Books

Reviews by Roger M. Kean, unless otherwise stated

Warrior Of Rome I—Fire In The East

Harry Sidebottom

From the cataclysmic opening prologue to the thundering, ciff-hanging ending, Fire In The East grips, compels and is an extraordinary debut. Rarely has the life and spirit of the later Roman Empire sprung from the pages of a novel as thrillingly as in this first of a planned series. That’s the result of combining Roman scholarship with a natural flair for story-telling – Harry Sidebottom, no less.
 
Anglo-Saxon Ballista – youthful, unwilling, but
opportune assassin of the Emperor Maximinus Thrax – becomes a senior officer in the Roman army in later life. He’s ordered to Mesopotamia to take charge of the defence of Arete, a remote outpost on the eastern edge of the empire. Overcoming many obstacles to his command – not to mention the vicissitudes of a slovenly garrison and the concern that he’s been set up by the Emperor Gallienus to take a big fall – he rouses the slumbrous city to fend off the might of the newly-risen Sassanian Empire. But, ultimately, it’s a battle well lost, and the tale ends with the surviving Roman garrison fleeing from the pursuing Sassanid cavalry – to fight again another day.
 
For the historical novelist there is always the problem of explaining the social, political and military background to the action, which can often overwhelm the drive of the narrative. Harry Sidebottom, however, sails though descriptions of difficult historical concepts as various as ship-building, fortifications, siege engines, Roman roads, Greek poetry, Roman writing and spying techniques without ever lecturing, seemlessly stitching in essential information with the story in a way that is never coy, let alone boring.
 
The setting – the first half of the third century AD – is an inspired one. It was a moment when the Roman Empire temporarily imploded. The last of the Severan Antonines, Alexander Severus, was murdered in 235 by his own soldiers, who wanted a real toughie like Maximinus Thrax to rule them. This act plunged the empire – or, more acurately, as Sidebottom prefers to call it, the imperium – into fifty years of anarchy, with (almost) legitimate emperors following one another like collapsing dominoes, while competing anti-emperors broke up the former unity. Sidebottom has seized on the prevailing chaos and uncertainty to colour the novel and infuse it with a nervous, driving excitement.
 
The characters – mostly gritty and foul-mouthed – are all completely believable, from the hero Marcus Clodius Ballista to Bagoas, the Persian slave who never spares his listeners a detailed account of what Shapur, the Sassanian King of Kings, will do to them all when his army breaks in.

Fire In The East comes complete with dissimulating rulers, patrician prats, grumbling soldiers, an entire contingent of spies tripping each other up and some of the best fight scenes ever rendered in the historical genre.

Harry Sidebottom

Click the photo to watch his video on the
Warrior of Rome series

Warrior Of Rome, Part III—Lion of the Sun

Harry Sidebottom
 
When we left Ballista at the end of the second book (King of Kings), things weren’t looking too good for the imperium. Betrayed by the odious Marcus Fulvius Macrianus and his two sons Macrianus the Younger and Quietus, the elderly emperor Valerian has fallen into the hands of Shapur, the eponymous King of Kings. How low the might of Rome has fallen is speedily described in the snappy prologue as, ground into the dust, Ballista and the Romans captured outside Edessa after falling into the Macriani-engineered trap watch as Shapur uses Valerian as a horse mounting block. Can it get any worse? Oh yes, it can. Within pages, the Sassanian hordes are slaughtering and raping their way into Syria and Cilicia, and the Roman empire is crumbling into warring fragments.
 
Weaving informed imagination into the scant known facts of the period (AD 260), Sidebottom again enthralls with immaculate detail and sharp sparkling prose, as he exposes the political machinations of the Macriani. The father seizes control of the East and places his two sons on the throne of the Caesars. Meanwhile, back in Italy, Valerian’s son Gallienus, the legitimate emperor, faces massed barbarian invasions and military rebellions.
 
Imprisoned Ballista stares almost certain and painful death in the face for his defiance of Shapur at Arete (Fire in the East) and Circesium (King of Kings). His wife Julia and two young sons are held hostage by the greasy Quietus. The rest of his familia – ugly Calgacus, testosterone-driven Maximus and the young Greek secretary Demetrius – are on the run from both pursuing Sassanids and forces of the Macriani, bent on skewering any of Ballista’s surviving supporters.
 
