Thursday, March 2, 2017

Review: Arrows of Fury by Anthony Riches Empire Series Book 2

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

In Book 2 of Anthony Riches' Empire series, we find our hero, Centurion Marcus Valerius Aquila, now known as Marcus Tribulus Corvus to deceive agents of the vengeful Roman emperor Commodus, heading to the coast to pick up a century of replacements from Gaul to fill in the ranks of the 2nd Tungrian cohort.  The cohort suffered horrendous casualties in the climactic "Battle of the Lost Eagle" at the end of Book 1 and the rebellious Selgovae chieftain, Calgus, is still at large and forging new alliances to drive the Romans back to Hadrian's Wall and eventually off the island of Britain altogether.

Unbeknownst to Marcus, though, the newly appointed prefect of the 1st Tungrian cohort, a nasty piece of work transferred in from the continent, arrives at the resupply depot first, bribes the replacements officer, and makes off with the sturdy, well-trained Gauls.  When Marcus arrives, the only replacements left are two centuries of Hamian archers originally from Roman Syria.

Hamian archers depicted in the video game "Rome Total War" courtesy of Creative Assembly
Historical note: "Cohors Prima Hamiorum Sagittaria", a unit of bowmen recruited from the city of Hama in the Orontes valley in northern Syria were one of only two whole regiments of archers known to have been stationed in Britain.  Although the original contingent arrived in approximately 120 CE, subsequent units served in Britain until the end of the Roman occupation.

Although these men are some of the finest archers in the world, Marcus quickly sees they do not possess the solidly muscled bodies and brute strength needed to man a shield wall against the ferocious indigenous warriors his unit will face in the next confrontation.  To make matters worse, the Hamians' armor is too light to withstand a spear thrust.  So, Marcus sets out to get them properly equipped and begins to train them in the use of sword and shield once they return to their auxiliary headquarters in the fortress known in the book as Noisy Valley.

But Marcus needs months of physical training to bring his new men to the same level of strength of the other Tungrian infantrymen. The Hamians struggle under the weight of infantry mail shirts and kit and can barely complete a standard day's march let alone be ready to fight if attacked.

Just a few days later, though, word is received that Calgus has attacked and overrun one of the nearby forts known as White Strength with the help of the previously friendly Votadini tribe.



Historical note: The Votadini occupied what is now southeast Scotland and northeast England, extending south of the Firth of Forth and from the Stirling area down to the English River Tyne, including at its peak what are now the Falkirk, Lothian, and Borders regions of eastern Scotland, and Northumberland in northeast England. Between 138–162 CE the Votadini came under direct Roman military rule as occupants of the region between the Hadrian and Antonine Walls. Then when the Romans drew back to Hadrian's Wall the Votadini became a friendly buffer state, getting the rewards of alliance with Rome without being directly under its rule, until about 400 CE.

Calgus' raid is successful but his relationship with the Votadini is contentious so Calgus conspires with his cunning seer to rid himself of the troublesome tribe's war band.

Meanwhile, although ill-prepared, Marcus and his Hamians are dispatched to hunt down the Votadini and Marcus finds his unit's archery skills indispensable when he is ordered to assault an old but well-positioned hill fort.

But the ultimate test comes in the novel's climax when Marcus' troops must fight for their lives against the ferocious Venicones, another of Calgus' allies, who have trapped Marcus' century on the wrong side of a strong flowing river.

Closeup of a second century CE Roman sarcophagus depicting a battle between the Romans and Celts.  Photographed
at the Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas, Texas by Mary Harrsch © 2006
Historical note: The Venicones, a small but fiercesome people, inhabited the area between the Firth of Tay and the Firth of Forth near the Roman fort of Horrea Classis on the eastern coast of modern-day Scotland. It is believed by modern scholars that their name meant "hunting hounds" or "kindred hounds." The Venicones were one of the few groups in northern Britain at the time that buried their dead in stone-lined graves and made ritual offerings of decorated metal objects, including massive bronze armlets, in local bogs and lakes.  These armlets could weigh over 1.5 kg each and were worn one on each arm. Tacitus in his Agricola, chapter XI (c. 98 AD) described the Caledonian warriors as red-haired and large limbed, which Tacitus considered features of Germanic origin.



