Sunday, January 24, 2016

Review: The Last Roman: Vengeance by Jack Ludlow

A history resource article by  © 2015

Before Belisarius became the famous general that recaptured much of the western Roman Empire for the emperor Justinian, he was a youth on the cusp of manhood in Durostorum (now called Silistra in Bulgaria), an outpost of the Eastern Roman Empire on the southern shore of the Danube River.  There, according to the novel, he was trained in the arts of war and honor under the watchful eye of his father, Decimus, a senior centurion commanding the local imperial cohort, and his three older brothers.

Historical note - Although Belisarius was born and raised in this area, little is known of his parentage or family.  Some scholars claim Belisarius was born of peasant stock.  But in his 1829 biography, "The Life of Belisarius", Earl Philip Henry Stanhope disagrees:

"Some modern historians deny Belisarius the advantage of liberal studies, and place his birth amongst the peasants of his province.  Yet from two passages in Procopius, which have not hitherto been observed, it may be concluded that he was of noble blood, and inherited a patrimonial fortune.  He is mentioned as possessing an estate near Constantinople in the year before the African expedition, when, having but very lately been appointed to any high or lucrative station, he could hardly have derived from it the means of purchase.  Nor could he have acquired this property by marriage, since his wife's first husband had died poor.  Besides the Greek word used by Procopius is almost always applied exclusively to that property which descends by hereditary right." - Earl Philip Henry Stanhope, The Life of Belisarius

Stanhope further points out that Procopius quotes a letter between Pharas, a Herulian prince to King Gelimer of the Vandals and Alans saying "should you consider it disgraceful to be a subject of Justinian with Belisarius and myself?  Though we also, like you, are of noble birth, we glory in obeying so magnanimous a sovereign." - Procopius, Vandal. lib.ii.c.6

Late Roman helmet, called the Deurne helmet,
covered in expensive silver-gilt sheathing
and inscribed to a cavalryman of the equites
stablesiani.  Image courtesy of  Rob Koopman,
Wikimedia Commons.  cc by-sa 2.0
Although Belisarius was taught the importance of honor in his noble household, it was no longer an attribute deemed essential by a corrupt senator, Senuthius Vicinus, who controls most of the land around Durostorum and commands the local militia. When Decimus discovers the extent of the senator's crimes and requests a formal imperial investigation, the senator connives with the Huns to put an end to Belisarius' meddlings.  The resulting treachery wipes out all of the Belisarius men except for 15-year-old Flavius who must flee to escape a horrific death on the cross planned by the senator and his henchman, the local Monophysite bishop.

Followers of Monophysitism held that Jesus Christ had only a single nature which was either purely divine or a synthesis of divine and human. Chalcedonian followers, including the Belisarius family and many others in Thrace and Illyricum, believed that Christ had two distinct natures, one divine and one human.  Unfortunately for the Chalcedonians, the reigning emperor Anastasius I (who reigned from 491 - 518 CE), decreed formal support for the Monophysite position after riots of the populace in Constantinople in 512 CE.  Although this may seem like a minor issue of interpretation to us, it caused a major schism in the developing Christianity of the early 6th century and resulted in a rebellion led by Flavius Vitalianus, a native of Moesia of possibly mixed Roman and barbarian descent, who had become a senior commander in Thrace, probably comes foederatorum.

Flavius' father had kept his family's religious position to himself, under the circumstances, like many other senior officials of the empire, including his old comrade-in-arms, Justinus, who now served as the commander of the emperor's bodyguard at the palace in the capital city.  It is Justinus who had been communicating with Decimus about the criminal activities of Senuthius, so Flavius decides he must somehow make his way to Constantinople and convince Justinus to help him avenge his family.

After a hair-raising escape across the Danube and capture by the barbarian Sklaveni tribe, Flavius finally meets up with Vitalian's army marching on Constantinople.  Despite his age, Flavius' military skills bring him to the attention of his superior officers and he soon finds himself a decanus - the leader of a contubernium, a squad of eight legionaries living in the same tent.

A figure thought to be Belisarius from the mosaic in the
Church of  San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy.
Vitalian's army, numbering some 50,000-60,000 men, was composed of both untrained peasants and disaffected imperial troops from the provinces of Thrace, Moesia II and Scythia Minor who were outraged that Anastatius and his very unpopular magister militum per Thracias, Hypatius (Anastasius' nephew) had refused to supply the foederati with "annonae" - rations and provisions.

How 5th-6th century CE emperors got away with not provisioning their troops is a mystery to me but it happened frequently in the collapsing Western Empire and must have not been considered disastrous in the Eastern Empire at this time either.  I recently took an online course through FutureLearn entitled "Hadrian's Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier" and learned that often troops in Britain towards the end of the occupation there were not paid for months at a time.  (Augustus must have been churning in his grave!) Although troops were fed, I wondered what happened to their "unofficial" families that lived outside the fort if no money for support was forthcoming.  Anway, back to our story.

The formidable walls of Constantinople depicted in a 14th century CE mural in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons CC by-sa 3.0.
When the army arrives at Constantinople, the soldiers are dismayed by the city's formidable walls as Vitalian has no siege equipment.  But, Anastasius, fearful of a restive populace within the city, offers to negotiate.  Vitalian demands the restoration of the Chalcedonian orthodoxy and settlement of the Thracian army's grievances.  Anastasius offers to restore Chalcedonian bishops to their parishes and to settle the army's grievances. As proof of his sincerity the emperor provides lavish gifts to Vitalian's officers.