But Shapur has a task in mind for Ballista and under a terrifying oath sends him to Antioch to demand a ransom for Valerian’s freedom. This, of course, is not what Macrianus the elder has in mind and reminds Ballista of his previous oath to serve the imperium and therefore his sons, proudly flaunting their imperial purple. Macrianus is no fool; he knows he needs Ballista’s brilliant generalship to survive. As Macrianus the elder and younger set off for Europe and the eradication of Gallienus, Ballista becomes the unwilling general of Quietus, tasked with ridding Asia Minor of the invading Persians.
 
The adventures of Ballista’s familia, the plight of his hostage wife and sons, and the waxing insanity of Quietus are all seamlessly interleaved with the known history. Gallienus defeats the marauding Alamanni barbarians near Milan, only to learn that the eastern provinces have declared for the Macriani, while across the Adriatic, his general Ingenuus has rebelled and proclaimed himself emperor as well. At least, he sighs, Gaul is safe in the hands of his praetorian prefect and his young son Saloninus…but not for long.
 
From this point, the bulk of the narrative follows Ballista’s campaign to expel the Sassanids from Cilicia with the rag-tag remnants of the shattered Roman forces. Marcus Fulvius Macrianus and Macrianus the younger are killed in Dalmatia by forces under Aureolus, Gallienus’s master of horse. Seizing the opportunity, Odenathus – king of Palmyra and self-styled Lion of the Sun – sides with Gallienus, sweeps aside the Persians and advances on the usurping Quietus. Satisfyingly, considering how Quietus has treated his family, Sidebottom has Ballista hurling the creep from the battlements, whereupon, the troops around the barbarian prefect hail him emperor – a job he doesn’t want. Ballista forms an uneasy peace with Odenathus as the Palmyrene leader’s ambitious wife Zenobia scowls on. To discover what shenanigans Harry Sidebottom will have her get up to we’ll all have to wait for the next in the series – The Caspian Gates.
 

The Empire Stops Here

A Journey along the Frontiers of the Roman World
Philip Parker
 
If you don’t enjoy travelogues you will either ignore this book (a mistake) or it will forever change your mind about the genre. And if you ever considered an afternoon stroll along the extremities of the Roman Empire, you’ll be relieved to know that Philip Parker has been mad enough to do it for you, so you can follow in his footsteps from the comfort of your armchair. As a former publisher of The Times Book List, Parker brings an enthusiast’s eye – rather than a historian’s or an archaeologist’s – to this engrossing ramble along the extensive limites of the Roman Empire.
 
Broken down by region into eleven chapters, it starts in Britannia, which is logical as it was the most northerly frontier of the Empire (the Antonine Wall) and contains the most complete of all Roman fortifications in Hadrian’s Wall. Next come the longest sections following the Rhine and Danube rivers through Germania, Raetia and Noricum, Pannonia and Moesia, and Dacia. Across the Bosphorus, Parker traces the often elusive frontier through Cappadocia before moving on to Syria, Arabia, Aegyptus and Cyrenaica, Africa Proconsularis (western Libya and Tunisia), Numidia and Mauretania (Algeria and Morocco). The text is accompanied by the author’s fine photographs.
 
The contention is that, at the limits of its territory, the empire speaks to us most directly and most poignantly, ‘on lands that promised victory, booty and glory and yet so often left the bitter taste of compromise or defeat instead’. And all this, the book delivers in handfuls.
 
A short history introduces each region, dealing with both the actual frontier and its immediate hinterland. These are necessarily brief, yet little escapes the author’s notice and rich detail – frequently overlooked by standard texts – abounds. Parker’s fresh eye spots objects of interest, points at curios, embellishes with historical anecdotes and draws the reader in with his easy-reading, gently opinionated text and a disarming way of prefixing his declamations with a humble ‘probably’. The advantage of being a researcher of history rather than a pontificating scholar is beautifully illustrated in the passages dealing with the civil war of AD 68–70 and the fifty years of anarchy in the mid-third century; never before more succinctly or clearly explained.
 