Once again Anthony Riches has brilliantly recreated the precarious existence of the Roman auxiliaries stationed between the Hadrian and Antonine Walls in the late second century.  He has populated the novel with vibrant characters and made this reader feel part of the brotherhood that bonds courageous men together in times of crisis.  The battle scenes are visceral and not for the squeamish but I highly recommend this series and look forward to the next installments with great anticipation.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Ancient Eugenics: Much more than just selective infanticide

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

Recently, I received a review copy of a new release from Oxford University Press entitled "A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Healing Arts of Greece and Rome by J. C. McKewon.  I had just enrolled in a new course on FutureLearn, "Health and Well-being in the Ancient World" so I thought the arrival of the Oxford text was quite well-timed.

As I began to read it, I came across a quote from Plato's Republic:

"Asclepius displayed his medical skill only for the benefit of those who were suffering from a specific disease but were otherwise healthy both in their constitution and in their manner of living.  Such people he cured with drugs and surgery, instructing them to carry on with their customary lifestyle....But when it came to people whose bodies were permeated with disease, he did not attempt to extend their useless lives...and have them producing children who would probably be just like them. Asclepius did not think that he should treat people whose habits rendered them incapable of living, since treating them did no good either for the patients themselves or for the state." - Plato, The Republic

I was astounded by this statement from such a revered Greek philosopher.  I am, of course, well aware of the practice of infanticide in the ancient world and have even written about it in my post "Widespread Roman infanticide not substantiated by Hambleden studies" back in 2011.

But I had no idea that ancient Greek philosophers like Plato had also advocated withholding medical care from those "permeated with disease" or who practiced unsavory habits!

So, I decided to research this phenomenon that I would describe as ancient eugenics further.  On http://www.jstor.org/JSTOR I found an essay written by Allen G. Roper, who would eventually become a faculty member of Oxford University, on this very topic.  In fact, Roper's essay was winner of the coveted Arnold Prize in 1913.

In his award-winning paper "Ancient Eugenics", Roper pointed out that eugenics in some form has been around since humans spread out across the earth.  He points out that early groups of humans probably disposed of deformed or weak newborns and, in times of famine, may have disposed of the injured, aged, and feeble minded to ensure food was provided to those most likely to survive.  He states that in extreme circumstances, even non-combatants (i.e. females and healthy children) may have been abandoned.  This may not have always been the case, however, as we have since recovered skeletons of prehistoric men indicating long-term care of individuals with fractured limbs.  But forensic archaeology was not yet widely used in 1913 when Roper's paper was published.

Roper says infanticide was used by many ancient civilizations to solve problems of societies dependent upon limited food and other resources.  The Minoans of Crete forbade celibacy to encourage population growth but were known to practice female infanticide. The Spartans' physical regimen for their youth coupled with laws regulating disposal of infirm offspring is one of the most documented.

Spartan King Menelaus supporting the slain Patroclus.
Roman copy of a Greek origiinal.  Photographed in Florence,
Italy by Mary Harrsch © 2005
"The Spartans were a small immigrant band, face to face with an extensive and powerful autochthonous population - a camp in the centre of a hostile country.  'We are few in the midst of many enemies' was the warning spoken by Brasidas (Thucidydes Iv. 126.) and this position of constant danger affected the problem in two ways.  There must be no falling birth-rate among the Spartans, no unchecked fertility among their subjects.

Three measures were employed to maintain the number of the Spartans: prevention of emigration, penalties for celibacy, and rewards for fertility.  The man with three children was to be excused the night watch, the man with four was to be immune from taxation.  A third measure known to the ancient world, the enfranchisement of aliens, though adopted at times under the ancient kings, was rendered impossible by the later exclusion of every foreigner from the land.  Avoidance of moral or physical corruption was set before preservation of numbers.  The alien is a disturbing element in any Eugenic scheme." - Allen G. Roper, Ancient Eugenics,

The problem of productivity of the lower classes (Helots) was apparently checked by the occasional indiscriminate and covert massacre of large numbers on the vague pretext of fear or suspicion.

"On one occasion more than 2,000 were slaughtered 'on account of their youth and great numbers.'" - Lycurgus XXXi. 25.

Sparta was proclaimed the only state in which the physical improvement of the race was undoubted, while chastity and refinement of both sexes remained unimpaired.

"It is easy to see," declared Xenophon, "that these measures with regard to child-bearing, opposed as they were to the customs of the rest of Greece, produced a race excelling in size and strength.  Not easily would one find people healthier or more physically useful than the Spartans."

