The Epic Where Rome Meets China, a review of Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s “Empire of Dragons”

SUMMARY: Anatolia, AD 260. The city of Edessa, a Roman outpost, is on its last legs after the Persian siege by the troops of Shapur I. Roman Emperor Licinius Valerianus agrees to meet his adversary to negotiate peace. But it is only a trap and the Emperor and his twelve guards are chained and dragged away to work as prisoners in a solitary Persian turquoise mine. After months of forced labor the Emperor dies, but his guards make a daring escape led by the heroic and enigmatic chief, Marcus Metellus Aquila. They meet a mysterious, exiled Chinese Prince, and agree to safeguard his journey back home to his homeland, Sera Maior, the mythical Kingdom of Silk — China. And so they begin an epic journey through the forests of India, the Himalayan mountains, the treacherous Indian Ocean during the high monsoon, the deserts of central Asia, all the way to the heart of China.

CLOCKING IN at just 395 pages, my first comment about this novel is that it is too short. Its main premise is an interaction between the two greatest empires of the ancient world, and what Manfredi has done instead was to lay the foundation for a whole new universe of stories. This relatively slim volume could have spanned a whole series of books, but this is not to say that the complete story we have here is inadequate. It is quite simply epic.

The scope, for the book’s length, is ambitious. It moves from the Roman outpost of Edessa to the city of Luoyang near the southern bend of the Yellow River. In between, the story weaves through the Aus Daiwa prison ran by the Persians, to settlements in the Persian Gulf, through the rain forests of India and up to the great heights of the Himalayas. Manfredi is an excellent guide. He brings all the sensations of these places alive from the sweltering heat of the deserts to the scents and sounds of a river cruise down the Ganges. Set in the third century, this novel gives us a good idea of how it could have been to go around from empire to empire, and it is at once a frightening and an awe-inspiring experience.

And these feelings we get from the amazing cast of characters Manfredi brings to life. We have the honorable Marcus Metellus Aquila (or just Metellus) as the leader of the Roman soldiers who venture from out of Aus Daiwa into lands they never imagined. The ten soldiers who follow him are characters in their own right, always keeping Metellus balanced between loyalty to their fallen emperor, Valerianus, and the reality of the situations they find themselves in. Very memorable is the Indian merchant Daruma whose intentions are never clear despite his feelings being so. Then there is the Chinese prince Dan Qing, his sister, Yun Shan, and their rival, Wei — a trio directly involved in carving the future of the Chinese empire.

And being a book about soldiers and usurped thrones, the novel is not short on action. Anyone who has seen the film, 300, will delight in Manfredi’s choreography and pace. One can vividly see and hear the clashes and clangs of swords, javelins and spears through the pages. That gladiator scene, for instance, is simply amazing despite its rather tragic ending. In the later sequences, we see a contrasting of styles between Roman soldiers and Chinese martial artists, making this very friendly to a future film adaptation.

The book is not just a novel but a commentary on the differences, commonalities and how much people from Rome and China could learn from each other. Wearing my teacher hat for a while, this book is perfect for students of Asian and World history. Manfredi seamlessly weaves discussions of Roman ideals such as virtus and disciplina together with Chinese concepts such as the tao. When characters from different cultures interact with one another, there is a clear sense of them learning from each other and this is what I find impressive most of all. A highlight of their interaction would be their sharing of stories about the Roman’s Lost Legion and the Chinese’s 300 Mercenary Devils. Though the resolution to that is rather predictable, its revelation dovetails nicely into the book’s final moments. Thus just for its teaching value, I highly recommended this book.

However, the book is not without its shortcomings. The primary one I have mentioned earlier is that it is too short for its scope. Some characters important in the beginning suddenly fell of the map and were never heard of again. One such is Metellus’s own son, Titus, and other Roman figures such as the treacherous son, Gallienus, and the honorable general, Lucius Domitius Aurelian. An important story between these three was bubbling in the beginning, but suddenly fizzled out. Any resolution whatsoever was relegated to a very casual conversation in the final two pages.

I would also comment that some parts of the journey were too abbreviated, especially the sections in India. It would have been interesting to see Metellus and Dan Qing form their bond on the road while in a foreign land, rather than in a temple in the later parts of the book. While this falls under the criticism “I wouldn’t have done it that way”, I would have liked to see some more exploration of India, and more insight into Daruma. He was oddly quiet during these parts.

I would rather have that this series was drawn out a little longer. Perhaps, add another book or two. I could imagine some parts where this could have ended sooner, still provided for a satisfying resolution, and set up the next book. In this single novel, Manfredi has accidentally created his own pocket universe. With so many characters and stories to expand and touch upon, Empire of Dragons should only be the start. My hope is that despite the apparent finality of the ending, this is just the beginning.

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2 thoughts on “The Epic Where Rome Meets China, a review of Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s “Empire of Dragons”

  1. I am in complete agreement – too short by a couple of books. The sub-plots that wind through the pages are intriguing. Possible follow up books could deal with the story of Titmus’ life without his father – the intrigues, danger and day to day growing up; then a third volume to take up the story when they meet again. The Romans were cosmopolitan but would they have accepted a Chinese Princess as a wife of a top general?

    I absolutely loved the book as well as the other Manfredi titles I have read. I agree with your views on historical fiction. I am a retired humanities teacher, now working with a charity for children in care and custody establishing their rights to a proper education and this genre is most satisfying.
    As part of my retirement I am slowly writing a panoramic novel covering three thousand years of Manx history seen through the eyes of ordinary people. Keeps the brain active with all the research and interpretation.
    Kind regards
    Tony Wright

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