Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Review: "Gods of War" by Jack Ludlow

Note:  Contains historical references that may be considered spoilers if the reader is unfamiliar with this period of Roman history

In the third book of Jack Ludlow's "Republic" trilogy, the protagonist, Aquila Terentius, having gained battle experience in the Servile War on Sicily, returns to Italy and makes his way to Rome where he hopes his adoptive brother may help him in his quest to achieve the destiny foretold by his adopted mother and the ancient soothsayer, Drisia.

Background and story up to now

Aquila is the bastard son of a Druid chieftain named Brennos and the wife of Aulus Cornelius Macedonicus, the Roman proconsul charged with putting down a revolt of Celts in Iberia led by Brennos.  The Lady Claudia is captured by the Celts in an ambush and when she is rescued two years later, Claudia is found pregnant.  Her husband, Aulus, assuming the child to be a product of rape, exposes the child soon after it is born.  But Claudia has wrapped a golden amulet shaped like an eagle in flight around the child's foot in hopes that the child will be found and reared by some other loving Roman family.

That family turns out to be an old legionary named Clodius Terentius and his wife who name the boy Aquila after the gold charm they found wrapped around his foot.  Clodius, a poor excuse for a farmer, barely scrapes by  as an occasional day laborer  but loves the little tot with red gold hair and bright blue eyes.
One day Clodius is duped into another stint in the legions by a wealthy neighbor who promises to care for Clodius' family if Clodius would serve in the legions in his stead.  So little Aquila is left to wander the fields around the tiny Terentius hut alone until one day he meets a Celtic slave named Gadoric.   Gadoric pretends to be crippled so he will be left alone to watch over a wealthy neighbor's flock rather than sent off to hard labor on the Roman's large latifundia on Sicily.  Gadoric suspects Aquila may be at least part Celt because of his tall stature and coloring.  So, Gadoric teaches Aquila his language and how to use a spear.  He also teaches him all the secrets of hunting and reading the signs of life in the forest and hills which ultimately proves quite useful when Gadoric's deception is discovered and he is shipped off to Sicily and Aquila is left alone once more.  (End of Book 1: "Pillars of Rome" - see full review here)

After his adoptive mother dies, Aquila falls in with a motley cadre of ex-gladiators led by a former Centurion in his father's legion named Flaccus.  Flaccus has stopped by the wealthy neighbor's farm to bring the news of Clodius' death at the battle of Thralaxas in Illyria.  The group sails to Sicily where they are contracted to serve as overseers of a large farm there.  But Aquila becomes entangled in the Servile War when he finds Gadoric and helps him and a Greek slave named Hippolytas to escape.  But Hippolytas, a charismatic fellow who claims to have visions, is convinced all the slaves can unite and drive the Romans back to Italy and sets about organizing a slave army to pillage the surrounding countryside.  Aquila, given command of a number of the men, tries to limit the brutality of the slave army.  But, he becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the slaves' hatred for Romans since Aquila considers himself Roman.   So Aquila eventually retreats to the mountains to avoid any further conflict with them.

The treacherous Greek, Hippolytas, secretly sends an envoy to the Romans to negotiate a peace that includes betrayal of Gadoric and the slave army in exchange for wealth and a large villa on the Italian mainland.  When Gadoric is ambushed and meets a warrior's death, Aquila follows the Greek and the co-conspirators back to Italy where he wreaks his bloody revenge upon them for the death of his friend.  (End of Book 2: "Sword of Revenge" - see my full review here)

Now a seasoned warrior, Aquila heads towards Rome, wearing the eagle amulet proudly around his neck.  Aquila is unaware that the amulet is the original talisman worn by the rebel Celt Brennos with a mystical destiny attached to it.  The Celts in Iberia believe the man who wears the amulet will one day bring down Rome.

In Rome, Aquila is not given any encouragement by his step brother Demetrius but befriends his "nephew" Fabius.  After some dubious adventures, Aquila talks Fabius into joining the legions with him.  Unknown to Aquila, his legion is on its way to Iberia to fight the rebellious tribes being led by Brennos, Aquila's real father, who has taken over a hill fort named Numantia.

