Thursday, August 15, 2013

Review: The Caspian Gates by Dr. Harry Sidebottom



Dr. Sidebottom's "warrior of Rome", Marcus Claudius Ballista, has become one of my favorite literary characters as I have worked my way through his series of novels.  So I was thrilled to see that an audio version of "The Caspian Gates" showed up in my recommended list of Audible selections.

I wasn't sure where Dr. Sidebottom would take Ballista this time since the historical Ballista pretty much disappears from the historical record (according to the Historia Augusta) after he beat back the Persians and wound up as emperor himself briefly as portrayed in the last novel I had read "Lion of the Sun".

Of course Ballista voluntarily laid down the honor after the imminent danger was dealt with, knowing full well the empire in the third century CE would never fully embrace an Angle from Germania.  The problem with that, however, lies in facing the existing emperor after such an act.  Emperors were notoriously paranoid and, although the emperor Gallienus was far from the worst of the lot and, in the novel, a former friend of Ballista, the novel opens with Ballista awaiting exile or execution in Ephesus.

A portrait of the Roman emperor Gallienus 
at The Louvre in Paris, France.
Image by Mary Harrsch.
Ballista's first temporary reprieve comes in the form of an attack by Gothic pirates.  As the most battle experienced commander available, Ballista leads first the defense of Ephesus, then beats back the Goths again at the shrine of Apollo in Didyma.  Dr. Sidebottom treats us to a marvelous description of the sanctuary and the ritualistic community there and, of course, the battle scenes are gritty and intense.

Ballista finally receives a mandata from Gallienus and he discovers his old friend has spared him but asks him to undertake a perilous mission to the Caspian Gates where he is to convince the indigenous tribes there to remain loyal to Rome despite the lucrative overtures they have been receiving from Sassanid Persia.

Note: I noticed the Wikipedia article on Gallienus claims he ordered the execution of Ballista in November 261.  This is not considered fact and the historical sources are very unclear about Ballista's ultimate fate.  So, it's a reasonable plot device to have Ballista reassigned in such a way that puts him so far up in the Roman frontier and no longer in command of troops as to pose little threat to the emperor.

Ballista, with his usual companions in tow, finds himself in a converted Roman warship retracing the steps of the mythical Jason and the Argonauts.  Dr. Sidebottom gives us the mythological background of each of Ballista's ports of call.  Then he treats us to an exciting sea battle as Ballista's little convoy is attacked by the pirates that had attacked him earlier at Ephesus and Didyma.  Ballista is a personal target now as his tactics, particularly his deception at Didyma, has engendered a blood feud with these particular Goths.   But Ballista's keen eye for an experienced and courageous captain pays off.

Fresco of a Roman war galley found at Pompeii.  1st century CE.
Photo by Mary Harrsch.
The little troop eventually reaches their destination, but finds the tribe currently in control of the territory around the Caspian Gates suspicious, wary and outright duplicitous.  To add to the tension, two members of the ruling family have been treacherously murdered by their own kinsmen and the three remaining siblings are jostling for ultimate control.  The only female in the struggle takes a fancy to Ballista even though Ballista had killed her husband years before, when her husband fought with the Persians in Syria.

Ballista must eventually seek help from his former enemies headed by the son of the King of Kings himself.  But will the Persians see the advantage to an alliance with the notorious "demon of death" who slaughtered so many of their brethern in past battles?  Viewing Ballista from the Persian perspective was particularly interesting.

Sassanid-era Persian king hunting boar.  Museum of Islamic
Arts, Berlin, Germany. Image courtesy of  Frank Ravik.
All in all, I found "The Caspian Gates" well written and, as always, chock full of historical detail that really brought the story to life for me.  I always enjoy the little extra bits of history that Dr. Sidebottom injects into the narrative that always prompts me to research a particular topic more deeply.  In this book, one of Ballista's household, a Greek pirate turned secretary named Hippothous, was a serious adherent to physiognomy.  Each time a new character is introduced, Hippothous would share his thoughts on the new arrival's worth based on his perceived physiognomy.

