Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Review: Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell

Peering from his hiding place in a corpse-strewn alley of 15th century Soissons, young Nicholas Hook watched in horror as his fellow English archers, surrendered by a treacherous nobleman for a pouch of coins then disarmed, are set upon by their French captors. First, their bow fingers are sliced off, something Hook had heard stories about in the short time he had spent with his company. But then they were grabbed by the hair, their heads wrenched back, and their eyes gouged from their sockets. Still the Frenchmen’s bloodlust was not sated. Drawing their daggers, the French men-at-arms castrated the screaming, blinded men and left them to bleed to death, writhing on the cobblestones of the square in front of the little church where they had sought refuge.

This scene (I have condensed it) reflects the sheer brutality of warfare during the Hundred Years War. I have read many books in which conquering armies sack cities but I have never experienced the savagery as explicitly as I did reading Cornwell’s description of the fall of Soissons in 1415.

There, men not only hacked each other to pieces with poleax, mace, and sword, but the victors used their own bodies to violate and rend dazed women and hollow-eyed children. Even priests and nuns were raped or disemboweled. The shockwaves of this massacre of mostly French citizens by French soldiers rocked all of Christendom. In fact, this transgression was pointed to as the reason the French were so resoundingly defeated at Agincourt a year later, October 25, 1415, on the feast day of St. Crispin and St. Crispian, the patron saints of the town of Soissons.

Nicholas Hook escapes the carnage, along with a young novice, Melisande, the bastard daughter of a wealthy French nobleman. The couple flee to Calais where Nicholas relates all he has seen to the English commander there. As one of the few survivors of the butchery at Soissons, Nicholas is then summoned to London to repeat his story to King Henry V. Afterwards, the king assigns him to the company of Sir John Cornewaille (sometimes spelled Cornwall).

Sir John Cornewaille was born in 1364 to a noble family. His father, also Sir John Cornewaille, had been in service to the Duke of Brittany. His mother was, purportedly, the niece of the Duke. Sir John (the younger) served Richard II in Scotland. Then, he fought for the Duke of Lancaster in Brittany and, later, King Henry IV. Sir John was made a Knight of The Garter in 1410 for his numerous acts of courage on the battlefield. King Henry IV even gave him Elizabeth Plantagenet, the Duchess of Exeter, daughter of the third surviving son of King Edward III , in marriage.

But, although he was a celebrated tournament champion as well as decorated soldier, Sir John was not the romanticized warrior that people often think of when the subject of knights and chivalry arise. His training speech, as related by Cornwell, would make a U.S. Marine drill sergeant proud:

“ …you rip their bellies open, shove blades in their eyes, slice their throats, cut off their bollocks, drive swords up their arses, tear out their gullets, gouge their livers, skewer their kidneys, I don’t care how you do it, so long as you kill them!”

Now English archers were lethal and Nicholas Hook was an exceptional archer. Hook could punch a fletched shaft through the throat of a crossbowman at a distance considered out-of-range by the average archer. But Sir John taught him to kill with poleax and dagger as well. As it turned out he would need all of these skills to survive the killing fields of Agincourt.

But first, Hook had to endure the withering siege of Harfleur, a small port on the coast of Normandy. There, Henry V’s army not only faced a defiant French garrison supported by determined townsfolk, but, as the siege dragged on and on, devastating disease and dysentery.

Again Cornwell’s gritty narrative engulfs you in the grinding depravations of the victims of the besieged town as well as the squalid existence of the archers and men-at-arms clamoring outside the crumbling walls.

Cornwell also introduces us to a quintessential villain, not a menacing Frenchman, but a stringy-haired English priest who uses his office to force himself on women and now casts a lecherous eye on Melisande. Each time this priest appeared, I would picture the balding priest with bulging, lascivious eyes who is groping a cackling, bulbous-breasted prostitute in the History Channel series, “The History of Sex”. This character was so well drawn, like all of Cornwell’s characters, that he actually made my skin crawl.

Of course the climax of the novel is the battle of Agincourt. The battle itself lasted for about three hours and Cornwell’s account of the slaughter that occurred in those three hours left me as emotionally drained as those unarmored archers who, after exhausting their supply of bodkins, struggled in the knee deep mud of that sodden wheat field to fight off French knights wielding shortened lances and spiked maces.

