Saturday, January 08, 2011

Review: King of Kings: Warrior of Rome Book 2 by Harry Sidebottom

King of Kings: Book Two of Warrior of RomeMarcus Claudius Ballista, a warrior of Rome despite his origins in the wilds of Germania, returns to the court of the Emperor Valerian after a valiant but futile defense of the (fictional) Syrian stronghold of Arete in the second installment of Harry Sidebottom's Warrior of Rome series, "King of Kings'.  Unfortunately, the fragile old emperor Valerian, who knowingly sent Ballista on what amounted to a suicide mission, is neither grateful for Ballista's courageous stand or even appreciative that he returned alive.  The feeble emperor has fallen under the sway of an unscrupulous courtier who has his eyes on the purple and is plotting to use a war with the Sassanid Persians to eliminate the old man and seize the throne for his two sons. 

But Ballista, with his battle experience and knowledge of eastern customs and battle strategies represents a threat to the conspiracy.  So, the wily Macrianus the Lame engineers another near suicide mission to save another besieged town. But, when Ballista manages to best the Sassanids once again, Macrianus sidelines Ballista to an administrative post in Ephesus where he has been given a mandate to persecute the new religious sect known as Christians.  Since Christians betrayed Ballista at the siege of Arete, he has no qualms, initially, to oversee the trials of arrested believers.  But as the brutality of the persecution promoted by a zealous local magistrate becomes painfully clear, Ballista devises a plan to use the law itself to halt the distasteful purge. 

But Macrianus had intended for Ballista to fail and uses the opportunity to replace Ballista with Macrianus' own ruthless son, Quietus, to gain even more favor with Valerian.  Once again Ballista finds himself back in Antioch and more out-of-favor than ever.  Treated as a pariah by most of the powerful at the imperial court, Ballista whiles away his time hunting with one of his few friends, the future emperor Aurelian.  Finally, Ballista is asked to serve as a lowly baggage train officer in the army the emperor has assembled to confront Shapur I, the King of Kings.  This fateful battle, that eventually results in the capture of Valerian, takes place near
The triumph of Shapur I over the Roman Emperor...Image via Wikipedia
Rock relief at Naqsh-e Rostam showing the Roman
Emperor Valerian kneeling before Persian King Shapur I

Macrianus has conveniently been left safely in Samosata with the imperial treasury while Quietus continues to pour honey in the ear of the old emperor convincing him to rely on the services of a turncoat, despite the fact that it is apparent to everyone else, particularly Ballista, that the army is being led into a trap.  At the last moment, the guide disappears and Quietus convinces Valerian to send Quietus back to Samosata for help (and safely out of harm's way), leaving Ballista to face the tightening Persian encirclement.  
The Humiliation of Emperor Valerian by Shapur,...Image via Wikipedia
The Humiliation of Emperor Valerian by Shapur,
King of Persia by Hans Holbein the Younger.

When I wrote my review of "Fire In the East: Warrior of Rome Book 1", I didn't realize Ballista was a real Roman commander of the period.  I had searched in vain for a real city named Arete that underwent a siege at about the time period covered by the novel and when I didn't find one, I assumed that the entire book was fictional (except for references to the emperor Valerian and the Persian king Shapur I.  Now, researching my review for Book 2, "King of Kings", I found references to a praetorian prefectus named Ballista who served in various capacities under Valerian. 

He was a notable man, skilled in administering the commonwealth, vehement in counsel, winning fame in campaigns, without an equal in providing for rations, and so highly esteemed by Valerian that in a certain letter he honoured him with the following testimony:

 "From Valerian to Ragonius Clarus, prefect of Illyricum and the provinces of Gaul. If you are a man of good judgement, my kinsman Clarus, as I know that you are, you will carry out the arrangements of Ballista. Model your government on them. Do you see how he refrains from burdening the provincials, how he keeps the horses in places where there is fodder and exacts the rations for his soldiers in places where there is grain, how he never compels the provincials or the land-holders to furnish grain where they have no supply, or horses where they have no pasture? There is no arrangement better than to exact in each place what is there produced, so that the commonwealth may not be burdened by transport or other expenses. Galatia is rich in grain, Thrace is well stocked, and Illyricum is filled with it; so let the foot-soldiers be quartered in these regions, although in Thrace cavalry, too, can winter without damage to the provincials, since plenty of hay can be had from the fields. As for wine and bacon and other forms of food, let them be handed out in those places in which they abound in plenty. All this is the policy of Ballista, who gave orders that any province should furnish only one form of food, namely that in which it abounded, and that from it the soldiers should be kept away. This, in fact, has been officially decreed." - Historia Augusta, Vol III p. 111-113

The villains of the story, Macrianus the Lame and his two sons Macrianus the Younger and Quietus, are also real persons. The ancient sources during this tumultuous period are fragmentary at best but most sources refer to The Macriani as usurpers although I could not find any outright accusations of treachery against Valerian as portrayed in the novel.