Physiognomy is the assessment of a person's character or personality based upon the contours of his outer appearance. Physiognomic theory first appear in 5th century BCE Athens, with the works of Zopyrus , who was said to be an expert in the art. By the 4th century BCE, Aristotle makes frequent reference to physiognomic in his works including his Prior Analytics:

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.—Prior Analytics 2.27 (Trans. A. J. Jenkinson)

A 14th century CE  aquamanile (water dispenser) 
depicting Aristotle's girlfriend Phyllis riding the
philosopher around the garden after he gave advice
about women to Alexander the Great.  Photographed
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York by
Mary Harrsch. 
The first systematic physiognomic treatise to survive to the present day is a slim volume, Physiognomonica ascribed to Aristotle (but probably of his "school" rather than created by the philosopher himself). The volume is divided into two parts, conjectured to have been originally two separate works. The first section discusses arguments drawn from nature or other races, and concentrates on the concept of human behavior. The second section focuses on animal behavior, dividing the animal kingdom into male and female types. From these are deduced correspondences between human form and character. - Wikipedia

By Ballista's time, physiognomists could also study the writings of Polemo of Laodicea, de Physiognomonia.

Like the science of astrology, though, modern academics have rejected physiognomy as not having much worth.

"Although we may now bracket physiognomy with Mesmerism as discredited or even laughable belief, many eighteenth-century writers referred to it in all seriousness as a useful science with a long history(...) Although many modern historians belittle physiognomy as a pseudoscience, at the end of the eighteenth century it was not merely a popular fad but also the subject of intense academic debate about the promises it held for future progress." - The Cambridge History of Science: Eighteenth-century science.

Anyway, it was funny to read what Hippothous deduced about someone based on how they looked to him.

I did find The Caspian Gates less compelling storywise, however, than Ballista's exploits in earlier novels.  I think this was a result of Ballista no longer being in a command position throughout much of this novel. Previous novels have firmly established Ballista with the innate ability to galvanize men to achieve victory, whatever the endeavor.  But, without a leadership role in this book, Ballista is left to languish seemingly waiting for someone else to make the first move.  I also simply could not imagine this quintessential man of action lounging around the quarters of a nomadic princess for days on end either.

Hopefully, he'll assume a command position again in the next installment "Wolves of the North".

Here's a clip of Dr. Sidebottom discussing "The Caspian Gates" up on YouTube:





Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review: Pride of Carthage by David Anthony Durham


I began reading a hard copy of David Anthony Durham's "Pride of Carthage" several years ago and never seemed to get around to finishing it until an audio version was recently released on Audible.com.  I am one of the unfortunate individuals that becomes unbearably sleepy if I attempt to read a traditional book for more than about 45 minutes but I listen to books while I exercise each morning on my exercise bike, so if an audio version of a book becomes available, I'll usually finish it in due course as long as I don't have other activities interfering with my exercise routine.  Thankfully, this was the case with Durham's novel of Hannibal after switching to the audio version.

I have studied Hannibal to some extent and was quite familiar with his military conquests during the Second Punic War. But most history texts say little about his personal life and that was what I was most interested in.  I realize the ancient sources tell us little about the Barcas as a family so I knew much of Durham's characterizations would have to come from his own imagination.  But still, I wanted to have some images to cling to as I learn more about Hannibal in the future and this is the reason I chose to read this book.  So let's examine the cast of characters Durham has crafted for us.

Polybius tells us that a leader's true character is often obscured by actions he must take in response to circumstances created by his own undertaking.

"His [Hannibal's] circumstances were so extraordinary and shifting, his closest friends so widely different, that it is exceedingly difficult to estimate his character from his proceedings in Italy." - Polybius, The Histories, Book IX, Chapters 22-26

So, Durham takes the relatively safe route and introduces us to a quintessential warrior - finely muscled, an astute judge of character, a family man who welcomes his infant son with tenderness and a bit vain.  In one of the opening scenes, Hannibal stands nude before his wife, Imilcea, demonstrating to her that he has maintained his flawless body despite the latest battle he has fought at Arbocala.  (That image soon fades, though, as Hannibal suffers first a devastating spear wound then loses the sight in one eye slogging through mosquito-infested marshes in Italy.)