I had always heard that the English won the battle of Agincourt because of their archers with their famous long bows. But, actually, the archers depleted their arrow supply on the first French battle charge. The second wave was repulsed in hand to hand fighting along the entire English line, with archers discarding their bows and resorting to secondary weapons like poleaxes and mallets.

I must confess, now, although I have seen probably all of the Sharpe’s Rifles television series and have over a dozen of Bernard Cornwell’s books in my “to be read” stack, Agincourt: A Novel
is the first book by Cornwell that I have actually read. I have read hundreds of other novels featuring accounts of many of the ancient world’s most famous battles - some, like Cannae, with much higher death tolls than Agincourt. But I have never read a fictionalized account of battle more immersive than the struggle described by Cornwell in this novel.

For interesting videos about the story behind the book, check out my earlier post.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Review: The Forgotten Legion by Ben Kane

James Rollins, author of “The Last Oracle” exclaims, “What Wilbur Smith did for Egypt, Kane does for Rome!”. I’ve only read two of Wilbur Smith’s novels, “The Seventh Scroll” and “River God” but the narrative style of these two novels is quite similar to the storytelling technique used by Ben Kane in this first of a projected series of novels featuring heroes developed in this work.

Kane introduces each character in their own unique context within the boundaries of the Late Roman Republic. We first meet Tarquinius, one of the last of the Etruscan haruspices (soothsayers), raised as a poor freedman on a large latifundia owned by a politically ambitious patron with ties to the richest man in Rome at the time, Marcus Licinius Crassus. Warned by his tutor to escape to the east where he will find his destiny, Tarquinius abandons his home and joins the forces of Lucullus fighting Mithradates in Asia Minor.

Next we meet Brennus, a towering Gallic warrior whose people are crushed by the legions of Julius Caesar. The only survivor of his village, he is taken in chains to Rome where he is sold to the largest gladiatorial school in the capital.

Then we meet the twin brother and sister slaves, Romulus and Fabiola, the spawn of Julius Caesar and a slave girl he ravaged on the streets of Rome when coming home from an evening of revelry with his friends. The twins’ cruel owner, a less-than-profitable merchant in debt to the greedy Crassus, sells the 14-year-old twins, sending Romulus to the gladiator school and Fabiola to the Lupanar – the most prestigious brothel in Rome.

Romulus has fortunately received some earlier training with a sword from his former owner’s steward and is taken under the wing of the brawny Brennus. Fabiola, of course irresistibly beautiful, is tutored by the madame and fellow prostitutes at the Lupanar and becomes the most sought after “companion” in the establishment as well as the regular lover of Caesar’s lieutenant Decimus Brutus.

Romulus swears one day to free his sister and take revenge on his former owner who sold their worn out mother to the salt mines, ensuring her death.

At this point I’m sure you’re thinking this is beginning to sound like a melodramatic made-for-television movie and I would probably agree with that assessment.

Brennus and Romulus sneak out of the gladiator school for an evening’s entertainment and are implicated in the death of a Roman nobleman who just happens to be the hated former patron of Tarquinius. To escape crucifixion, the two flee south where they hear Crassus is assembling an army to invade Parthia. In Brundisium, they meet Tarquinius and our ensemble cast is finally ready to get into some serious trouble in the deserts of Syria where Crassus will meet his inevitable fate at the battle of Carrhae, the climax of this first installment.

Kane obviously knows the rudimentary history of the late Roman Republic and its key players and his characters have some depth. I like the way he interjects the occasional Latin term into the narrative in a context that clearly reveals its meaning without delivering a specific definition. This is the natural way that people learn another language and his use of the technique is appreciated.

However, some background details of Roman culture and some of the scenarios developed in his narrative were grating to me because of my previous studies. As an admirer of Julius Caesar and someone who has read a number of biographies about him, I could not swallow the premise that Caesar would demean himself in public by raping a passing slave girl. First of all, Caesar was abstemious in his dining and drinking habits and meticulous about his personal hygiene so was not the type to participate in public drunken revelries – even as a young man. Second, Caesar prided himself on being a sought after lover. His sexual appetites were well satisfied by his numerous paramours with other men’s wives, whether his own wife was ill or not.

Then Romulus narrowly escapes being run over by an ox cart in the streets of Rome in the middle of the day. I had previously read that wagons and carts were forbidden by law to enter Rome until after dark. I mentioned this to my friend Pat Hunter, author of “Immortal Caesar,” and she told me that she thought the legislation was passed after Caesar returned from Gaul so this criticism may be unjustified.

