Roman Life and Times Series by Paul L. Anderson

Book Review by Ron R.S. Gompertz

Paul L. Anderson wrote five books in the 1920’s / 1930’s known as The Roman Life and Times Series that are hard to find but worth the search. The original audience for these novels appears to have been high school and college students, but these solid adventure stories work well for adults. Anyone who likes historical fiction, adventure, and the waning years of the Roman Republic before Caesar crossed the Rubicon will enjoy Anderson's books

The struggle between Rome and Gaul in 54 BC is well worn territory, and a source of many excellent books starting with Julius Caesar’s own Conquest of Gaul. Anderson’s With the Eagles and For Freedom and For Gaul would make a wonderful companion read to Caesar’s memoir.

With the Eagles tells the story of a young Gaul named Mandorix who joins Caesar’s legions to put down the growing rebellion against Roman rule. Mandorix turns against his own people because he sees a greater future under Rome than against her.

His friend, Taranis, the protagonist of For Freedom and For Gaul comes to the opposite conclusion and joins the rebellion to serve under Vercingetorix. There is a sad poignancy in the narration of an idealistic young freedom fighter who gradually sees that tribal jealousies and organizational deficiencies in the face of Caesar’s legions will lead to defeat.

The Pugnax series takes place during Cicero’s time as Consul. Pugnax is a Gaul, captured and sold as a slave to a lanista who trains gladiators. Without giving too much away, he befriends another gladiator named Rufus who lost his parents in a shipwreck and was raised by fishermen in Sicily until captured and sold by pirates. The gladiator camp is not a preppy boarding school -- this place has a lot of color, fighting, and, pardon the pun, backstabbing. It's the original school of hard knocks. The friends and enemies Pugnax acquires there are tough, stoic fellows who love a good brawl, a pretty girl, and pitcher of wine.

I'm not sure if this is historically accurate, but the lanista allows Pugnax and his various sidekicks to wander the streets of Rome from time to time. As a reader, this provides an interesting tour of taverns, dark alleys, and less than upscale venues. Pugnax’ friend Rufus becomes the bodyguard of named Lucius Sergius Catilina, aka Catiline, who history remembers as the architect of a vast conspiracy to overthrow the Roman Republic in the 1st Century B.C.

Rufus turns out to have some important heredity and eventually rises to prominence in Rome. For me, the crown jewel of the series is Swords in the North wherein one of Rufus’ protégé, a rich, young dandy named Durus travels a tortuous and highly engaging path from party boy to patrician. Durus has to leave Rome under duress and escapes to Gaul. He serves under Caesar and is taken prisoner in Britannia. I won’t divulge how he avoids being a human sacrifice except to say that I especially liked the introduction of Brighde, a very strong female character.

I have read and highly recommend the all five of the Roman Life and Times Series and feel like I’ve discovered a treasure trove that was hidden in my grandfather’s attic. The smart, elegant and occasionally humorous prose from a bygone era is a pleasure to read. The well-researched settings, rich detail, great characters and high adventure make for timeless historical fiction.

Given that nearly 80 years of scholarship has passed since Anderson wrote his novels, it’s safe to guess that some of his details and speculation are inaccurate. Still, the series holds up wonderfully and I heartily recommend any and all of Anderson’s novels to fans of the era.

Anderson’s remaining three books in the Roman Life and Times SeriesPugnax the Gladiator, Slave of Catiline and Swords of the North work best if read in that order, but any of his books makes a fine read on its own. Ron R.S. Gompertz is the Author of the humorous historical novel, No Roads Lead to Rome. His website is www.noroadsleadtorome.com

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