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.