Thursday, June 23, 2011

Review: Master of Rome by John Stack

The glamor surrounding Hannibal and his amazing trek through the Alps with a cadre of elephants during the Second Punic War has captivated history buffs for so long that the First Punic War has been virtually overlooked by many historical novelists.  Likewise, although many authors have written thousands of pages about Rome's fierce legions, Rome's first tentative efforts to build a navy and develop seamanship that would eventually rival Carthaginian mariners who had ruled the Mediterranean for centuries have been largely ignored as well.   But Irish author John Stack has redressed  both of these oversights in his "Masters of the Sea" series of novels.

I was unaware of Stack's efforts until the third book in his series, "Master of Rome", popped up in the available titles on  As I am always on the lookout for stories set in the ancient world, I immediately selected it as one of my choices and was pleased to discover that its story focussed on the naval battles of the last years of the First Punic War.

The story's protagonist, a Greek born Roman prefect named Atticus Perennis, has honed his seamanship fighting pirates (which I learned later is covered by the first book in the series, Ship of Rome) and has learned to use the corvus, a boarding ramp introduced by the Romans to allow them to take advantage of land-type assault maneuvers at sea, to deadly effect.

The Roman corvus, a boarding ramp anchored to the enemy
ship by a sharp spike, is estimated to have weighed over
a ton causing severe instability in rough seas.  Though 
advantageous under the right conditions, it was ultimately
abandoned after the loss of an entire fleet in a storm following
the battle of Cape Ecnomus during the First Punic War.

I had known about the corvus from earlier studies but didn't realize that it was actually used for only a few years during the First Punic War because of the massive loss of ships in a storm following the brilliant Roman victory at the battle of Cape Ecnomus.

Perennis commands one of the few ships that survive the storm and is assaulted by charges of incompetence when he returns to Rome to report the loss to the senate.  We learn that in earlier novels Perennis has apparently made a powerful enemy in the form of Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Asina who earned his cognomen "Asina" meaning "donkey" when, as the first Roman fleet commander, he led an ill-conceived rush to take possession of the Lipari Islands and was subsequently captured by the Carthaginians.   Since I had read only about the glory of the Scipioni in regards to the Second Punic War and the ultimate defeat of Hannibal, I was surprised to learn that the family had someone in the family tree much less militarily successful.  A little research revealed that he was actually a brother to Lucius Cornelius Scipio who begat the much more glorious line of descendants.

Roman galley depicted in a fresco recovered from Pompeii, 1st century BCE -
1st century CE.  Photographed by Mary Harrsch at the Archaeologico Nazionale 
di Napoli in Naples, Italy.

Fortunately, Perennis has a powerful Senator in his corner, and he survives the spurious charges and is placed in command of a new fleet no longer equipped with the corvus.  But this change brings the Romans back to their original problem.  How do they overcome the supremely skilled Carthaginian seamen?   To make matters worse, Scipio Asina is elected consul and ignores any advice Perennis offers to help the Romans achieve victory.

Perennis trains his men furiously but even the most brutal training schedule cannot equal the skills acquired and handed down for centuries by generations of Carthaginian sailors.  However, Perennis manages to maintain a blockade of the city of Panormus and Scipio's legions eventually breach the city's defenses.  But the Carthaginian defense is spearheaded by Greek mercenaries so Scipio refuses to acknowledge Perennis' crucial contributions to the ultimate Roman victory.

In the meantime, Hamilcar Barca has hired another of Perennis' wily countryman from Rhodes to slip through the Roman blockade and keep Barca informed of Roman dispositions of ships and legions.
This Rhodian, a  real historical figure named Hannibal the Rhodian, was almost equal to Perennis in command seamanship and Perennis has to employ every ounce of his mariner's skill as well as a cuning ruse to finally overwhelm the Rhodian's sleek quadreme when the Rhodian attempts once again to run the Roman blockade.  (I noticed in my research that the Rhodian's ship is thought to have been used subsequently as the model for faster Roman ships as the war progressed.)

The Rhodian's capture yields valuable intelligence about the location of the main Carthaginian fleet at Drepana and Scipio Asini is once again, all too quick to jump on the opportunity to grab a fistful of glory and orders a night voyage to surprise the Carthaginians.