But all is not as it seems and young Belisarius soon becomes entangled in an imperial web of intrigue orchestrated by Justinus' shrewd and calculating nephew, Flavius Petrus Sabbatius, who would become known to history as Justinianus Augustus - Justinian I.

Ludlow has once more done a masterful job of bringing this tumultuous period of Roman history to life.  He crafts an honorable but conflicted hero in Belisarius, a respectable though illiterate commander in Justinus and a suitably conniving and ambitious future emperor in Petrus.  Although Vitalian is mostly in the background, Ludlow carefully structures his story around the real events of Vitalian's rebellion and provides enough background on the religious controversy to make the causes of the rebellion understandable without allowing theology to dominate the storyline, no mean accomplishment during this period of Byzantine politics.

I'm very much looking forward to continuing this trilogy with "The Last Roman: Honour".

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Was the Myth of Roman Discipline Responsible for French Decimations in World War I?

A history resource article by  © 2015

In my struggle to try to understand the conflicts in the Middle East, I recently watched a three-part documentary produced by Al Jazeera entitled "World War I Through Arab Eyes".  About 30 minutes into the first installment I was stunned by an account of Roman-style decimation that occured on December 15, 1914 near the Belgium village of Zillebeke.  In the documentary, Tunisian writer Jaloul Azouna related his father's eyewitness account describing how 20 Tunisian colonial soldiers of the French 8th Co. 10th Battalion Regiment Mixte de Tiraillerus were selected at random, draped with a placard and order to march unarmed into the German lines.  Their comrades were ordered to shoot them down if the Germans did not.

Although I have watched Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" about the execution of French soldiers who refuse to continue a suicidal attack, for some reason I was under the impression the film was based on an isolated occurrence.  My knowledge of World War I is admittedly limited, primarily what I've learned from watching "Once An Eagle", "Lawrence of Arabia", "The Blue Max" and a few documentaries with grainy images produced by The History Channel.  I also remember listening to my husband's grandfather, a carpenter, who was assigned to build coffins when he arrived in France in 1917 as part of the American Expeditionary Forces.  So, I was so shocked to learn the French employed full scale decimation, repeatedly that I felt compelled to learn more about it.  Not only did I find confirmation of the action described in the Al Jazeera program, the best documented, but learned that the use of decimation was employed periodically throughout 1914 and 1915 and perhaps beyond (the military records have since been sealed and will not be made available to the public until 2017). In addition to the Zillebeke decimation, I found references to the following incidents as well.

On the 23rd of September 1914 twelve men, 1/10 of the 5th Regiment of the 73rd brigade of the 37th Infantry Division, an Algerian regiment, were shot personally by the company commander in an act of decimation for abandoning the field of battle.

At Vingré, in Aisne, in November 1914, the men of the 298th Infantry Regiment retreated against a sudden attack. Six of them, chosen by lot, were courtmartialed and sentenced to death and shot.

At Souain, in Marne, in March 1915, the soldiers of the 21st company of the 336th Infantry Regiment, exhausted by the fighting, refused to get out of the trench to attack the village. Twenty-four men were brought to court martial, four corporals were sentenced to death and shot.

At Flirey, Lorraine, in April 1915, the 5th company of the 63rd Infantry Regiment, who had just taken part in a harsh offensive were brought back to the cantonment and appointed to lead a new attack.  But the men refused to get out of the trench. Six men were selected for court martial with four sentenced to death and executed.

In WWI, French colonial troops were said to be unsuitable for trench warfare so were often called to attack enemy positions.
Of the "Entente" countries who participated in "The Great War", more than 1700 soldiers were sentenced to death and executed for cowardice or desertion.  Of this total more than 600 French soldiers including their colonial conscripts met this end.  The Italian Army, another force that employed decimation, executed 750.  The English shot 350.  The U.S. and Australia were the only countries who refused to execute individuals for cowardice.

These incidents were identified by a French organization known as the Ligue des droits de l'Homme (LDH).  The LDH has been working since "The Great War" to "rehabilitate" the military records of men who were shot "by example".  These men were not only executed but, in Roman terms, suffered damnatio memoriae.  Their families did not receive any compensation for their loss and their names were not allowed to be inscribed on any commemorative memorials.

Many modern military commanders hold up the Roman army as an example of the value of stern discipline.  But was Roman discipline as harsh as we have been led to believe or did it become a modern myth used to enforce obedience in crises resulting from poor leadership?

Polybius, writing in the 2nd century BCE, clearly explains punishment by the bastinado (fustuarium). Describing the punishment for those who fail to keep night watch:

"The tribune takes a cudgel and just touches the condemned man with it, after which all in the camp beat or stone him, in most cases dispatching him in the camp itself. But even those who manage to escape are not saved thereby: impossible! for they are not allowed to return to their homes, and none of the family would dare to receive such a man in his house. So that those who have of course fallen into this misfortune are utterly ruined. The same punishment is inflicted on the optio and on the praefect of the squadron, if they do not give the proper orders at the right time to the patrols and the praefect of the next squadron.  Thus, owing to the extreme severity and inevitableness of the penalty, the night watches of the Roman army are most scrupulously kept." - Polybius, Book VI:37

In addition to failure to keep night watch, Polybius lists other offenses that result in clubbing:

