Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Gladiators from Capua: A Review

by Mary Harrsch

I just finished listening to Caroline Lawrence's novel for young adults (grades 5-8) "The Gladiators from Capua" and found it both exciting and illustrative of both the Roman cultural attitudes towards bloodsport and the daily life of those involved in the production of Roman games and entertainments. The story's young heroes and heroines, each an interesting individual, acted maturely and, despite my own age, I felt like I was a companion to them as they searched the dank recesses of the Flavian amphitheater searching for a friend hiding among the ranks of the gladiators to escape execution as an arsonist. I found their youthful enthusiasm refreshing compared to the often bellicose and cyncial Marcus Didius Falco featured in adult mysteries by Lindsey Davis.

Inspired by Martial's accounts of Roman spectacles, Lawrence pulled no punches in depicting the brutality of theatrically presented executions and the bleak life of those condemned to serve as slaves in the squalor of the hypogeum. But she also revealed the glamorous life of successful gladiators so the readers could understand why men would choose to become professional fighters and members of a gladiatorial familia.

Lawrence presented the lives of the privileged sharply contrasted with the lives of the lowest classes in Roman society and even mixed in a touch of political intrigue and the social machinations that concerned the emperor Titus as he tries to govern the sometimes fickle Roman mob and thwart the power plays of his brother Domitian. The resulting story kept me as enthralled as many adult novels and provided an insightful slice of Roman life in the Flavian period that I think would encourage any child (or adult) to want to learn more about the classical world.

Seattle educator B. Goh observes, "The protagonists--all children--adroitly negotiate a morally difficult world where men, womnen and even children are victims of spectacular (and bloodthirsty) games in the Flavian amphitheater. However, the narration is also quite sensitive to the young reader's possible reactions, and sympathetic views are always heard from at least one character. The subject of personal loss and family tragedy is well explored here. I'm not a a mental health professional, but this books feels like the type that might help a child who has had to cope with the loss of a loved one. I've read every book in the series and as an educator in literature, I highly recommend it, and also the other books in the series."

Although this was my first exposure to Lawrence's work, the novel is actually the sixth in her Roman mysteries series. I definitely look forward to reading more adventures of these intrepid young sleuths.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Agincourt - Where History Became Legend!

I see that Bernard Cornwell has shifted his historical focus once again from the Viking era to the reign of Henry V in his newest novel, Agincourt:

Young Nicholas Hook is dogged by a cursed past—haunted by what he has failed to do and banished for what he has done. A wanted man in England, he is driven to fight as a mercenary archer in France, where he finds two things he can love: his instincts as a fighting man, and a girl in trouble. Together they survive the notorious massacre at Soissons, an event that shocks all Christendom. With no options left, Hook heads home to England, where his capture means certain death. Instead he is discovered by the young King of England—Henry V himself—and by royal command he takes up the longbow again and dons the cross of Saint George. Hook returns to France as part of the superb army Henry leads in his quest to claim the French crown. But after the English campaign suffers devastating early losses, it becomes clear that Hook and his fellow archers are their king's last resort in a desperate fight against an enemy more daunting than they could ever have imagined.

One of the most dramatic victories in British history, the battle of Agincourt—immortalized by Shakespeare in Henry V—pitted undermanned and overwhelmed English forces against a French army determined to keep their crown out of Henry's hands. Here Bernard Cornwell resurrects the legend of the battle and the "band of brothers" who fought it on October 25, 1415. An epic of redemption, Agincourt follows a commoner, a king, and a nation's entire army on an improbable mission to test the will of God and reclaim what is rightfully theirs. From the disasters at the siege of Harfleur to the horrors of the field of Agincourt, this exhilarating story of survival and slaughter is at once a brilliant work of history and a triumph of imagination. - Harper/Collins Publishers

Bernard Cornwell discusses the history behind Agincourt.

Agincourt is slated for release January 20, 2009.

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Cornwell at the Historical Novel Society Conference in Albany, New York a couple of years ago. The conference is held every two years and is scheduled this year from June 12 -14 in Schaumburg, Illinois. My son lives in Schaumburg so I called him up and said "Guess who gets to come stay with you in June?" My son is also a writer and said if the guests were interesting he might join me. I'm excited to see that Margaret George is one of the featured speakers this year. Her "Autobiography of Henry VIII" is one of my all time favorites!

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

Lavinia"In a richly imagined, beautiful new novel, an acclaimed writer gives an epic heroine her voice
In The Aeneid, Vergil’s hero fights to claim the king’s daughter, Lavinia, with whom he is destined to found an empire. Lavinia herself never speaks a word. Now, Ursula K. Le Guin gives Lavinia a voice in a novel that takes us to the half-wild world of ancient Italy, when Rome was a muddy village near seven hills. Lavinia grows up knowing nothing but peace and freedom, until suitors come. Her mother wants her to marry handsome, ambitious Turnus. But omens and prophecies spoken by the sacred springs say she must marry a foreigner—that she will be the cause of a bitter war—and that her husband will not live long. When a fleet of Trojan ships sails up the Tiber, Lavinia decides to take her destiny into her own hands. And so she tells us what Vergil did not: the story of her life, and of the love of her life. Lavinia is a book of passion and war, generous and austerely beautiful, from a writer working at the height of her powers."
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Centurion by Simon Scarrow now available

Centurion (Roman Legion 8)"A gripping new novel featuring Roman army officers Macro and Cato on their most dangerous mission yet. In the first century AD the Roman Empire faces a new threat from its long-standing enemy Parthia. Parthia is vying with Rome for control of Palmyra an officially neutral kingdom. Palmyras royal household is on the brink of open revolt, and so a task force under the command of experienced soldiers Macro and Cato is dispatched to defend its king and guard its borders. When Parthia hears of the Roman armys presence, it starts amassing its troops for war. Macro's cohort must march against the enemy, deep into treacherous territory. If Palmyra is not to fall into the clutches of Parthia, they will have to defeat superior numbers in a desperate siege. The quest for a lasting peace has never been more challenging, nor more critical for the future of the empire."

I noticed this new novel by Simon Scarrow was among the new audio releases up on so I selected it as one of my choices for December.  It will be next up on my queue after I finish Genghis: Lords of the Bow by Conn Iggulden.

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Byzantium: The Surpising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval EmpireByzantium. The name evokes grandeur and exoticism--gold, cunning, and complexity. In this unique book, Judith Herrin unveils the riches of a quite different civilization. Avoiding a standard chronological account of the Byzantine Empire's millennium--long history, she identifies the fundamental questions about Byzantium--what it was, and what special significance it holds for us today.

Bringing the latest scholarship to a general audience in accessible prose, Herrin focuses each short chapter around a representative theme, event, monument, or historical figure, and examines it within the full sweep of Byzantine history--from the foundation of Constantinople, the magnificent capital city built by Constantine the Great, to its capture by the Ottoman Turks.

She argues that Byzantium's crucial role as the eastern defender of Christendom against Muslim expansion during the early Middle Ages made Europe--and the modern Western world--possible. Herrin captivates us with her discussions of all facets of Byzantine culture and society. She walks us through the complex ceremonies of the imperial court. She describes the transcendent beauty and power of the church of Hagia Sophia, as well as chariot races, monastic spirituality, diplomacy, and literature. She reveals the fascinating worlds of military usurpers and ascetics, eunuchs and courtesans, and artisans who fashioned the silks, icons, ivories, and mosaics so readily associated with Byzantine art.