Battle of DrepanaImage via Wikipedia

For the sake of historical accuracy, I must point out that in history, Publius Claudius Pulcher, not Scipio Asini, was consul by then, and it is Pulcher who supposedly threw the uncooperative sacred chickens overboard when they refused to eat during the auguries before the battle of Drepana, declaring "Bibant, quoniam esse nolunt " - "Let them drink, since they don't wish to eat!".  Stack includes this bit of theater in his story although some scholars point out that it was only referenced indirectly by Cicero and not documented by Polybius, recognized as the definitive ancient source on the Punic Wars, so  whether it really happened is questionable.

Some reviewers have criticized Stack's consolidation of some of the Roman commanders but I think he meant to streamline the story to improve pacing and allow the reader to focus on the actions of  the main protagonist and antagonists.  Stack also simplifies the Carthaginian command structure by having Hamilcar Barca, Hannibal's father, in primary command of all Carthaginian forces, including the fleet.  In reality, Hamilcar Barca commanded the land forces and did not possess the level of naval acumen attributed to him by Stack in this story.   However, since the story was so engaging I was obviously motivated to research the time period and battles covered further so I gained an understanding of the real details eventually anyway.

Hoping to surprise the Carthaginians, the Roman consul plans to sail under cover of darkness and trap the Carthaginians inside the harbor.  But, Perennis feels his crews are not experienced enough to maintain battle formation at night.  However, Perennis is once again ignored as orders are given to set sail for Drepana.  As Perennis predicted, the ships are soon strung out in a long disorderly line and are spotted by the Carthaginians as they approach the harbor.  The Carthaginians not only escape the trap but turn the tables on the Romans and destroy almost the entire fleet.

But the ever tenacious Romans once again rebuild their fleet and exact their revenge at the Battle of the Aegates Islands, the rousing climax of the novel.

Although a relatively new author, Stack demonstrates a command of the history of the era and the cultures involved coupled with the crucial ability to people his stories with vibrant personalities as well.  I have little doubt that Stack will eventually be ranked among such bestselling historical fiction writers as Conn Iggulden and Harry Sidebottom.

Furthermore, I found Stack's ability to conjure up the terrifying ferocity of an ancient naval engagement with its splintering oars, screaming crewmen, shuddering timbers and gore-slickened decks absolutely riveting.  I definitely plan to go back and read the other books in this series.

An excellent summary of the battles immediately preceding and including the events in this novel can also be read here.

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Review: Khan: Empire of Silver by Conn Iggulden

Khan: Empire of Silver: A Novel of the Khan EmpireIt's been two years since Genghis Khan died and his heir, Ogedei, has been consumed with the construction of his new capital city, Qaraqorum (also spelled Karakorum).  His older brother Chaghadai, who considers the Khanate his birthright despite his father's decree, has not been idle either. He meets in secret with the officers of his tumens (Mongol military units of 10,000 men)  and plots to seize the throne before the people of the nations gather to swear their allegiance to the new Khan.

Genghis' brothers, Kachiun and Khassar, have sworn to protect their brother's choice of successor. Their tumens along with those of Subutai are loyal but will they be enough to avert the slaughter of Ogedei and his family?

We also learn that  civil war is not the only catastrophe looming over the hard won Mongol Empire. We discover the young Khan suffers from episodes of severe chest pains and fears his body will betray him before his brother. Then who would lead the nation since Ogedei's son Guyuk is still but a boy?

Conn Iggulden brings the descendants of Genghis Khan vibrantly to life in his latest novel "Khan: Empire of Silver" and I was immediately invested in the outcome of the dynastic struggles between Ogedei and his rivals for the Mongol throne even though most of the thrilling action in the first few chapters of the novel are a tribute to Iggulden's imagination and not specifically documented in historical sources.

The enthronement of Ogedei from a manuscript of  Rashid al-Din.
"Although Genghis had already decided upon Ogedei as his successor, it was two years before he actually assumed the title of Great Khan.  Some suggest it was because Ogedei himself was reluctant, feeling that Tolui might perhaps have been better suited, while other sources suggest it was Tolui who was unhappy about being passed over.  At any rate, a quriltai [kurultai]  was called in 1229 at which the issue was finally settled." -  Storm from the East: from Ghengis Khan to Khubilai Khan by Robert Marshall, University of California Press.
Other sources hint that, although Chaghadai may not have initially challenged Ogedei for head of the empire, his descendants in their subordinate khanate in central Asia wrangled with their royal relations in China in later years.