"The bastinado is also inflicted on those who steal anything from the camp; on those who give false evidence; on young men who have abused their persons; and finally on anyone who has been punished thrice for the same fault. Those are the offences which are punished as crimes, the following being treated as unmanly acts and disgraceful in a soldier — when a man boasts falsely to the tribune of his valour in the field in order to gain distinction;  when any men who have been placed in a covering force leave the station assigned to them from fear; likewise when anyone throws away from fear any of his arms in the actual battle.  Therefore the men in covering forces often face certain death, refusing to leave their ranks even when vastly outnumbered, owing to dread of the punishment they would meet with;  and again in the battle men who have lost a shield or sword or any other arm often throw themselves into the midst of the enemy, hoping either to recover the lost object or to escape by death from inevitable disgrace and the taunts of their relations." - Polybius, Book VI:37

The most feared and probably most famous military punishment described by Polybius became known as decimation:

"If the same thing ever happens to large bodies, and if entire maniples desert their posts when exceedingly hard pressed, the officers refrain from inflicting the bastinado or the death penalty on all, but find a solution of the difficulty which is both salutary and terror-striking. The tribune assembles the legion, and brings up those guilty of leaving the ranks, reproaches them sharply, and finally chooses by lots sometimes five, sometimes eight, sometimes twenty of the offenders, so adjusting the number thus chosen that they form as near as possible the tenth part of those guilty of cowardice. Those on whom the lot falls are bastinadoed mercilessly in the manner above described; the rest receive rations of barley instead of wheat and are ordered to encamp outside the camp on an unprotected spot. As therefore the danger and dread of drawing the fatal lot affects all equally, as it is uncertain on whom it will fall; and as the public disgrace of receiving barley rations falls on all alike, this practice is that best calculated to both inspire fear and to correct the mischief."  Polybius, Book VI:38

Roman history is littered, though, with accounts of military mutinies.  So how often were the severe punishments outlined by Polybius actually dispensed?

In his book, "Patriarchy, Property and Death in the Roman Family", Richard Saller points out that beatings were viewed by the Romans as "the grossest form of invasion and thus a deep humiliation."  Beating was associated with slaves so Saller maintained that Roman fathers were discouraged from beating their children, even though they had the right to do so, "lest the servile punishment inculcate servile habits."  Saller believed, however, that soldiers were in a separate category saying "corporal punishment to enforce discipline was part of a soldier's way of life."

Eugenia C. Kiesling, Professor of Classical History at the United States Military Academy, West Point, thinks this may not have been the case in actual practice, though.  In her article, "Corporal Punishment in the Greek Phalanx and the Roman Legion: Modern Images and Ancient Realities", Kiesling points out that Roman law protected citizens from violence and such military punishments were not a necessity as demonstrated by the Greeks who were able to maintain discipline without the lash.

"Instead of assuming that Roman citizens accepted treatment in military life that they would have considered outrageous elsewhere, one ought to wonder about the realities of Roman punishment and the reliability of Roman obedience." - Eugenia C. Kiesling, Corporal Punishment in the Greek Phalanx and the Roman Legion: Modern Images and Ancient Realities
Roman Centurion with vinestick.  The vitis,
however, was not listed in the ancient sources
as a standard accouterment of a centurion.
Image courtesy of Total War: Rome by Creative
She goes on to say,

"Almost a century ago William Stuart Messer, observing the prevalence of mutiny in the legions throught the entire history of Rome, suggested that perfect Roman disipline was in fact a 'legend'....Roman attitudes towards military punishments were more varied and complex than those of the Greeks, combining rhetorical praise for strict discipline with tacit acknowledgment of the sensitivities of citizen soldiers.  Roman commanders sometimes inflicted corporal punishment, but not as a matter of course and not without the risk of mutiny."  - Eugenia C. Kiesling, Corporal Punishment in the Greek Phalanx and the Roman Legion: Modern Images and Ancient Realities

Kiesling describes several events recorded by Livy where corporal punishment backfired on those attempting to administer it.  In 473 BCE a lictor attempted to flog one Publius Volero for refusing conscription.  A mob intervened and the lictors fled with their rods broken.  Volero was subsequently elected tribune.  In 414 BCE, military tribune Marcus Postumius Regilensis addressed the Roman senate and demanded the punishment of soldiers who objected to his distribution of booty.  The Senate was appalled by the tribune's arrogance.  After the soldiers in question learned of his demands, a rebellion broke out in camp and a quaestor was attacked.

"After ordering some of the rebellious soldiers to be crushed to death, Postumius was stoned by his soldiers.  The plebs deferred the punishment of the killers to the consuls, who, judging the case with 'summa moderatione ac lenitate,' condemned only a few." - Eugenia C. Kiesling, Corporal Punishment in the Greek Phalanx and the Roman Legion: Modern Images and Ancient Realities

Kiesling points out that these accounts imply Roman leaders had conflicted feelings about the maintainence of discipline in support of the actions of a bad commander.  She says even in the famous case of Titus Manlius Torquatus beheading his son as a salutary lesson in discipline Livy appears to be uncomfortable with this extreme example of Roman "virtue".  She observes Livy rejects as too "dark" a similar story involving the Dictator Aulus Postumius Tubertus and his son in 431 BCE.

Consul Titus Manlius Torquatus beheading his son by Ferdinand Bol.