An innovative history written by one of our foremost scholars, Byzantium reveals this great civilization's rise to military and cultural supremacy, its spectacular destruction by the Fourth Crusade, and its revival and final conquest in 1453.

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Hellenism in Byzantium by Anthony Kaldellis

Hellenism in Byzantium: The Transformations of Greek Identity and the Reception of the Classical Tradition (Greek Culture in the Roman World)"This is the first systematic study of what it meant to be 'Greek' in late antiquity and Byzantium, an identity that could alternatively become national, religious, philosophical, or cultural. Through close readings of the sources, Professor Kaldellis surveys the space that Hellenism occupied in each period; the broader debates in which it was caught up; and the historical causes of its successive transformations. The first section (100-400) shows how Romanization and Christianization led to the abandonment of Hellenism as a national label and its restriction to a negative religious sense and a positive, albeit rarefied, cultural one. The second (1000-1300) shows how Hellenism was revived in Byzantium and contributed to the evolution of its culture. The discussion looks closely at the reception of the classical tradition, which was the reason why Hellenism was always desirable and dangerous in Christian society, and presents a new model for understanding Byzantine civilization."

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Loyalty and Dissidence in Roman Egypt by Andrew Harker

Loyalty and Dissidence in Roman Egypt: The Case of the Acta Alexandrinorum"The Acta Alexandrinorum are a fascinating collection of texts, dealing with relations between the Alexandrians and the Roman emperors in the first century AD. This was a turbulent time in the life of the capital city of the new province of Egypt, not least because of tensions between the Greek and Jewish sections of the population. Dr Harker has written the first in-depth study of these texts since their first edition half a century ago, and examines them in the context of other similar contemporary literary forms, both from Roman Egypt and the wider Roman Empire. This study of the Acta Alexandrinorum, which was genuinely popular in Roman Egypt, offers a more complex perspective on provincial mentalities towards imperial Rome than that offered in the mainstream elite literature. It will be of interest to classicists and ancient historians, but also to those interested in Jewish and New Testament studies."
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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Flint and Drake weave fantasy novel around the life of Justinian's general Belisarius

Belisarius I: Thunder at Dawn (Belisarius Series)As usual I was searching Amazon for something else and stumbled across this intriguing combination of history and fantasy by the writing team of Eric Flint and David Drake.  William Rosen piqued my interest in Byzantine emperor Justinian's formidable commander Belisarius when his exploits were described in "Justinian's Flea: Plague Empire, and the Birth of Europe".  I have "Belisarius" by Robert Graves on audio in my online audible library but I haven't had a chance to listen to it yet.  Now it looks like I need to add this compedium to my "to be read" list!

"Thunder At Dawn (2008) is an omnibus edition of the Belisarius series, including An Oblique Approach and In the Heart of Darkness. In this series, Emperor Justinian ruled Byzantium, the Empire of Rome in the East. A former Thracian peasant, Justinian had selected a minor Thracian noble -- Belisarius -- to be his bodyguard and then later to head the army facing their Medean foe. While Belisarius was not the Emperor's friend (for Justinian had no friends), they respected each other and Belisarius' wife Antonia was a close friend of the Empress Theodora.

An Oblique Approach (1998) is the first novel in this series. Belisarius has just assumed command of the Army at Daras when the monk Michael of Macedonia and Anthony Cassian -- the local bishop -- come to his new house in Aleppo. They bring a strange object -- a faceted crystal that seems to form and reform -- found by Michael within his cave in the desert. They say that it has brought visions to their minds while holding it and they urge Belisarius to take it into his own hands. When it is passed to him, the crystal flares into light and floods his mind with visions.

The crystal can induce visions and feelings, but is mostly unable to communicate directly. The visions shows a future in which the Malwa empire of northern India conquers all the known world. These visions induce feelings of dread and despair, but all who hold the crystal also feel certain that the future shown and felt is not necessarily the only possible future. The crystal has come to enlist Belisarius himself in an effort to preclude this bitter future in favor of one more consistent with their own desires and inclinations.

While the exhausted crystal quietly regains its strength, the human party forms a conspiracy to counter the evil plans of the Malwa. Deciding to keep the secret among themselves for a time, they arrange for a location to build an arsenal and weapons project on property controlled by Anthony. They also agree that Anthony will arrange for the services of John of Rhodes -- a clever ex-naval officer -- as the head of the project.

This story depicts an intervention from the future followed by a counter-intervention from the same era. The intervention itself is not described in this volume, but the crystal represents the counterforce. The first portion of the story consists mainly of clearing the decks to allow the conspirators to investigate the real enemy, which can only be done in India by Belisarius himself.

In the Heart of Darkness (1998) is the second novel in this series. Belisarius is allowed to observe the siege of Ranapur from a distance, but the Rajput guards are under orders to restrict the viewing times and the viewpoint. Then Lord Harsha decrees that the siege will end on a certain date and Belisarius is taken to the Imperial Pavilion on the eastern side of the city to observe the assault.

Belisarius has already learned that the city seems to have a large amount of gunpowder, but no cannon. Now he learns that the defenders include a number of miners. He considers the possibilities and decides to inform the Malwa that the attack probably will cross tunnels packed with explosives.

First he commands his men to dismount and tells Rana Sanga -- the Rajput escort commander -- to dismount his own troops. Then the world disappears in a white flash and things start to impact his vicinity. When he crawls out from under his shield, Belisarius notices bodies, parts of bodies, and parts of parts of bodies all around him, along with various other objects.

The Ranapur defenders pour over of the destroyed walls and push their way through the dazed attackers toward the Imperial Pavilion. Belisarius shows Rana Sanga the counterattack and the Rajputs hurry toward the pavilion to protect the Malwa emperor. But Belisarius and his three bucellarii approach the befuddled survivors and direct their attention to the attacking forces.

This story introduces Belisarius to the Malwa emperor and takes him to the Malwa capital, where he meets Link, the penultimate enemy. He takes Aide -- his crystaline ally -- with him into enemy territory. Aide is still learning the limitations of the humans in this timeframe and sometimes becomes impatient with Belisarius. Yet Aide does furnish some uptime concepts that might be adapted to the current technology.

Highly recommended for Drake & Flint fans and for anyone else who enjoys tales of alternate history, military tactics, and epic drama."

-Arthur W. Jordin
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Monday, November 10, 2008

Robert Harris' second novel about Cicero due this month

I noticed with excitement that "Conspirata", Robert Harris' second novel about the career of famous Roman politician Marcus Tullius Cicero is due out this month. I also see that it will be available on audio CD so hopefully I'll be able to get the audio version up on as well.

All I could find out about the plot was this rather generic blurb up on the Audio Editions website (Amazon, surprisingly, had nothing but a note that it was not yet available):

"Cicero returns to continue his quest for supreme power in the state of Rome. Amid treachery, vengeance, violence, and treason, he finally reaches the summit of all his ambitions: he becomes the world's first professional politician, using his compassion and cunning to overcome all obstacles. By the author of Imperium."

