Paperback: Justinian's Flea, by William Rosen

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Tackling an era from architecture to epidemiology, this enthralling epic concerns the greatest of the late Roman emperors. Rosen briskly sets the scene for the accession of Justinian in 518. We learn how the Visigoths took Rome a century earlier, via a Trojan-horse tactic involving the gift of 300 treacherous slave boys. Having shifted base to Constantinople, the Romans were obliged to cough up protection money to Attila, a wily negotiator as well as a fearsome warrior. Though unexceptional in appearance and oratory, Justinian had a grand vision for his threatened empire. A master tactician, he surrounded himself with supremely able men. His general Belisarius, ranked beside Hannibal and Napoleon by Liddell Hart, vanquished the Huns and quelled an insurrection sparked by rioting sports fans. His architect Anthemius built the still-breathtaking Hagia Sophia in six years. In a book teeming with examples of how the ancient world was pretty much like our own, we learn that Anthemius was the neighbour from hell, simulating an earth- quake to unsettle the orator Zeno who lived upstairs. For all Justinian's brilliance, his empire was undermined by a ubiquitous, deadly and unassailable enemy: bacteria carried by fleas on the black rats that accompanied the legion to every part of the empire. A book packed with fascination on every page.