In another example from Livy, Kiesling states that soldiers so hated their commander Quintus Fabius that, after he had broken an opposing army with a cavalry charge, they refused to advance upon the fleeing foe to complete the victory.  Then the following year, the men of Appius Claudius so disliked their commander that they allowed themselves to be defeated by the Volscians.

"The general's initial efforts at punishment were blocked by his officers, who warned him that the men would fight only of their free will." - Eugenia C. Kiesling, Corporal Punishment in the Greek Phalanx and the Roman Legion: Modern Images and Ancient Realities

Only after a second defeat by the Volscians was Claudius able to successfully order the execution of soldiers who threw away their arms.  Then he decimated the army as a whole.

"Caution in punishing even the most glaring military crimes can be seen in both Polybius' and Livy's accounts of mutiny in Spain in 206 BCE in the legions of Publius Cornelius Scipio (later Africanus)...Scipio ordered his officers to invite the ringleaders to dinner and ply them with drink.  Having captured them and surrounded the rebellious legions with loyal men, Scipio castigated the mutinous troops and ordered the immediate flogging and execution of thirty-five men.  The others reaffirmed their oaths..." - Eugenia C. Kiesling, Corporal Punishment in the Greek Phalanx and the Roman Legion: Modern Images and Ancient Realities

Scipio took the action described, however, only after debating the extent of punishment to be meted out with his advisors.

"Over the centuries after Scipio's successful handling of the mutiny in Spain, the Roman army underwent a series of significant changes as volunteers replaced conscripts, the cohortal legion replaced the manipular, loyalty shifted from the Republic to competing generals of the late Republic and finally to Emperors (and pretenders), and auxiliary troops fighting in tribal or national units became increasingly central to Roman defense.  On the one hand, one might expect discipline to have become more severe as soldiering evolved from a civic obligatiion into a means of escape from poverty.  On the other hand, in an age of civil strife, a commander's need to attract men to his eagles may have discouraged extreme severity." - Eugenia C. Kiesling, Corporal Punishment in the Greek Phalanx and the Roman Legion: Modern Images and Ancient Realities
Publius Cornelius Scipio freeing Massiva by Giovanni Batista Tiepolo 1719-1721 CE

Even Gaius Marius who was described by Plutarch as a harsh character who exercised authority with unbridled passion maintained the approval of his soldiers through the fairness of his judgments.

In his "Life of Lucullus", Plutarch says that general forced men who had fled from battle to dig a large trench while other soldiers watched, a "customary disgrace," falling far short of the expected execution for cowardice.

Marcus Licinius Crassus perpetrated the most famous incidence of decimation during the Third Servile War only because of very unique circumstances (in my opinon).  The troops who threw down their weapons and fled a battle with the slave army of Spartacus in 72 BCE were paid for by Crassus himself, purchased so to speak, by the wealthiest man in the Republic.  They were not professional soldiers like those of the later Empire but newly recruited (although supposedly trained to some extent).  Furthermore, their foe was an army of slaves.  These Roman citizens ran from slaves.  Therefore, from a public perspective, they were worse than slaves and deserved the punishment of disobedient slaves who threatened their superiors. I am also relatively certain Crassus had well paid burley body guards to prevent any demonstrations of resistance as well.

Bronze statue of Julius Caesar near the Forum Romanum
in Rome Italy.  Photo by Mary Harrsch © 2009

Clementia was Julius Caesar's watchword, though, in both the military and the political realm.

"Caesar's biggest stick was threat of dismissal from his army, which always led soldiers to beg his forgiveness and urge him to punish those who had led them astray." - Eugenia C. Kiesling, Corporal Punishment in the Greek Phalanx and the Roman Legion: Modern Images and Ancient Realities

When Caesar's troops fled the field at Dyrrachium, leaving 32 standards in the hands of Pompey's forces, Caesar insisted that his soldiers felt their humiliation so strongly that they punished themselves.  Appian reports that officers, feeling Caesar's reprimands did not meet the enormity of the offense, proposed the decimation of their own units.  But Caesar reassured his soldiers rather than punish them.

Unfortunately, Caesar's successor, Augustus, was not so lenient and revived the punishment of decimation in 17 BCE.  But his successor, Tiberius was first and foremost a soldier and did not resort to cudgels to restore order when his troops became disgruntled.

In 14 CE, troops from the Army of Pannonia complained of brutality by the centurions, in particular the camp prefect Aufidienus Rufus, who was hated for attempting to restore old-fashioned hard military discipline (antiquam durumque militiam).  The soldiers mutinied and began plundering surrounding villages.  When the camp commander attempted to restore order, a notorious centurion, Lucilius, Cedo Alterm (bring another [vinestick]) was murdered.  Emperor Tiberius dispatched his son Drusus to bargain with the soldiers.  Drusus lectured the men on discipline then ordered the execution of only two ringleaders.
The Roman emperor Tiberius.  Photographed at the
Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch © 2014

Germanicus dealt with an even more serious mutiny by offering demobilization after twenty years service and cash.  When further violence erupted, "Germanicus addressed the soldiers on the importance of obedience, whereupon they took it upon themselves to massacre the leading mutineers on the spot."

Although Josephus claims Roman discipline included the punishment of even trivial offenses with death, other ancient sources do not support his claims.