I'll have to be sure to email my son about it. He surprised me recently in a phone call telling me how much he enjoyed "Imperium". He's not normally a fan of historical fiction (he, himself, writes sci-fi) so I'm not quite sure what prompted him to read it except curiousity about what could be prompting his mother's fanatical obsession with the Roman Empire

Friday, November 07, 2008

Conn Iggulden delivers riveting tale in Genghis: Birth of an Empire

A history resource article by  © 2015

I knew very little about the Mongol people before reading this novel. But Conn Iggulden brought the culture to life in a riveting narrative that kept me exercising way beyond my required minutes each day (I listened to the unabridged audible version). Iggulden's incarnation of "Timujin" is that of a warrior of admirable strength and skill as well as a man of vision and deep conviction. Some may also perceive him as ruthless although he appears to have demonstrated more restraint than other men spawned in such an environment. The tribal society Iggulden depicts on the unforgiving steppes is that of a hard people struggling just to survive in a land where the dispossessed (or just unfortunate) were often prey to any passing group desirous of their meager belongings, even if the spoils were just an old worn deel (coat) and a small pouch of rancid mutton. Yet, it was from these very wanderers that Genghis Khan forged a nation.

Mongolian Eagle Master Khairat Khan by Glenn Lewis.  Reproduced by permission CC by nc-nd 2.0
Hunting with eagles is a traditional form of falconry found throughout the Eurasian steppe,  Under Mongol rule, the Kyrgyz preserved their nomadic culture as well as eagle falconry tradition until the 1990s
I appreciated the author's notes at the end that pointed out where his tale diverged from actual events. I had heard that Iggulden had took such liberty with history in his Emperor series about Julius Caesar that some reviewers had said it resembled fantasy rather than historical fiction so I was a little apprehensive about believing too much of what I "learned" about the Mongol culture by reading this work. But, after hearing his explanations about which parts of the story veered from the actual events, I thought Iggulden had done an admirable job of crafting an intensely interesting story that, for the most part, followed the trajectory of Genghis Khan's early life closely enough in most areas that mattered.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Shadows In the Desert by Dr. Kaveh Farrokh

Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War (General Military)The ruins of Persepolis evoke the best-known events of ancient Persia's history: Alexander the Great's defeat of Darius III, his conquest of the Achaemenid empire, and the burning of the great palace complex at Persepolis. However, most of the history of ancient Persia remains as mysterious today as it was to contemporary Western scholars. Compared to the world-famous Alexander, the many wars won by the Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sassanian empires, and their revolutionary military technology, have been almost forgotten in the sands of the East.

In its day, Persia was a superpower to rival Greece and Rome, and conflict between them spanned over a millennium. Through these wars, and trade, these foes learnt from each other, not only adopting elements of military technology, but influences in the arts, architecture, religion, technology and learning. In this beautifully illustrated book, Dr Kaveh Farrokh narrates the history of Persia from before the first empires, through their wars with East and West to the fall of the Sassanians. He also delves into the forgotten cultural heritage of the Persians, spread across the world through war and conquest, which, even after the fall of the Sassanians, continued to impact upon the Western world.

The author was awarded the 2008 Persia Golden Lioness Award for outstanding literature for this work.

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The Wars of Alexander's Successors 323-281 BC: Commanders and Campaigns by Bob Bennett and Mike Roberts

The Wars of Alexander's Successors 323 - 281 BC: Commanders and Campaigns v. 1D. Evans of the UK writes: "I've been interested in Alexander the Great for many years, but I've always been disappointed with the lack of books on what occured after his death. Usually in Alexander biographies the aftermath is only mentioned in passing, and if anyone wants to know what became of Alexander's successors they usually have to get hold of expensive works like Waldemar Heckel's 'The Marshals of Alexander's Empire'.

I was therefore looking forward to reading this book on Alexander's successors as it was the only cheap book on the subject I could find. I was definately not disappointed with the purchase as this book is well researched and very readable.

The book begins straight after Alexander's death as the Diadochi argue and fight over his corpse, with Perdiccas rising to the top. It is from here that we are taken on a chronological tour of the Hellenistic World, from 323 to 281 BC. Along the way, the authors give us biographies of the leading men of the age, from Ptolemy, who rose to become the Pharaoh of Egypt, Seleucus who ruled over the largest part of Alexander's Empire, as well as Antigonous and Lysimachus. You also get to know about the other figures of the period, such as Demetrius the Besieger and Pyrrhus of Epirus who are amongst the most fascinating figures in Classical History. These sections provide the reader with both a broad view of their lives, as well as an intimate look at their personalities, i.e. Seleucus's hatred of paperwork, the family feuds of Ptolemy, and the stingyness of Lysimachus.

Other chapters give us detailed looks on events such as the struggle for Macedonia, the Battle of Ipsus, and the constant fighting for control over Coele-Syria. The book finishes with a look at the battle of Corupedium in 281 BC, when the last of the Diadochi, Seleucus and Lysimachus, now in their seventies, fought near Sardis in Lydia.

The book is very well written and readable, and in some sections it even reads like a novel. In that respect if you have an interest in Alexander the Great or the Hellenistic World, then this book is a must have. I'm already looking forward to Volume II!

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The Defeat of Rome in the East: Crassus, the Parthians and the Disastrous Battle of Carrhae, 53 BC by Gareth Sampson

DEFEAT OF ROME IN THE EAST, THE: Crassus, the Parthians, and the Disastrous Battle of Carrhae, 53 BCDuring the last stages of the Republic, Rome suffered its greatest military disaster since Hannibal's invasion of Italy over 150 years earlier, though this defeat had more far-reaching consequences. While Rome was able to recover from its disaster at Cannae, it never did retrieve the results of Carrhae, a defeat that sealed the East as an impenetrable barrier to Roman ambition, and also signaled the demise of the Republic.In 53 BC, Marcus Crassus, the richest member of Rome's ruling Triumverate, which also included Caesar and Pompey, decided to enhance his military stature with an invasion of the Parthian Empire centered on Mesopotamia (today's Iraq). His 36,000 legionaries crossed the Euphrates and were met by a much smaller Parthian army, albeit one mounted on horseback in the dispersed, missile-firing steppe-war tradition.In the desolate territory around Carrhae the Roman legions were surrounded and beset by elusive horse warriors, who alternated deadly arrow-fire from recurved bows with devastating attacks by armored horsemen, wielding lances in the fashion of future European knights. At one point Crassus dispatched his son with the Roman cavalry and light infantry to break a hole through the deadly ring. The Parthians concentrated on the party and destroyed it. Crassus was just about to move with the main body to its aid when Parthian horsemen rode up wielding his son's head on the tip of a spear.Severely unnerved, Crassus ordered a retreat, the Parthians moving in to massacre the 4,000 wounded he left behind. The next day, called to a parlay he was forced to attend by his nearly mutinous soldiers, Crassus and his officers were murdered by the Parthians. The now-leaderless Roman army disintegrated, only some 6,000 able to escape. At least 20,000 Roman legionaries were dead on the field, with 10,000 more captured.In this book Dr. Gareth Sampson, currently a tutor in ancient history at the University of Manchester, lays out not only the gruesome outcome of the battle but its immense consequences. First, unlike Alexander's Greeks, who had marched all the way to the Indus, Rome was never again to challenge the civilizations beyond the Euphrates. Second, with Crassus dead, Caesar and Pompey engaged in a bloody civil war that would end the Republic and result in political dictatorship. The author also provides an analysis of the mysterious Parthians, a people who vied with Rome as the most powerful empire on earth. Though their polity and records have long since disappeared, the Parthians' mark on history is clear enough through their decisive victory over Rome at Carrhae.Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Philip II of Macedonia by Ian Worthington

Philip II of MacedoniaAlexander the Great is probably the most famous ruler of antiquity, and his spectacular conquests are recounted often in books and films. But what of his father, Philip II, who united Macedonia, created the best army in the world at the time, and conquered and annexed Greece? This landmark biography is the first to bring Philip to life, exploring the details of his life and legacy and demonstrating that his achievements were so remarkable that it can be argued they outshone those of his more famous son. Without Philip, Greek history would have been entirely different.


