Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Vipsania by Jasper Burns

"In 12 BC, the Roman Emperor Augustus ordered his stepson Tiberius to divorce his wife Vipsania - the love of his life. Tiberius obeyed - for duty, for love of country, for love of power.

Six years later, Tiberius defied Augustus, abandoned his powers, and followed Vipsania
half way across the Roman world.

He renounced love for power, and then he renounced power for the dream of love.

"Was Tiberius an ancient Edward VIII, trading his throne for a woman? No, because his destiny would carry him forward, to unimagined highs and lows.

He was an exile, despised and abused.

And then, against all odds, he became the most powerful man in the world.

And what of Vipsania, remarried to an ambitious senator, the mother of ten children, one of them abandoned by her husband to the mercies of the gods? And through it all, still in love with Tiberius."

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Chronicle of Zenobia: The Rebel Queen by Judith Weingarten "Zenobia, who from her desert stronghold in Palmyra challenged and held out against the might of the Roman empire, is one of the great queens of history. Yet the fact that she was on the side of 'East' rather than 'West', that she was female, that her 'country' no longer exists (Palmyra is in the far east of modern Syria) means she's not received the attention she deserved.

It was Antonia Fraser in The Warrior Queens who first brought her to attention of English-speaking readers, but surprisingly little has been written on her since then. A search of Amazon reveals no more than half a dozen significant factual and fictional treatments. So, having visited Palmyra and soaked up its glorious atmosphere, I was delighted to sit down with Judith Weingarten's The Rebel Queen, billed as Volume One of 'The Chronicle of Zenobia'.

The author is a veteran archaeologist, with many professional publications to her credit, and the depth of her knowledge is clear from the early pages of the book, as we meet its central character, Simon, a Jewish boy who will grow up to serve the young king Odenathus, who married the young Zenobia in the multicultural city. Odenathus was bred to rule in the caravan city that is part of the Roman empire, but not subject to it, bred to be a warrior in an unstable border region facing the threat of the Persians."

Alexander's Lovers by Andrew Chugg

"Did you know that Alexander got the idea of adopting Persian dress from a book he read in his youth? Had you realised that Alexander?s pursuit of divine honours was merely an aspect of his emulation of Achilles? Would you be interested to discover that Bagoas the Eunuch undertook a diplomatic mission in Bactria or that Hephaistion?s diplomacy kept Athens from joining the Spartan rebellion of King Agis? Are you aware that Aetion?s famous painting of Alexander?s marriage depicted Hephaistion and Bagoas as well as Roxane and that it was really a depiction of the King?s various passions? Had you heard that Alexander first met his mistress Barsine when they were both children in Macedon and that she was the great-granddaughter of a Great King? Can you name the girl betrothed to Alexander?s son? Would it surprise you to learn that Alexander?s mourning and funeral arrangements for Hephaistion were conducted according to precepts dictated by Homer and Euripides? If you are intrigued by any of these questions and would like to get to know Alexander on a more personal level than is feasible from the conventional histories, then you need to read Alexander?s Lovers."

An excerpt:

"The tragic history of Barsine and her son Heracles poses some intriguing
questions, which merit some further deliberation.

Why did Alexander fail to marry Barsine, when he subsequently insisted upon
marrying Roxane? In the first place, Barsine had already been married twice to
Alexander?s enemies and had children from those previous marriages. An heir
would have been the younger half-brother of those children, which would have
been a potentially uncomfortable situation, especially vis-à-vis the succession.
Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, what indications we have (excepting
the unreliable Justin) suggest that the relationship with Barsine was more a
matter of convenience for Alexander than an affair of the heart. The king will
have been under some political pressure to beget an heir, especially in view of a
conspicuous lack of any sexual liaisons with women prior to the battle of Issus.
This was not at all a question of morality, but a matter of political stability and
state security. If a king should die without an heir, there was a very real threat of
a chaotic and bloody power struggle over the succession, which would have
been in the interests of few. Furthermore, a king with no apparent heir was
arguably more exposed to assassination attempts, since the rebels might believe
that their objectives were more easily achievable with a lesser risk of retribution.
In fact, we have the direct testimony of Aristobulus, a reputable primary source,
that Alexander took Barsine as his first mistress at Parmenion?s instigation,
which confirms both the existence of the pressure and the dispassionate nature
of the decision. This is underlined by indications that Alexander packed Barsine
off to Pergamon without compunction, when he found a princess whom he
actually wished to make his bride. In fact, the particular choice of Barsine was
probably due to her knowledge of Greek and of Greek culture and sensibilities,
her reputed beauty and possibly also because Alexander had known her in
childhood. Amorous feelings were subordinate to pragmatic considerations."

Monday, May 22, 2006

Caesar by Adrian Goldsworthy

Independent Online Edition Review by Christopher Hart (excerpt): "Julius Caesar was great, if not good, acknowledges Goldsworthy in this definitive and entertaining new biography. Our definition of what constitutes 'good' nowadays being utterly different to that of the Romans anyway, and morality being rather more time-tied than we like to admit, arguments about any historical figure's goodness or badness tend to be fairly worthless. About Caesar's greatness, though, there can be no argument: charismatic, daring, brilliant, charming, a supreme political operator, a brilliant military tactician and improviser, a writer of admirable simplicity in an age of tiresome floridity. Oh, and if this counts as a sign of greatness too, a highly successful bedder of other men's wives.