"...after Vespasian's troops broke during an attack on the town of Gamala, leaving their commander to cut his way back to Roman lines, Vespasian not only failed to punish the troops for retreating but 'consoled them, suppressing any allusion to himself to avoid the least semblance of reproof.'  When troops under the command of Vespasian's son Titus ignored orders and fell into a Jewish trap, Titus merely threatened mass execution and settled for a lecture on obedience." - Eugenia C. Kiesling, Corporal Punishment in the Greek Phalanx and the Roman Legion: Modern Images and Ancient Realities

"The mutinies and their resolution suggest that the army of the early Principate, though different in composition from that of the Republic, would rebel against corporal punishment and that even the sons of Princeps had to handle mutinous troops with care.  Ironically, the continuing mildness of military punishments contrasts with the increasing cruelty of Roman civilian life and the elimination of traditional protections for Roman citizens." - Eugenia C. Kiesling, Corporal Punishment in the Greek Phalanx and the Roman Legion: Modern Images and Ancient Realities

In his 5th century CE work, "De Re Militari", Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus gives us a much less draconian outline for Roman military discipline than Polybius.

"Vegetius describes discipline as the key to Roman success, more important than numbers or even courage, but he does not equate discipline with punishment. While the Romans of old 'were strict in punishing ideleness and sloth,' a soldier's courage came from knowledge and practice of his profession.  Mutiny could normally be prevented by constant training; 'in short, a soldier who has proper confidence in his own skill and strength, entertains no thought of mutiny.'  If necessary, potential trouble makers could be dispatched to other posts.  In the worst case, that of an actual mutiny, the commander ought, 'after the manner of the ancients, to punish the ringleaders only in order that , though few suffer, all may be terrified by the example' is much more to the credit of a general to form his troops to submission and obedience by habit and discipline than to be obliged to force them to their duty by the terror of punishment.'"- Eugenia C. Kiesling, Corporal Punishment in the Greek Phalanx and the Roman Legion: Modern Images and Ancient Realities

If only those French commanders during World War I had actually studied Roman history instead of using its most sensational punishment so callously.


Corporal Punishment in the Greek Phalanx and the Roman Legion: Modern Images and Ancient Realities Author(s): Eugenia C. Kiesling Source: Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Summer 2006), pp. 225- 246

Richard Sailer, Patriarchy, Property, and Death in the Roman Family (Cambridge,
1994), p. 136.

 William Stuart Messer, "Mutiny in the Roman Army. The Republic," Classical Philology
15(1920): 158-175

Peter Garnsey, "Why Penalties Become Harsher: The Roman Case," The Natural Law Forum 13 (1968): 152. Gamsey identifies the use of the rod on citizens as an imperial innovation, pp.147-48

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Review: Dragon Blade (DVD, Blu-Ray and HDX)

A history resource article by  © 2015

Last night I had the dubious "opportunity" to view "Dragon Blade" starring Jackie Chan, John Cusack and Adrien Brody.
I think the 1/2 star rating I gave this epic misadventure on Vudu says it all - mainly, just a convoluted string of choreographed fight scenes. The villain, Tiberius, played by Adrien Brody, is a fictional son of Marcus Licinius Crassus, the 1st century BCE triumvir, who is chasing down his baby brother Publius, a child of about 9, because the senior Crassus preferred Publius over Tiberius as his heir. (in history Publius, a fully adult cavalry commander, died fighting with his father at the battle of Carrhae).

Perhaps Tiberius is supposed to be a nickname for Marcus Crassus Jr. who was the eldest son of Crassus Sr but was so undistinguished that historians have argued maybe, despite his name, he was not the eldest after all. Anyway, Crassus Jr. never made it to the east as far as we can tell from history. Instead he spent a rather lackluster career serving under Julius Caesar in Gaul then was later appointed governor of Cisalpine Gaul. Marcus Crassus Jr. is mainly remembered as the man who married the Caecilia Metella whose tomb remains along the Via Appia is so popular with tourists. Supposedly he had a fearsome reputation among the Parthians, though. The Augustan historian Pompeius Trogus, of the Celtic Vocontii, said that the Parthians feared especially harsh retribution in any war won against them by Caesar, because the surviving son of Crassus would be among the Roman forces, seeking revenge for the deaths of his father and brother. But, as we all know, Caesar never made it to Parthia and Crassus Jr. didn't either.

John Cusack plays "the greatest warrior in the empire" (a la Gladiator's Maxiumus) who whisked young Publius out of the clutches of Tiberius and, with a small contingent of legionaries, has fled with the child east along the Silk Road to the outskirts of the Han Dynasty.

Jackie Chan reprises his often played role as the wise but good-natured leader of a band of battle-weary warriors charged with keeping the peace along the Silk Road. Chan's character no longer believes that violence settles anything so each time he is forced into fighting someone who is striking viciously at him with swords and other nasty weapons, he fends them off with comical facial expressions accompanied by deft deflections off of his breastplate and a small metal shield worn on his forearm.
After one such encounter, Chan's little troop returns home to find their villainous greedy governor has framed them and sentenced them to forced labor repairing the fortification walls of a Han outpost. There they collide with John Cusack's group, make friends then face off together against the evil Tiberius.

