on February 13, 2005
If what you're looking for is a profound, meaningfull novel, with extreme depth in the characters, this is not for you. Manfredi is not (and does not try to be) Joyce, or Dickens, or García Márquez.
As simply a piece of historical fiction, as is also Alexander (trilogy by Manfredi), I think this is a pretty good read.
The story is mainly narrated by a druid, who, years after the action took place, wants to leave testimony of how things happened. It is the year 476 AD and a handfull of legionaries, belonging to the last existing roman legion, accompanied by a couple of quite picturesque characters, embark in a very intense adventure. They continuously find themselves in life threatening situations, which they sort out in diverse and imaginative ways.
This is a story full of of adventure, fraternity, honor, loyalty, love, and even magic, which is difficult to put down. I consider it to be just fun, relaxing reading. At the end, you are left with a warm, satisfying feeling. You will not however, be left pondering the meaning of your own existence....
What makes this novel unique is in my opinion, the amount of research that went into it. It ties up nicely to historical and common mythical events, which makes it worth your time. I guess it is to the reader's advantage that Manfredi is not only an archeologist, but a highly regarded and reknown history professor.
As with other Manfredi books, the plot is interesting, and the book is very well written, even though one is to assume something is probably lost in the translation from Italian.
on August 3, 2005
I found this book at London Heathrow airport book shop while I was on a lengthy stop over. Oh my, what a find! I didnt see it on the US book stores yet at that time, which was surprising. The first thing I would say that is that you have to allow a little bit as far as the style is concerned because it is a translation. Once past that, you are in for an adventure. The characters stick around in your mind for a long time and the twist in the tale absolutely blindsides you. At least, I never saw it coming. For any one interested in the Roman rule in Britain (before the last of the roman legions pulled out following fall of the Roman empire), this is a must!
on May 4, 2005
This review is for the English language version of Valerio Manfredi's 'The Last Legion'.
I am a fan of Colleen McCollough's (Great Men of Rome) work and thought it would be interesting to try some Roman-era fiction from a different viewpoint. I, therefore, picked up the Last Legion, and read it over the course of the last few days. I liked the book, and the story was quite fun. McCollough's work is much more intricate, but Manfredi's has a lot more action and adventure to it.
This is the story of Aurelius, one of the few survivors of the Nova Invicta Legion, last of the Roman legions in the year AD 476. With the orders of a dying general, he searches for the deposed emperor Romulus Augustus (Augustulus in the history books). Once found, he must keep the boy safe from recapture by the barbarian warlord Odoacer and his lieutentant Wulfilla. Along the way they are accompanied by a Venetian woman named Livia, the emperor's tutor Ambrosinius, two Greek slaves turned gladiators, and the only other two remaining legionaires, Batatius and Vatrenus. The band of soldiers must fight brigands, barbarians, and the elements, all while Aurelius must deal with his troubled and forgotten past, which Livia knows far too much about.
The characters, with the exception of the two Greeks (who are so secondary I can't remember their names without getting the book out), are fairly well developed (which makes the two Greeks somewhat disappointing), and are written as human beings with faults, desires, hopes, and feelings. It makes them believable, such as when the young boy, distraught over the death of his parents, does something stupid, or when a wound Aurelius can't pick something up with a damaged arm, no matter how hard he tries. The dialogue is believable and readable, with the soldiers being bawdy between themselves, but still trying to show some formality to their ostensible emperor.
The action is quick and has a certain economy of verbiage that lets it communicate what it has to without attempting to spend too much time on one particular thing, so that the scene moves as quickly as it is meant to. Though, I had the occasional problem with needing to reread a paragraph or two to understand exactly what was happening in a situation due to how quickly Manfredi relates what is going on. This might be attributed to the fact that this is a translation from the original Italian, but I can not be certain.
There is a link to mythology in the end where the book trails out of Historical Fiction to some historical retelling of mythology, but I do not want to go into it too much without spoiling the events of the book. It should not be hard to guess after reading the opening section of the book, but I will not give it away. This linking is well done and a good way to end it. The ending felt like it made sense, and I was able to put the book down feeling content.
I do recommend this novel to anyone who likes historical fiction, or anything with a bit of action/adventure.
on February 16, 2008
Mafredi knows what he is writing about. He is an Italian historian, journalist and archeologist.
