Book review: Deposed by David Barbaree

He was the emperor who legend says '˜fiddled while Rome burned' and who finally committed suicide in true Ancient Roman style'¦ but was that really the end of Nero's story?
Deposed by David BarbareeDeposed by David Barbaree
Deposed by David Barbaree

In a stunning evocation of the Roman Empire in the first century AD, debut author David Barbaree reimagines the fall of the fifth emperor – a tyrant remembered as an ineffectual, neglectful and brutal leader – and rewrites the history books.

Set ten years after the downfall of Nero, Deposed sees the infamous emperor survive, blinded and crippled, to plot his return to power and is just the first novel of an ambitious trilogy which charts the rise of Nero’s young protégé, the man who will become the Emperor Trajan.

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And what makes this Roman odyssey so exciting is the power of its possibility… in the years that followed Nero’s fall, Barbaree tells us in his Historical Note, at least three men, dubbed the False Neros, claimed to be the deposed emperor and drew much popular support.

So was his death more mysterious than history tells us, and were the true facts of his reputation and suicide not quite the open-and-shut case that the ancient historians – who often doubled up as politicians – would have us believe?

In a darkened cell at the Praetorian camp in Rome, the brutally deposed dictator Nero lies crippled and viciously blinded by his ruthless captors. Kidnapped and imprisoned, he has been deprived of his power and his freedom and is on the edge of utter despair.

His only companion is the young slave boy Marcus who tends to his wounds and brings him water and meagre rations. The boy is a mere child who fears his own shadow but Nero befriends the youngster and uses him to plot his escape.

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Ten years later, Rome’s new ruler is the Emperor Vespasian. His eldest son and heir Titus, prefect of the Praetorian guard, watches uneasily over his father’s empire. Another new False Nero is being hunted down and wherever he looks, rebellion is festering.

Titus knows that those closest to him have turned traitor once before and he is unnerved by a recent event at the temple which is viewed by the superstitious Romans as a bad omen.

Meanwhile, on his way to a city in crisis is Lucius Ulpius Traianus, an eccentric and hugely wealthy senator from the very edge of the empire, and he has his young and angry nephew Marcus at his heels.

Lucius is witty but inscrutable, generous with his time and money to a leader in desperate need of a friend, and he wears a bandage over his blinded eyes. Is this rich stranger motivated by ambition… or could it be revenge?

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Deposed is a gripping, violent tale of power, treachery and vengeance, epic in its scope, highly original in its remarkable rewriting of what we know of Nero, and memorable in its riveting portrayal of the violent, pitiless world in which he lived and ruled.

Weaving between AD 68 and AD 79, and the unfolding of Nero’s and Marcus’s journey to wealth and status in the intervening years, and through a cast of intriguing players – including the paranoid and obsessive emperor-in-waiting Titus – this is an exhilarating and high-impact story.

Barbaree has delivered an extraordinary first novel, impressing with its complex plotting, powerful imagination, strong and authentic characters, and the author’s gift for making fiction seem so palpably real.

Politics, scheming, corruption, barbarity and betrayal… the best bits of Roman history but with an original new twist!

(Twenty7, hardback, £12.99)

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