I was hoping this was going to be a more realistic story about the so-called "Forgotten Legion" (of Ben Kane fame) from the Battle of Carrhae that were rumored to have been taken captive by the Parthians and subsequently traded to the Han Chinese and settled in Liqian in the north central province of Gansu. After all, I've seen the History Channel, Nat Geo and PBS programs about the Chinese villagers with European physical traits and the European-looking mummies found in China, too. But, instead we get a ridiculous story with theatrically flamboyant characters wearing totally unrecognizable armor (except for the helmet crest) in slashing battles with short swords (?) like ill-trained barbarians singing soaring arias supposedly in Latin that sound more like the vocals of a Byzantine church choir.

I must admit, the sword fights between Cusack and Chan then later Chan and Brody were impressive. Cusack was even convincing as a physically powerful hero type even though he usually plays characters more adept with their brain than their brawn. But that is about the only praise I can give this historical disaster of a movie. And to think I actually purchased this frivolous fantasy sight unseen when it was offered in digital HDX format on Vudu for only $7.99. It's now in my Ultraviolet library so I could actually watch it again if I should ever need historical shock therapy in the future!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Review: Daughters of Rome by Kate Quinn

A history resource article by  © 2015

The momentous Year of the Four Emperors, 69 CE, has attracted a number of historical fiction authors.  This year alone I have read three different novels using the events preceding the rise of the Flavian dynasty as a framework for their stories, with Kate Quinn's "Daughters of Rome" being the latest.  Quinn's novel, however, is the first to view the events from the perspective of four patrician women, two sisters and two cousins, all named Cornelia.

To help the reader keep them all straight, Quinn gives three of them nicknames, Marcella, Lollia and Diana.  The eldest and most reserved of the women retains her own name, Cornelia (Prima).

As the novel begins, we meet most of the main characters at cousin Lollia's wedding. Lollia, her scheming and very wealthy grandfather's "little jewel", has endured a series of marriages and divorces to promote her grandfather's business interests.  This wedding (for the third or fourth time) is to an old senator she casually refers to as "old flacid."  We later learn that Lollia was once married to Vespasian's eldest son, Titus, and has a little daughter by him named Flavia.  Historically, Lollia's real name would have been Marcia Furnilla, Titus' second wife, whom he divorced because of her family's connections to the Pisonian conspiracy during the reign of Nero.  Titus' daughter lives with Lollia because her father is campaigning in Judea.  Historically, this would not have occurred as a Roman male's offspring are considered his property and upon dissolution of marriage would have been raised by other females of the Flavian gens but this is fiction, after all.

Relief depicting a Roman wedding ceremony.  Photographed
at the British Museum by Sarah Tarnopolsky.  Reproduced
with permission via Creative Commons by-NC-ND 2.0

Quinn does a good job of describing the excesses of a Roman wedding feast.  As the celebration progresses we learn that Diana, whose father is a famous sculptor, is a free-spirited young woman who is totally obssessed by chariot racing, the red faction in particular, and despite her beauty has no interest in anything without four legs.  Marcella, we discover, is an aspiring historian although she realizes as a woman she would probably never be published.  Marcella is married to a lackluster, miserly senator named Lucius Aelius Plautius Lamia Aelianus (also a historical person) who is serving as a military observer in the east.  Since he is not in Rome he sees no reason to spend money on a home for Marcella.  So, Marcella is forced to live with her brother, Gaius and his shrewish, social-climbing wife, Tullia.

Mosaic pavement depicting a charioteer of the red faction from the Villa dei
Severi 3rd century CE.  Photographed at the Palazzo Massimo venue of the
National Museum of Rome in Rome, Italy by Mary Harrsch.

We learn that Servius Sulpicius Galba has been proclaimed emperor by the senate and that Cornelia (Prima) is married to Lucius Calpurnius Piso, a young aristocrat that is named Galba's successor within the first few chapters.  We also meet  the charismatic Marcus Salvius Otho.  Unfortunately, Quinn does not include any of the political background between Galba and Otho that would have provided more context to the story and heightened the tension.  Quinn only sporadically mentions glimpses of life under Nero's rule, too, so uninitiated readers would have little idea what made Galba seize the throne in the first place.

The women gossip about Galba's dour personality and that Piso has been tactfully trying to get Galba to pay a promised donative to the Praetorian Guard, but the Cornelii seem only vaguely aware of the level of unrest that is increasing around the new emperor.

Cornelia (Prima) looks and behaves every inch the soon-to-be empress as she glides around the room greeting guests.  She is also very much in love with Piso and I couldn't help but think what few days were left to her beloved.

Galba orders a Praetorian body guard for Piso and it is led by a handsome and seriously honorable centurion named Drusus Sempronius Densus - the Densus who is revered in history as the only Praetorian who honored his loyalty oath and defended Galba when the assassins attacked Galba's litter.

Detail of a triumphal arch depicting Praetorian Guards.  Photographed in The
Louvre by Eric Huybrechts.  Reproduced with permission via Creative
Commons by-SA 2.0
Quinn has Densus narrowly survive the attack on Galba and Piso, although he is severely wounded. Ancient sources do not agree on the details, but they state unequivocally that Densus fights to the death.  His fictional survival, however, provides an important dramatic plot point so I understand why this variation from history was chosen.  Furthermore, Quinn does remain true to history when Piso meets his demise on the steps of the Temple of Vesta.

As each successive emperor takes the stage, Quinn pretty much follows the overall historical narrative while providing insight into the lives of patrician women in the first century.   The women are not in positions of power, however, so are pretty much subject to the whims of the male power players around them.  Dramatically this would be considered a disadvantage to a story's protagonist(s) but would be difficult to avoid if your protagonists are women during this historical period.