Later, Romulus defeats an experienced and successful gladiator in a “duel” at the gladiator school. It is hard for me to believe that a 14-year-old boy with occasional training with a sword could defeat a veteran gladiator in single combat on his first outing. Gladiators were burly, barley-fed brutes (how’s that for alliteration!) whose body mass alone would have nearly guaranteed victory in such an encounter. Perhaps Kane was trying to appeal to a younger demographic with that one.

Then, I seriously doubt that a Roman noble, irregardless of how besotted he was with a beautiful prostitute, would have taken her to a formal Roman dinner party. I realize Rome had become Hellenized to some extent since the second Punic War but prostitutes from a brothel were not treated as Greek heitera in Roman social circles. He also would not have taken her to Roman gladiatorial contests or at least not sat with her and discussed combat tactics. Women were relegated to the uppermost seats, totally segregated from the men at Roman games, or at least they were less than a century later when the Flavian amphitheater (Colosseum) was built.

Kane also explained that only the most blood-thirsty Romans stayed for the gladiator bouts late in the afternoon, after watching the beast hunts and executions. This was laughable, as the gladiator contests were viewed as the climax of the entire experience. If anyone left, it was to grab a bite to eat at lunch during the criminal executions.

But, despite these perceived historical missteps, Kane spun a good yarn. I would agree with Rollins that the story was engaging, although “visceral”, no, not after reading one of Bernard Cornwell’s battle sequences in which his protagonist slashes wildly with a battle ax, wiping the spray of blood from a severed artery out of his eyes and flicking a fragment of bone and brain from his cheek – I was listening to Bernard Cornwell’s “Agincourt” during my morning workout at the same time I was reading the hard copy of “The Forgotten Legion” in the evening. Now that is my idea of visceral!

Review: Of Merchants and Heroes by Paul Waters

The young Roman protagonist of classicst Paul Waters' first novel, "Of Merchants and Heroes", seeks to find his own identity in a society in the midst of redefining itself, as the traditionally conservative Roman culture begins to embrace, albeit uncertainly, Greek Hellenism at the end of the second Punic War. Born of a landed but impoverished family on a farm in the centuries old city of Praeneste, young Marcus' life takes a dramatic turn when he and his father, along with other travelers, are captured by pirates, led by a ruthless but charismatic rogue named Dicaearchus (Dicearchus, or DiceƤrch - d.196 BC), an Aetolain rogue (and real historical figure) employed by Philip V of Macedon to raid the Cyclades and Rhodian ships after the second Punic War.

Marcus, alone, escapes and flees to the house of his uncle, a prosperous merchant who has capitalized on the war with Hannibal. Forced to become his uncle's adopted son, Marcus accompanies his uncle to Tarentum where his uncle has obtained a contract to oversee properties seized from Tarentines who supported Hannibal in the recent war. There, he saves the life of the father of Titus Quinctius Flamininus, a man who would play a prominant role in the future of Greco-Roman relationships and command the allied forces of Rome and Greece in the defining battle of Cynoscephalae in 197 BCE.

Titus, like many young elite Romans of the period, had selectively embraced a number of Greek customs while living in Tarentum, a city originally founded by a group of exiled Spartans in the 8th century BCE. Since its founding, Tarentum had become a thriving trading center and bustling seaport where many nations of the ancient Mediterranean co-mingled, sharing ideas and lifestyles. At one of Titus' dinner parties, Marcus encounters his first hetaira, a lady he grows to respect as they encounter each other a number of times throughout the story. Pacifae personifies the skilled courtesan described by Lucian in his Dialogues of the Courtesans:

"In the first place, she dresses attractively and looks neat; she's gay with all the men, without being so ready to cackle as you are, but smiles in a sweet bewitching way; later on, she's very clever when they're together, never cheats a visitor or an escort, and never throws herself at the men. If ever she takes a fee for going out to dinner, she doesn't drink too much--that's ridiculous, and men hate women who do--she doesn't gorge herself--that's ill-bred, my dear--but picks up the food with her finger-tips, eating quietly and not stuffing both cheeks full, and, when she drinks, she doesn't gulp, but sips slowly from time to time....Also, she doesn't talk too much or make fun of any of the company, and has eyes only for her customer. These are the things that make her popular with the men."