The Spartans, however, were not the only culture focused on raising tall, strong warriors. The warrior society in Germania Transrhenane took a far different approach, though. Infanticide was repugnant to them.  Instead, they chose positive reinforcement to accomplish their goals of a more formidable warrior society.  They placed emphasis on stature and strength as traits for a suitable mate.  Early marriage was forbidden to ensure only properly mature females were child bearers and celibacy was encouraged to limit the number of children.  Polygamy was only allowed on a limited scale for the few of noble birth.

This strategy was apparently so effective that during the Year of the Four Emperors it was assumed that anyone of exceptional stature was a Vitellianist and a German.

Tacitus claims, though, that the Germans lacked moral strength because the children grew to manhood naked and uncared for with no distinction between master and slave.

Tacitus says they were incapable of enduring hardships.  "Their frames were huge but vigorous only for attack; their strength was great for sudden effort, but they could not endure wounds.  Their courage was the frenzy of the Berserk, not the disciplined valour of the Spartan hoplite."

So even the Romans still admired the warrior ethos of Sparta six centuries later!

Surprisingly, though, eugenics movements of the late 19th and early 20th century point to the philosophers of 5th century Athens as their founding fathers.

A fresco depicting Dido embracing Aeneas from the House
of the Citharist in Pompeii, Italy.  Image courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons.
The great Greek philosophers as far back as Socrates pondered strategies to ensure the human race would develop the most desirable traits.  They thought arranging matches between healthy, well-made, and attractive individuals were the first step.  But, Socrates pointed out that good stock is not everything and that both parents must be equally in their prime.  This maxim, however, proved at odds with the prevailing practice of marrying girls at the earliest possible age to older wealthy men to advance a family politically and socially.

"We seek well-bred rams and sheep and horses and one wishes to breed from these.  Yet a good man is willing to marry an evil wife, if she bring him wealth; nor does a woman refuse to marry an evil husband who is rich.  For men reverence money, and the good marry the evil, and the evil the good.  Wealth has confounded the race." - Theognis

"The apparent anomalies which children present in not reproducing the qualities of their parents only serve to reveal the presence of particular conditions," warned Socrates, "and among those conditions must be included the changes which organism undergoes by reason of advancing age."

The evils of age disparity were also themes addressed by Hesiod, Pythagoras, and Sappho.  Solon attempted to legislate it. Even famous physicians weighed in on the subject. Soranus said girls weren't ready for conception until their 15th year.  Rufus, who had at one time stated there was a threat of illness to girls who stayed virgins too long, later approved a maxim of Hesiod advising girls to marry at 18, admitting it was too late for girls of his own generation, though.

But, were these graybeards' admonitions enough to overcome aristocratic greed for wealth and power? Apparently not entirely neither in classical Greece nor later in the Roman world.

Once again I turned to JSTOR and found ancient marriage age has been studied using both literary sources and inscriptions on funerary monuments, predominantly Roman.

Ancient sources record that Octavia, the daughter of Claudius was married at the tender age of 11. Agrippina the Younger, the mother of Nero, married at 12, and Agricola's daughter married Tacitus at 13.

Were such marriages consummated?

Suetonius commented that for political reasons Augustus married a young girl who was "hardly nubile", and later, because of a quarrel, sent her back "still a virgin"...

The emperor Honorius successively married the two very young daughters of Stilicho for political reasons, and again the sources remark on the girls' preserved virginity."

"Consummation was not required for legitimacy.  Roman law confirmed the legitimacy of a marriage with cohabitation without intercourse.  The prominent Roman jurist Ulpian (170-223 CE) opined "It is not intercourse but agreement (consensus) which makes a marriage." - M. K. Hopkins, The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage

But Hopkins points out that failure to consummate a marriage seemed to be unusual and thus commented upon in the ancient sources. So he explains scholars think most marriages were consummated immediately.

The pressure to marry young was also so great, the Romans had to introduce legislation to stipulate a legal marriage age of at least 12 for girls (14 for boys) as early as the reign of Augustus.  This legislation remained in force until 530 CE.

"The law relating to age of marriage was similar then to that category of Roman laws called leges imperfectae, that is, laws which neither threatened their violators with penalties nor invalidated their transgression.  The sole limitations placed on illegally early marriages was that none of the legal consequences of marriage followed until the girl was 12.  Nevertheless, even before then, these marriages could form the basis of inter-family alliances, since gifts from the husband to the girl were valid, while the dowry could be secured by a stipulation to pay. "  - M. K. Hopkins, The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage

During the second century CE, these laws were further reinforced by laws stipulating alimentary provisions by the state.  Hadrian said girls should receive state assistance until they were 14 and boys until 18.  During the reign of Marcus Aurelius girls were to be given assistance until they were 13 and boys until they were 15. Scholars assume these laws are based on the prevailing marriage ages.

