Friday, July 20, 2018

Julius Caesar Reborn!!!

A couple of months ago I posted an article about my efforts to create history-themed skills for Alexa-enabled devices. As I explained, Alexa is Amazon's artificially intelligent voice-activated virtual assistant. I have been working on recreating Gaius Julius Caesar so Roman history enthusiasts can talk with him about Roman culture, his military career, and people he knew during his lifetime.

At the end of June, Amazon approved my new FREE skill "Caesar's Ancient World."  It is available in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, and India for Alexa-enabled devices and the free Alexa app for smartphones. Initially, I built what is commonly referred to as a "chatbot" or what Amazon refers to as a "social bot" that could answer whatever questions you wished to ask. But, Amazon did not like an open-ended question and answer session so I had to redesign Caesar and apply a more traditional branching menu with predefined topics. Still, I have him explain historical events from his perspective across a broad array of topics including his childhood, his victories, his defeats, Roman institutions like the senate and the dictatorship, Roman entertainments like chariot racing and gladiatorial combat, Roman marriage, Roman adoption, Roman punishments, what it's like to experience a Roman triumph, and his opinions on people he knew during his lifetime. He'll even tell you what he liked to eat (based on a couple of delicious-sounding recipes from Apicius' cookbook!)



I plan to add more to his memory as time permits. But, at least for now, I hope you will find an audience with him interesting.

Many of us who are interested in the ancient world also enjoy viewing museum exhibits. Many major museum have Twitter accounts and tweet information about upcoming exhibits, special presentations, and other activities they offer. However, plowing through your Twitter stream can be daunting looking for timely information. So, I have created a series of skills that group tweets of major museums together and read them to you using Alexa. The first skill I designed was called simply "Museum Tweets." It is a skill that provides the latest tweets from major museums across the United States divided into East Coast, Midwest and West Coast regions. It is dynamic and the contents of the skill change daily based on how often different museums post news to Twitter.  Since I have published "Museum Tweets", I have also developed and published museum tweet skills for the United Kingdom (United Kingdom Museum Tweets), Canada (Canadian Museum Tweets), and Australia (Australian Museum Tweets), too.

So, if you love museums as much as I do, I encourage you to give these skills a try if you have an Alexa-enabled device or the free Alexa app on your smartphone!



Thursday, July 19, 2018

Review: The Throne of Caesar by Steven Saylor

A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2018



Gordianus "The Finder," with his 66th birthday approaching, now spends much of his day relaxing in his peristyle garden reading and sipping a cup of the best vintage he can afford.  But some of his old clients can't seem to let him slip away into anonymity.  First Tiro, Cicero's secretary, comes knocking with a request for Gordianus to call upon his master.  Then Meto, Gordianus' oldest adopted son and trusted officer in the service of Gaius Julius Caesar, pays his father a visit. Caesar, now ruling dictator of Rome, also wishes to consult with the old "Finder".

So, we are once more immersed in the politics of a crumbling Roman Republic as Gordianus must brush the cobwebs from his tired brain and consider a list of possible suspects who may be contemplating the assassination of the most powerful man in the Mediterranean world. To help him do this, he decides to retreat to one of his favorite hangouts, the Salacious Tavern, and banter with his old friend Helvius Cinna, the most renowned poet in Rome.

When I began reading this book, I had heard that this was to be the capstone of Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series. The pace of the novel is leisurely with Gordianus reminiscing about old cases and now dimly remembered characters who once played a role in his life as he meets with famous historical personalities like Cicero, Caesar, Cleopatra, Calpurnia, Cassius, and Brutus . I must admit this was a bit jarring, at first, for me having just read eleven of Anthony Riches' action-packed novels of the Roman Army.  But, I realized that the author was using this opportunity to remind us of why this period of history and this civilization was so memorable, carefully evoking the atmosphere and lifestyles of its inhabitants.

Saylor also spends a significant portion of the book revisiting Greco-Roman mythology and its role in Roman poetry.  Some readers may consider this a bit of an indulgence by the author. But as it turns out, myth is central to the final plot twist.