Taking into account recent archaeological discoveries and reinterpreting ancient literary records, Ian Worthington brings to light Philip’s political, economic, military, social, and cultural accomplishments. He reveals the full repertoire of the king’s tactics, including several polygamous diplomatic marriages, deceit, bribery, military force, and a knack for playing off enemies against one another. The author also inquires into the king’s influences, motives, and aims, and in particular his turbulent, unraveling relationship with Alexander, which may have ended in murder. Philip became in many ways the first modern regent of the ancient world, and this book places him where he properly belongs: firmly at the center stage of Greek history.

Scheduled for Release:  November 3, 2008

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Alexander the Great Rocks the World by Vicky Alvear Shecter

Review by Mary Harrsch

This children's book did a very good job of touching on the significant events of the life of Alexander the Great. Author Vicky Alvear Shecter's modern banter may not be every adult's cup of tea but I think kids overall prefer to take life a little less seriously so I'm sure Shecter's touch of levity made the stodgy subject of history much more palatable to its intended audience. I also think she wisely avoided any potential controversy over explanations of the relationship between Alexander and Hephaistion by simply describing them as the best of friends so conservative parents would not raise a ruckus about the book's inclusion in any school library.

I particularly enjoyed Shecter's inclusion of quotes from some of Alexander's famous contemporaries like Aristotle as well as other notable Greeks..

"A true friend is like a soul in two bodies." and "All virtue is summed up in dealing justly". and "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act, but a habit." - Aristotle

She even dug up a quote attributed to Alexander himself: "Remember upon the conduct of each depends the fate of all."

In addition to images of paintings and ancient art, each chapter was illustrated with whimsical sketches by Terry Naughton, a former Disney animator who worked on such Disney classics as the Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Lion King.

I can see why the book was selected by the Junior Library Guild for excellence in children's literature.

Vicky contacted me about using some of my images of artwork featuring Cleopatra to use in a new book she hopes to write on the famous Egyptian Queen. At the time, she was looking for a publisher for the project. I hope she found one as I'm sure it would be as equally well done.

Recommended for Grades 5 - 8.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Caligula: The Tyranny of Rome by Douglas Jackson

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the third Roman Emperor, is better known by another name: Caligula, a name synonymous with decadence, cruelty and madness. His reign was marked by excess, huge building projects, the largest gladiatorial battles Rome was ever to see - men and animals killed in their hundreds - conspiracies, assassination attempts and sexual scandal. Rufus as a young slave grows up far from the corruption of the imperial court. His master is a trainer of animals for the gladiatorial arena. Rufus discovers that he has a natural ability with animals, a talent for controlling and schooling them. It is at the arenas that Rufus meets his great friend Cupido, one of Rome's greatest gladiators. It is his growing reputation as an animal trainer and his friendship with Cupido that attracts the cruel gaze of the Emperor.Caligula wants a keeper for the imperial elephant and Rufus is bought from his master and taken to the imperial palace. Life here is dictated by Caligula's ever shifting moods. Caligula is as generous as he is cruel, he is a megalomaniac who declares himself a living god and simultaneously lives in constant fear of the plots against his life.Technorati Tags: , , , , , ,

Friday, October 03, 2008

Cleopatra, Last Queen of Egypt

Cleopatra was, Joyce Tyldesley, archaeologist, author ("Daughters of Isis"), and popular consultant for TV shows on ancient history, concludes, "an intelligent and effective monarch who set realistic goals and who very nearly succeeded in creating a dynasty that would have re-established Egypt as a world super power." Roman historians, though, saw only "an unnatural, immodest woman who preyed on other women's husbands. From this developed the myth of the sexually promiscuous Cleopatra ... a harsh legacy indeed for a woman who probably had no more than two, consecutive sexual relationships."

Readers who enjoy not only history but how it evolves into myth will find a feast in Tyldesley's book. You may be disappointed to find out that the Queen of Egypt did not first appear to Caesar unwrapped from an Oriental carpet, and it's unlikely that Cleopatra succumbed to the bite of an asp, but Tyldesley's theories as to what most likely did happen are at least as interesting as the folklore.- Allen Barra, The Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, Star Tribune.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Empress of Rome: Den of Wolves, Luke Devenish

Review by Stephen Davenport

"Luke Devenish is best known as a script writer for Neighbours. With an incredible narrative power and his distinguished storytelling talent at full strength, Devenish delivers a breathtaking debut novel that is both grand in scope and vivid in detail.

The birth of the Roman Empire is the milieu of Den of Wolves, the first of Devenish's planned Empress of Rome trilogy. Violent, sensual and insanely sordid, the Julio-Claudian tale sweeps the reader into the whirlpool of murder, betrayal, passion, splendour and the chaotic mayhem that defined ancient Rome.

Narrated by Iphicles, a centenarian slave, the saga reveals much about the monstrous woman behind the world shaking events that began with the assassination of Julius Caesar. Using soap opera techniques, Devenish produces a swiftly-moving story that is brimming with political intrigue, lust and drama.

But there is nothing second rate about Den of Wolves. The author cleverly retells history from a female perspective. The legendary cast of ambitious and opportunistic characters from Livia Drusilla – wife of Octavian and mother of Tiberius – to Agrippina the Elder and her son Caligula, and other vile creatures, are imaginatively and entertainingly re-imagined. Den of Wolves is an engaging examination of human nature and a genuine throwback to the good-old-fashioned scandal, sin and swords novel." Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Friday, August 22, 2008

Philip Freeman's "Julius Caesar": A Review

by Mary Harrsch

Philip Freeman's "Julius Caesar" is a comprehensive biography of the Roman conqueror that is as straightforward and readable as the general's own "Gallic Wars". Freeman not only stitches together the various ancient accounts of Caesar's exploits but adds context to his activities by including helpful background information about his various adversaries pulled from a wealth of modern scholarship. He recounts Caesar's conquest of the Celtic tribes of Gaul against a vivid tapestry of the Celtic culture gleaned from such works as Rankin's "Celts and the Classical World, Cunliff's "The Ancient Celts", and Green's "The World of the Druids". I especially found the defeats or near-defeats suffered at the hands of the Celts as fascinating as Caesar's famous victory at Alesia.