But love does not bloom for the young man until he visits the gymnasium and meets Menexanos, a young Athenian athlete. Bisexuality was accepted openly in the ancient world although in Roman society any Roman male engaging in such relationships was expected to take the dominant role. Waters does not examine that aspect of the relationship but rather presents the relationship as a communion of souls who strive to serve their respective homelands and infuse their lives with meaning while cultivating courage and lending support the each other in their quest for achievement and honor. This approach most closely resembles the treatment of bisexual relationships in Mary Renault’s classic “The Last of the Wine”.

Both young men end up as combatants in the famous battle of Cynoscephalae – Menexanos as an Athenian hoplite and Marcus as a Roman tribune – in the climax of the novel.

The thing that struck me as particularly unique about this novel was the development of the character of King Philip V of Macedon. He is usually mentioned only in passing in many books focusing on this period, presumably because Hannibal is such a charismatic figure he steals the show, so to speak. But King Philip V is presented by Waters as quite a dashing, if a bit roguish, commander of note in his own right who mounted a serious threat to Roman dominance in the Aegean. True to his ancestors, he was a master of subterfuge and seemed to have a formidable grasp of both siege and naval warfare. He was an intelligent and perceptive leader who could have easily turned the tables on the Romans if the confrontation at Cynoscephalae had occurred on ground more suited to phalanx tactics than to maneuvers of small Roman maniple units. As it is, the battlefield apparently was not specifically selected by Flamininus, just a fortunate coincidence although I’m sure Flamininus was aware of the phalanx’s maneuvering vulnerabilities. It seemed to be more of a case of Fortuna smiling on the Romans that day rather than a victory resulting from a carefully sprung trap.

I enjoyed this novel immensely and highly recommend it. I think it ranks as one of the best “first” novels I have read and I look forward with anticipation to Waters next effort.

Note: This novel was recently released in the U.S. under the title "The Republic of Vengeance."

Rome's Cultural Revolution

I always love watching Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill discuss ancient Rome on the History Channel because he so obviously enjoys his work and is genuinely fascinated by Roman culture and civilization. Every time I visit Pompeii I hope I will run into him there but so far I have not been so fortunate!

The period of Rome's imperial expansion, the late Republic and early Empire, saw transformations of its society, culture and identity. Drawing equally on archaeological and literary evidence, this book offers an original and provocative interpretation of these changes. Moving from recent debates about colonialism and cultural identity, both in the Roman world and more broadly, and challenging the traditional picture of 'Romanization' and 'Hellenization', it offers instead a model of overlapping cultural identities in dialogue with one another. It attributes a central role to cultural change in the process of redefinition of Roman identity, represented politically by the crisis of the Republican system and the establishment of the new Augustan order. Whether or not it is right to see these changes as 'revolutionary', they involve a profound transformation of Roman life and identity, one that lies at the heart of understanding the nature of the Roman Empire.

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill is Professor of Classics at the University of Reading and has been Director of the British School at Rome since 1995. His previous books are Suetonius: The Scholar and his Caesars (1983), Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum (1994) and Domestic Space in the Roman World (co-edited with Ray Laurence, 1997). He is currently directing a major project on a Pompeian neighbourhood with Michael Fulford and, since 2001, has directed the Herculaneum Conservation Project. He frequently contributes to radio and television programmes on various aspects of Roman life and in 2004 was awarded an OBE for services to Anglo-Italian cultural relations.

Ten Books That Illustrate Why Romans Were Great Lovers

While I was browsing new ancient-themed books on Amazon I saw this interesting list by Mary Beard of ten books that illustrate why Romans were great lovers. I definitely agree with item 9. When I visited the Museo Archaeologico in Naples a couple of years ago and ventured into the "Secret Room" I did not find the semi-erotic paintings particularly shocking, as did the first female Victorian visitors, but found the heaps of phallic-shaped votive offerings and explicit terracotta lamps a little unnerving. They still make me blush and I haven't gotten my nerve up enough to upload my photographs of them to Flickr even yet. When I do so I will flag them as "may offend" so they will be filtered. I don't want any teachers angry with me for including such graphic sexual images in collections I promote for classroom use.

1. Staying power
Roman lovers could keep going all night (at least if we take their word for it). Ovid – the first-century-BC’s man about town – claims that he could perform nine times in a single night. Read all about it in his ‘Love Poems” (Book 3, number 7). Read: Ovid, The Erotic Poems (Penguin Classics)
, translated by Peter Green.