"Being now engaged in the war with the Persians, Conscript Fathers, I have entrusted all public affairs, and even those which concern the war, to Macrianus. He is faithful to you, loyal to me, and both beloved and feared by the soldiers. He with his army will act as the case shall demand. And in this, Conscript Fathers, there is nothing new or unexpected by us. For while a boy in Italy, while a youth in Gaul, while a mature man in Africa, and, finally, while well advanced in years in Illyricum and Dalmatia, his valour has been well proved, for in divers battles he has done brave deeds which may serve as a pattern to others." - Valerian, Historia Augusta, Vol. III p. 100. 

However, despite Valerian's implicit trust in Macrianus, like Sidebottom, I find it curious that somehow Macrianus managed to separate himself from Valerian's ill-fated expedition and safely ensconce himself in Samosata with the imperial treasure. It also seems conveniently fortuitous that neither of Macrianus' sons, so lauded by Valerian for their bravery, were captured by the Persians on the expedition in which Valerian himself was seized. 

Some scholars speculate that Ballista was actually a supporter of the Macriani even though in Sidebottom's novel, the Macriani are Ballista's worst enemies. The first mention of Ballista in the Historia Augusta is rather vague about the relationship between these two men.

"So then, when Gallienus and Volusianus were consuls, Macrianus and Ballista met together, called in the remains of the army, and, since the Roman power in the East was tottering, sought someone to appoint as emperor. For Gallienus was showing himself so careless of public affairs that his name was not even mentioned to the soldiers.  It was then finally decided to choose Macrianus and his sons as emperors and to undertake the defence of the state. And so the imperial power was offered to Macrianus.  Now the reasons why Macrianus and his sons should be chosen to rule were these: First of all, no one of the generals of that time was held to be wiser, and none more suited to govern the state; in the second place, he was the richest, and could by his private fortune make good the public losses.  In addition to this, his sons, most valiant young men, rushed with all spirit into the war, ready to serve as an example to the legions in all the duties of soldiers. - Historia Augusta Vol. III p. 19-20

Although Ballista did apparently meet with Macrianus after Valerian was captured, this passage of the Augusta Historia does not say Ballista supported Macrianus as the new emperor.  It sounds to me like Macrianus, as possessor of the imperial treasury, merely used gold to secure the position.

A later section of the Augusta Historia claims Ballista actively supported Macrianus and his sons but this passage was supposedly related by one Maeonius Astyanax, considered a "bogus authority" by such modern scholars as Ronald Syme in his work "Ammianus and the Historia Augusta". 

Enmity between Ballista and Macrianus and/or his sons, however, would certainly explain a later passage relating that Ballista instigated the murder of Macrianus' son, Quietus.

But those who were with Macrianus' son — whose name was Quietus — taking sides with Odaenathus, by the instigation of Ballista, Macrianus' prefect, killed the young man, and, casting his body over the wall, they all in large numbers surrendered to Odaenathus.  And so Odaenathus was made emperor over almost the whole East, while Aureolus held Illyricum and Gallienus Rome. This same Ballista murdered, in addition to Quietus and the guardian of his treasures, many of the people of Emesa, to whom Macrianus' soldiers had fled, with the result that this city was nearly destroyed. - Historia Augusta Vol. III, pp 19-23

If Ballista had supported the Macriani, why would he switch his support to Odenathus and murder Quietus?  There are no reports anywhere else in the Historia Augusta that Ballista was a man with imperial aspirations or of a duplicitous nature. So Sidebottom's scenario seems much more plausible than the conflicting information provided by the rather exasperating "historical" source of the Historia Augusta that repeatedly contradicts itself .
The Roman Emperor Aurelian

So, the real Ballista's role in the imperial succession after the capture of Valerian seems to be somewhat unclear but he is recorded as later defeating Shapur I in Asia Minor at the battle of Corycus.  These events apparently form the foundation of Sidebottom's third installment in the series, Lion of the Sun.  As I am now totally intrigued with Ballista, I look forward to reading the next book in the series.  I see on Sidebottom's website that he is presently working on a fourth novel entitled "The Caspian Gates".  I'm hoping Sidebottom ignores spurious  reports about Ballista meeting his end prematurely and will provide us with even more adventures in which Ballista serves with his friend Aurelian.  I find Aurelian fascinating and would love to learn more about his reconquest of the empire and reasons for his betrayal.

King of Kings: Book Two of Warrior of Rome  Valerian Emperor  Aurelian and the Third Century (Roman Imperial Biographies)   Restorer of the World: The Emperor Aurelian   Corycus   Ancient Warfare: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
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