The Republic of Vengeance by Paul Waters Review

The Republic of Vengeance marks the entry of a new and interesting author into the newly revitalized field of historical fiction. Paul Waters is trained as a classicist and his first novel is a testament to his historical expertise in its depiction of the Ancient world during the second century B.C.

Paul Waters

The Republic of Vengeance tells the story of a young Roman man and the events that shape his life, set against a backdrop of the Roman Republic’s conflict with Philip V of Macedon (238-179 B.C.). During this period, Rome had yet to emerge as the strong imperial power that it later became in the Mediterranean world. At this point in history, Rome was still recovering from its long-standing conflict with Carthage, who had nearly destroyed the Republic when Hannibal invaded Italy a scant generation earlier. This period of recovery coincided not only with the final destruction of Carthage but also with the ascendancy of Philip of Macedon, who pursued a very aggressive stance towards the independent city-states of Greece. It is against this backdrop of Mediterranean politics and a newfound fashion for Greek culture that the story of The Republic of Vengeance plays out.

The novel is in many respects a classic coming-of-age tale, focusing on how those turbulent times shape the character of the young Roman Marcus, and this premise is eloquently stated in the opening paragraphs:

When I was fourteen I put aside my boy’s tunic and assumed the plain mantle of adulthood. We held a ceremony at home on the farm, at the shrine of the Lares beside the olive grove. The slaves and the farmhands stood by while my father sacrificed a goat-kid, and afterwards poured wine and incense for the god.

I had supposed, without knowing how, that from that day everything would be different. But next morning, when the feast was over and my new white toga had been folded and packed away in the old bronze-bound clothes-chest in my room, I felt just as much a boy as before. It was only later that year that I learnt what it was to leave childish things behind, when I killed a man.

This introduction aside, the story opens with an event that proves cataclysmic for the young Marcus; an event that in many ways come to define his life and character as an adult man. Marcus is accompanying his father on a business trip to the Greek island of Kerkyra (modern-day Corfu) but the entire party is unfortunately captured by pirates en route. Having witnessed the brutal murder of his father, Marcus manages to escape and return home. His life has, however, changed irrevocably.

Not only is his father dead, but his mother is compelled to marry Marcus’ uncle Caecilius in order to keep their farm. Marcus is also adopted by Caecilius as was common at this time. Though Marcus despises Caecilius he is forced to submit to this new and unwelcome paternal authority, and can only helplessly stand by as Caecilius, without regard for tradition and experience, reorders everything on the farm with a complete disregard for the old Roman values of honour and communal responsibility in his ceaseless quest for profit.

Caecilius represents a new element in Roman society during this period. A consummate businessman, Caecilius has abandoned the Stoic values of moderation, honour and civic responsibility in favour of a greedy quest for profit. Not only does he have any moral principles to speak of, he is also coarse, unrefined and self-indulgent – avarice is the only thing that guides his thoughts and actions – and he seeks to mould Marcus into a perfect likeness of himself. Caecilius has no natural sons and he therefore intends for Marcus to inherit his mercantile business. Marcus is to learn the business from the bottom and it is with this in mind that Caecilius brings his adopted son with him to the city of Tarentum (modern-day Tarento) where he seeks to cultivate new mercantile interests.

Tarentum, though a Roman city, displays a very strong Greek influence and Marcus’ stay here proves to be pivotal for his character-development. Here, Marcus befriends Titus Quinctius Flaminius, the nephew a high-ranking official and a rising star in Roman politics. Titus, who is a historical character, represents another aspect of Roman society in this period: that of the educated patrician with philhellene tastes.

There was always a studied Greekness to these gatherings. A youth or a girl would gently sing to the accompaniment of a lyre or flute; or, at other times, Titus would arrange for some well-known rhapsode from Tarentum or other of the Greek cities in Italy to recite tales of heroes and ancient love. There was style in everything, and careful good manners.

The cultured Titus introduces Marcus to the refined delights of Greek culture, something that puts an additional distance between Marcus and his adoptive father, especially as Marcus refuses to exploit his friendship for mercantile profit. Marcus finds the narrow-minded mentality of Caecilius distasteful and instead yearns for a more heroic existence, especially since he swore an oath of vengeance to Mars, the God of War, after his father’s murder.

It is also in Tarentum that Marcus meets the person, who will come to influence his life most profoundly. His first meeting with the Athenian youth Menexenos is, however, far from auspicious. One day Marcus is asked accompany Titus’ brother Lucius to the local palaistra (a kind of gymnasium). It turns out that the rather sullen and coarse Lucius is passionately enamoured with the handsome Menexenos and he proceeds to make a spectacular fool of himself with Marcus as an embarrassed witness. Later, Marcus and Menexenos strike up a friendship centred on the Greek tradition for althleticism. Nourished by Marcus’ budding philhellene tastes and Menexenos’ honourable nature, this friendship gradually deepens into admiration and love.

Waters handles this story of love between two men in a both tactful and discreet manner, using this narrative device as a means to explain some of the particularities of the Antique mindset. It is important to realize that same-sex love (primarily between men) was viewed rather differently in Antiquity than it is today, where it carries a centuries old baggage of prejudice and discrimination courtesy of Christian morality. In the Antique world and in Greece especially, same-sex love was an integral part of the social fabric and it was often idealizes as more noble form of love, partly because women were viewed very negatively in Greek society.

