Saturday, January 23, 2010

Review: Give Me Back My Legions by Harry Turtledove

Give Me Back My Legions!The Roman Emperor Augustus' anguished cry, "Publius Quinctilius Varus, Give Me Back My Legions!", is probably one of the most famous quotations that has come down to us from the ancient world.  So, I was naturally drawn to a novel with that title, hoping I could explore at least one person's interpretation of the events of that fatal confrontation and insight into the motivations of the men who met their destiny there.

"Give Me Back My Legions" is the first book I have ever read by Harry Turtledove although I have several of his books, either written alone or as a co-author with someone else, in my "to-be-read" stack.  Since the novel, centered around the events leading up to the massacre of three Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest, was released in unabridged audio format, it gave me the opportunity to listen to it while I exercise each morning so received my attention much sooner than my other hard copy volumes.

Turtledove did a good job of characterization, neither overtly villifying either one side or the other in the conflict between occupying Roman forces and the tribal cultures of Germania.  The only problem with this approach, of course, is that there appears to be no clear protagonist or antagonist so the author sacrifices tension to some extent in the telling of the story.  Publius Quinctillus Varus is portrayed as a typical middle-aged Roman administrator who has married well (the emperor's Augustus' grandniece) but who is really ready for a gradual slide into retirement and longing for a less stressful life in Rome and the companionship of his son, who is currently studying in Greece.  When he is assigned the task of turning Germania into a proper Roman province paying proper Roman taxes, he is less than enthusiastic about the job.  But, who in the entire Roman Empire, would dare to refuse Augustus' request?

Arminius is an auxiliary officer with the Roman legions fighting a revolt in Pannonia.  He demonstrates courage and a strategic understanding of guerilla warfare, but privately harbors fears that his own people will eventually become victims of the Roman war machine if something isn't done soon in his native Germania.  When he receives word that the father of his betrothed, an overt Roman supporter, has decided to break the engagement and wed his daughter to another man with a political attitude more like his own, Arminius asks for permission to return home and straighten out this point of honor.

After Arminius resolves the matter by whisking away his betrothed and deflowering her to prevent any other man of his tribe from wanting her, Arminius turns his attention to finding a way to drive the Romans out of his homeland.  He knows that his countrymen's style of personal combat would be disastrous in a pitched battle with the disciplined Romans so he decides his only option is to somehow deceive them into venturing out of their encampment through territory more advantageous to an ambush.  He begins his plan by overtly trying to impress Varus.  Varus, in turn, sees something of his own son in the young, brash Arminius and despite numerous warnings from his own officers as well as Arminius' suspicious father-in-law, Segestes, Varus warms to the young man.

 Arminius watches as year after year the Romans build up then tear down their settlement at Mindinum and struggle back through the mud to their winter quarters on the other side of the Rhine. It occurs to him that if he suggests to Varus that he knows an easier route back to the base camp, he could lure Varus out onto a winding track through the forest where Arminius and his followers could construct an ambush.  So, although Arminius lives within the Roman camp and sups frequently with Varus during the spring and summer, he travels around Germania recruiting followers for his planned attack during the winter months.  I can understand the need for duplicity but when the time finally arrives and the ambush is accomplished, I was bothered by Arminius' eagerness to capture Varus alive so Varus could be brutally butchered as a sacrifice to the Germanic gods.  I found it hard to imagine that the kindness shown by Varus towards Arminius could be so totally dismissed.  In the novel, Arminius is quite aware that Varus misses his own son and views Varus as a kind of temporary substitute.  Although Varus must levy taxes as a requirement of provincial administration, he is not depicted as cruel or unjust (or at least he is not portrayed as such by Turtledove).  Therefore, the viciousness of Arminius' plans to brutalize him are repugnant and not really justified by the portrayal of a relatively benign Varus in the story.

In actual history, however, Varus may not have been quite so harmless.  While governing Syria, Varus, in command of four legions, put down a Jewish revolt that erupted after the death of the Roman client king Herod the Great in 4 BCE and crucified 2,000 Jewish rebels.  Although Josephus tries to point out the judiciousness of Varus' actions, there are references in the ancient sources to mass protests as a result of Varus' cruelty.  Turtledove's sympathetic portrayal of the man may have been a little misleading.