Mystery has always been the centerpiece of Saylor's novels and this one would be no different. We are given the chance to experience Caesar's fate through the eyes of Gordianus but it is not his death that will take center stage in the novel's climax.

It did appear to me that, sadly, Gordianus' powers of observation have lost some of their acuity and was a painful reminder of the decline I have experienced as advancing age has made its effects felt.  This is made a little more pronounced by the author's third person asides pointing out suspicious behaviors of the conspirators that seemingly went unnoticed. I am just two years older than the fictional hero and found myself cringing each time he referred to himself as an old man.

Fulvia depicted as Phrygia Eumeneia on a coin minted in 41-40 BCE


But, I appreciated the opportunity to explore the characters and motivations of such historical figures as Antony and Fulvia as the story within a story unfolded.  We find Antony is not just the bull-necked riotous playboy often depicted in Octavian's propaganda but a skilled orator and seemingly conscientious, though pragmatic, Roman politician.  In Fulvia, we find a woman not only driven by ambition but a forceful feminist who has learned how to balance Roman-prescribed pudicitia with power obtained from a carefully managed relationship with her marital partner.

So, be forewarned that this is not just a retelling of Caesar's final days, but an evaluation of relationships, missed opportunities, the power of literature, and the weight of responsibility even the "elderly" have to family, to friends and to society.




Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Alexa ventures to the ancient world

Update 6/19/2018 - Amazon has released a new tool to build little Alexa skills called Blueprints where they provide a sample template and you replace the text and sound effects with your own content. I tried it out and created a short story about the beginning of the Gallic Wars called "War Begins". (Alexa doesn't like proper nouns in story titles at this time). You'll see a link to it listed at the top of the left hand side bar but you'll need an Alexa enabled device to listen to it. I've decided to produce a series of these little stories about ancient history and events that I am calling Mary's history bits. I've tried to make these stories understandable for young history buffs with appropriate sound effects to make them more interesting. I'm hoping as time goes on Amazon will provide the ability to bundle these stories into volumes that can be enabled as a set but for the time being, they must be enabled one at a time.

Update 5/26/2018 - As of this morning, my Alexa skill "Classic Moments Rome" is now available in the U.K., Canada, Australia, and India, too!

As many of you know, I am not only passionately interested in ancient history but, as an education technologist, I continue to explore new technologies and how they can be used to promote the study of the ancient world.

Alexa is a virtual assistant developed by Amazon that uses artificial intelligence to perform numerous tasks like music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, playing games, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks, serving as an intercom, and providing weather, traffic, sports, and other real-time information, such as news, all using voice commands to an Alexa-enabled device such as a wifi-enabled Echo or Echo Dot speaker.  Alexa can also control light switches, door locks, Tvs, appliances, and other smart devices in a home automation system. What is particularly exciting for educators, though, is the ability to extend Alexa's  intelligence by installing "skills."

These skills can range from playing a wide range of ambient sounds for rest and meditation to quotes from ancient sources, one of the "skills" I developed.  You can also venture on imaginary quests to exotic places complete with sound effects, or hear memories you have stored. You can even learn to use cognitive techniques like constructing a "memory palace" to help you improve your recall. The vast majority of these "skills" are free and can be enabled on your device by simply saying "Alexa, enable (skill name) or going to the link below, searching for the skill and clicking the enable button.

https://alexa.amazon.com/spa/index.html#skills/

An Alexa-powered Amazon Echo Dot
Naturally, I wanted to try to create an Alexa skill myself that would be ancient history related.  Alexa has a feature called a "Flash Briefing" that plays short broadcasts of information that you choose to add to your Flash Briefing queue. Typically, these broadcasts are updated daily so you are kept up to date with developments in your chosen subject matter. Alexa starts you off with a default broadcast from NPR (National Public Radio) and your local weather.

An update I have always wanted was information about upcoming exhibits of artifacts from the ancient world. Too many times I have found out about fascinating exhibits after its too late to attend. So, I searched all through the catalog of Alexa skills to see if someone offered something like that and was disappointed to discover there were none. So, I decided to build one myself for other history enthusiasts.