The details of a surprise attack by Belgic tribes was particularly intense and sadly ironic because Caesar was essentially saved by his future Civil War opponent, Labienus.

"He [Caesar] had been caught unprepared for a surprise assault of such force and speed. His army would surely have been overwhelmed had it not been for the training and experience they had gained during the past year. There was no time to call his officers together and form a plan , so each organized whatever men were nearest and struck back at the Belgae. With a herculean effort, the Roman troops on the eastern side of the battlefield were able to push the Atrebates and then the Vironmandui back across the river with heavy losses on both sides, but the Nervii on the western end would not yield and pressed the Romans until they fell back in a hopeless struggle to save their camp. The Nervii stormed over the uncompleted walls of the Roman stronghold, killing many of the legionaries and threatening to outflank the Roman forces who had already crossed the river. Caesar had been rushing madly to every corner of the battlefield, but when he saw the dire threat at the camp, he leapt from his horse, grabbed a sword, and joined the fray."

Although Caesar's men rallied with their commander beside them calling them by name, their plight was dire. They managed to stop the encirclement and were presently reinforced by the the arrival of the two legions that had escorted the baggage train. But the real turning point of the battle hinged on the counterattack led by Labienus who, seeing Caesar's desperate struggle, dashed back across the river.

"His arrival brought such hope to the beleaguered men around Caesar that even those who had been seriously wounded propped themselves against their shields for support to continue to fight."

With the tide of battle now turned the Belgic warriors demonstrated their own ferocity and determination to remain an unconquered people.

"As the hours passed, the Romans slowly tightened the circle on them, hacking and killing as each Belgic warrior fought with all his might. In the end, the few Nervii who were left stood on a mound formed by their fallen comrades and - pulling the Roman spears from the dead bodies of their friends - threw them back down at the legions."

These images brought echoes of Thermopylae to mind.

Many critics of Caesar's activities in Gaul have portrayed Caesar and his commanders as ruthless perpetrators of genocide without significant provocation but Freeman, using the details of engagements retold in Caesar's Gallic Wars, recounts numerous incidents of Gallic duplicity after peace agreements were concluded. But Freeman also points out that Caesar did not delude himself with proclamations that he was bringing "civilization" to the Gauls. Instead he said Caesar candidly observed, "Human nature everywhere yearns for freedom and hates submitting to domination by another."

"The Romans never pretended that they were bringing freedom or a better way of life to the peoples they conquered." Freeman states. "They frankly admitted that they were only interested in increasing their own power, wealth, and security through conquest."

I have previously only read isolated passages of accounts of Caesar's Alexandrian Wars so I also found that portion of Freeman's book particularly fascinating. Many books and films about this period seem to omit most references to intervention by Cleopatra's sister Arsinoe and her commander Ganymedes. Many accounts of the confrontation between the Alexandrians and Caesar seem to focus on the activities of the Egyptian general Achillas and the spoiled child-pharaoh Ptolemy XIII. But Freeman recounts how Achillas was actually murdered by Ganymedes and most of the near disasters suffered by Caesar's forces, beseiged in the palace, were masterminded by this militarily astute courtier. Freeman also details the urban warfare that Caesar was forced to conduct in Alexandria that sounded eerily familiar to anyone who watches CNN regularly. I was also surprised to read that the often-portrayed luxurious "honeymoon" cruise up the Nile was a deliberate show of military force since the royal barge was accompanied by over 400 ships crammed with Roman troops. I am now more convinced than ever that Caesar's effort to father a child with Cleopatra was a deliberate act to obtain a client king related by blood to secure Egypt without annexing it and risking its plunder by a corrupt proconsular governor in the future.

Freeman mentioned Caesar's epilepsy only in passing early on in the text. This surprised me since I have long suspected that a head wound Caesar sustained on campaign was actually the cause of the increased frequency of seizures Caesar suffered toward the end of his life and perhaps one of the reasons for the apparent lack of political judgment he exercised at the time of the Africa triumph when he included unpopular tableaus depicting the deaths of Scipio and Cato. Freeman only observed that Caesar showed particularly bad taste in celebrating a triumph over his Roman opponents and how this had upset his normally adoring crowd. There were at least four significant seizures documented by the ancient sources (Plutarch, Suetonius, Appian, and Pliny) that modern experts conclude, according to J. R. Hughes, Department of Neurology, School of Medicine, University of Illinois at Chicago, "were probably complex partial seizures: (1) while listening to an oration by Cicero, (2) in the Senate while being offered the Emperor's Crown, and in military campaigns, (3) near Thapsus (North Africa) and (4) Corduba (Spain)."

Drs. J.G Gomez, J.A. Kotler, and J.B. Long, Division of Neurological Surgery, Holy Cross Hospital, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, conducted a pathological analysis of Caesar's reported symptoms and behavioral changes in 1995 and suggested he may have been suffering from a brain tumor. "The patient had late onset of seizures in the last two years of his life, headaches, personality changes. Upon reexamination of existing Julius Caesar iconography, busts, statues and minted coins no skull deformities have been noted. Identification of a skull deformity as described by Suetonius would have confirmed the suspicion of meningioma involving the convexity of the cerebral hemispheres. Meningioma or slow-growing supratentorial glioma may well have been responsible for this man's illness."

In any event, I think a man who had demonstrated such a superior grasp of Roman politics in the past would not have committed such blunders on purpose or because success had simply "gone to his head".

Freeman included a wonderful compedium at the end of the book that listed his sources for various sections within the text that is a valuable reference for readers wishing to learn more about specific events in Caesar's life. A comprehensive bibliography and index rounded out the text's impressive list of source materials. There were only two things contained in the book that gave me pause. One was a reference to a pilum not being designed as a throwing weapon but rather a thrusting weapon. I think this must have been a lapse in editing as Freeman was comparing Roman weapons with other weapons of the ancient world. Alexander's Macedonians carried sarissas, that, unlike commonly used Greek spears, were not designed for throwing but for thrusting. Likewise, the Roman gladius was designed for thrusting rather than slashing. But a Roman pilum was designed to bend on impact to make it difficult to remove and Freeman pointed this out. So, I would think a weapon so designed was obviously intended primarily for throwing. The other error was the inclusion of an image of a sculptured head of Lucius Cornelius Sulla labeled as Gaius Marius in the photo insert section. It was provided by the Bridgeman Art Library and perhaps the labeling error was theirs. The head is in the permanent collection of the Glyptotek in Munich, Germany as indicated but according to an overwhelming majority of people on the web, including the scholars who maintain, the head belongs to Marius' arch enemy, Sulla. See

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Roman Bodies. Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century

While I was researching other works published by The British School in Rome, I came across a listing for this fascinating-sounding book, Roman Bodies. Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century, edited by Andrew Hopkins and Maria Wyke:

The seventeen wide-ranging and interdisciplinary essays explore dramatic changes in Western conceptions of the body. Divided into three sections, ‘Empire’, ‘Church’ and ‘Religion and science’, topics discussed include gender, sexuality, social and political identity, health and sickness, the body in death and after, and corporeal aesthetics.