Equestrian Statue of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius photographed at the Capitoline
Museum in Rome by Mary Harrsch © 2009
But what does archaeology tell us?  I took a FutureLearn course "Hadrian's Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier" last year and used a database of Roman inscriptions, many of them funerary monuments.  I wondered if funerary inscriptions could provide insight into actual recorded marriage ages of people other than the aristocracy.

I found there have been several studies of funerary inscriptions with this type of goal in mind.  As far back as 1896, A.G. Harkness researched what was known as the Corpus of Latin Inscriptions then available and discovered 171 funerary inscriptions provided either age at marriage or age at marriage could be calculated from age at death and length of marriage (Two additional inscriptions were rejected as outliers because they indicated a marriage age of 6 and 7).  Harkness concluded the average age at marriage of this sample of Roman females was 18.  But Hopkins points out that, in his opinion, this figure is too high.  Hopkins says there is no way to know if some of the later ages given were actually first marriages and not subsequent marriages.

Funerary Portrait of Balya Daughter of Yarkhai from Palmyra in Roman Syria 150-200 CE Limestone
Photographed at the Portland Art Museum by Mary Harrsch © 2012
"The average is only representative when there is an evenly distributed curve. Setting aside the great probability that the odd marriages at 56, 38, etc., are not first marriages, their inclusion in Harkness's calculation of the average, since they are isolated cases, leads to distortion. The figures are surely better summarized in the statement that over half of all the girls recorded in these inscriptions were married by the age of I5 (inclusive) or that the modal marriage age lay between 12 and 15." -  M. K. Hopkins, The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage

Hopkins also points out that the inscription sample may not be representative of the general population either. Harkness thought the inscriptions represented lower to middle-class individuals since the majority were commissioned by ex-slaves (freedman) but Hopkins disagrees.

"The minimum cost of a stone inscription was about IOO sesterces, which might have equaled three months' wages for an artisan. Even allowing for the existence of guilds which would defray funeral costs, the cost precludes adequate representation of the lower classes." -  M. K. Hopkins, The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage

Another bias that may have affected study results is the possibility that very young wives who died very young (probably in childbirth) may not have been commemorated at all.  This issue is raised in a similar study of Roman funerary monuments evaluated by Walter Scheidel in his paper "Roman Funerary Commemoration and the Age at First Marriage" published in October 2007 in the journal Classical Phiology.

Scheidel's paper deals mostly with a theory put forth in 1987 known as the Saller-Shaw Hypothesis in which age-specific shifts in the identity of funerary commemorators serve as proxy evidence for changes in marital status.  In other words, epitaphs erected by parents rather than spouses served to indicate the unmarried status of the deceased.  Using this hypothesis, Saller and Shaw came up with a marriage age of 20 for Roman women and 30 for Roman men (which would have been much more amenable to physicians and philosophers!).  However, as I read that paper, I became convinced that making an assumption like that was fraught with too many variables to prove the theory convincingly despite all of the computer models produced in the effort.  Perhaps a woman was widowed and had not remarried so her pater familias paid for her funerary monument.  Perhaps the couple had suffered a financial setback right before the death so the woman's parents paid for the monument or perhaps both husband and wife died due to pestilence and one of the deceased's parents paid for their monument  I did notice, though, that way back in 1965 even Hopkins had pointed out, as collaborating evidence to Harkness' study, that there was a sharp drop in the parents' memorials to daughters aged 15 to 19 and an even more precipitous drop after the age of 19.

So far most of our discussion has focused on Roman wives.  Remember, Socrates said both parents needed to be in their prime.  What about the men?

Hopkins records one study in which a collection of 86 pagan and 9o Christian funerary inscriptions revealed the modal age at marriage was I7 to 20 (36 percent) for pagan men  The modal age at marriage was  20 to 23 (26 percent) for Christian men. Hopkins points out that the mode is misleading, though, since men's marriages were much more evenly distributed and cover a wider age-span than girls' ages at marriage. Hopkins says the overall average age was 26 for pagan men and 27 for Christian men.  The median was 24 for pagans and 26 for Christians.

