Tuesday, March 23, 2004

"The Death of Alexander the Great: What or Who Really Killed the Young Conqueror of the Known World?

By Paul Doherty

"In May 323 BC Alexander of Macedonia fell ill in Babylon. Within ten days he was dead. A military genius who raged through the Persian empire, Alexander believed he was the son of God, with a desire for everlasting glory and an urge to march and conquer the world. The Death of Alexander the Great critically analyzes this extraordinary conqueror who achieved so much before he died at the early age of 33. Alexander was a man who wanted to be a God, a Greek who wanted to be a Persian, a defender of liberties who spent most of his life taking away the liberties of others, and a king who could be compassionate to the lowliest yet ruthlessly wipe out an ancient city like Tyre and crucify 3,000 of its defenders. Doherty scrutinizes the circumstances surrounding Alexander's death as he lay sweating beside a swimming pool in the summer palace of the Persian kings. Did Alexander die of alcoholism, a hideous bout of malaria, or were other factors involved? Alexander had been warned not to enter Babylon, so he surrounded himself with outstanding captains of war. This book is a dramatic reassessment of the leader's mysterious final days. "

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity

This week the classical world lost a profound scholar with the death of Professor Keith Hopkins. Although his most recognized scholarly works were Conquerors and Slaves (1978) and Death and Renewal (1983), his most controverial and possibly most perceptive work was a sociological analysis of the development of Christianity. "A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity by Keith Hopkins is a rollicking work of revisionist history about Christianity's ascent as the dominant religion of the West. In its tour of Roman paganism, Judaism, Christianity, and Gnosticism, A World Full of Gods employs a range of techniques of description, analysis, and historical reportage. The first chapter is a report from two time-travelers visiting Pompeii just before the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius; soon after comes a description of the ascetic Jewish sect at Qumran that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls--in the form of a TV drama. Hopkins, a professor of ancient history at King's College, Cambridge, justifies his experimental style by asserting that 'to reexperience the thoughts, feelings, practices, and images of religious life in the Roman empire, in which orthodox Christianity emerged in all its vibrant variety, we have to combine ancient perceptions, however partial, with modern understandings, however misleading.' "

Professor Hopkins will be missed.

Friday, March 05, 2004

The Gilded Chamber

by Gaby Wenig

"Author Rebbeca Kohn tells the story of Esther's pauper-to-princess journey in way that evokes Anita Diamant's 'The Red Tent' in style and Arthur Golden's 'Memoirs of a Geisha' in setting. Much of the narrative in 'The Gilded Chamber' is devoted to life in the harem, a setting that develops intrigues of its own between the girls themselves. There are many lush descriptions of the girls trading secrets and gossiping while reclining on couches and being fed and tended to by eunuchs. The eunuchs also instruct the girls how to pleasure the king, and the book is full of flowery and euphemistic sex prose, like, 'My body opened to him like a rose in bloom, each soft petal unfolding until the final burst of color and fragrance.'

The story of Purim is the backdrop of the 'The Gilded Chamber,' but the book is not a retelling of the megillah. Mordechai's role, for example, is greatly reduced. He is Esther's unrequited love interest and, taking great liberties with the source text, he emerges in 'The Gilded Chamber' as a man largely estranged from traditional Judaism. Esther pines for him, all the while trying to figure out how she can protect herself from becoming doped and sick from the drugged wine that the eunuchs feed the virgins, and how she can keep herself in the king's favor to eventually save her people. According to the book's press materials, Kohn supplemented her imagination with meticulous historical research, and so while there are no surprises about how the story ends, it still manages to look different from the story we know."

Thursday, March 04, 2004

The Venus Throw by Steven Saylor

by Steven Saylor
Review by Mary Harrsch

I finished listening to the sensational conclusion of Steven Saylor's "The Venus Throw" and I certainly see why Roman trials were considered as entertaining as the Circus Maximus. Cicero did a consummate job of character assassination of Claudia. I didn't realize until I listened to the author's notes that the incidents he portrayed (with the exception of the acts by Gordianus) actually occurred. Even Cicero's defense of March Caelius was just as it was portrayed in the novel – including the "confusion" of Claudia's brother as her husband:

"And, indeed, I would do so still more vigorously, if I had not a quarrel with that woman's husband--brother, I meant to say; I am always making this mistake. At present I will proceed with moderation, and go no further than my own duty to my client and the nature of the cause which I am pleading compels me. For I have never thought it my duty to engage in quarrels with any woman, especially with one whom all men have always considered everybody's friend rather than any one's enemy.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero, In Defence Of Marcus Caelius.

