A ballista is a fearsome Roman siege weapon that uses torsion springs made of twisted animal sinew to hurl stone projectiles or bolts over 500 yards. Ballistae were used for both prosecuting a siege as well as to defend a besieged city from attacking forces employing siege engines themselves. A man who knew how to most effectively deploy such weapons was certainly worth the military title of Dux Ripea, a rank roughly equivalent to a regional commander and just one step below that of provincial governor. An officer who had earned the cognomen of Ballista must be extraordinary indeed - at least so thought the people of Arete, a Roman outpost on the fringes of the Syrian desert. But this tall, pale-eyed barbarian with flowing blond locks was not at all what they were expecting.
Ballista may not have been what the scheming merchants, priests and caravan lords were hoping for, but he is exactly what they needed to defend the bustling center of trade against a looming horde of Sassanid Persians led by Shapur I himself, King of Kings.
And so, the story of the siege of Arete unfolds from classical scholar Harry Sidebottom. I found myself captivated by not only the depth of knowledge of ancient siege craft conveyed through the observations and decisions of this unusual Roman commander but by Sidebottom's complex characterizations of not only Ballista but his unlikely household as well.
Ballista, himself, is a Germanic political hostage that has been raised and educated in an imperial court, where in just one year alone six men claimed the emperor's crown only to be slaughtered by mutinous soldiers, lynched by their own bodyguards or beaten and dragged naked through the streets of Rome. In the year of Ballista's birth, the vainglorious boy emperor Elagabalus is murdered by his own Praetorian guard in a latrine and this brutal act seems to presage the tumult Ballista will face in the years ahead.
Civil war and repeated barbarian incursions have also forced embattled emperors to recruit Germans, Sarmatians, Arabs, Armenians, and Moors from the far reaches of the empire. So, the opportunity to learn the art of war presents itself early to the young nobleman, who, at the age of just 16 finds himself in the forces of the brutal, gargantuan, soldier-emperor Maximinus Thrax besieging the city of Aquileia. It would prove to be just one of many sieges in his military career that would provide him with the special knowledge later needed by the Emperors Valerian and Gallienus to deal with a fresh Persian incursion into Roman Syria as well as a solid understanding of how to relate to and motivate a fighting force.
But Ballista is more than the quintessential commander, he is still a warrior of northern traditions in an unfamiliar landscape who struggles with who he is as a man while trying to perform his sworn duty to the empire. He is aided in this task by a diverse "familia".
Maximus, his Celtic bodyguard, has fought side by side with Ballista so many times they move almost as one man. But, where Ballista is contemplative, Maximus relies on instinct which controls not only his combat maneuvers but his over sized libido as well.
A crusty old Caledonian slave that has taken care of Ballista since he was a child serves as his steward but relates to the Dux Ripea almost like a querulous old uncle. Their relationship reminded me of the contentious relationship between the slave Posca and Julius Caesar in the HBO miniseries "Rome".
A shy Greek slave, Demetrius, serves as Ballista's secretary but frequently quotes epic poetry and uses examples in Greek mythology to try to guide his master in difficult decisions. Bagoaz, a Persian slave boy, was purchased to teach Ballista the Persian language and advises him (and through Ballista, the reader) about Persian customs and battle tactics.
By using the narrative device of these various characters, each possessing special knowledge about the different cultures of the period, Sidebottom is able to relate a lot of knowledge about the period couched in the natural flow of the story and character relationships. Sidebottom's solid grasp of storytelling enables him to truly immerse the reader in the tumultuous world of the third century. Fire in the East: Warrior of Rome serves as a vivid example of the best in historical fiction, where the genre serves to not only accurately inform its readers about the complexities of life and relationships between diverse cultures but imbues them with a passion to learn even more.