From my viewpoint, this marriage age for men was much younger than I expected (thinking of such aristocratic marriages as Julius Caesar's daughter marrying Pompey the Great who was even older than her father). However, these memorials were not those of aristocrats so that may be the mitigating element.

Moving on from marriage age, there were other considerations Greek philosophers thought important in the improvement of the human race as well.

Roper points out that the 5th-century thinkers were also obsessed with the relative influence of nature and nurture.  A number of philosophers from Zopyrus to Aristotle ascribed to the tenants of physiognomy, the assessment of a person's character or personality from his or her outer appearance, especially the face.

"It is possible to infer character from features, if it is granted that the body and the soul are changed together by the natural affections: I say "natural", for though perhaps by learning music a man has made some change in his soul, this is not one of those affections natural to us; rather I refer to passions and desires when I speak of natural emotions. If then this were granted and also that for each change there is a corresponding sign, and we could state the affection and sign proper to each kind of animal, we shall be able to infer character from features." - Aristotle, Prior Analytics 2.27 (Trans. A.J. Jenkinson)

In fact, the first systematic physiognomic treatise to survive to the present day is Physiognomonica, attributed to Aristotle but now thought to be a product of his school rather than the philosopher himself.

These theorists sought to influence potential mates to prioritize physical comeliness as well as such attributes as stature, physical proportion, and strength.  Fifth-century Greek scholar, Stobaeus, encapsulates this idea in a simple quote, "If thou art unpleasing to look upon, thy character is like to thy form."

Diogenes by John William Waterhouse, 1882.

Even the often recalcitrant Diogenes admonished his fellow Greeks, "The wise man will marry for the sake of children, associating with the most comely."  (Hmmm... I wonder if he was able to find a comely woman to live in that barrel with him?)

Both Socrates and Plato, though, cautioned parents that looks weren't everything and both moral and physical training was essential to building an outstanding character.

"Leave him untrained, and he will become, not merely evil, but degenerate beyond hope of reclaim." - Plato, The Republic

However, Roper says the Greeks, except in the dramatic conception of an ancestral curse, or in the inherited pollution of ancient sacrilege, never traced causes back beyond the immediate progenitors. If the Romans adopted their ideas about eugenics from the Greeks, however, I would take issue with this conclusion.  The Romans placed much value on ancestry that included many consuls.  This would indicate to me that the qualities of offspring are viewed as the product of multiple superior generations.

Aesclepius (Aesculapius) with the head of Homer.
Photographed at the Palazzo Altemps venue of the
National Museum of Rome in Rome, Italy by
Mary Harrsch © 2009
So far we have examined ancient eugenics from the viewpoint of controlling marriage and, if all else fails, resorting to infanticide to eliminate weak or deformed offspring.  However, Plato extended this purification of society to aged and infirm adults as well.  In his treatise, The Republic, Plato said the chronically ill should be left to die because "he is incapacitated from fulfilling his appointed task and will beget children in all probability as diseased as himself if his miserable existence is protracted by the physician's skill."  Plato extends this advice to even wealthy individuals saying "It is no part of the physician's task to pamper a luxurious valetudinarianism (someone who is obsessed with their poor health) claiming the art of Asclepius is only for those who are suffering from a specific complaint.

In addition to those suffering from constitutional ill-health, Plato would also condemn the victims of self-indulgence.  Plato points out that there is no place in his Republic for the "unkempt" man glorying in a pedigree of congenital ailment. Plato said a moral degenerate is not only an encumbrance to society but an active force for evil; "therefore, like the lower desires of the soul which cannot be tamed to service under the higher self, his growth must be stopped."

A mosaic depicting Plato and his students at his Academy from the House of
T. Siminius Stephanus Pompeii 1st century CE.  Photographed at the National
Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy by Mary Harrsch © 2007
Plato also proposed segregation of the mentally ill and expulsion of the pauper.

"The madman is not to be seen in the city, but the responsibility rests upon the relatives, not upon the state.  If they fail in their duty, the law will punish them." - Plato, "Laws"

Plato felt that mental or physical defects should bar the individual's right to marry and beggars should be driven away.

"In a properly constituted state the righteous man will not be allowed to starve; there is no excuse for the beggar. If such a one be found, he shall be driven out of the marketplace, out of the city, out of the land, that the state may be purged of such a creature," - Plato, "Laws".