[1] The body of Rome: introduction, Maria Wyke and Andrew Hopkins; [2] Archetypally Roman? Representing Seneca’s ageing body, Catharine Edwards; [3] Circumcision, de-circumcision and self-image: Celsus’s ‘operation on the penis’, Ralph Jackson; [4] A Roman perspective on circumcision, Pierre Cordier; [5] In the foreskin of your flesh’: the pure male body in late antiquity, Gillian Clark; [6] Headhunters of the Roman army, Nic Fields; [7] Execution in effigy: severed heads and decapitated statues in Imperial Rome, Eric R. Varner; [8] Disabled bodies: the (mis)representation of the lame in antiquity and their reappearance in early Christian and medieval art, Livio Pestilli; [9]Truth, perception and the pagan body in the Roman martyr narratives, Kristina Sessa; [10] The paradoxical body of Saint Agnes, Lucy Grig; [11] The relic translations of Paschal I: transforming city and cult, Caroline Goodson; [12] Majesty and mortality: attitudes towards the corpse in papal funeral ceremonies, Minou Schraven; [13] A theatre of cruelty and forgiveness: dissection, institutions and the moral discourse of anatomy in sixteenth-century Rome, Andrea Carlino; [14] Not torments, but delights: Antonio Gallonio’s Trattato de gli instrumenti di martirio of 1591 and its illustrations, Opher Mansour; [15] Ancient bodies and contested identities in the English College martyrdom cycle, Rome, Richard L. Williams; [16] Secrets of the heart: the role of saintly bodies in the medical discourse of Counter-Reformation Rome, Catrien Santing; [17] Contesting the Sacred Heart of Jesus in late eighteenth-century Rome, Jon L. Seydl."

I thought the sections on executions in effigy and the decapitation of statues in Roman art as well as the discussion of the misrepresentation of the disabled in antiquity sounded particularly interesting.

Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity

"Conventional histories of late antique Christianity tell the story of a public institution - the Christian church. In this book, Kim Bowes relates another history, that of the Christian private. Using textual and archaeological evidence, she examines the Christian rituals of home and rural estate, which took place outside the supervision of bishops and their agents. These domestic rituals and the spaces in which they were performed were rooted in age-old religious habits. They formed a major, heretofore unrecognized force in late ancient Christian practice. The religion of home and family, however, was not easily reconciled with that of the bishop's church. Domestic Christian practices presented challenges to episcopal authority and posed thorny questions about the relationship between individuals and the Christian collective. As Bowes suggests, the story of private Christianity reveals a watershed in changing conceptions of "public" and "private," one whose repercussions echo through contemporary political and religious debate."

"Dr. Kim Bowes joined the Art History faculty at Fordham in January of 2004 after a doctorate at Princeton University and a post-doctoral fellowship at Yale University. Her research focuses on the art, archaeology and history of late antiquity and early Christianity. Her particular interests are Christian practice in the home, domestic architecture and landscape archaeology. She has articles in the Journal of Roman Archaeology, Art History and the Journal of Early Christian Studies, and is the co-editor of two books, Between Text and Territory: Survey and Excavation in the Terra of San Vicenzo al Volturno (forthcoming); and Hispania in the Late Antique World: New Perspectives (Brill, 2005). Kim is also a practicing field archaeologist, and has excavated sites ranging from Israel to Portugal, most recently a Roman amphitheater in Albania. Kim spent the last year as a Fellow at the American Academy in Rome where she completed a monograph entitled, Possessing the Holy: Private Worship in Late Antiquity." - faculty profile, Fordham University.

- This book is scheduled for release August 31, 2008.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Steven Pressfield offers thought provoking insight into his writing goals posted an interesting interview with fellow Oregonian, Steven Pressfield. His current book is entitled "Killing Rommel" about the efforts of the British Long Range Desert Group (I think this group was the basis for the TV series "Rat Patrol") to assassinate the "Desert Fox" in WWII. This is quite a departure from the ancient world that has been his focus in "Gates of Fire", "Tides of War", "The Virtues of War", and "The Afghan Campaign".

In the course of the interview, though, he explained his theme and reasons for writing "Gates of Fire", one of my favorite books, as it pertains to members of the modern military that I found very thought provoking and inspiring:

"Randy, a Goodreads member and Marine comments, "Pressfield uses the battle of a backdrop for studying the psychological makeup of what a soldier should be. This is a great book for anyone who is thinking of, or soon will be joining, military service. Those who are confused as to why a friend or loved one wants to join the military can very likely gain their answers from this book." Gates of Fire is required reading at several military schools around the country. Why do you think this is the case? What is it about your book that appeals to the military-inclined mind? Who else could learn from your books?

Steven Pressfield: Gates of Fire has a theme, and the theme is courage. It's also very much about the camaraderie of fighting men and of the warrior ethos. Believe me, this is still alive and well, despite all P.C. efforts to exile it into the past. Today's Marines and soldiers, however, like the rest of us, are woefully undereducated. No one has studied the past, so we all feel as if we're the first people on the planet to be confronting the issues we're confronting. That's where a book like Gates fills a gap. Marines and Army guys read it and realize that the same stuff they're going through has been gone through by a lot of other warriors before them, and that those warriors and the societies they lived in had highly evolved codes of honor and conduct. It gives our young soldiers and Marines a longer historical perspective and inspires them that they're not alone and they're not the first; in fact, they're part of a long and honorable tradition of the profession of arms. It helps!" - more interview

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Last Pagan: Julian The Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World

"Since his death on a Persian battlefield in AD 363, the violent end of the Emperor Julian (Flavius Claudius Julianus, 332-363_ has become synonymous with the death of paganism. Vilified throughout history as the `Apostate', the young philosopher-warrior was the last and arguably the most potent threat to Christianity.
The Last Pagan examines Julian's emergence as the sole survivor of a political dynasty soaked in blood. It traces his journey from an aristocratic Christian Childhood to his initiation into pagan cults and his mission to establish paganism as the dominant faith of the Roman world."

I've been interested in Julian ever since I read Michael Curtis Ford's novel "Gods and Legions". It, too, was a sympathetic portrait of the last pagan Roman emperor. So, when I was researching Adrian Murdoch's work, "The Last Roman:
Romulus Augustulus and the Decline of the West' and noticed he had also written about Julian the Apostate, I couldn't help but order it to have a look. I also got a great buy up at the David Brown Book Company - only $6.98!

I found a very interesting "Meet the Author" interview up at OxBow Books. An excerpt:

Constantine’s reign is usually heralded as a golden age and is celebrated as the beginning of the Christian era. The Last Pagan adopts a different approach, mourning the death of antiquity. Is this how you feel?

Very much so. The Emperor Julian has often been portrayed as an anomaly and regarded with slight embarrassment. It’s useful I think to change historical perspective. Instead of seeing Julian as the young man who came along and upset a Christian empire, he stood at the end of a line of Roman emperors.

At the same time, one of the premises with which I started the book is that while Constantine is conventionally heralded as the great hero and saviour of the empire, as a person he’s always appeared to me as a cynical and ruthless political operative. A deeply unpleasant man. It was natural, I suppose, to make Julian’s actions and values stand in contrast to those of Christian relatives.

Julian died aged only 31. Do you think that he had the qualities as a ruler to have shaped history if he had lived longer?