Family to Hannibal, however, is first and foremost a responsibility to maintain the ancestral "dignitas", if I may use a Roman term to define it, of the Barcids who were legendary even in Hannibal's own time.  His father, the revered Hamilcar Barca, though now dead, is a shadowy presence that Hannibal, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconscieously, defers to in almost every decision Hannibal considers.

And, if friends are so influential, what forces do we see swirling about Hannibal in his council chambers that will propel him to the apex of victory or foreshadow his eventual defeat?

This is where Durham chooses to diverge a little from historical sources.  We meet Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal, a luxury-loving but fiercely loyal lieutenant to his older brother.  Since Durham has read Polybius, he is certainly aware that the Barcids were reputed to love wealth.

"Fond of money indeed he does seem to have been to a conspicuous degree, and to have had a friend of the same character---Mago, who commanded in Bruttium. That account I got from the Carthaginians themselves; for natives know best not only which way the wind lies, as the proverb has it, but the characters also of their fellow-countrymen. But I heard a still more detailed story from Massanissa, who maintained the charge of money-loving against all Carthaginians generally, but especially against Hannibal and Mago called the Samnite. Among other stories, he told me that these two men had arranged a most generous subdivision of operations between each other from their earliest youth; and though they had each taken a very large number of cities in Iberia and Italy by force or fraud, they had never taken part in the same operation together; but had always schemed against each other, more than against the enemy, in order to prevent the one being with the other at the taking of a city: that they might neither quarrel in consequence of a thing of this sort nor have to divide the profit on the ground of their equality of rank." -Polybius, The Histories, Book IX, Chapters 22-26

However, greed is not an endearing trait to modern readers so I can understand Durham redirecting a love of wealth to Hannibal's brother rather than the commander himself to maintain reader empathy with his protagonist.  We must also consider the possibility that Massanissa, though initially loyal to the Barcas, was eventually forsaken by the Carthaginians in favor of Syphax, another Numidian chieftain.  So, Massinissa's criticism must be viewed skeptically.  I thought Durham's choice to introduce this aspect to the Barca family without sacrificing respect for Hannibal was reasonable.

Durham's decision to make Hasdrubal a composite figure of Hasdrubal Barca and Hasdrubal Son of Gisco is likewise understandable.  Having two Hasdrubals running around could get really messy and an author could risk losing readers partway through the narrative.

The death of Sophonisba by Giambattista Pittoni 18th century CE.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The reason I am sure Hasdrubal is a composite figure is based on a plot development later in the novel. Hasdrubal (Barca) agrees to give his youngest sister, Sophonisba, in marriage to the dastardly Syphax of Numidia in return for Syphax' Carthaginian support.  This famous tragedy (Sophonisba had been previously promised to Massinissa) was initiated historically by Hasdrubal Son of Gisco, not Hasdrubal Barca.  Sophonisba was known to be a Carthaginian noblewoman but not a Barca, although Hamilcar is thought to have had three daughters.  However, by making Sophonisba the youngest of Hannibal's sisters, Durham strengthens the reason for Scipio's insistence that after Massinissa's defeat of Syphax, his wife march in Scipio's victory triumph in Rome.

Then we meet Hannibal's brother Mago, who is portrayed as level headed and strategically skilled - a strong right arm who has a knack for thinking outside the box.  This personality appears consistent with the historical Mago who courageously stood by his brother's side in the crucial center of the Carthaginian line at Cannae and who traveled back to Carthage with the gold rings of the defeated Roman aristocracy to plead for support for Hannibal's continued success.

Closeup of the shield of King Henry II of France that depicts Hannibal at the
battle of Cannae. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


The next choice Durham makes, however, is much more of a leap.  He introduces us to a third brother, Hanno.  In all of my research, I found only a casual reference to the possibility that there was a fourth Barcid lion in Hamilcar's brood.  Hanno is portrayed as skilled but sourly envious of Hannibal's success and favored position as eldest in the family.  Hanno's sexual appetites are directed at other men.  These attentions were viewed as beneath his exalted position as a Barca and an element that promoted his anxiety toward Hannibal and his other brothers.