This is a wild and fast adventure romp and should be seen as such. It doesn't have the depth of Steven Pressfield's writing, but I don't think this was Manfredi's intention.
Manfredi is best in describing the adventure, the action, the countryside he obviously knows so well but also shows good skills in developing the inevitable love affair between the two protagonists, Livia and Aurelius.
The ensemble of characters is close to cliches but good. Aurelius, the strong and skilled soldier, Livia, a beautiful warrioress, Romulus, the boy-emperor, Ambrosinus, his enigmatic tutor and Batiatus, a giant Ethiopian. The Barbarian Wulfila is as expected: mean and filthy with a face almost split in two.
It is the year 476 AD. The Roman empire has been overrun by various tribes and Rome itself has been invaded by Barbarians. There is however a tiny sparkle of hope that with the survival of the last Emperor, the Roman culture might prevail. The odds are against him: Romulus is just a boy with his older tutor Ambrosinus by his side. The Barbarians are powerful and adaptive. In order to be accepted by the population and to keep the society from falling into chaos, Odoacer, Barbarian leader and new ruler of Rome shows first signs of diplomacy as he allows the boy to live on in captivity.
Had Odoacer sensed any of the far reaching after-effects this decision would provoke, he would probably have chopped off Romulus' head the moment he caught the boy.
The Barbarian doesn't know that Ambrosinus is in fact Merlin, the mage. Nor does he know about the tiny group of skilled soldiers Ambrosinus manages to persuade to help live his vision.
Following the psychic manipulator's lead, the soldiers free Romulus and travel to Britannia, thus giving birth to one of our civilization's greatest legends: Excalibur, Caesar's sword buried in a stone.
As I said before, if you like adventure, pace, you will have a fun and thrill ride. If though you are searching for history with literary depth, this is not for you. It is however far better than the movie they based on this book. Comparing the two would not do justice to Manfredi's talent.
There aren't many books that I'll stop reading. I hate that feeling of a lack of accomplishment. But honestly, there are too many good, fun and/or interesting books to read rather than slogging through some simply unacceptable writing.
Manfredi's "The Last Legion" has a pretty solid story - in broad strokes it paints a picture of the very last days of the Western Roman Empire, the kidnapping of the Last Emperor - Romulus Agustus, and his rescue. I can't tell you more of the plot because I couldn't finish the book.
I got almost halfway through and came upon this gem:
Romulus Augustus to Livia (one of his saviors), discussing the strong silent hero: Are you Aurelius's girlfriend?
Livia: No, I'm not
RA: Would you like to be?
Livia: I don't think it concerns you.
Really? RA sounds like a 5 year old whose parents have recently gone through a divorce and mommy is now starting to date...
Romulus's character ranges from strong-budding-emperor, to mentally challenged half-wit, to brooding insolent teenager. It was all over the place.
It occurred to me, as it did to another reviewer, that the problem may simply be the translation. If that's the case, then the translation needs a decent edit. I've not read any of Manfredi's other work, but it's wildly popular. If it's not the translation, then no need for me to add his Alexander series to my Wishlist.
If you're looking for a fun Roman Military read, go with Scarrow's Eagle series, or Michael Curtis Ford's "The Fall of Rome" which addresses the same time period and ends with the fall of Romulus Augustus. If you want something deeper that touches on the end of the Empire, go with Breem's "Eagle in the Snow".
But by all means, beware of "The Last Legion".
on June 3, 2008
I had not read any of Valerio Massimo Manfredi's books prior to The Last Legion, and actually I saw the film made from the book before I read it. I have read my share of historical novels, particularly those of Robert Graves. Although this book may not approach those of Mr. Graves the author knows the period and culture and weaves an arresting story of bravery, loyalty and love. Mr. Manfredi has taken a rather grim period of Roman history and concocted a marvelous story. His characters are drawn with an eye for detail and his writing (translated by his wife) is succinct and expressive. The story is a clever and exciting tale of honor and devotion to a cause that has little chance of success, namely saving the life of the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire by a small band of soldiers.