To overcome this character disadvantage, Quinn injects quite a bit of fantasy into the storyline surrounding Diana, who learns to be a charioteer.  Although women eventually tried their hand at becoming gladiatrices, I could find no reference whatsoever to women attempting to become charioteers, probably because of the sheer upper body strength needed to control four horses racing at breakneck speed.  However, Diana's skill becomes crucial in an exciting escape sequence towards the end of the novel so I understand why this subplot was introduced, although it was pretty far fetched.

A cultural faux pas that Quinn should have avoided was repeated references to a vomitorium as a room where satiated banquet guests go to relieve their overfull stomachs.  Although this is a common misconception, a vomitorium is actually a passage situated below or behind a tier of seats in an amphitheatre or a stadium, through which big crowds can exit rapidly at the end of a performance. Although the word vomitorium is derived from the Latin word vomō, meaning "to spew forth" and hence the root of our word vomit, it has nothing to do with the act.

Quinn also mentioned salmon at a banquet and that gave me pause as well.  The salmon I am familiar with (being from the Pacific Northwest) are from the colder regions of the North Pacific and North Atlantic. Although they may have been served in the northern provinces, I had serious doubts about fresh salmon on the menu in Rome.  However, I did some research on this and I guess there are species of salmonids in the Adriatic and Black Sea so it was theoretically possible, I guess, although I've never read any other books that mention it in their sometimes extensive descriptions of dishes served.  I felt much more comfortable when Quinn talked about the possibility of a poisoned mullet that sickened Vitellius' general (and another of Lollia's husbands), Fabius Valens.

Roman mosaic pavement depicting various fish species from the House of the 
Severi.  Photographed at the Palazzo Massimo venue of the National Museum
of Rome in Rome, Italy by Mary Harrsch.
My biggest source of confusion, however, was the names of the female protagonists, as I could not recall any Cornelii having any connections to the historical men in the story.  My confusion only increased when Quinn has a teenaged Domitian become infatuated with Marcella.  I kept thinking to myself that he obviously must lose interest in her when Domitia comes along.  Then Quinn mentions Cornelia and Marcella's father, Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, the famous Roman statesman and general. These sisters were really Domitia (Prima) and Domitia Longina.  I'm baffled why she named the characters Cornelia unless it was to emphasize their aristocracy by recalling the consumate Roman matron who gained fame as the mother of the Gracchi or to make this a plot surprise (sorry for the spoiler if that's the case).  The Domitias certainly did not need any help from the ancestry of the Cornelii as they were direct descendants of Augustus.  Not only is this naming convention confusing to those of us who have studied the history but made it necessary for Quinn to contrive an awkward name change forced on Marcella by Domitian when she becomes his empress.

Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo.  Photographed by
Quinn Dombrowski at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal.
Reproduced with permission via Creative Commons by-sa 2.0.

I also thought her characterization of Corbulo as a cold father who probably could not even tell his daughters apart was unlikely.  Corbulo, besides being a brilliant general, was also a revered stateman and consul, which means he would have been resident in Rome for extended periods.  I'm relatively sure he would have not only known his daughters but been instrumental in the formation of their characters.  I much preferred Douglas Jackson's portrayal of Corbulo (and Domitia for that matter) in his novel "Avenger of Rome".

Marcella's unfeeling comment about the murder of Vespasian's "silly" brother, Sabinus, and Domitian's narrow escape from the Vitellian mob by cowering in the temple of Isis also showed little understanding of the value of Titus Flavius Sabinus to both his brother, Vespasian, and his nephew as well as the traumatic impact on Domitian when he witnesses the crowd tear his uncle to pieces. Perhaps Quinn intended this remark to reflect the insensitive nature of Marcella, but it seemed to strike a false chord for someone like Marcella who prides herself on her understanding of Roman politics.

Of course a major problem with portraying this period from a female perspective, too, is that you have no protagonist involvement in pivotal battles fought during this contentious period.  If Quinn had developed the Densus character more fully she could have written a more visceral battle sequence as seen through his perspective.  Instead, Quinn chooses to have Marcella supposedly convince Otho to let her travel to the first battle of Bedriacum as an observer.  But Marcella, the consummate historian, describes this horrendous confrontation of Romans fighting Romans in vague terms as if she is watching a stormy sea from a remote hilltop.  As someone used to reading the dramatic battle sequences in the novels of Douglas Jackson and Harry Sidebottom, this lackluster passage did little to drive the story forward, other than to describe the death of Otho, and would not have been very satisfying to male readers.

At least Quinn did have Densus go into hiding after the battle of Bedriacum to escape a Vitellian death sentence.  She made it sound like he was, ironically, blamed for the death of Galba and Piso, when historically Vitellius issued execution orders for all of the centurions of Otho's Praetorian Guard who fought at Bedriacum.  Perhaps she was trying to increase the reader's sympathy for Densus, but Quinn gave Densus so little to do with the events driving the narrative after Piso dies until almost the end of the story that this plot development was, in my opinion, not fully exploited for dramatic potential.