But, nevertheless, the retelling of the ambush and subsequent massacre was riveting.  Something that really stuck in my mind as I read the passage was how Arminius pondered the meaning of his countrymen's willingness to attack the Romans and the realization that most of the tribal warriors were only interested in plundering the Roman baggage train for loot.  Arminius concludes that they had no real overarching vision of independence or dream of establishing a united kingdom of their own.  I think Turtledove hit the hammer right on the head with that observation.  The other aspect of Arminius that I found disquieting was his immediate plans to not only throw the Romans out of Germania but follow it up by ravaging Gaul and taking it away from the people living there.  The victim had no qualms about becoming a brutal conqueror himself which seemed to diminish Arminius' nobility, at least in my eyes.

I realize Arminius is celebrated as an historical hero in Germany but I, like some other scholars, wonder if the victory he won in the Teutoburg forest was not ultimately a setback to cultural development.  A people's independence is always held up as the ultimate achievement but living in a society without a law code where the strong routinely exploit their weaker neighbor could hardly be viewed as an ideal way of life. Much was made in the novel about the Germans' hatred of Roman taxes but the taxes assessed at the time were not particularly exorbitant or arbitrary.  The Romans were apparently trying to base the taxes on the prosperity of the individual steadings.  Taxes are ultimately necessary to fund projects that provide services to a large group of people and are too expensive for any one individual to undertake.  Sadly, the Germanic tribes had not reached that level of understanding yet so still clung to their "mine" vs. "yours" view of the world. Some scholars have gone so far as to suggest that if the massacre in the Teutoburg forest had not happened and Germania had been successfully Romanized, we would have never had WWI and WWII.  I, too, wonder..

 Rome's Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest   Terror in Teutoburg Forest   The Battle That Stopped Rome: Emperor Augustus, Arminius, and the Slaughter of the Legions in the Teutoburg Forest

Review: The Jupiter Myth by Lindsey Davis

The Jupiter Myth (Marcus Didius Falco Mysteries)Davis' Roman super-sleuth Marcus Didus Falco returns to Britain in this tale and must investigate the death of  a roguish courtier of King Togidubnus who ends up head first down a tavern well in a rather primitive Londonium.  The town, still scarred by fires and devastation wrought by Queen Boudicca in the Iceni Revolt a little over a decade before, holds no pleasant memories for Falco, who served there with the Second Augusta.  The Second Augusta Legion, under Petillius Cerialis, met Boudicca's eighty to one-hundred thousand rebels near Verulamium (modern St. Alban's ) with only two thousand Roman troops. Needless to say, few of the legion survived although Falco and his old friend Petro were among them.

Now, it seems gangsters from Rome have decided to exploit the new province. Falco discovers their hired muscle leaning on bakers, tavern keepers and even the local familia gladiatorix.  Davis does a good job of conjuring up the rough and tumble world of this colonial village on the Thames but I found passages to be exasperating as Falco would discover important information that should have been reported to the governor right away but instead, Falco decides he's too tired and figures it can wait until the next day which, of course, is too late.  The showdown between the imported thugs and the women gladiators seems more contrived than exciting and the villain's escape borders on the ridiculous.

I listened to the unabridged audio version of this book while I was exercising alone on my exercise bike and it's a good thing since I found myself blurting out derisive comments about Falco's contrived missteps.

Davis also has Petro acting remote and brooding for no particular reason and when the reason is finally revealed it doesn't really make any sense since Petro acknowledges he figured Falco would be watching his back.  I also found it pretty implausible that Helena Justina would be wandering the seamier neighborhoods of this grimy little backwater with her young children in tow and no escort. 

The frustrations I felt while reading this book were roughly equivalent to my generally negative reactions to "Last Act in Palmyra" and "See Delphi and Die".  Each time I read one of the Falco mysteries, I am hoping to catch a glimpse of the solid writing and plot development I experienced reading "The Course of Honor", "Silver Pigs", and "The Iron Hand of Mars".  Perhaps my biggest problem is that I don't really enjoy reading about a man who has such a negative view of life in general.  I guess some people consider Falco an interesting curmudgeon but I've had enough interactions with negative personalities in the real world that I prefer not to spend my fantasy world with them.