Storyline makes the development of an Alexa Flash Briefing skill a breeze once you set up a free basic account. One of the founders, Vasili Shynkarenka, clearly explains the short process in this video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1OIey0bOI2M&t=0s

First, though, you need to choose the information you wish to provide on a daily basis. In my case that was a list of exhibits opening soon or in progress or information about an existing collection of artifacts in a museum's permanent collection. Fortunately, for me, I have photographed many museum collections so I already knew many museums that host ancient artifact exhibitions and collections.

I created a Google spreadsheet to record all of the exhibits I could find along with their title, description, dates of presentation, the institution where the exhibit is taking place, the location and a URL where listeners can find out more about it. I decided to enter only one post each day, though, prioritizing the posts by opening and closing dates, to ensure I would have enough content for a daily update for quite some time. Each day when I post an exhibit, I change my font color in my spreadsheet from black to red to flag the entry as posted. Then, each morning I search the internet for more exhibits to add to my list.

Using the Storyline tool, I uploaded my exhibit skill to my own Alexa network. But, I wanted to
share my skill with other English-speaking history enthusiasts so decided to publish it to the the Alexa skill catalog.  I did so by using Storyline's "Publish" feature. It presents you with a form to fill out to provide Amazon with enough information for the Alexa skill catalog. First, I needed to choose a name for my new skill. Amazon recommends choosing a name that reflects what your skill is about in two or three words. I chose the skill name "Antiquities Alive".

Then I needed to create an icon for my skill that would be displayed in the Alexa skill catalog. I used a picture I had of an elegant Greek table support of griffins attacking a doe that I photographed years ago at the Getty Villa to create my skill icons - one 108X108 pixels and the other 512X512 pixels.

Then I wrote a short description of the skill (a couple of sentences) and a more in depth description of the skill (a paragraph) to describe the contents of the Flash Briefing. This will also appear in the Alexa skill catalog.

Then I was asked if I planned to update the information daily or weekly. I chose to update the skill daily because people using the Flash Briefing function of Alexa expect the information to change from day to day. However, this means I was committed to searching for new exhibits to list every day.

With the form complete, I clicked "Submit". It only took a few hours to get my "Antiquities Alive" Flash Briefing skill approved by Amazon.

Now, I go into Storyline each morning, click on my "Live" skill and enter a post for that  day.

After I had my first Flash Briefing skill, "Antiquities Alive," certified. I then began to think about other information I would like to get in my Flash Briefing. Many of us who study the ancient world like to hear quotes from ancient sources. So, I decided to create a new Flash Briefing skill that would enable Alexa to read an ancient quote to me each day - sort of like a classicist's daily vitamin pill. I knew that I could find quotes easily between the Internet Classics Archive, the Perseus Project, and the Guttenberg Project.

So, I created a new Flash Briefing skill I called "Classic Moments Daily." Again I used a Google sheet to record the quotes I had selected along with the author, the work, and a link to the original source. This skill was also approved within a few hours.

If you use Alexa's Flash Briefing feature, though, it can become overwhelming if you have too many broadcasts in your queue. I prefer to listen to my Flash Briefing while I'm doing my morning housekeeping chores like making the bed, folding clothes, etc. Although I started out with only a few broadcasts like NPR, the BBC, the weather and an "Alexa things to try" tip, my queue grew to the point where it is now twenty minutes long and I'm having to wait for it to finish before I move on to my next task. I now listen to my own skills, "Antiquities Alive" and "Classic Moments Daily" (to make sure they are functioning correctly) then I listen to a friend's skill "Today in America" which provides information about important people and events that occurred on the current day, then the "Archaeology Eureka Alert" which gives me news about new archaeological discoveries, "Daily Tech Headlines" and CNet Tech for tech news updates, Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show monologue from the night before (for stress relief!), science and entertainment news updates, an AARP news update, the weather, and an "Alexa Things to Try" tip of the day.

