Monday, July 21, 2003

Book Review: The Twelfth Vulture of Romulus by Boris Raymond

Boris Raymond’s first novel, “The Twelfth Vulture of Romulus”, is a commendable effort. A former professor of history and sociology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, Raymond weaves his knowledge of the history and political processes of the late Roman Empire into a tale of intrigue and struggle for power between traditional Roman oligarchs and the increasing number of barbarian cultures who permeated Roman society both as slaves from the conquered lands and as members of Rome’s auxiliaries, legions, and officer corps.

The narrative swirls around the experiences of Orestes, a one-time secretary to Attila the Hun, who joins the ranks of the legions and, with his “qualifications of courage, industry, and experience, advanced with rapid steps in the military profession”1. In the process, he gains the notice of such prominent Roman aristocrats as Senator Aurelius Cassiodorus , chief of the Imperial Secret Service and ambassador to Attila during the reign of Emperor Valentinian III. His ultimate struggle for control of the Western Empire eventually pits Orestes against Odovacar, the son of Attila’s lieutenant, Edecon.

Raymond’s portrayal of the culture of the Huns and the personage of Attila recall the observations of the Greek writer Priscus.

“A luxurious meal, served on silver plate, had been made ready for us and the barbarian guests, but Attila ate nothing but meat on a wooden trencher. In everything else, too, he showed himself temperate; his cup was of wood, while to the guests were given goblets of gold and silver. His dress, too, was quite simple, affecting only to be clean. The sword he carried at his side, the latchets of his Scythian shoes, the bridle of his horse were not adorned, like those of the other Scythians, with gold or gems or anything costly.” – Priscus, fr. 8 in Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum.

Raymond peoples his novel with many actual historical figures as well as fictional characters to shed insight into the politics and social life in the late Empire. I knew little about this period of Roman history before reading this book except the events portrayed in USA Network’s miniseries, “Attila”. So, I found the number of characters and their interconnections a bit overwhelming.

I think I would have excluded some of the plot entanglements to provide a more easily understood core message for less experienced readers. For example, the subplot of the events leading up to the settlement of the holy man, Severinus, in Noricum could probably have been better served in a novel of its own.

I also think Odovacar’s experiences should have paralleled Orestes’ throughout the novel to add more tension to the ultimate confrontation between the two men. Odovacar pretty much disappears about one-third of the way through the novel and does not resurface until the last few chapters. The reader is provided with a brief summary of his intervening experiences. But, since he will represent the fatal clash between the traditionalists and the Romanized barbarians that will inherit the Western Empire, I think his importance in the novel should have equaled that of Orestes to provide an antagonist of equal stature.

However, the work reveals much about a period of history seldom explored in detail and it has served to stimulate my interest in a number of the individuals who took the world stage in this tumultuous time. I hope Dr. Raymond will continue to share his understanding of past cultures with a public audience in this way. I have always felt that reading works that combine history and creative writing is the most memorable way to gain a knowledge and appreciation of other societies.

1 Gibbon, Edward. 1788. History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire - Volume III

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