 Roman Myths (The Legendary Past)  The Course of Honour    The Iron Hand of Mars: A Marcus Didius Falco Mystery  

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Image and Text in Graeco-Roman Antiquity by Michael Squire

Image and Text in Graeco-Roman Antiquity"The relation between the visual and the verbal spheres has been much contested in recent years, from laments about the 'logocentricism' of the academy to the heralding of the 'pictorial turn' of the multimedia age. This lavishly illustrated book recontextualises these debates through the historical lens of Greek and Roman antiquity. Dr Squire shows how modern Western concepts of 'words' and 'pictures' derive from a post-Reformation tradition of theology and aesthetics. Where modern critics assume a bipartite separation between images and texts, classical antiquity toyed with a more playful and engaged relation between the two. By using the ancient world to rethink our own ideologies of the visual and the verbal, this interdisciplinary book brings together classics and art history, as well as a sustained reflection on their historiography: the result is a new and explosive cultural history of Western visual thinking." - Product Description,

 The Ara Pacis Augustae and the Imagery of Abundance in Later Greek and Early Roman Imperial Art    Commemorating the Dead: Texts and Artifacts in Context: Studies of Roman, Jewish and Christian Burials   The Roman Triumph

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Paul Cartlege's Responses to Oliver Stone's Alexander: Film, History, and Cultural Studies sounds intriguing

Responses to Oliver Stone's Alexander: Film, History, and Cultural Studies (Wisconsin Studies in Classics)Paul Cartledge's latest book exploring the historical accuracy of Oliver Stone's film "Alexander" and reasons for its less than enthusiastic reception at the box office sounds really interesting.  I was so anxious to see the film and so disappointed with the result that it would be interesting to read why others were equally disillusioned.  I actually found the critics who harped on such things as Colin Ferrell's bleach job to be just so uninformed they couldn't critique the film from a historical perspective (and too lazy to do any research).  Although there were historical inaccuracies, I just found the pacing of the film way too slow - especially the long droning voice over by Anthony Hopkins (and I personally normally like Anthony Hopkins).  Alexander was an exciting, charismatic personality and I felt the editing of the final cut was just poorly done or at least not done by someone with the same vision of Alexander as I had developed after reading the trilogy of novels written by Mary Renault (Fire From Heaven, The Persian Boy and Funeral Games) and the ancient biography by Appian.  Stone released a director's cut but what I would really like is a DVD of digital video of the movie that could be edited into a personal cut of the movie then shared on Hulu or another site that does not have a video length limit. Maybe the studio could sponsor a contest for "Best Cut of Alexander" or have categories like "Best Cut of Alexander from a Persian Viewpoint", etc.

"The charismatic Alexander the Great of Macedon (356–323 B.C.E.) was one of the most successful military commanders in history, conquering Asia Minor, Egypt, Persia, central Asia, and the lands beyond as far as Pakistan and India. Alexander has been, over the course of two millennia since his death at the age of thirty-two, the central figure in histories, legends, songs, novels, biographies, and, most recently, films. In 2004 director Oliver Stone’s epic film Alexander generated a renewed interest in Alexander the Great and his companions, surroundings, and accomplishments, but the critical response to the film offers a fascinating lesson in the contentious dialogue between historiography and modern entertainment.
    This volume brings together an intriguing mix of leading scholars in Macedonian and Greek history, Persian culture, film studies, classical literature, and archaeology—including some who were advisors for the film—and includes an afterword by Oliver Stone discussing the challenges he faced in putting Alexander’s life on the big screen. The contributors scrutinize Stone’s project from its inception and design to its production and reception, considering such questions as: Can a film about Alexander (and similar figures from history) be both entertaining and historically sound? How do the goals of screenwriters and directors differ from those of historians? How do Alexander’s personal relationships—with his mother Olympias, his wife Roxane, his lover Hephaistion, and others—affect modern perceptions of Alexander? Several of the contributors also explore reasons behind the film’s tepid response at the box office and subsequent controversies. " - Product Description, Amazon

 Alexander  Alexander the Great   Alexander the Great   Alexander the Great: Son of the Gods The Nature of Alexander   Fire from Heaven

A.D. 381: Heretics, Pagans, and the Christian State By Charles Freeman

AD 381"In A.D. 381, Theodosius, emperor of the eastern Roman empire, issued a decree in which all his subjects were required to subscribe to a belief in the Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This edict defined Christian orthodoxy and brought to an end a lively and wide-ranging debate about the nature of God; all other interpretations were now declared heretical. It was the first time in a thousand years of Greco-Roman civilization free thought was unambiguously suppressed. Why has Theodosius's revolution been airbrushed from the historical record? In this groundbreaking book, acclaimed historian Charles Freeman argues that Theodosius's edict and the subsequent suppression of paganism not only brought an end to the diversity of religious and philosophical beliefs throughout the empire, but created numerous theological problems for the Church, which have remained unsolved. The year A.D. 381, as Freeman puts it, was "a turning point which time forgot."

 An Introduction to Roman Religion   Religion in the Roman Empire (Blackwell Ancient Religions)   Religions of Rome: Volume 2: A Sourcebook   Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion   Her Share of the Blessings: Women's Religions among Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greco-Roman World   Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions