The third of Talbot Mundy’s Roman novels, Purple Pirate was serialized in Adventure magazine from May to October of 1935 and then published in book form by Appleton-Century at the end of that year. Set in the time of the founding of the Second Triumvirate in 43 BC, this story continues the adventures of Tros of Samothrace amid the war-torn chaos of a period where half a dozen factions fought for the control of Rome and the seas were stalked by pirate kings who harassed the Wolves of the Tiber when they could and plundered the rest of the world when they willed. It is available in a number of editions in book form or you can read it here at the invaluable library of Roy Glashan.
Julius Caesar has been dead a year and the Mediterranean world that he mastered with a ruthless genius and an iron hand has come apart at the seams. Tradition, treaties and alliances are being cast aside in a mad scramble for power and wealth in which no one is safe, not even Cleopatra. In mourning for the father of her son Caesarion, tormented by loneliness and wary of the unrest that rocks the throne on which she sits, Cleopatra has begun to change from the brave girl who promised to save Egypt from Rome at any cost. She can count the number of people she can really trust on the fingers of one hand but she finds herself continually at odds with one of them, Tros. First, she takes away his Basque fighters for brawling (in defense of her name), then she strips him of Sigurdsen and his North men, the most loyal followers he has save for Conops, because it was politically expedient and because she knows that he won’t bail on her and leave them behind. Nothing personal, just the way business is done in Alexandria. Then Tros goes and makes it personal.
It is rumored (only rumored, because no one in Egypt would be stupid enough to say it out loud) that Cleopatra offered Tros the place beside her on the throne and he politely said “No”. Charmian is Cleopatra’s closest friend, confidante and her Mistress of Spies (and assassins), making her one of the most dangerous women in the known world and who is utterly loyal to her Queen. It is known that she offered herself to Tros and he turned her down. Either one of these actions would be considered insane for any other man, but Tros has a reputation for being without fear and this would go a long way to explaining his desire to sail around the world. But then Tros meets Arsinoe, the younger (and more beautiful) sister of the Queen, whose hatred of Cleopatra is legendary and as the saying goes, all hell breaks loose.
Given Talbot Mundy’s history with members of the opposite sex, I can’t help but wonder if he is writing from personal experience about this.
Hero (the name Arsinoe is known by after her marriage to Tros) is a character whom we met in the novel Queen Cleopatra only as a child; in this book, she is older (nearly out of her teens), vastly different and much more important to the story. She has had a close up look at the treachery and hypocrisy of court life and decides she would rather risk everything for a life of freedom with Tros than be a pawn of the high-class vermin who seek to use her in their quest for power. She is a smart, loyal, and effective female lead; as has been pointed out by others, the character of Hero shows signs of the influence of A. Merritt, whose book The Ship of Ishtar was published in 1924 and may have had a direct effect on Mundy’s Tros books.
The second character who is key to this book is Conops. Too often depicted as comic relief in cover art, Conops shows an immense amount of growth over the course of the three novels. While Conops is indeed quite capable of being used to comic effect, that is not all he is by the end of the third book:
Conops can’t help but change after years of serving Tros by land and sea, in war and peace. In Tros of Samothrace, Conops isn’t much more than a sharp-eyed sailor with a ready knife. In Queen Cleopatra, he is able to joke with Cleopatra in polite Greek, the language of diplomacy. In Purple Pirate, he is indispensable, the man who knows every back alley and ill-reputed dive from one end of Alexandria to the other and who not only knows the mind of his master but is able to think for himself and get things done, whether that means splicing a warp, training a squad of gladiator slaves to protect and fight for Tros, sabotaging an enemy army or fighting off an attack by royal troops trying to board one of Tros’s ships. By the end of this book, he is Captain Conops with his own ship and Admiral Tros will need every ounce of his old friend’s wit and ferocious tenacity as they go into battle.
There are other characters in this book who are superbly drawn by the author, from the sage Olympus to Lars Tarquinius, Etruscan spy, mercenary and con-man; from pirate kings such as Anchises and Sophax to enemies you can trust, like Ahenobarbus or friends you can’t turn your back on, like Herod. Then there are the great men who seem to leave nothing but death and destruction in their wake, like Cassius whose hands are stained by the blood of Caesar himself and Mark Antony, who has been to Alexandria before.
It is the city of Alexandria that is as much a character as any of them. In his words in the books Queen Cleopatra and Purple Pirate, Talbot Mundy brings this city to life to a degree that is matched by few writers in the field of adventure fiction. The sights of Alexander’s City from the Pharos Lighthouse to the Lochias, from Rhakotis Dock to Lake Mareotis, the scents and sounds of the crowds and the markets, the warehouses and the tax-collector’s offices bring this setting alive in a way that is matched by only two other cities in my opinion: the Paris of the Three Musketeers and the London of Sherlock Holmes.
Of all the Tros books, it is Purple Pirate that has the most action. There are at least six open battles, from fleet actions to repelling borders to river actions to the outnumbered defense of an old Egyptian fort, with at least one duel, an ambush or two and a chariot race, of course. The fight with Anchises off the coast of Cyprus is a great example:
With each of these fights, the stakes are stacked higher and higher until Tros’s last battle is literally for everything: his life, his ships, Cleopatra, Egypt, his wife Hero and his friends, everything he owns or hopes to accomplish. That last clash brings the saga of Tros of Samothrace to a thunderous climax with the world as he knows it in the balance as he leads his ships, with Sigurdsen and Conops in command of their own squadrons, to face a Roman fleet in an epic battle that turns Alexandria’s shadow-haunted night into day.
This ends Mundy’s Purple Pirate, a tale of love, war and adventure during the fall of the Roman Republic. When published in 1935, Purple Pirate was both a commercial and critical success that was cited as a rare example of an author writing a sequel that was the equal of the original novel. This also concludes our look at the Tros novels by Talbot Mundy, considered by many to be the best and most influential work of his career. Although it has been nearly 85 years since their publication, these stories of Tros, his friends, the fighting men who follow them and the beautiful girl who throws away a throne to be his wife still have the power to entrance the reader and give them a glimpse of another world filled with adventure. If you have not yet read all of them, I hope you will take the time to do so in the future, you won’t regret it.
Previous posts on Tros: