Angry youth, vengeful pirate

Betrayal and murder are not uncommon throughout ancient Roman history. 

But spare a thought for a teenager by the name of Sextus Pompey who, in 48BC, witnessed the ignominious execution of his hero-worshipped father, Pompey the Great.

What happened sparked a series of events that would transform him from a teenager with a bright future into a bitter rebel with a price on his head. New Rome’s leaders will hound him to an early grave and all honour and respect will lie in tatters. 

From that day, young Sextus was on the receiving end of more treachery and carnage than he could possibly deserve.

I began my research into Sextus when writing my first novel, Libertas, in which he and his brother Gnaeus almost succeeded in halting Julius Caesar’s relentless mission to control Rome. This fascination with the damaged young man continues in my latest novel, Vipers of Rome, set in the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination and focusing on Sextus’s pirate base in Sicily.

Initially, I couldn’t help but like him and portrayed him as a cocky adventurer with sufficient principles to keep his Republican mission on track, but now the dark side begins to emerge. As it surely must given these powerful and unkind events in his young life:

The murder of his father

Following Caesar’s defeat of Pompey the Great at Pharsalus, 19-year-old Sextus and his step-mother Cornelia caught up with the distraught general on the island of Lesbos, and thence to the shores of Egypt at Pelusium. Having watched from a distance as his father’s war in Greece against Caesar went from bad to worse, this is the defining moment as his father was brutally murdered before his eyes. A sudden shock to the system of a magnitude that’s impossible to imagine.

Defeat by Caesar

With Gnaeus, he rallied the Optimates faithful for a final push to stop Caesar, first at Thapsus (Africa 46BC), then at Munda (Spain 45BC). The brothers, together with Caesar’s turncoat tribune Labienus, had the numbers if not the training to end the civil war at Munda. But they failed, as recounted in Libertas, bringing this comment from best-selling author Doug Jackson, “The author vividly recreates the epic battle that gave Caesar the prize he sought so avidly.”

The brothers fled, Caesar’s men giving chase before catching and executing Gnaeus. Sextus, however, was more fortunate and escaped by sea. His seamanship and piratical instincts would serve him well. He was now the last of the Pompey clan – and destined to share his father’s fate.

His crazy admirals

Vipers of Rome takes up the Sextus story after he has built what can only be called a state-operated pirate base in Sicily, from where he controlled Rome’s grain supplies with a fleet far superior to that of Octavian’s war-ravaged Italy. 

The key naval admirals under Sextus were Menodorus, also known as Menas, a freedman from his father’s day, and Menacrates, another freedman. Both were unsavoury characters, as was Murcus (yes, the Three Ms of Mayhem!) who had joined Sextus’ cause after Philippi. 

Menodorus soon betrayed Sextus, offering his ships to a grateful Octavian whose own navy was inferior to that of Sextus. By now Sextus probably trusted no one, the ambitious Murcus least of all, and had him murdered at his home in Syracuse. 

Against his better nature, the darkness took over with Sextus resorting to desperate measures.

His enemies close in

After a series of naval defeats by Sextus’s faster ships, Octavian called in the big guns to deal with ‘The Problem That Is Sextus’ once and for all. He gave his ingenious general Agrippa free rein to build a competitive fleet and create a secret weapon – the Harpax – while 14 legions were shipped from Africa to Sicily.

You can see that it’s not going to end well for Sextus so it’s a good thing that the protagonist in Vipers of Rome is the noble former centurion Titus Villius Macer who, with his wife Zerenia and his faithful optio, Crispus, witness the climax of poor Sextus’s ill-fated defiance against the might of New Rome. In fact, they have a hand in it. 

I’m not making excuses for Sextus. What I allowed him and his general to do in the book is unforgivable. But it makes for a gripping story of personal tensions in the wider panorama of a bloody and desperate war.

Weaving a story of spies, heroes and bad guys around such a tragic life of murder and betrayal is a historical fiction author’s dream, although this sensitive soul (me) frequently has to come up for air, take the dogs for a long walk, and be grateful that life isn’t like that anymore.

Or is it?

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