This is not just a trek along a line of ruins. The author’s thoroughness in unearthing everything Roman in a modern world takes the reader into some strange places, such as the basement of the C&A department store in Cologne. Here he discovers a fragment of the forum to the side of a McDonald’s franchise ‘lodged beneath the stairs beside the ladies’ toilets, access to it partly blocked off by the cleaners’ trolleys.’ As Parker wryly notes, it’s one of the more unusual settings for Roman ruins on the frontier, ‘but at least one can munch on a burger…whilst admiring the vestiges of Colonia Agrippinensis’s civic heart’.
 
Among numerous examples of the detail that emerges effortlessly from the text, I would point to the Egyptian section dealing with Luxor temple and the fragments of late Roman wall paintings adhering to the ancient hieroglyphs beneath. These, Parker points out, depict Diocletian and his tetrach colleagues, modifications ‘probably’ made around 298, after the revolt of Domitianus, when Diocletian was keen to stamp his authority on the province. The rebellion of Domitianus hardly makes a footnote in any other historical text about the period, and yet here it’s another golden nugget simply thrown out for our edification. Indeed, throughout, a general accounting of the empire’s thousand-plus years gradually accretes in digestible chunks, extending logically from the local history of the places under examination. And if you crave more, check out the extensive and beautifully crafted notes at the end.

Roman Passions

A History of Pleasure in Imperial Rome
Ray Laurence
 
Ray Laurence is the Strategic Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, UK, and in this thoroughly readable treatise, he romps through the many and varied pleasures of the early imperial period, with a concentration on the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties and the more ‘moral’ period under Trajan and Hadrian. In doing so, he comes up with several interesting suppositions backed up by detailed readings from contemporary accounts, not all original, but rarely – if ever – detailed in such an accessible way.
 
The title suggests the reader will get plenty of sex thrown in, and indeed there’s more than enough to satisfy. From the graphic to the written word, the chapter headed ‘Roman Erotics’ provides detail on just about every aspect of Roman love life, from the domestic to the brothel, from the mundane to the extreme. However, the main emphasis is on the passion for life in its broadest and most interesting aspects: country villas; the joy of festivals; the aesthetics of writing, painting, sculpture and the adornment of public buildings; food, wine and dining.
 
Of particular interest is the role of gift giving in the Roman world. It’s not just the pleasure of giving gifts to another, but the importance of appropriately matching the nature of the gift to its recipient in order establish the gift-giver’s social standing in relationship to his social superior or inferiror. Laurence details the extraordinary range of gifts available in the Roman Empire from Augustus onwards, from the banal to the outlandish, from clay models to gifts of food, wine and clothes. As he points out, the choice of gifts allowed the buyer to make a statement about their character (beans from a moralist…). The reverse was also true, with the example given of murex shells, from which an expensive purple dye was extracted, highlighting the effeminacy of the recipient.
 
In all, a thoroughly entertaining read which illuminates a culture in many ways so similar to our own today, and in as many, very different.

Rome—The Autobiography

Edited by Jon E. Lewis
 
The book’s sub-title reads: ‘The rise and fall of the Roman Empire by those who saw it.’ But don’t be fooled, the coverage starts way back before empire,
in the earliest days of the kings and the rise of the Republic. As the main title suggests, the words are written by those who chronicled events both contemporaneously and historically; so some are witnesses, others, like Plutarch, reconstructionists.
 
Amid the fragments by luminaries such as Polybius, Plautus, Cicero, Julius Caesar, Virgil, Juvenal, et al, are many fascinating snippets from the ubiquitous Anon. From matters of war and great state, the contents are littered with revealing detail on topics such as keeping slaves, rules of the road, the hazards of sailing the seas, birthday invitations, education, window shopping and the ruminations of ordinary soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall.
 
It isn’t, perhaps, a general reader’s book, but it certainly is a very handy compendium for the student of Roman sayings, thoughts and deeds from the great (Augustus) to the citizen on the street. Naturally – for their words were less likely to be committed to scroll or tablet – there’s nothing here from anyone in the proletariat, but then, history disregarded any but the elite until the modern era. As the back blurb says, what you get is the key events of Rome’s history alongside the social and cultural life in all its luxury and depravity. Can’t really ask for more, can you?

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