From the threat of Pompeii in 80AD, to the ‘glamour’ of gladiator battles in the Colosseum, be transported to ancient Rome in this fast-paced and gripping historical fiction, taking us behind-the-scenes of some of the most extravagant entertainments the Empire ever witnessed.
There’s always a sense of foreboding in any book which starts in Pompeii. As a reader, I feel a hint of nervousness, trying to think ahead, work out who will survive the disaster, and who will not. History has shown that the numbers are not on any character’s side, after all. Here, we know that Althea and Marcus must survive, but it’s the family and friends we meet in the opening pages I worry for. We know the disaster must hit, and soon, and the sense of threat really does hang over everything.
Following a job offer he cannot refuse, and needing a scribe to help him with it, Marcus and Althea make their farewells, and head for the capital. Marcus is initially unwilling to take up his new role, but the anticipation of buying a little farm-stead and enjoying retirement just about convinces him to take on the greatest challenge of his career. This is no small-scale dinner party, or battle in Pompeii’s arena, after all – can he really bring about the magnitude of events that the Emperor will require for the inauguration of the Colosseum? One hundred days of games and entertainments? The men making the decisions believe he can.
There is a detailed Author’s Note at the end of this novel, which I would usually mention at the end of the review, but it’s worth raising at this point. Despite it being one of the most famous symbols of ancient Rome, there is very little, practically nothing in fact, about the people who worked ‘backstage’ at the Colosseum, at any stage, including the inaugural events. And yet, given the scale of things, there simply must have been a huge group of people behind-the-scenes. It’s wonderful then, to give these people a moment in the spotlight, rather than focusing only on the gladiators and Emperors.
In brilliant detail, we meet the teams who paint the scenery, create the souvenirs, capture and bring in the animals, train the gladiators, supply the criminals for execution and far, far more, all under the watchful eyes of Althea and Marcus. Marcus becomes Althea’s owner, much to Althea’s surprise, early on in the story, and her skills as a scribe are soon put to much better use than they ever have been for her previous master.
When news reaches Rome that disaster has befallen Pompeii and others (how can towns and ports just ‘vanish’, people wonder, horrified), Marcus feels he must return home, to know for certain what has happened to his loved ones. We are with him and Althea as they convince a boatman to take them down the unrecognisable coastline, and are right beside Marcus, especially as he digs through the fresh ash, desperate to find any trace of his home. The devastation of the city, and those left behind, is well-captured, and Marcus’ reaction is believable and heart-breaking.
There is little time to mourn though, as we are thrown from one problem to another, whether that’s keeping badly-travelling giraffes alive long enough, or ensuring there are enough toilet-cleaners on hand to deal with breaks in the entertainments (it seems some things never change!).
At a wider level, Rome itself is going through a period of upheaval, with sickness and fire both threatening the city, and taking their toll on Marcus and Althea, through the loss of colleagues and, tragically, more close friends. This is as much a story of survival against the odds, as it is the entertaining of a pampered ruler.
Despite my best intentions, I found myself racing through this book, speeding through over half of it in one night of very poor sleep. Whether in the rural comfort of Pompeii, or walking between the ancient temples of the Forum, I felt utterly transported back in time, with the sights, smells and sounds captured at every stage. We are in the rooms when people are on their sick-beds, we sit and share family meals, and we hurry through ash-and-soot-filled streets whilst Rome burns, just days before the Colosseum is due to open. We feel the despair of Marcus as he has to come to terms with what has happened in Pompeii, and the frustration of Althea, as she and Fausta, Marcus’ right-hand-woman from his former role, are forced to cover for him during his ill-advised absences from work. And we are there as Althea grows in confidence working alongside this man who was ‘given’ her with hardly a second thought.
The relationship between the colleagues was a particularly interesting one, and I am certainly looking forward to reading more about their upcoming challenges in the rest of the series. Marcus and Althea especially, find themselves bound together by promises to which they gave hardly any credence as they were made, and yet became binding by subsequent events. The understanding which grows feels realistic, given their circumstances, and although I knew from previous history documentaries etc. that the opening events they were preparing for were particularly violent and graphic in nature, I found myself willing them to succeed every step of the way.
In the midst of the wealth and apparent glamour of Rome though, and the still-famous Colosseum, what appealed to me most in this story was the ‘ordinary-ness’ of it all. We have all been there – a demanding manager, staff or colleagues who can’t / won’t deliver on time, suppliers struggling to meet demands – but reading about the seemingly mundane behind something so magnificent gives a real grounding to an ancient civilisation we all feel we know, even if we’ve never studied it, just by its sheer magnitude. It makes everything feel very real and relatable, and I love that in a piece of historical fiction.
I Highly Recommend From the Ashes (The Colosseum Book 1) by Melissa Addey.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.