The Gods of War by Conn Iggulden
Every reader who starts Conn Iggulden’s Emperor: The Gods of War (2006) already knows that in this novel Caesar crosses the Rubicon, defeats Pompey, meets Cleopatra, and is ultimately betrayed by Marcus Brutus, his best friend. The point of the plot is not what happened but why. Caesar spent his life fighting for the Republic, but he betrayed it. Why? Brutus spent his life fighting for Caesar but chose to murder him. Why? The Gods of War should not work as a novel if it does not excel at character development.
When I began reading, I sadly concluded that the novel would disappoint. The initial chapters do not stand out for their complex characterization. Instead, Iggulden focuses on staging — politics without intrigue and decisions made without emotionally convincing rationales. Caesar crosses the Rubicon, so Pompey goes to Greece. Caesar puts Marc Antony in charge of Rome, so Brutus storms off. I rarely felt convinced by the “why” at the heart of Julius and Brutus. I had to regularly remind myself that these characters were doing what they were doing because, well, they did what they did, a circular logic that might work for history but not for historical fiction.
Even now, having finished the novel, the motives of these “gods of war” remains a frustrating puzzle, and Brutus is especially difficult to understand. Iggulden explains at the end of the novel that he wanted to focus on how Brutus’s personal motivations — perhaps jealousy, bitterness, and resentment — led him to betray his general. There is also some suggestion that an indignant Brutus wants to preserve the ideals of the Republic. Somehow, the final ratio that Iggulden arrives at did not convince me, which isn’t to say that he is wrong in his analysis. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that the general rule of the EMPEROR series has been that Romans are motivated by a ruthless determination to achieve acclaim, usually by vanquishing their enemies. The Romans in these novels often pay lip service to ideals of loyalty and of equality amongst the citizens, the ideals of the Republic, but they also train and fight relentlessly to be celebrated as exceptional, a drive that leads Caesar to consider reinstating monarchy, creating an empire, and claiming divinity. Octavian, Caesar’s most loyal general in the novel, goes on to murder Julius’s son, probably in order to secure his position as emperor rather than personal feelings of jealousy. Is there room for ideals and personal motivations when one becomes so powerful?
There is a tragic arc in this novel, and it draws one’s attention to a variety of traps. Brutus, for example, acts impulsively in his initial betrayal of Caesar, and perhaps that is what leads him into his ongoing treachery after he is pardoned for joining Pompey. When Julius, meanwhile, returns to Rome, he appoints lackeys to the Senate, but he is irritated by their inability to be more than yes men. They cannot rule, which cements his belief that only he can rule, which leads him to further consolidate power around himself, which makes everyone around him ineffective, which may be why he is murdered. It’s possible that Iggulden himself is also trapped in The Gods of War. Authors need to depict their heroes as likeable, even though those heroes may actually just be capable, obsessed with their own greatness and ruthless in their pursuit of recognition. It’s possible that these figures were amazing to us but not very admirable. Maybe that is why their motivations are so difficult to convincingly represent in a novel.
When I began The Gods of War, I felt that its success would depend on characterization, but I was wrong. I realized that I liked this novel, not because its characters are convincing (they are often frustrating), but rather because it inspired in me greater curiosity about this historical period. The novel, when it was originally published in 2006, was the concluding entry in the series. In 2013, Iggulden published a fifth novel, The Blood of Gods, about the consequences of Caesar’s assassination. I’ll be sure to seek it out, and maybe a few popular histories as well.