Mongol leaders within the Chaghadai khanate vied with each other for territory and power. They also fought and engaged in political maneuvers against their Mongol relatives in China. Although the Chaghadai khanate was subordinate to the Great Khan in China, several Chaghadai khans rebelled against this inferior position and sought to assert their independence. - The Chaghadai Khanate - The Metropolitan Museum of Art

So, although the opening struggle did not appear to have occurred, it was certainly within the realm of possibility.

I also could not find references to Ogedei's struggle with a heart condition.  Most sources refer only to a drinking habit that earned the scorn of his older brother, Chaghadai.  But, introducing the threat of imminent death as a major influence in Ogedei's life and the choices he makes as he molds the vast territories conquered by his father into a well-administered empire does add more humanity to the tale.

After the question of Great Khan is settled, Ogedei, along with his younger brother Tolui, march east to complete the conquest of the Chin while Subutai leads the young Mongol princes, including Batu, son of Genghis' dead eldest son Jochi, Guyuk, son of Ogedei, Baider, son of Chaghadai, and Mongke, Tolui's eldest son, on a qwest to conquer the lands west of the empire all the way to the sea.  This is a small rearrangement of history on Iggulden's part as Subutai commanded part of the troops for Ogedei during the action against the Chin before turning his attention to the west but it helped to separate the two fields of operation for the reader.

Portrait of Ögedei Khagan (the 14th century). ...Ogedei Khan.  Image via Wikipedia

[Spoiler alert] In the east, Ogedei comes up against some of the first devastating uses of gunpowder and his
 troops are mangled badly.  In the book, it is here that Ogedei suffers what appears to be a devastating stroke that leaves him comatose.  His shaman sacrifices 12 white mares in an effort to appease Tengri, the Mongol Sky Father.  But the khan does not stir until the shaman  suggests the sacrifice of a family member in his pleadings to the supreme deity.  Taking the Khan's stirrings as an omen, the shaman requests a meeting with Khassar and Tolui and explains what he believes to be a clear sign of the type of sacrifice the gods have indicated.  At the council, another event happens that points to Tolui as the designated choice.
The next passages were absolutely heart wrenching to me.  After an emotional day of preparation, Tolui sacrifices himself, but not by drinking a sacrificial brew as described in the The Secret History of the Mongols.  Tolui   performs an act of butchery on his own body as if he was a sacrificial animal.  As I listened, tears actually streamed down my face.

The sacrifice of Tolui has actually been the focus of an interesting analysis by University of Leeds scholar, Geoff Humble in his paper "A Princely Sacrifice? The Death of Tolui in Imperial Mongol Historiography".  He expresses his opinion that various versions of the story were used by the descendants of Tolui, most notably Kublai Khan, to reinforce their political legitamacy.

Meanwhile, Subutai and the princes conquer Russia, Bulgaria and Hungary.  The dynastic complications include friction between Ogedei's designated warlord Subutai and young Prince Batu.  In "Genghis: Bones of the Hills" Iggulden had imagined that Genghis Khan ordered Subutai to track down his son Jochi and dispatch him for disobeying his father and taking his tumens back to Mongolia while his father was mopping up his conquest of the Khwarezmian Empire.  (Some scholars speculate that Genghis actually ordered the poisoning of Jochi but there is no conclusive evidence).  Before Subdutai found Jochi, Genghis' son had fathered a child without a formal marriage ceremony and the boy, Batu, as a bastard, had endured much abuse outside of the Mongol's tribal social structure.

When Ogedei becomes Khan, he orders Batu to join the tumens and undergo military training then take his rightful place in command of a tumen as a prince of the nation.  But Batu has not forgotten who slaughtered his father in the snow and he can barely control his hatred for his superior commander  Subutai.

Much of this part of the story is embroidery as there is no evidence of such a connection between Subutai and Batu but again it added tension to the narrative.