In Greece same-sex relationships (most often between youths and mature men) formed a distinct set of the social mores, and these relationships, though sexual in nature, were considered as a kind of mentoring, that is, a educational practice instilling notions of civic and philosophical ideals in the younger generation. At least, that is how same-sex love is theorized by philosophers such as Plato, who in The Symposion writes about the love between men as a pale reflection of love’s Ideal Form, which encompasses a nobility of spirit, which exceeds the pleasures of physical beauty. Paul Waters uses the love story between Marcus and Menexenos as an illustrative example of this particular school of thought; their love is ever noble, elevated and seemingly perfect – something that is emphasized with Menexenos’ occasional little speeches about the Platonic view of love. In contrast, Lucius’ behaviour is presented as unseemly because it is both excessive and superficial in his fixation on the physical beauty of the young men he is attracted to.

Marcus’ love for Menexenos takes him to Athens, the once proud jewel of the Greek city-states, now its tradition of democracy reduced to demagogues manipulating a complacent mob-mentality. When Philip of Macedon marches against Athens, Marcus participates in the defence of the city and when his old friend Titus, now Consul of Rome, decides to put a stop to Philip’s aggression Marcus joins the campaign in Greece with the rank of tribune while Menexenos has joined the hoplite squadron of Athens. Together they march out to end the menace of Philip once and for all.

The Republic of Vengeance a very good first novel but it also suffers from some rather major flaws. Stylistically, Paul Waters is very competent. His prose paints wonderfully vivid images and the tone is almost lyrical, showcasing the novel’s primary virtue: the portrayal of the Antique world. Water is, as said, a classicist by training and he has used his historical expertise to paint a picture of a bygone world that not only feels authentic but also vivid and present. He has taken great pains to give an accurate and authentic portrayal of the Antique mindset, which really breathes life into the past represented – and though this is one of the novel’s strong points, it is sometimes flawed in terms of its implementation.

Waters has taken great pains to present some of the Antique culture’s virtues and ideals in a manner that feels organic to the narrative, such as delivering the ideals of Stoicism in a dialogue that almost can be labelled as Socratic. Another device frequently used is having certain characters act as representative examples of the ideals and social changes specific to the period in question.

Thus Caecilius represents the rise of the mercantile class in Roman society whereas Titus functions as a stand-in for the cultured patrician class, who wields cultural power through his philhellene taste and political power through his office as Consul. Titus also represents a nascent Roman expansionism, which ultimately led to Rome’s vast Imperial holdings in late Antiquity. Menexenos, ever nobel, beautiful and talented clearly represents the last bloom of the golden age of Greek Antiquity, i.e. the Classical ethos of moderation in all forms as well as the Platonic ideal of Love as an aspect of Truth and Beauty. There’s nothing inherently flawed in this approach to conveying authenticity in historical fiction, but it hinges on well-developed characters.

Unfortunately, Waters is quite weak when it comes to characterization. Marcus is a bit of a Mary Sue, a cipher that blithely assimilates the values of Titus and Menexenos while rejecting the mercantile greed of his adoptive father – yet never really reflects upon his choices despite the intimacy of the first-person narrative. Marcus lacks definition as a unique individual, which is rather problematic in the context of a coming-of-age story.

Marcus simply lacks all of those flaws and foibles that make us human and therefore he never really comes to life on the page. He never makes a wrong move, his thoughts, feelings and actions are invariably morally correct and ethically sound, which makes for a very boring character in the long run. He is not the only character who is problematic in this respect. In fact, all of the supporting characters feel rather flat and one-dimensional; they are representatives of ideas and social classes rather than unique personalities and this makes it very hard for the reader to care about what happens to them.

Waters also has trouble balancing the demands of historical accuracy with the demands of the story-telling. He has obviously taken great pains to be historically accurate and to convey as authentic as possible image of Antiquity. The narrative, however, often feels slightly haphazard and episodic, just like life and history generally is, but it doesn’t really deliver on the epic promise that is set up at the start of the story when Marcus swears to avenge his father’s death.

The story of loss and vengeance that forms the basic premise of the story is in fact only occasionally brought up and it is for the most part forgotten and completely irrelevant to how the story ends. The novel is therefore, in my opinion, rather misnamed since the vengeance-motif ultimately proves to be a minor theme. The title of the UK edition, Of Merchants and Heroes, is far more apt and I’m somewhat puzzled as to why Overlook has chosen call this story The Republic of Vengeance seeing that neither vengeance not the Roman Republic plays a major role in a narrative focused on a young man’s spiritual love affair with the culture of Classical Greece.

I found The Republic of Vengeance a charming if somewhat bland reading experience where only the vivid and lyrical representation of the Antique world balances out the uneven episodic narrative and the psychological flatness of the characters. Despite these criticisms, Paul Waters’ debut is a largely competent piece of writing and it can be recommended to anyone who is interested in the Mediterranean world during Antiquity.

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