I was surprised to discover that Conn Iggulden’s The Gates of Rome isn’t a fantasy novel.
Sure, The Gates of Rome is about Julius Caesar. And there is an author’s note discussing historical authenticity at the end of the story. Clearly, this is supposed to be a work of historical fiction. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop Conn Iggulden from borrowing liberally from fantasy’s most enduring tropes, ranging from the defiance of bullies to the ascension of a child of fate.
Caesar, or Gaius, is a willful child when we meet him. He is determined to defend his family estate and himself against bullies much older than he is. Although Gaius is defeated and humiliated several times, that doesn’t stop him from returning time and again to get the upper hand. In fact, he even contemplates his revenge while hanging upside down from a tree.
Young Gaius may have the iron will of an emperor, but he is otherwise not very intimidating. He becomes much more capable after he is trained by Renius, a gladiator who has won so many bouts that he has been granted his freedom. Julius’ father hires Renius to train both his son and his son’s best friend, the bastard Marcus Brutus.
Renius is merciless in his training of the two boys, but he knows the secret to dueling success: strong shoulders. The boys train and spar day and night, until Renius challenges them in a final test (to the death!). As Iggulden romanticizes things, Caesar would have died if not for the intervention of fate – and a Greek healer who magically uses the powers of destiny to cure our soon-to-be emperor.
There are more than a few gestures from the fantastic in The Gates of the Rome, but Iggulden offers a heavy dose of history as well. It’s difficult to read The Gates of Rome without looking for nascent signs of Julius Caesar, Emperor of Rome. Fortunately, Iggulden is prepared to offer a crash course for aspiring emperors everywhere.
Life changes for Gaius when he leaves his family estate and joins his uncle, Marius. He stands at Marius’ side during the general’s triumph, getting a taste for power. It seems that the only person that can stop Marius is Sulla, Marius’ great rival. However, Marius gives up everything he has in order to buy the Senate’s vote, and Sulla is sent out from the great city to defeat Mithridates. It’s a year that Marius will use to be Rome’s greatest man, at least until Sulla returns to The Gates of Rome from his campaign.
At times, Iggulden twists history to suit his narrative, which rarely bothered me. As far as historical fiction goes, The Gates of Rome is very fantastic stuff: the villains often come across as over-inflated bullies, and Iggulden’s focus is always on creating an exciting adventure for both his audience and our young hero. Fantasy fans that love a fast-paced adventure and a fist- or swordfight in every other chapter will find it difficult to resist Conn Iggulden’s The Gates of Rome. The next book in the series is The Death of Kings.