312 AD is a year of horrific and brutal warfare. Constantine’s northern army is a small force, plagued by religious rivalries, but seemingly unstoppable as they invade Maxentius’ Italian heartlands. These relentless clashes, incidents of treachery and twists of fortune see Maxentius’ armies driven back to Rome.
Constantine has his prize in sight, yet his army is diminished and on the verge of revolt. Maxentius meanwhile works to calm a restive and dissenting Roman populace. When the two forces clash in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, there are factors at work beyond their control and soon they are left with carnage.
There is only one way Constantine and Maxentius’ rivalry will end. With one on a bloodied sword and the other the sole ruler of Rome…
What a book! Even though volume three only covers a little less than a year, it feels like a lifetime of fighting has been crammed into it. Not in a bad way, unless you don’t like to read battle scenes! This is the grand climax of a literal fight-to-the-finish struggle between two former friends who continually mourn their lost brotherhood. I really wanted them to kiss and make up, but of course they had gone too far and too many had been killed to satisfy their ambitions. All the way through they wonder if—or how—they could possibly kill each other in the final hour. And still Constantine comes on, deadly, brutal, infallible—at least to Maxentius, who has little faith in his own disparate army as he is forced back step by step to the protection of Rome’s walls. In reality, both of their armies are torn apart by religious differences, and Constantine is anguished by the size of his declining forces, and the fact that he must keep then separated to avoid infighting:
“Shut up, you wailing fools!’ cried a centurion of the Seventh Gemina.
“Sing of the ancient gods, or shut the f__k up! roared another.
“Besmirch the chosen four at your peril, benighted dog!” a Lancearius howled back.
My eyes slid shut.
The clatter of men barging at one another, of shouting and cursing, shoving, punches being thrown rose to drown out the Christian song.
“Order!” I heard Batius scream.
“Calm down, you mutts!” Krocus roared.
The din was awful. A pair of the fighting ones even toppled into the waters. Still they fought, more interesting in braining one another than not drowning.
Needless to say, this is when they are most vulnerable. Constantine is nearly killed during one of their brawls, as assassins sneak past his fighting guards. How Constantine manages to unite these rival religious forces is a magnificent puzzle, and one I never solved all these years (until now). Meanwhile, Maxentius fights his own conflicts, as religious tensions threaten to turn his own people against him. Who can he trust? There is a traitor in his midst and he cannot fathom who it is. He makes bad decisions but keeps moving forward, trusting to his oath to protect Rome to the last. While reading this book, I couldn’t help but root for the both of them, and seeing that both our protagonists are pretty miserable—you wouldn’t wish their family life on your worst enemy—I came out of this wondering whether it all was worth it?