Mr. Manfredi is very good in describing the action scenes of his novel and keeping the reader's attention as the barbarian Wulfila (a great villain) pursues them across Italy, up the Rhine, across Gaul to Britain. The hero of the story, Aurelius of the Nova Invicta legion is arguably the most complex character of the story with the burden of guilt that he carries with him. He is a man who made a mistake and needs to let go of his past. Aurelius' life is saved by Livia, a latter day Amazon, who becomes his partner in the rescue of Romulus. The relationship between Aurelius and Livia is not a very smooth one and their love scenes, although well-written, seem to be after thoughts that were inserted to spice up the story. Of Aurelius' companions, Batiatus is probably the most memorable for his size and strength, and that he saves Romulus' life.
I must admit that I wondered how the book would be brought to a conclusion as the pages got closer to the end and Britain was just entering the story but I think that the author covered the return of Ambrosinus to his native land well. The final battle is nicely described without lingering over details. The death of Wulfila is rather cinematic but at this point nothing but a spectacular end will do. The story is concluded in a short epilogue that is written by Ambrosinus. At this point, with Wulfila dead, the story has been concluded and the remaining threads of the story do not need a lot of explanation.
This is a book that I found hard to put down, and perhaps that is its greatest recommendation. Mr. Manfredi brings the people and period to life and has caused me to focus more on what I have regarded as an uninteresting time as something more than darkness. If you like historical novels of the Roman period this story will probably be very appealing.
on March 27, 2009
This novel does for early medieval Britain what Vergil did in his AENEID for Rome. Vergil embedded European Roman origins in the will to survive of a small number of heroes fleeing the destruction of an older, grander civilization, that of Asia Minor's Troy. Italy's Professor Valerio Massimo Manfredi's fiction carries a much smaller number of Roman legionaries and Romulus Augustus, the last Roman emperor (deposed in 476) to Britain. One of those legionaries is fictionally linked to the historically attested Aurelianus Ambrosius, the "last/only Roman" of Britain. The teenage emperor, for reasons explained by Manfredi, acquires the Celtic name Pendragon. Romulus himself marries locally and begets the future King Arthur. Thus Rome spawns medieval Britain.
Personally linking the Fall of Rome to the Arthurian legend is a British Druid. He is introduced by his Roman name Meridius Ambrosinus but ultimately is revealed to be, in his native Celtic, Myrdin Emreis, locally mispronounced as "Merlin." The polyglot, learned, preternaturally gifted Ambrosinus, at novel's opening, is family tutor to the boy Emperor. He shares his exile to the island of Capri. There he is guarded by Wulfila and a hundred other Goths loyal to the new Germanic ruler of Italy, Odoacer.
For various individual reasons a handful of legionary soldiers are led by a partially amnesiac Aurelius Ambrosius and by Livia, a young Roman warrior co-founding the new city-state of Venice near Odoacer's capital at Revenna. They rescue Romulus and Ambrosinus. During his wanderings around Trajan's massive palace on Capri, the boy Romulus had discovered an ancient sword created for Julius Caesar. This sword is the finest ever made. Later, in Britain the great sword's inscribed Latin name will be corrupted to Excalibur.
Their rescuers escort emperor and tutor to the still surprisingly intact remains of Hadrian's stone wall and forts on the border lands of today's Scotland and England. Their goal: to find the last remaining Roman legion rumored still to be on guard there and then inspire it to begin the reconquest of Rome from the Germanic barbarians. The remants of that legion have in fact settled peaceably into the landscape and local Celtic population but are made by Aurelianus (nicknamed Aurelius) to recall their onetime glories under the legion's Red Dragon banner. The rescuers are pursued all the way from Italy by Wulfila's band augmented by hundreds of local Saxon settlers they had just vanquished.
In a decisive battle at Mount Badon near Hadrian's wall, the Romans triumph over Wulfila and his warriors. Wishing for no more war, Western Rome's deposed teen-age emperor then hurls Excalibur into a lake where it lodges in a rock. Soon acquiring the Celtic name Pendragon, "Son of the Dragon," Romulus weds a local beauty and they produce a son, Arcturus/Arthur, born under the zodiac sign of the Bear.
Decades after he had begun taking notes on his adventures, the narrator, Ambrosinus/Merlin, brings it to an end. "Here my story ends. Here, perhaps, a legend is born."
Merlin's story ends with the fall of traditionally 1200-plus year old Latin Rome, as Vergil's Aeneid had ending in the founding of that Eternal City. But the story of Britain is still unfolding to this day, through the Anglo-Saxons, Normans, North American colonists and the United States of America. We are indebted to Professor Manfredi for a grand imaginative re-creation of our own history.