2. Sweet talk
Roman men could make you feel so good. Mark Antony and Julius Caesar both talked their way into the heart of feisty Cleopatra. The chat-up lines of Rome’s founding father Aeneas drove Queen Dido senseless. Read: Virgil, The Aeneid (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
, translated by Robert Fagles. (Go straight to Book 4)

3. Body beautiful
There was no flab or beer belly on these six-pack hunks. All that gym and exercise kept Greeks and Romans bronzed and trim. Read: Nigel Spivey, The Ancient Olympics: A History

4. Inventiveness

Sexual positions became (literally) an art-form for the Romans--two-somes, three-somes and more. You’d better stay supple though, or those more testing acrobatics will be beyond you. Read: John Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 B.C. - A.D. 250

5. Romantic agony
Roman men could do anguish better than any others. “I hate and I love . . . and it hurts” as the poet Catullus succinctly wrote to his fickle mistress. Don’t expect to escape a Roman affair without tears. Read: Catullus,The Poems of Catullus: A Bilingual Edition
, translated by Peter Green.

6. Great pick-up lines
Romans knew they had to work hard at the first impressions. Ovid, in a lover’s manual, gives the beginner plenty of advice on how to break the ice. Stand right next to her at a procession, and when some elaborate display goes past explain to her what it is. It doesn’t matter, says Ovid, if you don’t really know – make it sound plausible, to impress. Read: Ovid, Ovid: The Art of Love and Other Poems (Loeb Classical Library No. 232)
, translated by J. H. Mozley.

7. Open minds
Not many Romans were prudes. Most men were happy to contemplate sex with women, men, or if it came to it, animals – just so long as they were the active, not the passive partner. Read: Apuleius, The Golden Ass (Penguin Classics)
, translated by E. J. Kenney.

8. Rough-trade

Roman women went for the rough, tough sporting heroes of the ancient world. Successful gladiators became the heart-throbs of the Roman girls. Read: Catharine Edwards, The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome

9. In touch with their inner-selves
The anxiety of Roman men was one of their more endearing features. Images of the phallus were everywhere in Roman towns – but so too were images of castration and mutilation. The ancient man never took his prowess for granted. Carlin A. Barton,The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans

10. Not afraid to say 'I love you'

The walls of the buried city of Pompeii are covered with written messages from satisfied (and a few unsatisfied) men. ‘Oh Chloe, I had a wonderful time, twice over in this very spot, I love you. . . .’
Read: Antonio Varone, Eroticism in Pompeii
. And, in case you are looking for the woman’s point of view, try Marilyn B. Skinner, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture (Ancient Cultures)

Augustus: A modest first among equals? I think not.

When I read the product description of this book by Paul Rehak, scheduled for release April 8, I was pleased to see that someone besides me thinks Augustus was not as interested in being viewed as a modest citizen as many historians have suggested. I just returned from Rome a few weeks ago and while there had a chance to view the new rooms of the villa of Augustus on the Palatine that have been recently restored and saw nothing "modest" about them. They were as richly frescoed as most sumptuous villas of the wealthy that have been unearthed in Pompeii or Oplontis. You also can't help but be awestruck by the ornate naturalistic murals of a subterranean room from the villa of Livia recreated in a gallery of the National Museum in Rome either. Each time I see them I feel they envelope a visitor in a sense of luxury as real as if you were left to stroll in a richly planted peristyle garden.

"Caesar Augustus promoted a modest image of himself as the first among equals (princeps), a characterization that was as recognized with the ancient Romans as it is with many scholars today. Paul Rehak argues against this impression of humility and suggests that, like the monarchs of the Hellenistic age, Augustus sought immortality—an eternal glory gained through deliberate planning for his niche in history while flexing his existing power. Imperium and Cosmos focuses on Augustus’s Mausoleum and Ustrinum (site of his cremation), the Horologium-Solarium (a colossal sundial), and the Ara Pacis (Altar to Augustan Peace), all of which transformed the northern Campus Martius into a tribute to his major achievements in life and a vast memorial for his deification after death.

Rehak closely examines the artistic imagery on these monuments, providing numerous illustrations, tables, and charts. In an analysis firmly contextualized by a thorough discussion of the earlier models and motifs that inspired these Augustan monuments, Rehak shows how the princeps used these on such an unprecedented scale as to truly elevate himself above the common citizen. "