I could not find any specific references to the Phoenician view of homosexuality although the home country that spawned Carthage was under the influence of the Persians for centuries and Persia had a long history of antihomosexual tradition.  Rome at this point in history, although condoning homosexual relations with participants of lesser social status (slaves, captives, freedmen, etc.) prosecuted homosexuals in the military sphere, considering it damaging to the soldier's image as the supreme example of masculinity.  If the Roman viewpoint was shared by other military organizations around the Mediterranean, then Hanno's low self-esteem as portrayed by Durham would have been a probable outcome.

I must admit, though, I found it hard to accept the name of Hanno as a Barca.  Although Hanno is one of the few noble Carthaginian names, it is associated in history with the Barca family's strident opposition in the Carthaginian senate so I would have hesitated to use it for a Barca sibling.

However, once again, Durham creates this character as a composite of an historical Hanno who was, in fact, an officer (not brother) under Hannibal.  Durham probably chose to create this composite figure to reduce the confusion created by Livy in his history.  Livy identifies a Hanno who was a cavalry commander at Capua, another in command at Metapontum in 207 BC who was sent to Bruttium to raise fresh troops by Hannibal, and yet another Hanno who was sent to Spain in 206 BC by the Carthaginian senate, where he was defeated and captured by the Romans under Marcus Silanus in 207 BCE.  Durham's Hanno is defeated and captured in Spain then transported to Italy as a prisoner.  There he is sereptitiously freed and reappears fighting in Africa as indicated later by Livy in 203 BCE.

Actually, I found Durham's composite device quite effective in keeping the story line relatively continuous.  It also served as a counterbalance to the heroic aspects of the other Barcas.

Durham introduces another particularly dark character that kept cropping up throughout the book with a blood lust that Hannibal found difficult to check.  Monomachus, (historically named Hannibal Monomachus - those Carthaginians used only a handful of names for their noble families that makes reading Punic history really confusing!) is a warrior who worships the blood-thirsty god, Moloch, and is constantly urging Hannibal to unleash absolute horror upon the Romans.  Polybius gives us a specific example of this man's approach to total war:

"At the time that Hannibal was meditating the march from Iberia to Italy with his army, he was confronted with the extreme difficulty of providing food and securing provisions, both because the journey was thought to be of insuperable length, and because the barbarians that lived in the intervening country were numerous and savage. It appears that at that time the difficulty frequently came on for discussion at the council; and that one of his friends, called Hannibal Monomachus, gave it as his opinion that there was one and only one way by which it was possible to get as far as Italy. Upon Hannibal bidding him speak out, he said that they must teach the army to eat human flesh, and make them accustomed to it. Hannibal could say nothing against the boldness and effectiveness of the idea, but was unable to persuade himself or his friends to entertain it. It is this man's acts in Italy that they say were attributed to Hannibal, to maintain the accusation of cruelty, as well as such as were the result of circumstances."Polybius, The Histories, Book IX, Chapters 22-26

Durham's Hannibal resists the level of cruelty Monomachus suggests most of the time but later in the Italian campaign, when Hannibal struggles to maintain the loyalty of cities that waiver in their support of the Carthaginian cause, Durham's Hannibal allows Monomachus to perpetrate a number of atrocities.  This may or may not have occured in antiquity although Polybius points out some Roman cities suffered "treacherous violence" at this point in the campaign.

"...as soon as Capua fell into the hands of the Romans, the other cities naturally became restless, and began to look round for opportunities and pretexts for revolting back again to Rome. It was then that Hannibal seems to have been at his lowest point of distress and despair. For neither was he able to keep a watch upon all the cities so widely removed from each other---while he remained entrenched at one spot, and the enemy were maneuvering against him with several armies---nor could he divide his force into many parts; for he would have put an easy victory into the hands of the enemy by becoming inferior to them in numbers, and finding it impossible to be personally present at all points. Wherefore he was obliged to completely abandon some of the cities, and withdraw his garrisons from others: being afraid lest, in the course of the revolutions which might occur, he should lose his own soldiers as well. Some cities again he made up his mind to treat with treacherous violence, removing their inhabitants to other cities, and giving their property up to plunder; in consequence of which many were enraged with him, and accused him of impiety or cruelty. For the fact was that these movements were accompanied by robberies of money, murders, and violence, on various pretexts at the hands of the outgoing or incoming soldiers in the cities, because they always supposed that the inhabitants that were left behind were on the verge of turning over to the enemy." Polybius, The Histories, Book IX, Chapters 22-26