I'm sure modern advocates for the homeless would be appalled.

So, it appears the ancient philosophers were not as benign as I had always imagined.


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Review: Wounds of Honour by Anthony Riches

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

Anthony Riches has chosen to set his first book in his Empire Series, "Wounds of Honor" in northern Britain during the relatively short reign of the Roman Emperor Commodus. When the story opens, we are introduced to his protagonist, Marcus Valerius Aquila, a young Roman officer from a powerful senatorial family, who has been ostensibly sent to Brtiannia to serve as a tribune of the Sixth Legion (Legio VI Victrix).  But on the road to the legion's headquarters, his small contingent, that includes a retired Centurion that we eventually learn was once a First Spear, is attacked by a barbarian raiding party.

During the attack we discover the youthful Marcus, who snatches up a barbarian sword to use with his own gladius, has been trained to fight like a Dimachaerus, a type of gladiator  who became popular in the second century CE and used a fighting style adapted to both attack and defend with two blades rather than a sword and shield.

Historical note: Dimachaeri are often depicted wearing extremely minimal armor such as a balteus and leather wrappings or none at all, save a subligaculum (loin cloth). Other show a slightly more heavily armored dimachaerus, variously equipped with scale armor, mail shirts, visored helmets in the fashion of murmillos, greaves and leg wrappings, both barefoot and in sandals. They are known to have been paired against the hoplomachus and are also referred to as fighting against a gladiator class called an oplomachus, thought by some to be a variant of the Samnite.The character Gannicus in the Starz mini-series "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena" is shown fighting as a dimachaerus although that fighting style was not introduced for three more centuries.

Actor Dustin Clare as Gannicus equipped as a dimachaerus in "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena."
Image courtesy of Starz Media Productions.


Despite the skill of Marcus and the retired 1st Spear, Rufius, the small band is almost overwhelmed until they are rescued by a Roman cavalry scouting party.  My first taste of Riches' visceral descriptions of hand-to-hand combat had my heart thumping and definitely raised my anticipation for future engagements in subsequent chapters.

Marcus finally arrives at the Sixth's headquarters and learns that the legatus will return to the fort the next day.  So Marcus, at the behest of Rufius, gets cleaned up and grabs a little sleep before being awakened abruptly and arrested.

We discover Marcus' family has been proscribed by the new emperor and slaughtered for his father's criticism of Commodus in the senate.  There is an imperial warrant for Marcus that will mean certain death if he returns to Rome.  The legatus appears to be ready to honor the warrant but, strangely, decrees Marcus can return to Rome on his own, giving Marcus the opportunity to escape.

Of course, Marcus does escape and ends up hiding in plain sight when he is accepted as a probationary centurion in the 1st Tungrian auxiliary cohort manning a fort along Hadrian's Wall 150 miles north of the Sixth Legion's headquarters.

Historical note: The Tungrians (Tungri) were a tribe or group of tribes who originally lived in the Belgic part of Gaul.  Tacitus referred to them as the Germani in his Histories.  Two cohorts of Tungrians fought in the civil war during the year of the Four Emperors.  The early fifth-century document, Notitia Dignitatum, mentions a tribune of the First Cohort of Tungrians was stationed at Vercovicium (modern Housesteads, Northumberland) on Hadrian's Wall. The cohort was further split in Hadrianic times to form a Second Cohort of Tungrians.  So, obviously, Riches has done extensive research and based the events and military groups on actual troop dispositions.

Meanwhile, a Selgovae tribal chieftain named Calgus is collecting a war band with plans to attack Hadrian's Wall and push the Romans back to the south and eventually off the island altogether.

Historical note: The Selgovae were a tribe who lived on the southern coast of Scotland. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Selgovae lived in two principal settlement types: stone-built huts and so-called "scooped enclosures", some of which were abandoned in the 1st century CE while others were established in the 2nd century and developed into multivallate structures, hill forts surrounded with defensive earthworks. They had possibly lived in the area since the Bronze Age, and certainly during the pre-Roman Iron Age. The pattern of forts subsequently established in the area by the Romans suggests that the Selgovae lived in a number of distinct communities and probably had some degree of tribal and political organization, perhaps influenced by individuals who had fled the Roman advance further south. The number of Selgovae hill forts may have led the Romans to target this tribe and were driven north during the campaigns of Gnaeus Julius Agricola in the late 1st century CE.  Subsequently, the territory of the Selgovae was substantially planted with Roman forts.  Although the Romans mostly withdrew back to Hadrian's Wall under the reorganization of Marcus Aurelius in 175 CE, two forts continued to be garrisoned at Birrens and Netherby until permanently abandoned in 370 CE.