His conquest of Gaul certainly resulted in the deaths of tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands, but brought along with it a 500-year Pax Romana with all its associated benefits of roads, bridges, baths, etc (see Monty Python's Life of Brian for further details). He was also famed for his mercifulness to his conquered enemies; responded to his own troops' rude songs about his bedroom antics with a cheerful and tolerant laugh; and you can't help warming to a man so upset about his receding hairline that he wore his laurel wreath on all possible occasions to hide it.

Goldsworthy is renowned as a military historian, but his coverage here of messy late Republican politics is also authoritative and crystal clear. He gives us a colourful sense of the wider world and Roman society at this time, and above all, the commanding, unmistakable presence of the timelessly fascinating man himself: a character of limitless energy and ambition, unscrupulousness and opportunism, combined with the saving graces of magnanimity, stoicism and humour."

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Tracing the Path of Looted Treasures

NPR :: " Author Peter Watson talks about his new book The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities, from Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums, and the network behind the trade.

A 1995 raid on suspected tomb raider Giacomo Medici's warehouse in Geneva showed that Medici had been storing thousands of ancient vases, frescos, and other antiquities -- some in fragments or in various stages of restoration, some encrusted with dirt -- out of reach of the Italian government, in the Swiss Freeport. The Italian Carabinieri Art Squad gained access to the warehouse in 1997, as part of their investigation into Medici's ties to a global ring of looters, dealers, curators and collectors who worked to smuggle antiquities out of Italy. The documentation they found in Medici's warehouse proved to be as damning as the objects themselves."

As someone who has visited Pompeii and was disturbed by the deteriorating condition of what little art remains in situ there I found the following excerpt from the book very upsetting:


What the images revealed was a dismaying sequence -- " a real horror,? as he wrote in his report -- in which the first pictures showed three walls of what any expert could recognize as a Vesuvian/Pompeian villa. They could make this identification because the three walls were frescoed in what is called the Campanian II style. The decoration on Roman villas went through what art historians and archaeologists recognize as four styles, between the second century bc and ad 79. Campanian II comes second in this chronology, and decorations in that style differ from what came before and after in consisting of more panoramic landscapes, mythological scenes, and certain architectural features.

The photographs showed nine walls in all, but three were of particular interest. Two of them were in red, pale blue, and gray. These walls showed two female figures in the foreground with, below them, miniaturized masks and smaller figures. On the right wall was shown an architectural drawing of a two-story building, with a similar symmetric design opposite, on the left wall. In other words, in this first sequence of photographs, the room -- or one end of it -- is intact. " The frescoes are in an excellent state of conservation, both pictorially and structurally.? However, besides the walls of the room, the photographs also showed a mass of earth mixed with lapillae covering the floor and filling the space to a depth of a few feet; lapillae also encrust the ceiling area. Lapillae are a telltale sign to any Italian archaeologist. They are small balls of volcanic ash, formed after the eruption of Vesuvius in ad 79, which buried so much of the surrounding countryside south of Naples. This was further confirmation, in addition to the subject matter and pictorial style of the frescoes, that this room had been part of a villa that was one of those overwhelmed by the eruption of the famous volcano, but not one known to the official archaeologists. The first sequence of photographs therefore confirmed that this had been a very important discovery, made in a clandestine " excavation? by some tombaroli. It was the next set of photographs, however, that constituted the " horror.?

This second set showed the image of the central wall -- the one with the two female figures and the figurines -- but laid out like a giant jigsaw. The images had been cut from the original wall, in a number of highly irregular pieces, each in size about as big as a laptop, and then put back together again on panels that were framed -- edged -- in wood. The fresco had been taken off the villa wall, detached from its right and left companions, and cut up into chunks. That it was the same image was quite clear to Pellegrini, even though there were gaps between the separate pieces: The two females were clearly visible and recognizable. In his report, Pellegrini commented that this operation, normally highly technical (when done by archaeologists), was here done crudely and in a hurry, without any regard for the integrity or sanctity of the images but simply so that the fresco could be quickly and more easily smuggled abroad?"

Friday, May 05, 2006

Memnon by Scott Oden

Scott Oden: "Born in the shadow of giants, Memnon of Rhodes (375-333 BCE) rose from humble origins to command the whole of western Asia in a time of chaos and bloodshed. To his own people, he was a traitor, to his rivals, a mercenary. But, to the King of Kings, his majesty Darius III of Persia, Memnon was the one man who could check the rising ambitions of Macedonia's young monarch, the conqueror history would remember as Alexander the Great.)."

Memnon is scheduled for release in August 2006.

Scott shares some of the historical background he collected while writing this new novel on his personal blog.

Spartacus: The Myth and the Man

By M.J. Trow "Today, the Western world's knowledge of the gladiator-slave Spartacus comes from the Kirk Douglas epic released in 1960. But did Spartacus really come close to changing the structure of the Roman world? Why and how did he come to be claimed as a proletariat hero by Marxists? Who was the real Spartacus? This vivid and exciting book traces the story of Spartacus through his slave hood in Rome and training as a gladiator, to the breakout which began when gladiators hacked at their guards with choppers and took to the hills. Initially the affair was regarded as a minor breakout but by the time the Roman praetor found them, Spartacus's rising had grown into an army of 3,000 men. With nothing to lose but their freedom, they slaughtered several of the Roman forces sent to capture them. It was not until the Senate sent Pompey, the 'young butcher' that Spartacus and his army were defeated, the survivors either crucified or returned to slavery. Pompey celebrated with days of festivities in Rome. And Spartacus? He has inspired films and a ballet, has been claimed as a political freedom fighter, and revolutionary hero, and has become a gay icon."