Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Review: Lion of the Sun by Harry Sidebottom


Dr. Harry Sidebottom's "Lion of the Sun" continues the story of Marcus Claudius Ballista, a courageous "Warrior of Rome" born to the Angles but raised as a hostage in the Roman imperial court .

When we left Ballista at the end of "King of Kings" he, along with his emperor Valerian, had fallen victim to a treacherous plot by the emperor's treasurer, T. Fulvius Macrianus, known as Macrianus the Lame, who had betrayed the emperor and his field army  to Sassanid King of Kings, Shapur I.

Sassanid Persian King Shapur I with the captive Roman
Emperor Valerian at Naqsh-e Rustam. Image courtesy of

Fortunately, although Ballista's prospects looked pretty grim, especially considering his past victories against the Persians and his practice of cremating the Persian dead despite the knowledge that it was viewed as a desecretion of holy fire by the enemy Zoroastrians, Ballista's famillia including his devoted Hibernian body guard Maximus, his lovingly irrascible Caledonian guardian Calgacus and his poetic Greek secretary Demetrius had escaped. So I wondered how they would rescue him from what looked like certain death.  Having met the revolting Macriani in "King of Kings" I also hoped Ballista could avenge himself and his emperor as the tale unfolded.

But it was not Ballista's famillia that came to his rescue.  It was the frail old emperor who finally remembered who he had always been able to trust.

Historically, Valerian apparently had a high regard for Ballista, as illustrated by the following communication from Valerian to a prefect of Illyricum quoted in the Historia Augusta:

 "From Valerian to Ragonius Clarus, prefect of Illyricum and the provinces of Gaul. If you are a man of good judgement, my kinsman Clarus, as I know that you are, you will carry out the arrangements of Ballista. Model your government on them.  Do you see how he refrains from burdening the provincials, how he keeps the horses in places where there is fodder and exacts the rations for his soldiers in places where there is grain, how he never compels the provincials or the land-holders to furnish grain where they have no supply, or horses where they have no pasture?  There is no arrangement better than to exact in each place what is there produced, so that the commonwealth may not be burdened by transport or other expenses.  Galatia is rich in grain, Thrace is well stocked, and Illyricum is filled with it; so let the foot-soldiers be quartered in these regions, although in Thrace cavalry, too, can winter without damage to the provincials, since plenty of hay can be had from the fields.  As for wine and bacon and other forms of food, let them be handed out in those places in which they abound in plenty.  All this is the policy of Ballista, who gave orders that any province should furnish only one form of food, namely that in which it abounded, and that from it the soldiers should be kept away. " - The Historia Augusta, The Lives of the Thirty Pretenders, Volume III:18, p113.     

But the old emperor had been seduced by Macrianus into believing his seemingly loyal courtier acted upon reliable intelligence about the whereabouts of Persian forces and ignored Ballista's repeated warnings about the army's precarious position.  Now that it appeared all was lost, Valerian realized the ambitious Macriani had inadvertently left him an instrument of redemption.
The anachronistic "Humiliation of Valerian" by Hans Holbein the
Younger, 1521 CE.  Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Without a hint to Shapur that Valerian had finally realized the ambitious author of the treachery, the old Roman asked Shapur to send Ballista to Macrianus' headquarters to negotiate a ransom, knowing full well that Macrianus would refuse any suggestion of ransom.  But Valerian's  best general would then be free to first, drive out the Persians, then deal with the imperial traitors.

But is Ballista being snatched from the frying pan only to be delivered to the fire?


Much of the ensuing story is based on the few fragments of history that survived Rome's brutal Third Century.

"The plague throughout these years was still rampant over the empire.  Zosimus sets it alongside the invasions as if in doubt which was the worse.  Inflation was raging.  The normal course of bourgeois economic life was dislocated.  Famine was endemic around the theatres of war, though the wheat fleets of Egypt and Africa still fed the Roman populace.  The Christians had as much to fear from the imperial officials as from the Germans or the Persians.  The social tension between the old senatorial class, tenacious in its grasp on its traditional preserves of office, and the new aspiring officer class, mainly Illyrian in origin, called for resolution.  Loyalty in high places was far to see; provincial governorships and provincial high commands were potential focuses of usurpation; the soldiers tended to be sullen and mutinous.  To some minds the complete dissolution of society might have seemed to be imminent." 
"Spiritually and culturally too things were at an impasse.  The old traditional forms of religion had long since lost their credibility outside the peasantry.  There were the mystery religion, Greek and oriental.  There were for the educated and intellectual the various schools of philosophy, the Stoic in decline, the neo-Platonist in the ascendant. Those in authority sought desperately, and sought in vain, for some cohesive belief or principle capable of welding the various classes of peoples of the empire into a spiritual unity and inspiring a common purpose and a common devotion." - Gallienus: A study in reformist and sexual politics by John Bray.