The novel builds to a climactic battle that results in the loss of a Roman commander.  This event, although only roughly sketched by Cassius Dio, did occur in 180 CE and the uprising of this period was deemed the most serious war that occurred during the reign of Commodus.

Riches characters are so realistic and sound so natural in their military discourse and even off-duty behavior I wondered if Riches, like James Mace, had actually served in the military.  He apparently didn't but got a degree in military science from Manchester University so I'm sure he studied both ancient and modern warfare extensively.  It clearly shows in his graphic descriptions of the Roman battle line experience and the swordcraft employed by Marcus and his fellow officers right down to the point of describing the direction of his thrusts, his parries and even which foot he used to pivot.

I felt totally immersed in Roman military life of the second century CE and became very invested in a wide number of supporting characters as well as Marcus himself.  I feel so fortunate the Empire series already encompasses nine novels so I will be able to spend quite some time with Marcus and his Tungrians.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Review: The Imperial Banner by Nick Brown Book Two in the Agent of Rome series

History resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017


When we left Imperial Agent Cassius Corbulo at the end of "The Siege", Book One of the "Agent of Rome" series, a teenaged Corbulo had survived the brutal attack on a lonely Roman outpost deep in the Syrian desert by forces of the Palmyran Queen Zenobia.  The youngster had managed to pull together the undisciplined remnants of the Roman garrison and combined them with an auxiliary detachment of local slingers, and a drunken demoralized Praetorian "hero of Rome" to withstand an onslaught of tribesmen led by the best swordsman in the Palmyrene Empire.

As book two, "The Imperial Banner," opens, we find Corbulo assigned to recover a battle standard of the Persian Empire that fell into Roman hands at the end of the Palmyrene revolt but has since gone missing.  The Roman emperor Aurelian plans to return the standard to the Persians as part of a historic peace treaty,  so the pressure is on the Imperial Service to find it.

The so-called "Pseudo-Corbulo", once thought
to be the portrait of Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo,
actually a portrait of an unknown personality
of the 1st century BC. Image courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons.
Corbulo is once again accompanied by his faithful Gallic servant, Simo. But his superior, Abascanthius, thinks Corbulo needs more protection on this assignment since the detail assigned to escort the banner to the emperor was composed of experienced veterans who all vanished as well. So he assigns a bodyguard named Indavara, a former gladiator, to Corbulo to take care of any rough stuff that should happen along the way.

We learned in Book One that Corbulo, despite his clever intellect and his distant familial lineage from the illustrious General Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, has very marginal sword skills despite the basic military training he received when joining the service.  This continues to be a bit disconcerting to me since I am used to most protagonists in this genre being highly skilled warriors.  But with at least the presence of a skilled bodyguard Corbulo should be able to survive violent encounters without relying upon an opponent's blunder.

The prelude to the book details Indavara's astonishing final performance in Rome's most celebrated arena.  The veteran of hundreds of bouts and a crowd favorite, Indavara faces multiple uneven contests in his last bid for freedom because his corrupt lanista has wagered a huge sum against Indavara's survival.  This passage was very exciting and really ratcheted up my expectations for this new character.

Relief of Mithras slaying the bull photographed at the
National Museum of Rome, Baths of Diocletian, Rome, Italy
by Mary Harrsch © 2005
As the story unfolds, Corbulo tracks the banner back to Antioch where he tries to determine if the prize has been purloined by a rich merchant or a member of the provincial governor's staff.  One of the administrators turns out to be the head of the local Mithras cult so readers get a chance to learn a little about Mithraism along the way.

But as the bodies piled up, I expected to read about more spectacular encounters between Indavara and the villain's minions.  However, most of the deaths occur "off-stage" so-to-speak, except in the final confrontation.  I would have preferred more direct action but maybe I'm just getting bloodthirsty in my old age!

Also, although the primary characters were well drawn, there was little backstory or character development for the potential culprits, so Corbulo's eventual triumph lacked the level of gratification it could have had if the reader had a chance to develop an appreciation for the capabilities of Corbulo's opponents.  Still, the author did a great job of recreating ancient Antioch and life in the 3rd century CE Roman east and I found it an entertaining read.