Someone in the Storyline discussion forum mentioned having the same problem and asked if developers would provide the same information in a regular skill that could be called separately so they didn't have to listen to their entire Flash Briefing over and over if you wanted to learn more about a particular topic.

With this in mind, I decided to create a "sister" application to "Classic Moments Daily" and this month got approval for my new regular skill called "Classic Moments Rome" that can be called by itself if you want to listen to quotes from ancient Roman sources (a Greek sources version will be finished in a few more days).  When you ask Alexa to open "Classic Moments Rome" you will be able to hear an ancient quote along with the author's name and work quoted.  Then you will have the choice to say "Next" to listen to another quote, "Repeat" to hear the last quote again, or "Stop" if you've heard enough for the day. The quotes are stored in the same Google spreadsheet I created for Classic Moments Daily and pulled randomly by a program script so, usually, you won't hear the same quote twice in a row - especially since the database now includes almost 100 quotes. I also add new quotes daily if the new post to my Flash Briefing skill Classic Moments Daily is from a Roman source.

I am pulling the quotes from original translations. However, since short passages are easier to listen to than long, rambling paragraphs, I sometimes include a name or context to make the quote understandable. For example, in a quote about Gaius Marius' dealings with the kings of Numidia and Mauretania, I provide additional information about each person mentioned in the quote besides just their name. Also, in a regular skill, I can include some sound effects and I have done that in some cases.

I am also working on recreating virtual personalities from the ancient world that you will be able to converse with about their lives and respective cultures. The first will be published in June.

If you don't have an Amazon Echo speaker, either a full sized one or a little Dot, don't despair! You can now talk to Alexa on your phone with the free Alexa app!



Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Review: Vindolanda by Adrian Goldsworthy

A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2018


Having recently delved into Adrian Goldsworthy's "Pax Romana" which I found eminently readable and stuffed with fascinating facts and insight into the Roman world, I was excited to see that Goldsworthy had tried his hand at historical fiction when "Vindolanda" showed up in my list of audiobooks available on Audible. Without hesitation I used one of my subscription credits to purchase it and began listening to it as soon as I finished my last of eleven novels by Anthony Riches.

I realized this novel appeared to be his first effort at using his formidable knowledge about the Roman world in a fictional tale but I was not daunted by that since one of my favorite series, "Warrior of Rome", was written by a the Director of Studies in Ancient History at Oxford University, Harry Sidebottom.

Goldsworthy's protagonist, Flavius Ferox, is a prince of the Silures tribe who, as a hostage taken after the Roman conquest of Britain, was educated in Rome and inducted into the legions.

The Silures were a powerful tribal confederation that occupied what is now southeast Wales. Their first resistance to Roman conquest began in 48 CE with the help of Caratacus, a prince of the  Catuvellauni, who had fled from further east after his own tribe was defeated. The Romans, led by  Publius Ostorius Scapula, spent several years campaigning against the Silures, and found the Silures so adept at guerrilla warfare that Ostorius announced they posed such a danger that they should be either exterminated or transplanted.

After Ostorius died the Silures, still undefeated, went on to defeat the Second Legion. But, they were eventually subdued by Sextus Julius Frontinus in a series of campaigns ending about 78 CE. Of the Silures, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote: non atrocitate, non clementia mutabatur– the tribe "was changed neither by cruelty nor by clemency".

When the novel begins, Ferox is a  Centurio Regionarius, an officer responsible for local law enforcement, who has been sent to an isolated outpost within a days ride of the more formidable Roman fort at Vindolanda. We learn from his own recalled memories or from comments made by a Brigantes scout named Vindex, that Ferox has a past littered with moments of extreme bravery clouded by an irascible nature that has resulted in conflict between Ferox and his commanders, ultimately leading to his apparent banishment to this backwater post.

Ferox also appears to have a sporadic drinking problem that crops up whenever he is not kept suitably occupied. We learn his wife mysteriously disappeared some years ago and he blames himself. Whether she was kidnapped by disaffected druids or simply left for personal reasons is not made clear. This plot point was apparently introduced to justify his rather unprofessional initial behavior.
Vindex has known Ferox for some time and knows how to handle him during his despondent periods. The best medicine is loosing Ferox on the scent of a murder and fortunately, Vindex rides in with two bodies.

