Thursday, March 25, 2010

Review: Fire in the East: Warrior of Rome by Harry Sidebottom

Fire in the East: Book One of Warrior of RomeA 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.

Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbours and Rivals   Between Rome and Persia: The Middle Euphrates, Mesopotamia and Palmyra Under Roman Control (Routledge Monographs in Classical Studies)      The Catastrophic Era:: Rome Versus Persia in the Third Century      Fire in the East: Book One of Warrior of Rome
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Monday, March 15, 2010

Review: Ransom by David Malouf

Ransom: A Novel"Ransom" by award-winning Australian author David Malouf is unlike any novel I have ever read.  In it, Malouf explores the inner dialog that people often have with themselves when they review their lives to gain meaning from current circumstances or ponder obstacles they now face.  In this case, the feelings we explore are those experienced by King Priam as he attempts to ransom the body of his son Hector from the fiercesome Achilles.

Priam has a dream that he must shed all trappings of kingship including bodyguards or fawning courtiers, and personally beseech Achilles for the body of his eldest son.  He thinks back over how he became king, despite the fact that, as a young boy he was almost sold off as a slave when his ancestral city was sacked by his father's enemies.  He ponders the brutality he experienced during the sack and as a reader you wince with the foreknowledge of what will befall him again. He then marvels at the life he has led since then, one of privilege but also one of staggering responsibility.

We discover that Priam's life as a monarch has been one in which he is insulated from normal human emotions usually shared within the nucleus of the family.  Instead, the pomp and ceremony of court life have required him to play the role of supreme ruler at all times, even with his offspring, numbering 50 sons and 19 daughters.

As dictated by his dream, Priam orders some of his remaining sons to secure a simple wagon to be driven by a common carter to carry the king and all the treasure that can be collected to purchase the body of a prince of Troy.  His queen, Hecuba, and his other family members and court advisers think the old man has become so enslaved by his grief that his mind has left him altogether but eventually comply with his instructions.

When the cart is hired and practically overloaded with gold and silver objects, the old king is hoisted onto the plain wooden seat next to a grizzled old man in a worn homespun garment. The two old men set off for the Myrmidon encampment.  They jostle along in the cart for some time without speaking, the poor driver wondering what a person is supposed to say to the grief-stricken king.  They then stop to rest beside a river and in the course of trying to get the old king to eat something, the elderly mule cart driver begins to describe the loss of his own sons and recalls some of their endearing antics, bringing tears to the old man's eyes in the telling.

 Considering the old driver's words, Priam realizes he can't even recall which of his wives and concubines bore some of his children let alone some of the little triumphs the children may have taken pride in over the years.  Then the veil of grief slips from his eyes and he looks about him and begins to savor each sight and smell he perceives, from the pleasant taste of the little buttermilk cakes the driver has brought along and shared with him to the tickle of the fishlings nibbling his bare toes as he wades in the water along the river bank.

Ultimately, he realizes that performing the rituals of burial will probably be the most intimate moments he will ever share with his eldest son and heir to his kingdom.

In the meantime, Achilles, too has been reflecting on the meaning of his life and speculating on what will happen to his own son, Neoptolemus, when Achilles embraces his own fate, to die young but wreathed in immortal glory.  So ultimately, it is with shared understanding that king and hero finally confront the requirements of duty and acceptance of fate when they meet at last in Achilles' mess tent.

This is not really a story-driven narrative but an anecdotal treatise on human relationships that encourages the reader to reflect on their own journey and their own losses.  

The Trojan War: A New History   In Search of the Trojan War   The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer's Iliad and the Trojan War