Friday, June 20, 2003

The Twelfth Vulture of Romulus: The Last Generation of Ancient Rome

Most historical fiction novels treat fairly recent subject matter, typically events of the last 400 years or so. Yet a few books dig deeper into the past, with an interesting story and a well-researched background of ancient times. Boris Raymond’s new book, The Twelfth Vulture of Romulus: Attila and the Fall of Rome, is one such case: a detailed story that looks at the waning years of the Roman Empire.
Beginning in 458 AD, The Twelfth Vulture of Romulus traces events of this last generation, until the fall of Rome in 476 AD. These years also span the career of the ever-ambitious Orestes, from his early service to Attila the Hun, years as head of the Roman army, to his final grab for the Purple when his young son became the last Roman Emperor. Along the way, we meet many other characters, both historical and fictional, in an epic story with three main sections.

The book’s title at first seems obscure and uninteresting, and the length (almost 600 pages) intimidating. Yet the book is written in normal size print, with an easy-to-read narrative style. As for the title, the author explains that it comes from an ancient prophecy of Rome’s founder, Romulus, who saw 12 vultures: a dream understood to mean that Rome would last for 12 centuries.

The book’s many characters and geographical references appear overwhelming. Here again, though, the author provides many aides (at the back of the book). Often I found myself turning to the detailed list of characters, which tells a little about each character, including his or her’s date of birth (and death, if within the timeframe of the story), age in 458 AD, and whether historical character or not. Many of the characters are in fact from the pages of history: more well-known ones such as Attila the Hun, and other rulers and Popes of the time, but also the story’s main and minor characters: Orestes, his brother Paulus and adopted brother Odovacar; Cassiodorus, Romulus; Orestes’ wife Barbaria; even the priest Gelasius and desert monk Severinus (with a fictional pre-Christian identity of Antonous), and Biglias. Fictional characters include Alexia, a worldly woman who trades slaves for the "entertainment" industry, and at various times is lover to Orestes and Carlus (another fictional character).

Other story aides include a list of geographical places (where one can learn that Itallia is modern-day Italy, Gallia is France, and Mediolanum was an early name for Milan). Another appendix shows an overall map of the Roman Empire.

Against this rich backdrop comes an intriguing story about government corruption and power-plays; rampant immorality in a society increasingly reliant on, and vulnerable to, the Barbarians within and without; and increasing conflict between the Roman Catholic Church, already firmly established, and secular rulers. This is Rome in its decadence, and many characters are not the most morally upright. Yet the author presents the story in good taste (as are all the books I review here), sparing the reader the lurid details that too many books unfortunately include nowadays. Through Severinus, immoral characters are even confronted, albeit briefly, with their wickedness.

From beginning to end, The Twelfth Vulture of Romulus highlights the struggles faced by so many different groups living in this last generation of Rome: the changes they desire, and how they go about achieving those desires. We see in particular the various groups’ quests for power: Orestes’ ever-growing ambition; the Phoenix Group’s quest to restore Rome to its former glory; and the Catholic Church’s increasing dominance. Offset against this are a few individuals (Severinus and Barbaria, for example) who look to the power of God instead. The Twelfth Vulture of Romulus is an interesting, well-researched and informative historical novel about this time period, so distant and yet an important transition to the Western world we know today.

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