On the back of this comic, we get the intriguing question: “Did Rome fall … or was it pushed?” Well, of course it’s more complicated than that, but that’s not what fiction is all about, right?
I was recently sent Travis Horseman‘s comic and asked if I would review it, and you know I’m all in with reviewing comics! In the press release stuff for the book, we find out that it’s about the last days of the Western Roman Empire (!) and a secret plot against the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus (!!) and that the framing sequence takes place some 60 years later and stars the historian Procopius (!!!).
So yeah, that was like crack to me. As you might recall, Late Antiquity/Early Middle Ages (roughly from A.D. 300 to A.D. 800, give or take) is the time period I studied for my oh-so-helpful Master’s Degree, although I was dealing with a Roman successor state, Merovingian France. But I love Byzantine history, and I have read Procopius’s brilliant Secret History, which is probably spurious but is glorious sixth-century tabloid trash (read it here!). I also love late Roman history, and the “end” of the empire in the West, which technically occurred in A.D. 476 when Romulus was deposed by Odoacer, who was probably a Germanic soldier. So a comic about Procopius discovering a secret history of someone else’s (so far, Horseman doesn’t link the one he finds with his own, but I have to believe he meant at least to reflect the later work with the one Procopius reads) and finding out the “true” history of the last Western Roman emperor and the presence of a mysterious man called “Amiculus” who may have had something to do with the end of the empire? Sure, I can get behind that. Anyway, Amiculus: A Secret History volume 1: Roma Aeterna (it’s the first of three volumes) is written by Horseman, drawn by Giancarlo Caracuzzo, colored by Flavia Caracuzzo, and lettered by Frank Cvetkovic. It costs $15.
As I noted, the book begins 60 years after the end of the empire, as Procopius is in Rome with Belisarius, the famous Byzantine general, who in 538 reconquered Rome for the Eastern emperor, Justinian (the reconquest was very brief, but that need not concern us now). Procopius hears that Romulus fled south to Naples and lived out his days in a monastery, so he heads there to discover what he can about the last Western emperor. The “abbot” (he’s not really the abbot, but let’s just call him that) of the monastery tells him that Romulus died years earlier, but he shows him a text that tells the “true” story of the end of the empire. The abbot also mentions “Amiculus,” who he claims caused the end of the empire. He invites Procopius to read the book, and that’s where the story gets going. This first chapter seems fairly long, but it’s important to contrast the two situations. Procopius is walking through the reclaimed Rome, which at that point wasn’t terribly important but remained a symbol of past glory, while he’s thinking about the time when Rome was “lost,” so Horseman links the two events nicely. Procopius is a rational man, trying to find written evidence for Romulus’s fate, but when he opens the book, Horseman implies that he’s entering a slightly magical place, and as we flash back to 476, Horseman runs with that a little. It’s a neat trick that can be read as Procopius’s mind playing tricks on him if you so choose, so Horseman doesn’t need to turn this into anything supernatural to get the effect.
Once Horseman begins the story proper, he has a lot to set up before he gets to the action, but he does a nice job with it. He has to keep the identity of Amiculus secret, and he hints that there really isn’t anyone with that name, just a legend (obviously, as this is volume 1 of 3, we’ll have to wait and see what’s going on with that). He creates a myth about Amiculus that fits in well with the apocalyptic tone of the city in 476, as people tend to get far more superstitious when they think the world is ending. Amiculus is a cipher, but his legend is so pervasive that Orestes, the father of the emperor and the general who put him on the throne, refuses to allow anyone to speak his name. Meanwhile, Romulus is haunted by the ghosts of past emperors, as he sits on his throne, forbidden to move by his father, and hears voices mocking him as he stretches and fails to reach the floor with his feet. His father is cold and cruel to him, and he’s losing control of the Senate, who bicker amongst themselves about what to do in the face of annihilation. Horseman does a very nice job showing how quickly people turn on each other when the chips are down, as the senators don’t want to follow Orestes – who was himself a usurper – but they’re not sure if they have any other options. He also, interestingly enough, puts a lie to the idea of the “fall” of Rome (which has been under assault since 1776, when Edward Gibbon first posited it), as Procopius lives in a world that has moved on, and despite his contention that the heart of the empire was destroyed, we only see the city of Rome in a bit of a ruin, while the East flourishes and even the monastery of St. Severinus seems to be doing fine.
Rome in 476 was a backwater, and the “end” of the empire meant very little to many people in the West, especially after the sack of the city in 410, which was the true devastating event. However, Horseman isn’t concerned about that as much as he’s concerned about the way people react to what they see is the end of the world, and he does a really nice job showing the paranoia, the fear, and the pettiness of people who have abandoned higher principles and are simply looking out for themselves. It makes Horseman’s vignette with Romulus even sadder and more pathetic, as the boy emperor is doing something he doesn’t want to but acquiesces because he’s dominated by his father but also because it’s clear he wants to do a good job to please that father. Romulus wants to be a boy, but he does what he’s told is his duty. Orestes just wants power, the senators want to scurry like rats, the pope wants to hide out in the Lateran palace and see who comes out on top, but only Romulus seems to want to do something for the city, even if it’s just because he’s terrified of his father. While Horseman is playing fast and loose with history to a certain degree (although very little is known about Romulus, so why couldn’t this be true?), he gets the tone down very well, and while it’s only at the end where the enemy has breached the walls and the action ramps up, before that, he creates a good environment where things are crashing down and no one knows quite how to handle it.
Caracuzzo is a good artist, and he does a good job on this comic. As I noted above, Caracuzzo helps with the contrast between 538, when the Eastern empire was on the ascendant, and 476, when the Western empire was a shell.
In the first chapter, despite the destruction of the city in the aftermath of Belisarius’s campaign, he draws wide open plazas and solid buildings, which continues when Procopius visits the monastery, which is wonderfully maintained and also a beautiful center of learning – it has a marvelous library. Flavia Caracuzzo (Caracuzzo’s daughter) colors it nicely, using bright, warm tones – the monastery could be sandstone – to show that things are better. Once we flash back to 476, Caracuzzo draws more cramped space – the throne room, despite its size, still feels claustrophobic – and the buildings and the open spaces of Rome look shabbier and more broken. Caracuzzo puts Orestes in the shadows a lot, which is a nice symbolic gesture, and we get a lot of black chunks during the “fall” period of the comic. The colors are darker, too, which makes sense and adds to the feeling of foreboding. Caracuzzo draws Romulus really well, showing his terror on his face really well as he listens to the voices and gets berated by his father. I don’t know how historically accurate the clothing in the book is, but it looks very nice, and Flavia coloring Orestes’s cloak purple is a subtle reminder about who holds the power in Rome (purple dye was expensive and was usually reserved for the emperor). There’s a nice page turn where Caracuzzo links blood on the Roman eagle with blood on a vulture’s beak, and that leads to the ending action of the book, where Odoacer leads an ambush on the outmatched Roman soldiers. It’s not the most subtle imagery, but it works very well.
The only reason I don’t like this more is because it does feel like volume 1 of 3, which sounds obnoxious, I know, but is a bit annoying. Horseman does a really nice job setting the whole thing up, but it really does feel like a set up. It’s very intriguing, and I’m definitely looking forward to the second two volumes, and I have no idea how Horseman would have done it differently, and I don’t think it’s too awful a thing to be left wanting more, but I do wish we had gotten a little more about Amiculus himself. The legend is well established, but it’s still odd that we don’t get a little more about him. It’s not that big a deal, but it does make me want the next volume right now. That’s not a bad thing, I suppose. You can get the book on Amazon, if you’re interested. It’s pretty keen.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