In eastern Europe, the Mongols meet  heavily armored knights including the fearsome Templars and Hospitallers of Crusade fame.  But, as scholar Robert Marshall points out, knights of the  13th century were used primarily as "head-bashers" supported by infantry composed of  untrained and badly equipped peasants forced to fight for their liege lords.  In the battle for Moscow, Iggulden describes how the peasant infantry are actually whipped into battle by troop handlers commissioned by the ruling noblemen.   Furthermore, the knights, although expensively equipped, were also not trained as line officers and offered little in the way of a formal chain of command once the battle was joined.

Examples of 13th century Hospitaller armor.  Image courtesy of Medieval: Total War.

"By contrast the Mongols were a tightly disciplined fighting machine, in which each soldier knew his place and his responsibilities.  He did not fight as an indiivdual, but as part of a massive formation that was led in and out of well-drilled manoeuvres.  When the Mongol army advanced they approached as a series of long single ranks, made up of a number of units.  The first two consisted of heavy cavalry, followed by three ranks of light cavalry.  Out on either flank and up front were further, smaller detachments of light cavalry."

"An encounter with the enemy was rarely a surprise because there were scouts out in the field who were able to communicate with the main body through a system of flags and messengers.  When the enemy had been engaged, either on the flank or in front, the outer detachments quickly became the vanguard and were soon reinforced from the rear.  Once the enemy's position and disposition had been discovered, the three rear ranks of light cavalry would move up through the ranks of heavy cavalry and gallop up to the line.  Rarely would any of these detachments engage the enemy in close combat.  Instead they would detach small squadrons of some ten or twenty riders to gallop across the enemy's line, pouring in a deadly shower of arrows."

"The Mongols also preferred to manoeuvre the enemy's ranks to exactly where they wanted them.  They did this by deploying the manudai, a corp of 'suicide troops' that charged straight at the enemy line.  As they approached within range of the engemy, they would suddenly break ranks, turn and flee.  The sight of the Mongols in flight was a tempatation that most enemy commanders could not resist.  With the enemy cavalry in hot pursuit, the mangudai galloped to a prearranged spot - where the rest of the army lay in wait."  - Storm from the East: from Ghengis Khan to Khubilai Kahn by Robert Marshall, University of California Press, 1993.

The Mongols also employed sophisticated siege weapons in their European campaigns illustrated below in a manuscript by Rashid al-Din:

The graphic description of the hard-fought battles  Iggulden splashed across the closing pages of the novel kept me listening raptly and more than once I went well past the time needed for my morning exercise routine.

There seems little doubt that Subutai and the Mongol Princes could have swept the rest of Europe and only  Ogedei's sudden death (in the book from an apparent heart attack while history attributes it to a protracted drinking bout) saved the rest of Europe from total defeat.  I can't help but  wonder what political differences there would be today if that defeat had, in fact, happened.  Would the current East-West schism have been totally avoided if the ill-timed death of one man had not occurred at that moment in history?

Khan: Empire of Silver: A Novel of the Khan Empire  Storm from the East: From Genghis Khan to Khubilai Khan    Genghis: Birth of an Empire (Genghis Khan: Conqueror Series #1) by Conn Iggulden   Genghis: Lords of the Bow   Genghis: Bones of the Hills

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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Review: Roman Games by Bruce MacBain

Roman Games: A Plinius Secundus MysterySextus Ingentius Verpa, imperial informant to the vicious emperor Domitian, was a real piece of work, having clawed his way to imperial favor by turning in even the emperor's cousin, Clemens, for atheism.  Now, the disgusting thug lay tangled in his bedsheets in a pool of blood, gripping his "member virilus" and clutching his throat.

But, just as in life, Verpa's death sends terror through his household as troopers of the city prefect round up the household slaves and herd them into a small windowless chamber where they will await the foregone conclusion of the official investigation before being executed in a most hideous manner in the arena.

After all, Roman law was clear.  If any slave should murder his master, all slaves, considered complicit because the murder was not prevented, are deemed equally guilty.

But, this time, the outcome was not going to be as predetermined as in cases in Rome's past.  The city prefect has appointed Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, temporary vice-prefect, to investigate, and the thriving young lawyer, known to history as Pliny the Younger, will not be content to simply go through the motions.
As the case begins to unravel, we find Pliny snared in not only a complicated murder investigation but an assassination plot woven about the imperial throne as well.