At this point I had to adjust my expectations for this story. I was expecting a story about a Centurion and a band of reluctant cohorts that he had to whip into shape to confront a threat from local rebels. But, I was only partly correct. As it turns out, Ferox is first and foremost, a highly skilled tracker and more of a detective type, than cohort commander. Ferox appears to have little influence on his own troops but soon leaves them anyway so I guess it doesn't matter. The only relationship he has developed is with Vindex and it is more like that between two lone wolves than the close brotherhood of centurions I had grown so accustomed to after reading eleven novels by Anthony Riches.

This lack of depth in character dynamics left me feeling detached from any of the people I met, including Ferox. So I began to struggle to become engaged in the plot.

Ferox and Vindex find evidence of a rebel war band and track the rebels to the road leading to Vindolanda. They find the rebels attacking a Roman carriage escorted by a Batavian cohort from Vindolanda. But, the Batavians are outnumbered and are being overwhelmed by scantily dressed warriors emblazoned by tatoos shaped like a horse.

At this point, I really had to struggle to remain open-minded as I had just read "Betrayal" and "Onslaught" in Anthony Riches' "Centurions" series about the Batavian Revolt in which I learned the Batavians were considered the "best of the best" Roman auxilliaries. But this was about thirty years after that time and perhaps the Batavians had lost some of their edge after being put in their place when the Romans exacted "Retribution" (the third novel in the series due out in April).

Anyway, Ferox and Vindex turn the tables and Ferox ends up saving the life of Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of the prefect of Vindolanda, Flavius Cerialis (and a real woman in history as attested to by letters that have been recovered by archaeologists there).

Ferox and Sulpicia are apparently attracted to one another and their relationship will become a subplot throughout the rest of the novel.

Ferox and Vindex return the lady and her maid to Vindolanda and confer with Cerialis about the looming rebel threat. Then Ferox and Vindex ride out to the signal tower to see why the warning signal was delayed. There they find the detachment slaughtered with the exception of one soldier who is missing. At this point Ferox begins to suspect there must be a high-ranking traitor among the Romans who is working with the enemy.

The rest of the novel follows Ferox as he tries to determine who has betrayed Rome and survive the forces of "The Stallion."

With Goldsworthy's extensive classical education, the descriptions of Roman life and military deployments is, of course, authoritative. However, sometimes the extensive descriptions actually get in the way of the story and slow the pace considerably.  I also felt the supporting characters lacked sufficient development to make the story as compelling as it could have been. I didn't know enough about the officer who turned out to be the villain to be appalled by his behavior and Goldsworthy didn't supply enough information about why his family opposed the newly minted emperor Trajan to really justify his betrayal. I also didn't think there were enough "breadcrumbs" left throughout the story so a reader could at least have an idea who the traitor might be. At the end, when all was revealed, I felt no catharsis, since I didn't have hardly a clue about who it might be anyway.

However, I do think Goldsworthy's battle scenes were visceral and authentic, reflecting his extensive study of the Roman military in action. For a first novel, it was a good effort and I do plan to give the sequel, "The Encircling Sea," a listen if it makes it to Audible.

A Kindle preview:




More suggested reading:



Sunday, March 18, 2018

Review: Atlas of Empires by Peter Davidson

A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2018


In the opening pages of this reference work, Peter Davidson tells us about his friend who defined an empire as "murder, incest, and the wearing of expensive jewelry!"

"There is the image here both of glorious conquest and of power held over far-flung lands, and indeed this captures something of what we have come to mean by the term 'empire,'" Davidson observes, "But how, then, does empire come about, what forms can it take, and does it have a defining characteristic?"

These are the questions he attempts to answer as he compiles information about most, if not all, empires that have arisen and collapsed throughout world history.

He begins by dividing up his work into nine main chapters, beginning with early civilizations formed when the social construct of empire was a new concept.  The first chapter, entitled "War and Peace", examines the contention between Sumer and Akkad, the rise of Egypt, how the attributes of a military society like Assyria could not achieve stability without advances in administration like those developed by the rulers of Babylonia, and how religion was used to forge unity between disparate peoples by the kings of Persia.