A depiction of a child sacrifice to the gold Moloch (sometimes referred to
as Molech).
Whether children were singled out for sacrifice is not specified.  Of course Roman propoganda is always a concern whenever you study Roman history.  But, we do know that Roman parents used to frighten their children with stories of Hannibal at the gates.  So, Durham makes the connection to these stories clear.  In the novel, during Monomachus' raids of villages and towns in the southern Italian peninsula, Monomachus seeks out Roman children to sacrifice to his god Moloch providing the reason those stories have persisted through the centuries.

In the opening chapters of the book we also meet one of Hannibal's sisters, Sapanibal.  Sapanibal is tall and athletic with a keen mind.  We are told she often served as a sounding board for Hannibal on matters of diplomacy and tribal relations.  She is the widow of Hasdrubal "The Handsome" or "The Fair",  the man who took over command of Iberia after the death of Hannibal's father, Hamilcar, until his own assassination.  Hasdrubal the Handsome is portrayed as an arrogant brute who apparently  resented his high-born wife and used every excuse to humiliate and psychologically wound her.  In the novel his womanizing is legendary much to her embarassment.

Of course ancient scholars seldom bothered themselves with the treatment of famous men's wives so we can assume Durham embellished this relationship for the purposes of drama.  We do know, though, that Hasdrubal the Handsome personally negotiated a treaty with Rome that established the Ebro river as the northern-most border of Carthaginian influence.

"The treaty had been concluded between the Romans and Hasdrubal, not Carthage. This is remarkable, because other Roman-Carthaginian treaties were concluded between the two states. This suggests that Hasdrubal was considering his position as if he were some sort of king. Several ancient sources even suggest that he wanted to become independent. This is probably incorrect, but his acts may have caused some raised eyebrows in Carthage." - Jona Lendering, Livius.org, 2004

So, it is not much of a stretch to associate a man "who would be king" with the personality Durham has created for him.  The resulting impact on Sapanibal was to make her unwilling to enter into close friendships and to make her skeptical of the motivations of those around her, both traits certainly understandable given the circumstances.

We also meet Hannibal's wife, Imilce, a beautiful Celtic princess who loves Hannibal passionately but seems somewhat mystified by the legacy of war and need for conquest and martial success that rules the Barca family.  Hannibal's marriage to her was arranged by Hasdrubal the Handsome to strengthen Carthaginian ties to the local populace.  But Hannibal seems to truly love and admire her for her intelligence and comprehension of tribal politics as well as her devoted care of their son, little Hamilcar nicknamed Hammer.

So the stage is set for the epic drama that is to come as Hannibal sets his sight on the conquest of Rome. With Durham's vibrantly drawn characters, his subsequent retelling of the victories and later defeats of Hannibal's army have a more human quality to them than most dry textbook accounts I have read in the past.

To see a reenactment of the final battle for Carthage, check out this trailer for the upcoming game Rome: Total War II due for a September release:


But I was most touched by the story of Sophanisba and Massinissa.  Although Durham heightened the tale by making Sophanisba Hannibal's youngest sister (she was actually the daughter of Hasdrubal Gisco as previously stated), Durham's details of the tragedy were taken straight from  the pages of Livy (and Polybius, Appian, Diodorus and Cassius Dio!).  I have to confess, though, that I had never read anything about Sophanisba before and I found the story of her doomed love for Massinissa as compelling as the famous romance of Antony and Cleopatra.

So all in all, I think David Anthony Durham created an engaging narrative, solidly based on factual accounts but with creative choices that made sense from both a dramatic perspective and to preserve a reader's overall understanding of events without tripping over too many characters with the same name.  My only regret is that Durham stopped with Hannibal's defeat at the battle of Zama and did not attempt to speculate on Hannibal's subsequent role in the resurrection of his nation, his political challenges and ultimate betrayal by the greedy Carthaginian opposition that lacked the vision to foresee the death of their own civilization.

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