Mosaic of a Charioteer at the Palazzo Massimo
Photographed by Mary Harrsch
Bruce MacBain, with a PhD in ancient history, does an excellent job of conjuring daily life in Rome of the late first century CE.  I did not detect a single misstep in his descriptions of Roman housing and decor, Roman law, religion, social obligations, leisure pursuits or entertainments.  He even got the numbers and colors of chariot teams correct for the period,  the whites, blues, greens, reds, purples and golds.   Thankfully, I had just finished the Teaching Company course, The Visual Exploration of Rome: Antiquity's Greatest Empire by Dr. Steven Tuck in which Dr. Tuck explained that throughout most of the imperial period there were four official chariot team colors. But, Domitian introduced two more colors, the purples and the golds.  So, I was gratified when Dr. MacBain mentioned the purples and golds in his novel when Pliny attends the races one day!

Although I was only slightly familiar with the historical Pliny the Younger from my study of Pompeii and the Vesuvian disaster that claimed his uncle, Pliny the Elder, I found Pliny to be an interesting man in his own right and plan to read more of his letters as time permits.  From what I found in my research, Dr. MacBain's portrayal of Pliny closely follows his real persona as discovered in the study of his own writings, the Epistulae (Letters), a series of personal missives directed to his friends and associates that were published in Pliny's own lifetime.

Pliny the Younger's descriptions of the eruption
 of Vesuvius have been invaluable to modern volcanologists
From the Discovery Channel's ''Pompeii'', courtesy of Crew Creative, Ltd 
"We know more about Pliny as a person than we do about most figures from antiquity," MacBain obeserves, "because he was a great letter writer. Through his letters we see many facets of the man. He was a Roman senator and a lawyer with a successful, if not brilliant, career in the imperial administration. He was a landowner with a beautiful villa on the Italian coast. He was a literary dilettante. He was rather vain, rather fussy. At the same time, conscientious and honest. He was curious about the natural—and supernatural—world. He was a very social animal, he had hundreds of friends. His most endearing qualities are his love for his young wife, Calpurnia; his generosity—he endowed a scholarship fund for the boys and girls of his home town; and his humanity towards his slaves and freedmen in an age when that was not common."

Calpurnia was actually Pliny's third wife.  Childbirth was a hazardous undertaking in the 1st century CE and Pliny had already been widowed by it earlier in his life.  So, we can certainly understand his worry over his young wife's advanced pregnancy as the story progresses.

MacBain also introduces us to the flamboyant poet Martial.  This hairsute Spaniard is a pungent blend of crude comedy mixed with sudden, unexpected flashes of introspection.  Although he was known for his ribald epigrams he could also pen verses that encouraged reflection on what was really important in life.

Bronze applique depicting two togate men.
Roman 50 - 75 CE. Photographed at the Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch
An example:

"This is that toga much celebrated in my little books, that toga so well known and loved by my readers. It was a present from Parthenius; a memorable present to his poet long ago; in it, while it was new, while it shone brilliantly with glistening wool, and while it was worthy the name of its giver, I walked proudly conspicuous as a Roman knight. Now it is grown old, and is scarce worth the acceptance of shivering poverty; and you may well call it snowy. What does not time in the course of years destroy? this toga is no longer Parthenius's; it is mine." - Martial, On a Toga Given Him by Parthenius, Book IX,  XLIX.  

We meet Parthenius, a portly and scheming chamberlain of Domitian who acted as gatekeeper to the emperor as the story progresses and learn that even he has joined the inner circle of conspirators plotting Domitian's death.  The chambelain was probably the recipient of many gestures offered to secure a position in the imperial court and someone who an aspiring poet would have had to flatter with verse if he sought to have a copy of his work reach the eyes of the emperor.  Parthenius may have reciprocated with the gift of a toga that could have been worn by the poet to disguise his rather common upbringing and tout his court favor.  But life takes a toll on togas as well as men and Martial confides at the end of the passage that now the toga is more worn and threadbare, it is much more suitable for the real man it now covers.