Arguably the largest problem for any biographer is that you have the benefit of hindsight – you know how the story ends. The challenge is to remember this and to stop seeing your subject’s fate as preordained. It’s too easy to see portents of doom wherever you look. This is especially true of Julian as all of the contemporaries tripped over themselves to editorialise his fate: his supporters painted him as a tragic hero and his opponents saw him as doomed from the moment of his apostasy.

If I’m being honest, even had Julian survived the war he might not have survived the peace. Religion has always attracted extremists, and it’s unlikely that Julian and his Christian opponents could have found any kind of middle ground. Plots to murder the emperor were uncovered before his death and so impassioned was the opposition to Julian’s religious reforms that I suspect one assassination attempt would have succeeded before too long.

The Last Pagan remembers a time when conflict over religion was rife, coming to a head on a battlefield in present-day Iraq. Did these parallels with recent events inspire you to choose Julian the Apostate as your subject?

Although I’d originally planned to draw parallels with the First Gulf War, the chapters on Julian’s invasion of Persia were written to a background of the build-up to the current conflict in Iraq. As Western governments began their build-up to what was obviously going to be an invasion last year, the parallels with Julian’s campaign made for distinctly uncomfortable writing – a foreign policy dictated by domestic necessity; support for the invasion from what is now Israel and the Gulf Arabs; debates about an illegal arms trade with Persia – swords of mass destruction if you will; a media campaign to encourage popular support for the war; even the fact that one of the most vocal opponents to the war was the administrator of Gaul. With Julian’s fate in mind (and the fact that his opponent outlasted his rule by some sixteen years) it is hard not to be discouraged about what the future holds.

Do you think that Roman paganism has any relevance for everyday life in the 21st century?

It’s more that the big questions that dominated Julian reign – the search for belief and the question of religious tolerance – are centre stage once more in the modern world. It’s easy to see similarities between Julian’s lack of comprehension of Christianity and the West’s frequent blindness to the Islamic world. It remains a historical irony that where Christianity was once the persecuted minority, it is now all-too often perceived as the aggressor.

At the same time, Julian’s search for his own faith as a young man mirrors the disillusionment and confusion that many today have with organised religion and the search for alternative forms of worship – a case in point is the startling growth in the interest in paganism over the past few years." - More

I'm not a big fan of Constantine either so I found Mr. Murdoch's comments quite interesting.

I also got "The Last Roman" since I wanted to read more about this era that essentially marked the formal end of the Roman Empire, especially after reading my friend, Boris Raymond's historical novel, "The Phoenix Circle" in which Orestes and Odovacar (Odacer) play major roles.

The Last Roman: Romulus Augustulus and the Decline of the West

“It is valid to ask whether one should attempt to write something that purports to be a biography about a character of whom we know so little. The answer has to be yes for three reasons. The first is that the drawn-out collapse of the Western empire makes it easy to forget the human aspect. All too often, historians get lost in the sweep of events, the broad brush strokes of barbarian settlements, military retrenchment and economic turmoil. Focusing on Romulus and his family gives a different and more personal perspective to the fall of the Roman Empire.

“The second reason is a growing interest – popular rather than just scholarly – in this period of late antiquity. It is an era that has always attracted poets and a smattering of novelists. The much-cited 1876 novel Der Kampf um Rom (‘The Fight for Rome’) by Felix Dahn is set in the first half of the sixth century. Despite its huge popularity, wild success and continuing availability, I must confess I fail to see its charms. Its 750 plodding pages have beaten me on several occasions. But the last few years have seen the later Roman Empire as a theme of films, books and computer games. The 2004 Antoine Fuqua-directed film King Arthur and the 2007 Doug Leffler film The Last Legion both have explicitly late Roman themes, the latter a fantasy on Romulus himself (they are both discussed in the final chapter of this book), while the latest addition to the immensely successful Rome: Total War computer game series is set around the barbarian invasions. There is increasingly a recognition among the public that this is a period in its own right.

“The third aim of the book is to make the case that 476 was important. It may seem arrogant almost to the point of lunacy to take the stand against some of late antiquity's greatest historians … [it] is not enough to argue for Romulus’ importance from the point of common usage, its canonisation, if you will. The Last Roman argues not just that something changed in AD 476, but that it was felt to have changed. The empire had been declining for decades, some would say centuries. Certainly, different Roman provinces declined at different rates. … There was no single moment. But 476 was what the sociologist and journalist Malcolm Gladwell would call a tipping point – a pivotal event after which it became impossible to return to the previous status quo. No matter how young he was, how little he affected his citizens or even how faint a historical footprint he left, Romulus Augustulus was the last Roman emperor. It was the end of autonomous Roman rule in the West. When he was forced into retirement, the baubles of imperial rule left Rome. Although Italy's new leaders continued to wear a toga for a few more years, they emerged as new types of rulers.

“The idea of decline had become so contagious by the time Romulus was placed on the throne that it had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.” - Author Adrian Murdoch

The Lost Gold of Rome: The Hunt for Alaric's Treasure

by Daniel Costa

"In AD 410, the Roman world suffered a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions when for the first time in 800 years a foreign army, led by the Visigoth King Alaric, sacked Rome and carried off its most valuable treasures. Alaric played a significant role in the dismemberment of the western Roman empire but he died before he could leave Italy. His followers buried him in a secret tomb laden with the plunder of Rome including, possibly, the sacred Temple treasures of the Jews. In The Lost Gold of Rome, Costa traces the life and death of Alaric and explores the modern quest to discover his grave."

Monday, June 16, 2008

Soldier of Rome: The Sacrovir Revolt: A Novel of the Twentieth Legion During the Rebellion of Sacrovir and Florus

"It has been three years since the wars against Arminius and the Cherusci. Gaius Silius, Legate of the Twentieth Legion, is concerned that the barbarians-though shattered by the war-may be stirring once again. He also seeks to confirm the rumors regarding Arminius' death. What Silius does not realize is that there is a new threat to the Empire, but it does not come from beyond the frontier; it is coming from within, where a disenchanted nobleman looks to sow the seeds of rebellion in Gaul.

Legionary Artorius has greatly matured during his five years in the legions. He has become stronger in mind; his body growing even more powerful. Like the rest of the Legion, he is unaware of the shadow growing well within the Empire's borders, where a disaffected nobleman seeks to betray the Emperor Tiberius. A shadow looms; one that looks to envelope the province of Gaul as well as the Rhine legions. The year is A.D. 20."

Soldier of Rome: The Legionary: A novel of the Twentieth Legion during the campaigns of Germanicus Caesar

"In the year A.D. 9, three Roman Legions under Quintilius Varus were betrayed by the Germanic war chief, Arminius, and then destroyed in the forest known as Teutoburger Wald. Six years later, Rome is finally ready to unleash Her vengeance on the barbarians. The Emperor Tiberius has sent Germanicus Caesar, his adopted son, into Germania with an army of 40,000 legionaries. They come not on a mission of conquest, but one of annihilation. With them is a young Legionary named Artorius. For him, the war is a personal vendetta—a chance to avenge his brother, who was killed in Teutoburger Wald.