He really did invoke Claudia's own ancestors to humiliate her for her "notorious" behavior:

"Let, then, some one of her own family rise up, and above all others that great blind Claudius of old time. For he will feel the least grief, inasmuch as he will not see her. And, in truth, if he can come forth from the dead, he will deal thus with her; he will say,--"Woman, what have you to do with Caelius? What have you to do with a very young man? What have you to do with one who does not belong to you? Why have you been so intimate with him as to lend him gold, or so much an enemy of his as to fear his poison? Had you never seen that your father, had you never heard that your uncle, your grand-father, your great-grandfather, your great-great-grand-father, were all consuls? [34] Did you not know, moreover, that you were bound in wedlock to Quintus Metellus, a most illustrious and gallant man, and most devoted to his country? who from the [p. 262] first moment that he put his foot over his threshold, showed himself superior to almost all citizens in virtue, and glory, and dignity. When you had become his wife, and, being previously of a most illustrious race yourself, had married into a most renowned family, why was Caelius so intimate with you? Was he a relation? a connection? Was he a friend of your husband? Nothing of the sort. What then was the reason, except it was some folly or lust?
* * * Even if the images of us, the men of your family, had no influence over you, did not even my own daughter, that celebrated Quinta Claudia, admonish you to emulate the praise belonging to our house from the glory of its women? Did not that vestal virgin Claudia recur to your mind, who embraced her father while celebrating his triumph, and prevented his being dragged from his chariot by a hostile tribune of the people? Why had the vices of your brother more weight with you than the virtues of your father, of your grandfather, and others in regular descent ever since my own time; virtues exemplified not only in the men, but also in the women? Was it for this that I broke the treaty which was concluded with Pyrrhus, that you should every day make new treaties of most disgraceful love? Was it for this that I brought water into the city, that you should use it for your impious purposes? Was it for this that I made the Appian road, that you should travel along it escorted by other men besides your husband?" Marcus Tullius Cicero, In Defence Of Marcus Caelius.

And he really did call Claudia a prostitute in front of the entire court:

"I am not saying anything now against that woman: but if there were a woman totally unlike her, who made herself common to everybody; who had always some one or other openly avowed as her lover; to whose gardens, to whose house, to whose baths the lusts of every one had free access as of their own right; a woman who even kept young men, and [p. 265] made up for the parsimony of their fathers by her liberality; if she lived, being a widow, with freedom, being a lascivious woman, with wantonness, being a rich woman, extravagantly, and being a lustful woman, after the fashion of prostitutes; am I to think any one an adulterer who might happen to salute her with a little too much freedom?"

"If any woman, not being married, has opened her house to the passions of everybody, and has openly established herself in the way of life of a harlot, and has been accustomed to frequent the banquets of men with whom she has no relationship; if she does so in the city in country houses and in that most frequented place, Baiae, if in short she behaves in such a manner, not only by her gait, but by her style of dress, and by the people who are seen attending her, and not only by the eager glances of her eyes and the freedom of her conversation, but also by embracing men, by kissing them at water parties and sailing parties and banquets so as not only to seem a harlot, but a very wanton and lascivious harlot, I ask you, O Lucius Herennius, if a young man should happen to have been with her, is he to be called an adulterer or a lover? - Marcus Tullius Cicero, In Defence Of Marcus Caelius."

Cicero even referred to the "strong box" of Claudia's Venus statue mentioned in the book:

"Did you dare to take gold out of your strong-box? Did you dare to strip that statue of yours of Venus the Plunderer of men of her ornaments? But when you knew for what an enormous crime this gold was required,--for the murder of an ambassador,--for the staining of Lucius Lucceius, a most pious and upright man, with the blot of everlasting impiety--then your well-educated mind ought not to have been privy to so horrible an atrocity; your house, so open to all people, ought not to have been made an instrument in it. Above all, that most hospitable Venus of yours ought not to have been an assistant in it." - Marcus Tullius Cicero, In Defence Of Marcus Caelius.

And the hilarious chase at the bath house apparently really did take place:

"They lay in ambush in the baths. Splendid witnesses, indeed! Then they sprung out precipitately. O men entirely devoted to their dignity! For this is the story that they make up: that when Licinius had arrived, and was holding the box of poison in his hand, and was endeavouring to deliver it to them, but had not yet delivered it, then all on a sudden those splendid nameless witnesses sprung out; and that Licinius, when he had already put out his hand to give them over the box of poison, drew it back again, and, alarmed at that an expected onset of men, took to his heels. O how great is the power of truth! which of its own power can easily defend itself against all the ingenuity, and cunning, and wisdom of men, and against the treacherous plots of all the world." - Marcus Tullius Cicero, In Defence Of Marcus Caelius.

If you are interested check out the entire defence.


Steven's quality of research is obviously apparent if you check out the sources he names for this work of "fiction". Now I have started "Murder On The Appian Way" that fictionalizes the events surrounding the murder of Claudius four years later. I find Steven's books totally absorbing and of the highest quality, both in structure and plot, as well as historical accuracy.