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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