In Germania, Arminius knows the Romans are coming. He realizes that the only way to fight the Romans is through deceit, cunning, and plenty of well-placed brute force. In truth, he is leery of Germanicus, knowing that he was trained to be a master of war by the Emperor himself.

The entire Roman Empire held its breath as Germanicus and Arminius faced each other in what would become the most brutal and savage campaign the world had seen in a generation; a campaign that could only end in a holocaust of fire and blood.

About the Author
James Mace has served in the U.S. military since 1993. He is a full-time soldier with the Idaho Army National Guard and a veteran of the Iraq War. He wrote numerous articles on bodybuilding and physical fitness before turning his attention to writing historical novels. He lives in Meridian, Idaho.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Review: Nox Dormienda by Kelli Stanley

A history resource article by  © 2008

"The morning staggered by, still looking for a party. Saturnalia was officially over two days ago - unofficially there were still cockfights and dice throws, more wine-soaked quickies and the odor of vomit filling every alley."

Welcome to Kelli Stanley's world of Roman noir.

I have enjoyed "detectives in togas" for a number of years - particularly a late Roman Republican sleuth named Gordianus the Finder penned from the imagination of Steven Saylor. But I am not familiar with the private eyes that populate the books by Stanley's favorite author Raymond Chandler. Perhaps the closest I have come to this genre is reading James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux novels. Likewise, I have not shared my son's passion for noir genre films, although Bogart's Casablanca deserves its reputation as a classic. So I wasn't quite sure what to expect when Stanley sent me a copy of her book "Nox Dormienda", the first of a planned series of mystery novels featuring a crime-solving medicus in Agricola's Roman Britain promoted as a new genre, Roman noir.

For a child of the 50s and 60s raised on a diet of traditional historical epics, I found the "snappy-tough" noir-style dialogue jarring at first as I struggled to lose myself in the gritty reality of life in early Londonium. I felt like I had bought a ticket to see "Gladiator" but made a wrong turn inside the cineplex and stumbled into Tarrentino's "Pulp Fiction". But as the novel progressed and I got to know the interesting cast of characters, especially the quirky half-Roman, half-Britain medicus who could be gently caressing a puppy one minute and groping in the abdomen of a nearly eviscerated legionary the next, I succumbed to this author's efforts to conjure up a unique view of ancient Rome and began to enjoy the bumpy ride as Stanley's protagonist tugged me through Londonium's back streets, down into a mithraeum, up the back stairs of a seedy brothel, then into the provincial governor's palace where a weary Agricola, one of Domitian's most successful and honored generals, brooded over rumors of his pending dismissal as he realized his old soldier's boots may not be the best footwear to navigate the tightrope of imperial politics. I think what I enjoyed most was becoming an invisible member of the raucous household of Julius Alpinus Classicianus Favonianus (that's Arcturus to you natives or Ardur to any rheumy-eyed Trinovantean females) whose members so eagerly attempted to assist the Dominus in his investigations.

As a member of the senatorial class, Arcturus does not lead the hand-to-mouth solo existence of Lindsey Davis' Didius Falco. His extended family includes a cook, Venutius, who tries to win Arcturus over with cullinery experiments that often go awry, Draco, a hulking bodyguard with a legendary appetite who must be barely out of his teens as he's still growing out of his tunics, a steward, Brutius, who tries to keep Arcturus' adoring public at bay, Coire, a slave girl who would like to perform in the bedroom but is relegated to the examination room, and a love-struck freedman, Bilicho, who serves as assistant surgeon/gumshoe. As the story progresses, the seductive Gywnna, daughter of an aging Trinovantean auxiliary commander moves in along with her 10-year-old brother Hefin. Then, Bilicho drags home Stricta, his Egyptian girlfriend and one-time prostitute who also happens to be a witness to the murder Arcturus is attempting to solve. Add to this a faithful and much loved dog, Pyxis, her puppies, a cat, and a smattering of chickens and you definitely experience the "urbanity" of Roman life.

The only plot development that struck a sour note with me was introduction of an insane Christian legionary. Stanley seemed compelled to offer insanity as an excuse for his dichotomous behavior. Early Christians were not necessarily the pious, submissive victims of "The Robe", though. The violence of a soldier's profession would not have been viewed as incongruous with Christian teachings. This attitutde is clearly demonstrated several centuries later by the first so-called Christian emperor Constantine. Furthermore, a soldier who zealously berated his bunkmates for their embrace of other relgions of the period, like Mithrascism, would be doubtful in the inclusive polytheism of Roman culture. Acting like a near-zombie, chanting religious mantras with eyes glazed over, would have netted a man a quiet but violent fate in some back alley. The Roman army was still a well-oiled machine at this time and its members would not have tolerated such gum in the works for very long. That is not to say that there weren't any Christian legionaries. I just don't think the behavior exhibited by this character was needed to validate that portion of the plot.

Inevidentably, people who have read my review of Ruth Downie's "Medicus" will ask me how I would compare the two, since both not only feature a Roman medicus as primary protagonist but both set the stage for action in Roman Britain, albeit different time periods. Downie's Ruso is a regular army medicus recently transferred to the XX Legion in the remote port of Deva (now Chester). He is starting over after a ruinous divorce from a socialite wife that has left him almost penniless. His father has also died leaving a mountain of unpaid bills to Ruso and his brother struggling to scratch a living from a small farm in Gaul. Ruso's sense of "dignitas" drives him to not only attempt to reverse his family's financial misfortunes by writing a medical treatise, but to become a reluctant sleuth when a serial killer surfaces in the seedier part of town and no one else seems to view the lives of the unfortunate prostitute victims as worth the trouble. Ruso is a healer first and foremost and only consequentially an investigator. Arcturus, on the other hand, seems to eagerly embrace the opportunity to discover "who done it", welcoming the diversion from the humdrum of the normal practice of the governor's medicus. Both men, though, seem to be equally gifted with the healing arts.

Ruso's world is also decidedly different that than of Arcturus and, with the exception of Ruso serendipitously saving the life of the emperor Trajan in an earthquake, did not include encounters with the famous. But that is not to say that Ruso did not interact with equally intriguing characters. Downie's dilapidated military outpost teemed with vibrantly-drawn people thriving in the cauldron of a remote Roman frontier where two cultures attempted to co-exist. Arcturus' Londonium is nearly as primitive, since it is decades earlier. But, Arcturus' lineage from a native mother married to a Roman centurion provides Arcturus with an internal conflict in which his two halves attempt to co-exist in a single body. So, I would say both novels offer a unique perspective on the Roman experience in Britain and I look forward to the next installment in both of these series.

One last note - I truly appreciate the writing device Kelli Stanley uses to acquaint the reader with common latin references. Each time she uses a latin word, she places it in italics and includes it in a gloassary at the end of the book. Since I have read a number of novels and nonfiction works about the Roman Empire, I was familiar with many of the terms without looking them up. However, I welcomed the opportunity to expand my latin vocabulary. I was particularly pleased to learn that posca was a cheap alcoholic drink made from vinegar and herbs. I had to smile when I read that since it made me think of the personality of Julius Caesar's wannabe-strategist-slave, Posca, in the HBO miniseries, "Rome". I think a blend of vinegar and herbs aptly described him!