Reviewed by Viga Boland for Readers' Favorite
Reading a long book is a challenge for most people, and when the focus of that book is ancient Rome, as it is in The Year of Five Emperors by Robert Eckert, that challenge is probably more than many readers would accept. But if the politics, thinking, religions, past times and attitudes toward social and career advancement, racial discrimination and women way back then is of interest, then the combination of fact and fiction in The Year of Five Emperors is interesting reading. What adds to the challenge of reading this book is the plethora of characters, with exceptionally long names, peopling the chapters. It is hard, initially, to keep track of them all, but bit by bit certain characters, like Senator Tullius Secundus and his delightful 19-year-old daughter, Tullia, grab readers’ attention and hold on.
The Year of Five Emperors is divided into several sections, each containing about a dozen short chapters. Readers meet some key players in that first section at a New Year’s Eve costume party which culminates in the murder of the existing, and hated ruling emperor, Commodus. From thereon, the focus is on who will become the next emperor and how he will be chosen. As the book unfolds, readers learn how Commodus’ successor, Pertinax, differs from his predecessor, and so on down the line of the consequent three emperors who take the throne over that year. While the political side of the plot in The Year of Five Emperors will interest historical fiction buffs, those more interested in the people of that day will find themselves quite enthralled by the other insights presented in this book. Readers might be surprised to learn how loose morals were…yes, all those movies you’ve seen of drunken, sexual toga parties aren’t just fiction, and sharing partners was a frequent practice. It is interesting, too, to learn that couples didn’t have to be married to be considered married i.e. living common-law was quite acceptable as long as neither was still married to someone else.
Providing relief from the heavier political aspects of reading The Year of Five Emperors are the various anecdotes and insights into things like “The Throne Room”. You’ve most likely seen a throne room in movies: that’s the room where people presented themselves to the emperor. Since the emperor’s chair sat on a raised dais or stage, “The men who were granted an audience had their heads at the level of the emperor’s feet. If this emphasized their subordination, it also meant that the emperor did not get a clear read of their facial expressions.” Just imagine, then, how many things were misinterpreted in such an audience with an emperor. Other scenes in this book that prove most enjoyable are the chatter and interactions of the young females looking for a suitable husband, the criteria for selection of a partner of either sex, and preparations for marriage. As a result, readers come away from The Year of Five Emperors feeling that people truly haven’t changed all that much over the centuries: the men and women of that time faced so many of the same issues we are still dealing with today. We may have advanced technologically and otherwise, but have all the wars and turmoil civilization has endured taught us anything on a personal level? The answer is open to debate.
Robert Eckert has done a very thorough job of researching the information in this book. In the beginning, he provides maps and terminology to help readers follow the geographical and political scene. At the end, he provides a “Dramatis Personnae”, a list of all the people mentioned. You might find it helpful to keep checking out that list as you read, since the number of characters with their long names, and the many backstories Eckert provides as to how they acquired those names, can be overwhelming. Credit must be given to Eckert for his excellent use of dialogue and contemporary approach to conversations and interactions between the characters. However, The Year of Five Emperors is an ambitious book with a ton of information, people, and situations presented between the covers. If you enjoy challenges, challenge yourself by all means: you may come away surprised at what you learn.