Martial actually was a friend of Pliny the Younger, who, like many young aristocrats, dabbled in poetry himself and enjoyed  socializing with literary celebrities.  I appreciate the inclusion of  this aspect of Pliny's nature in MacBain's portrayal of Pliny and the opportunity to gain insight into the life of one of Rome's celebrated grammarians living on the precarious edge of imperial patronage.

Bust of the Roman Emperor Domitian 1st century...Image by mharrsch via Flickr
Bust of Domitian 1st century CE

Of course, we also get to meet one of Rome's most sinister emperors, Domitian.  Our first encounter occurs when Pliny is invited to a strange dinner party where the guests are first ushered deep into the bowels of the palace and a bizarre charade takes place where an encounter with Hades himself is reenacted without the guests being forewarned, in an effort to elicit damning confessions from them.  This scene is very reminiscent of a similar audience with Domitian described by Steven Saylor in his novel "Empire".

Domitian's pleasure derived from tormenting Rome's social elite is chilling.  I know Professor Tuck related that he felt many of Domitian's more "transgressive" activities reflected the emperor's efforts to redefine Roman virtus but I can't help but assign a proclivity to sadism to Domitian's psychological profile.

At one point in the novel, Pliny watches as Domitian squashes flies in a prelude to a petulant diatribe against first, Pliny, then Roman society as a whole.  As Domitian veers wildly from condemnation to bestowing  favor upon his hapless visitors and demanding kisses, we can easily understand the fear that must have  permeated Domitian's inner circle.  We also gain sympathy for Domitian's wife, one of the co-conpirators, who is described as bruised so severely even heavy makeup cannot conceal her condition.

Understandably, Pliny  offers to resign his position but the prefect and emperor make it clear that is not an option.  So, he plows ahead, investigating as best he can,  at one point searching through piles of scrolls that comprise his uncle's Naturalis Historia for clues (a respectful nod to the prodigious scholarship of Pliny the Elder).

The emperor Nerva photographed at the
Capitoline Museum by Mary Harrsch
The plot takes many twists and turns as Pliny gets closer to the truth. Will Pliny as an upright officer of the court denounce the killer and expose the imperial treachery even though it may mean the deaths of family friends and some of the most conscientious people in Roman society?  Will the emperor's death ignite a civil war with the emperor's loyal legions in Germania who Pliny fears will swoop down on the eternal city  and wreak revenge on its citizens?  What will happen to Pliny under the rule of someone like Nerva, the conspirators' less than enthusiastic designate?

Nerva was Domitian's immediate successor and he is portrayed in the book much as he was thought to have been in life - a reluctant Caesar who other conspirators selected mainly because of his age, with the thought that he could be a placeholder for a short time until someone more suitable could be found.  But there was more to Nerva than the conspirators may have realized.  If we examine another passage from Martial, we see that the poet, experienced in assessing the motivations of others, lends insight into this "man who would be king":

"He who ventures to send verses to the eloquent Nerva, will present common perfumes to Cosmus, violets and privet to the inhabitant of Paestum, and Corsican honey to the bees of Hybla. Yet there is some attraction in even a humble muse; the cheap olive is relished even when costly daintiest are on the table. Be not surprised, however, that, conscious of the mediocrity of her poet, my Muse fears your judgment. Nero himself is said to have dreaded your criticism, when, in his youth, he read to you his sportive effusions." - Martial, To Nerva, Book IX, XXVI.
Martial, at least, has more than just a little trepidation about Nerva's accession and, as the novel concludes, Pliny soon discovers himself that the new emperor has an edge of ruthlessness about him that Pliny will be unable to deflect.

So we leave Pliny, sobered by his new reality, and must say goodbye to Martial as he leaves for his childhood home in Hispania.  Although Pliny has more adventures ahead of him, Martial will no longer share them and, historically, dies within a few years of his return to Spain.

I look forward to Pliny's next adventure as we fast forward ten years and Pliny embarks on a new career as governor of the province of Bithynia-Pontus in Asia Minor.  I see that his new side-kick will be that salacious gossip-monger Suetonius so I'm sure that will make for a wild ride!

Roman Games: A Plinius Secundus Mystery  Complete Letters (Oxford World's Classics)  Ashen Sky: The Letters of Pliny The Younger on the Eruption of Vesuvius Domitian: Tragic Tyrant 

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