I came to this novel through its greatly simplified and altered film adaptation starring Ben Kingsley as Merlin and Colin Firth as Aurelius. Livia was replaced in the film by an Amazon in service to the Eastern Roman emperor. This south Indian kung fu fighter was decoratively played by onetime Miss Universe, Aishwarya Rai. Bollywood marches west!. Thus a four star book begat a three star film.
The currently popular thinking on the King Arthur of British myth is that he was a warrior who stepped into the vacuum created by the withdrawal of Roman authority and fought to restore a semblance of the defunct Roman peace. He was therefore either directly Roman-trained or in any case inspired by Rome. The culture and society that he sought to preserve was that of Roman Britain. His court is presented as an island of civilization, the city on the hill. There was no source of cultural inspiration in the 5th century other than the lost culture of Rome. The medieval version of Camelot is therefore a later adaptation. In other versions of the legend Arthur was a Briton who crossed into Gaul to fight with Rome. The source of this idea is that historically, more than one commander of the Roman legions based in Britain sought to become the Emperor of the entire empire.
Who knew that Arthur was himself the son of the last Roman Emperor? In this audacious novel Manfredi (whose Alexander trilogy has much to recommend it) weaves together such diverse historical and mythological elements as the fall of Rome, Julius Caesar, Arthur, Merlin and Excalibur into one not always coherent story. There is here an embarrassment of riches. No wonder they made a movie (starring Colin Firth, Ben Kingsley and Aishwarya Rai) based on this book. This is the story of the last Roman emperor, the young Augustus Romulus, who is deposed and flees to Britain in the company of a loyal band of followers. They have many adventures along the way, finally defeat the forces of Vortigern in Britain and presumably go on to found a new order.
A word about the relationship between the movie and book: the book is actually more believable than the movie. In the movie an Indian princess played by Aishwarya Rai, replaces a Roman woman who works perfectly well in the book. Secondly, it claims that Excalibur was made by the Britons for Julius Caesar. His British expedition was too short-lived for this to be credible. The book more plausibly postulates an Eastern origin for the sword. On the other hand the movie did a better job of centering the action in Britain, while the book is a sort of travel tale, visiting tourist destinations of the ancient world from Capri to Paris to Scotland.
In summary the book brings together the most diverse and in some ways least compatible legends of the dark ages and does so with aplomb. Manfredi knows the historical sources well and nothing here is unintentional. He obviously means this to be a tall-tale, an outrageous romp through the ancient world.
on August 4, 2008
Translated into English by Christine Feddersen Manfredi, 'The Last Legion' by Valerio Massimo Manfredi is a fast-paced adventure story that spans all of Western Europe with plenty of fleeing, fights, and plot twists. The novel could have easily been a contemporary 21st century beach-read summer thriller. Instead the local is late 5th Century Rome during the final collapse of the western Roman Empire. With a mix of historical accuracy, adventure, and myth, the author weaves a compelling tale that is impossible to put down. Students of history will see the conclusion a mile away but this will not take anything away from enjoyment of this book.
I am a fan of fiction set in the ancient world and although this novel does not have the same literary quality of other books I have read, it makes up for it with a fast-paced exciting read. The only thing missing from this book is what should be a requirement in all historical novels - a map for those readers not familiar with the many place names mentioned in the text.
This novel was recently filmed. The film version is a pale poor version of this book. Do yourself a favor and read the novel instead, or read it before you see the film.
on June 22, 2008
Excellent read on a popular subject: Arthur and the sword Excalibur. What I liked best about the book is the attempt to fill part of the gap between the "fall" of the Roman Empire and the so called "Dark Ages." The books holds the readers attention while illustrating that Rome did not "fall" through any single event but rather more likely "slid" towards a fall for the many reasons highlighted during the story. The other highlight the book brings about is how close in terms of geography the cultures of the ancient world really were. To be able to walk from Italy over the mountains and then float down the Rhine and cross the channel to England is something modern readers forget. The ancient cultures were not insulated from each other but in fact were part of a global network we experience today. Instead of the internet and the web, the ancient world's connectivity was based in part on Roman roads and shipping. For all readers interested in the history of Rome, the British Isles, Celtic traditions or the Arthurian legends, this book will fill a gap in your reading repertoire.