Birds of Prey, by David Drake

Published 1984
Review by Tim

The year is AD 262, and the fortunes of Rome are at an all time low. The German tribes are pressing everywhere along the Rhine border, while the Persians threaten the eastern provinces. Any general with even a modicum of military success proclaims himself Emperor, with a subsequent bloody denouement. Trade is stifled by rampant inflation and general economic collapse. Plague and civil unrest ravage Rome itself. In Rome, the able Gallienus strives to hold the empire together. General Postumus has declared himself the independent ruler of Gaul, and General Odenathus is close to doing the same in Palmyra.

In the midst of this climate of anarchy and dissolution, the Roman agent Aulus Perennius is recalled to Rome by his superior. There he is placed at the disposal of the mysterious Lucius Calvus, whose uncommon appearance is augmented by almost otherworldly capabilities. Aulus Perennius, a Roman citizen of Illyrian birth, is a hard and capable man, who has devoted his life to preserving the Empire. His talents as an agent are about to be tested in a confrontation beyond his imagining, against an alien menace that threatens not just the Roman Empire, but all of humanity.

David Drake is well known as a writer of military science fiction, as exemplified by his popular Hammer's Slammers series. He also has a profound knowledge of the ancient world (Drake describes himself as an historian by training, but an antiquarian by temperament), and especially of the Roman Empire. The latter has been the setting for many of his stories and novels, in both science fiction and fantasy. No other author of fiction I have read, including Robert Graves, imparts such a sense of ease and familiarity with this era as does Drake.

It is customary in modern fiction, especially in television and film, to portray the Roman Empire as a despotic and repressive entity bent on crushing the spirits of free men, and enslaving all peoples of the world to its will. There are two main reasons for this attitude. One reason is that the western world today is predominantly Christian, and Christianity's relationship with the Empire up to the time of Constantine had been less than cordial, to say the least. The other is that "empire" has become a dirty word in the current political climate, fraught with images of slavery and oppression.

Drake takes a different view of the matter, and these views are expressed in Birds of Prey (a catchy title that has little to do with the story) through the viewpoint of Perennius. For the common man, the pax Romana was a time of uncommon peace and prosperity. Under the Empire a man and woman might marry, farm their land secure from the threat of plunder and rapine, and hand their legacy over to their children, with every expectation that their children would be able to do the same. These are privileges that have become so commonplace in our society that we tend to regard them as natural rights. We forget that such stability is historically ephemeral. This is the situation that Perennius strives to preserve with his un-blind devotion to his duty:

"No one knew better than the agent how great was the Empire's potential if it would cling together, if its millions would accept what the Empire offered them in the knowledge that it was more than they would get from chaos if each went his own way."
Following a raid by German pirates that ended with the usual portions of murder and rape, Perennius characterizes them as:
"Vicious little children, and nothing but a tottering Empire to keep the world from becoming their world."
Perennius observes further of the raiders that:
"They were a people who prided themselves on freedom, which appeared on examination to amount to the right to lord over everyone else in the vicinity."
There's a great deal of truth in the thoughts Drake gives to Perennius, especially when you consider the situation in Europe following the collapse of the western Empire. In his introduction to The New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History, historian Colin McEvedy urges the reader to disregard recent attempts to minimize the horrors of the Dark Ages, noting that they were pretty much pure misery for the vast majority of ordinary folk.

So why did Rome fall? Gibbon blamed Christianity. Durant, while conceding a limited role for Christianity in Rome's collapse, felt that it was merely symptomatic of a collapse that had begun far earlier. McEvedy feels that the cost of maintaining the backward western Empire bankrupted the richer east. I've even heard speculations that the Roman aristocracy poisoned themselves with water delivered to their homes through lead pipes. Voltaire simply observed that "it fell because all things fall."

Perennius sees the encroaching night and, while recognizing that it can not be stopped, feels impelled to fight it to the last. Calvus, an emissary from the future, makes use of the Roman agent's talents to overcome a far more dire threat, to humanity as a whole. Together, along with Perennius' protege Gaius, a Roman centurion named Sestius and his Gallic wife, Sabella, they travel eastward from Rome, overcoming obstacles along the way, to a final confrontation in the wilds of Syria. The richly detailed historical setting lends verisimilitude to this tightly plotted adventure story.

January, 2000