Still,  I found Quinn's evocation of first century Rome immersive and her characterization of the women compelling enough to keep me interested in what would happen to the women and their paramours.  If you would like more details of the actual politics and battles during this turning point in Roman history, though, I would highly recommend Douglas Jackson's historical novel "Sword of Rome" or Nic Fields historical text, AD 69: Emperors, Armies and Anarchy.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

E-book Review: Inside the Egyptian Museum by Dr. Zahi Hawass

A history resource article by  © 2015

A couple of weeks ago I noticed Dr. Zahi Hawass had released an e-book version of "Inside the Egyptian Museum Pt 1".  The e-book is the first of four e-books that will be released highlighting the collections of the Egyptian Museum.  I thought it would make a perfect companion to take with me if I ever get a chance to finally visit Egypt so I downloaded both the iPad and iPhone versions from iTunes ($2.99 US).

Although I have never read the hard copy version of the book that was originally released in 2009, I have read "Valley of the Golden Mummies" by Dr. Hawass, so was sure his text would be fact-filled. Furthermore, I hoped the features  available on the iPad would enable me to study the images more closely than I would have been able to by simply browsing a physical book.

Dr. Hawass begins his journey through the museum as you physically would if you visited the galleries in person.  First, though, he describes some of his favorite objects.  These include, naturally, the golden mask of Tutankhamun, as well as a statue of a dwarf named Perniankhu.  As it turns out, Dr. Hawass was present when the dwarf statue was discovered and he describes the experience.  Dr. Hawass did the same thing in his book Valley of the Golden Mummies and I think these insights make the artifacts seem more personal than just a physical description of them.

As I had hoped, the retinal display of my iPad presented the high-resolution images in wonderful detail. If you hold your iPad in the horizontal position, the e-book is designed so each page has a panel of scrollable text on the right side and an image of the object Dr. Hawass is discussing on the left .  If there are multiple images of the artifact or the text describes more than one artifact, you will see little dots under each picture that you can select to view additional images.  Whenever I am photographing artifacts in a museum I try to take images from different angles and closeups as well as full length views. The photographer for this book, Sandro Vanini, has done the same thing, which I really appreciated.  You can also expand the images by spreading your fingers to really study specific details, something not possible with a physical book.

Each page also includes a little map to show you exactly where the object is in the actual museum. So, the iPhone version would work well as a gallery guide if you prefer not to travel with your iPad.
Dr. Hawass presents the artifacts in chronological order beginning with the early Pre-Dynastic Period. Each era in the book is preceded by beautiful full screen images of ancient remains as well as overhead views of the museum gallery pertaining to the period.

First up was a marvelous image of the Narmer Palette.  I had read about the Narmer Palette when I took the Great Courses lecture series "History of Ancient Egypt" presented by Dr. Bob Brier some years ago.  But it was wonderful to be able to examine it in such detail.  I also had a chance to examine the Libyan Palette, too, which I had never seen before.

The Narmer Palette from the Pre-Dynastic Period 3000 BCE Egypt

There were also images of Naqada II pottery.  I had first photographed Naqada pottery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art back in 2007 but knew very little about it.  Dr. Hawass carefully describes the imagery on them and I'm glad he did as I wouldn't have realized what some of the objects portrayed were.

Naqada II pottery at
the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo by Mary Harrsch  © 2006
Leaving the Pre-Dynastic Period you see an amazing image of the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara.  What made this image particularly interesting to me was the viewpoint of the pyramid with its chapels in the foreground.  Most documentaries I had seen always show the Step Pyramid from a distance and I don't recall ever seeing the mortuary chapels before.

The Old Kingdom, known as the Pyramid Age, begins with the 3rd dynasty and ends with the 6th dynasty.  One of my favorite pieces from this period was a wooden statue of the Lector Priest Ka-aper.  He looks almost kindly with the hint of a smile on his plump face and his lifelike eyes outlined in copper and crafted of quartz with black paste for pupils make him appear to be looking right at you.  I also found images of inlaid bracelets and a sedan chair particularly interesting.

Moving on we come to the Middle Kingdom.  There is an image of a statue of Queen Nofret, wife of the Pharaoh Senwosret II that caught my eye.  Just a few months ago I saw a similar statue on display at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and learned from Dr. Hawass that the distinctive wig worn by Queen Nofret and the statue I had seen in Baltimore is known as the Hathor wig.  I really appreciate these little details.

Egyptian Queen with Hathor wig 30th Dynasty.
Photographed at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore,
Maryland by Mary Harrsch © 2015
I was also fascinated by a very lifelike statue of Senwosret III.  Many statues I have seen of Egyptian pharaohs are so stylized they sort of look alike to me, but this statue had a very distinctive, care-worn face.

"...his tired eyes, the bitter mouth, the forceful frowning, and the large ears. The tormented visage of the king reflects his new role and responsibility as administrator of Egypt, a result of the later 12th Dynasty kings' policies of expanding the Egyptian border further south, and of crushing the authority of the independent Nomarchs in order to create a more powerful centralized government." - Dr. Zahi Hawass, Inside the Egyptian Museum

Another more realistic sculpture depicted is a statue of Amenenhat III as a priest with a stern face and unusual haircut as well as a sphinx with the face of Amenenhat III and large tufted ears.  Dr. Hawass points out in the book that large ears are a distinctive feature of Middle Kingdom art, an interesting tidbit I will tuck away for future reference.

The book concludes with an extensive bibliography that provides sources for future study if you are so inclined.

I am really looking forward to the next three installments in this e-book series!

Roman Archaeology Timeline