Chapter two focuses on empires of the classical world including Greece and Rome, as well as Alexander's conquests, the Parthians and Sasanians of Iran, the Mauryas and Guptas of India, and the Qin and Han of ancient China.

"The story of Rome is one of adaptation," Davidson points out. "The early growth of Roman power sprange from a zealous and rapacious republicanism that eventually threatened to destroy the republic itself. Unlike Athens, however, Rome restructured to resolve the tension between republic and empire. Subsequently, Rome began to resemble the Persia of Cyrus and Darius in the measures it took to cope with its increasing size and multiculturalism."

In chapter three Davidson leaves the ancient world behind and concentrates on what he terms "Empires of Faith", the Byzantine Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Abbasid Caliphate.
"All the classical empires found ways to supplement control by force with a measure of consent delivered by shared beliefs," Davidson explains. "As the classical world crumbled and people looked for something to hold on to, however, religious ideas promising salvation exerted a stronger pull than political ideas such as citizenship."

Empires of the horse take up Chapter Four as Davidson examines the conquests and achievements of the Mongols, the later empires of the Chinese beginning with the Sui and ending with the Qing, Muslim India with the splendor of the Mughals, and the Ottoman Empire.

"The horse made light work of invading Eurasia's agricultural civilizations but building empires was another matter," Davidson points out. "The steppe riders faced the usual tribal problems of creating a larger community. They also faced the dilemma of what to do with the societies they conquered. If they destroyed they gained little. If they bent themselves to an alien way of life they stood to lose their identity."

Chapter Five looks at what Davidson terms "Empires of Isolation." Three empires are examined here including Mali, the Aztecs, and the Incas. Davidson observes that the empires arising in Eurasia  were ultimately linked by trade and religion but such was not the case in sub-Saharan Africa and in Central and South America. And yet, spectacular empires arose even without the use of iron and steel, draft animals or even the wheel, in some cases.

Chapter Six looks at the first global empires, Spain, Portugal, the Dutch, and both Britain and France in the Americas.

"Managing such far-flung empires was a new challenge," says Davidson. "It was partly a question of money. To squeeze profit from the silver mines of Peru or the nutmeg trees of the Est Indies, ships had to be built, voyages that could take two years had to be financed, and things had to keep going at home."

Chapter Seven examines the conquests of Napoleon, the development of Tsarist Russia and the rule of the Austrian Habsburgs.

"As much in opposition to French occupation as in sympathy with French ideals, national independence movements sprouted across the continent," Davidson observes. "The age of the nation-state had arrived, with first Greece, and later Italy, Germany, and others finding their modern form."
The imperialism of Britain and Japan are examined in Chapter Eight.

"By the 1870s, nationalism had become as much a force to serve imperial ambitions as to incite independence movements. A second industrial revolution now gave Continental powers the chance to compete with Brtain, and , as the 19th century drew to a close, a single global empire gave way to a feeding frenzy for colonial possessions ending in the First World War," Davidson states.

In the last chapter, entitled "Empires and Utopias" Davidson looks at the U.S., the Soviet Uniion, and the European Union.  In it, Davidson says each of these entities were ultimately searching for a better world but with the world defined differently to different people with widely disparate histories.

Like any good atlas, this one is full of maps I found extremely helpful in understanding the migration routes of various groups that conquered or influenced specific civilizations. There are other illustrations of cultural art and architecture. Davidson also includes an index and suggested readings.

Davidson does a good job of defining and describing key cultural characteristics of each empire and the inherent challenges their leaders faced.  He also astutely defines the strengths and weaknesses of each and how these either helped it to achieve greatness or resulted in its ultimate decline and destruction. You will not find descriptions of specific battles or a comprehensive discussion of each emperor's reign. Davidson limits even the most complex empire to about four to five pages including illustrations. But, I think this reference work does an excellent job of providing an overview of peoples and forces that have shaped our world.