The few ancient sources we have to decipher the events of this tumultuous period is the much maligned and historically suspect Historia Augusta.


The Historia Augusta says Maeonius Astyanax claimed Ballista openly supported the usurpation of the Macriani saying:

"As for myself, my age and my calling and my desires are all far removed from the imperial office, and so, as I cannot deny, I am searching for a worthy prince.  But who, pray, is there who can fill the place of Valerian except such a man as yourself, brave, steadfast, honourable, well proved in public affairs, and — what is of the highest importance for holding the imperial office — possessed of great wealth?  Therefore, take this post which your merits deserve. My services as prefect shall be yours as long as you wish."  - The Historia Augusta, The Lives of the Thirty Pretenders, Volume III:12, p97.

What? His age precludes him from seeking the purple himself? Ballista was only in his thirties!  Although his military calling and personal ambitions may not have included the purple, he was hardly too old.  In fact, he was probably not that much older than the sons of Macrianus.
Quietus the usurper, son of Macrianus the Lame.
Courtesy of The Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.
via Wikimedia
Sidebottom's novel, instead, has Ballista publicly accept the office of Prefect only after a henchmen of the Macriani makes veiled threats about Ballista's family in Antioch that was essentially at the mercy of the Macriani  if Ballista refused to support the regime.  I think this is a far more believable scenario as there is nothing in the histories to suggest Ballista was ever one to personally exploit a political situation.

But, either way, Ballista once more ends up in command of much of the Roman army in Syria and he once more inflicts serious losses on the invading Persians.  Sidebottom's gritty descriptions of 3rd century warfare leave you breathless and his excellent characterizations makes you worry about not only Ballista (who captivated me in the very first novel of the series) but loyal (and virile!) Maximus, cranky old Calgacus and even gentle Demetrius.  Ballista's wife, Julia, gets her moment to shine too as she confronts Persian warriors in a surprise attack on the city of Antioch.

The Persians, though, are not the ultimate enemy.  To restore the imperium, Ballista must kill the Macriani pretenders but not until he can find a way to safeguard his wife and two sons.
Bust thought to resemble the emperor Gallienus. 
Photographed at the Walters Art Museum 
by Mary Harrsch.

When Macrianus the Lame and his namesake, Macrianus the Younger, leave for Europe to challenge Valerian's son Gallienus for the throne of the entire Roman Empire, Ballista is ordered to remain with Quietus.  Now, at least, the odds for Ballista's opportunity to exact retribution improve.

However, when Quietus receives word that his father and brother have been defeated and killed in Thrace, he becomes paranoid and imprisons Ballista and his family.  Now Ballista must place his trust in an old acquaintance from Book 1, "Fire in the East" and "The Lion of the Sun", Odaenathus, King of Palmyra, to save all that Ballista holds dear.

"...while Valerian was growing old in Persia, Odaenathus the Palmyrene gathered together an army and restored the Roman power almost to its pristine condition.  He captured the king's treasures and he captured, too, what the Parthian monarchs hold dearer than treasures, namely his concubines.  For this reason Sapor [Shapur I] was now in greater dread of the Roman generals, and out of fear of Ballista and Odaenathus he withdrew more speedily to his kingdom." - The Historia Augusta, The Two Valerians, Volume III:4 

The Historia Augusta only includes a couple of brief paragraphs about Quietus but those few lines reveal why historians often find themselves so exasperated when trying to piece together the events of the period using the Historia Augusta as a source.

We read that Ballista was killed along with Quietus when Odaenathus captured the city of Emesa.  But in the very next section of the Augusta Historia about Odaenathus himself, the Historia Augusta says while Odenathus was defeating Quietus at Emesa, Ballista claimed the purple for himself to avoid being slain.

Then under section 18 of Volume III describing Ballista, the author of that portion (if it is not the same as the rest of the work) details yet another fate of Ballista but admits that he really doesn't know what happened to Ballista since most ancient sources only refer to his prefecture not any reign as usurper.

"This man [Ballista], then, while resting in his tent was slain, it is said, by a certain common soldier, in order to gain the favour of Odaenathus and Gallienus.  I, however, have not been able to find out sufficiently the truth concerning him, because the writers of his time have related much about his prefecture but little about his rule." -The Historia Augusta, The Lives of the Thirty Pretenders, Volume III:18, p113


 Fortunately, Sidebottom sorts this out in a much more satisfying conclusion that sets us up for the next novel in the series, "The Caspian Gates".

Note: This review is based on the unabridged audio version of this book produced by Blackstone Audio with an outstanding performance by Stefan Rudnicki.

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