as I didn’t think it possible, it is even better than the first one. I was so absorbed that I read almost two-thirds of it in one sitting – to the detriment of everything else I was supposed to be doing.
Galba’s Men begins six months after the death of Nero, towards the end of AD 68 and those within the palace at Rome are managing quite well without an Emperor in situ thank you very much. Even the ineffectual Icelus, Galba’s secretary doesn’t derail the smooth administration of Empire, as the palace-trained scribe, Philo, effortlessly absorbs his workload. Galba himself is delayed in the provinces, dealing with the upheaval within the army caused by Nero’s death.
The ensuing events lay the foundation for the infamous Year of the Four Emperors, this honorific alone enough to conjure up the utter pandemonium that would be ushered in following Galba’s promotion to the top job – dissension, shifting political alliances, murder and mayhem – perfect ingredients on which to base a gripping tale.
Nothing goes right for Galba; even his arrival is marred by a riot as he approaches Rome. The sailors of the Misenum Fleet who wished to be recognised as an official legion bring a petition to Galba, intercepting him at the Milvian Bridge. Galba refuses to deal with it there, indicating that they should follow official channels and petition in Rome. A scuffle follows and whether intentional or not, suddenly the cavalry bear down on the angry sailors straight through a crowd of civilians who had come to cheer their new Emperor, killing dozens.
Not the most auspicious start and, unfortunately for all involved, set the tone for Galba’s rule. Almost as an aside, it is at this point that we are also introduced to Otho, a genial sort of chap, a man who is in fact the complete antithesis of Galba and something to keep in mind throughout this tale. Otho wholeheartedly supported Galba’s bid for Imperial glory, mostly in the hope that he might be named son and heir. However, as time passes, the new Emperor’s advisors persuade him out of what would have been a popular decision and Galba confers this title on another, thereby pretty much signing his own death warrant.
As with Palatine, the story unfolds from the perspective of those behind the scenes, the movers and shakers of the administration, Galba’s staff, the Praetorians and those working within the palace, many of whom we met in the previous book. Dragged mercilessly into a vortex of chaos simply by being in the right place at the wrong time.
Corruption, treason, executions, love, marriage, death and general all round mischief come together in a tale that keeps you gripped from the first page. You become part of the narrative, the characters – no longer words on a page but people you know and are vested in, to the point where I wasn’t sure I wanted to get to the end in case any of my favourites didn’t survive the telling and … no, I’m giving nothing away … you’ll have to read it for yourself.
LJ Trafford weaves a masterful tale; fast paced and full to bursting with flamboyant personalities whose lives are inextricably entwined with the fortunes of the Emperor. Her descriptions of their world, of the palace and of Rome itself are so vivid that the scenes virtually manifest in front of you. It is one thing to read the history of this period, but this book brings it to life. I cannot recommend Galba’s Men highly enough. If you enjoy intrigue, drama and enough humour to lighten the dark edges, all neatly wrapped up in antiquity, do yourself a favour – treat yourself to a copy, sit back and enjoy the ride.