Praetorian: The Great Game by S.J.A. Turney

Book Review by Thomas A. Timmes

Following his widely acclaimed hit series, Marius’ Mules, noted author and historian S.J.A. Turney continues to research and write highly popular novels. With over twenty successful books to his credit, Praetorian: The Great Game is book one of a brand-new series. Book two, Praetorian: The Price of Treason, was released in December 2015, and book three should follow shortly.

Praetorian: The Great Game is not a book for the faint of heart! But if you enjoy reading non-stop action and breathtaking suspense, this book is for you. Written to please Romanophiles and historians alike, each chapter is a masterpiece of imagery, composition, and solid historical research.

The reader is instantly transported to Vienna in 180 AD at the end of the Marcromannic War and the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Then you are whisked away to Rome for the beginning of the twelve-year reign of Aurelius’ eighteen-year- old son, Commodus. Unlike Marcus Aurelius, who is known as the “Philosopher King” for his stoic tome Mediations, history and Hollywood have cast his son, Commodus, with the likes of Nero and Caligula. The 1964 epic film “Fall of the Roman Empire” and the 2000 film “Gladiator” both depict Commodus as an egocentric, brutal, and erratic paranoid who ultimately hastened the fall of Rome.

Dio Cassius, an historian and Roman senator under Commodus, leaves enough room in his Historia Romana to differ with the conventional wisdom regarding Commodus, and S.J.A. Turney takes full advantage of the ambiguity. Turney posits that Marcus Aurelius was not assassinated by his son, and that Commodus was not the monster played by Joaquin Phoenix in “Gladiator.” Instead, Turney portrays Commodus as a sympathetic character and his sister, Lucilla, as the real monster, thereby, challenging Hollywood’s assumptions with an alternative view.

Rufinus, the protagonist of Praetorian, is an honest, likable, clumsy Legionary—a bit naive but more than able to handle himself on or off the battlefield. Emperor Aurelius decorates him for bravery at Vienna after the victory over the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Sarmatian Tribes, and Rufinus is promoted to the Praetorian Guard. The action resumes in Rome at breakneck speed with numerous twists, turns, and and almost unbearable suspense

A great deal of the story takes place at Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, eighteen miles east of Rome, which today is a sprawling two hundred fifty- acre archaeological complex comprising thirty buildings. S.J.A. Turney visited the site, took numerous photographs, and noted which buildings can be seen from various angles within the complex. His field research at the villa comes into play as Rufinus patrols the villa first as a guard and later as a spy.

Continuing his research, Turney takes the reader on two grand tours of the streets and monuments of ancient Rome. On one tour Rufinus is part of the procession following Commodus’ grand entry into the city as the new Emperor. Turney describes in great detail the magnificent sights observed by Rufinus as the long column descends the hill past Hadrian’s Mausoleum, crosses Hadrian’s bridge onto Campus Martius, winds its way past Domitian’s Circus, and the theaters, passes through the city walls at Porta Triumphalis onto the Via Sacra, and finally ends at the Temple of Jupiter for the required animal sacrifice.

Since Rufinus’ eyes nearly popped out of his head as he beheld the glory of Rome, I spent several hours reviewing ancient city maps to “see” these sites for myself. Unfortunately my response was more muted as maps can’t begin to compare with the real thing. As a footnote, all the monuments described by Turney are still visible except for the Porta Triumphalis, which was a gate through the city’s walls reserved for Triumphs and other special occasions. The exact location of this famous city gate into ancient Rome is no longer known and something hotly debated by archeologists.

Rufinus is one tough character who always manages to rebound like a hand from a hot stove despite several severe beatings and a bout in the Villa’s torture chamber. After enduring unspeakable torture for several long hours, Rufinus.... Well, you’ll just have to read the book.

Praetorian definitely left me wanting to read the further adventures of Rufinus, Lucilla, Commodus, Senova (Rufinus’ love interest), and many other interesting characters. I highly recommend Praetorian: The Great Game.

Thomas A. Timmes is the author of the Legio XVII three-book series. His latest book, Legio XVII: The Eagle Strikes, is due out this spring.

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