The events of what became known as the Numantine War are the focus of this third (and last) novel of the series.

Aquila's 18th legion first serves under Quintus Cornelius Macedonicus, the oldest son of Aquila's stepfather, Aulus Cornelius Macedonicus, although neither man knows of the relationship.

Historically there really was a Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus who fought in Spain.  But I think the character of Quintus Cornelius Macedonicus represents Quintus Fabius Maximus Aemilianus, the adopted son of Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus, the model for Aquila's step father, Aulus Cornelius Macedonicus (see my original analysis of character models in my review of the first book in the trilogy, "Pillars of Rome").

The Roman senate sent Quintus Maximus to quell an uprising of the Lusitani, a Celtic tribe inhabiting what is now modern day Portugal, led by a chieftain named Viriathus.  In the novel, paralleling actual history, Quintus brought two legions that had never engaged in warfare before, as well as inexperienced staff officers that were brought along for political reasons.  Despite repeated provocation of the surrounding Celtic tribes, Quintus just dig in and concentrates on exercising and training his men.

"But Maximus declined an engagement with the whole army and continued to exercise his men, frequently sending out skirmishing parties, making trial of the enemy's strength, and inspiring his own men with courage. When he sent out foragers he always placed a cordon of legionaries around the unarmed men and himself rode about the region with his cavalry. He had seen his father Paullus do this in the Macedonian war." - Appian, Roman History, The Spanish Wars

In the novel, one of the skirmishing parties, led by one of Quintus' inexperienced greedy and ambitious junior officers, marches into the territory of a tribe allied to the Romans.  He has been told by an informer from a non-allied tribe that the friendly Celts were planning to lure the Romans into a trap and kill them.  Why the officer would believe a non-friendly Celt over his allies is a mystery but he figures he can turn the tables and plunder the properous friendly village that sprawls out before him like a plum ready to be picked.

The village elders come out and greet the Romans warmly and offer hospitality.  The Roman officer appears to accept their welcome but under his breath issues orders to kill all the males as soon as they enter the village.

This incident sounds very much like an actual event recounted by Appian:

"... the elders of the city came out wearing crowns on their heads and bearing olive-branches, and asked Lucullus what they should do to establish friendly relations. He replied that they must give hostages and 100 talents of silver, and furnish a contingent of horse to the Roman army. When all these demands had been complied with, he asked that a Roman garrison should be admitted to the city. When the Caucaei assented to this he brought in 2,000 soldiers carefully chosen, to whom he gave orders that when they were admitted they should occupy the walls. When this was done, Lucullus introduced the rest of his army and ordered them at the sound of the trumpet to kill all the adult males of the Caucaei. The latter, invoking the gods who preside over promises and oaths, and upbraiding the perfidy of the Romans, were cruelly slain, only a few out of 20,000 escaping by leaping down the sheer walls at the gates. Lucullus sacked the city and brought infamy upon the Roman name. The rest of the barbarians collecting together from the fields took refuge among inaccessible rocks or in the most strongly fortified towns, carrying away what they could, and burning what they were obliged to leave, so that Lucullus should not find any plunder."  - Appian, Roman History, The Spanish Wars

Aquila attempts to dissuade the officer but the officer angrily dismisses him and orders Aquila and his men to return to base camp.  But as Aquila travels back through the narrow defile leading to the little valley where the friendly village is located, he notices large number of horse tracks that were not there when the skirmishing party passed through earlier.

He finds the non-friendly Celts preparing to ambush the Romans after they have plundered the friendly village.  It takes all of Aquila's skill to avert the ambush and rescue the foolish  officer and rest of the Roman force.  Aquila uses tactics that sounded similar to those described by Appian in another engagement.

"When he discovered the ambush he divided his horse into two bodies and ordered them to charge the enemy on either side alternately, hurling their javelins all together and then retiring, not to the same spot from which they had advanced, but a little further back each time. In this way the horsemen were brought in safety to the plain." - Appian, Roman History, The Spanish Wars

Quintus is furious when the skirmishing force finally returns to base camp but goes ahead and claims the body count so he may enjoy a triumph when he returns to Rome at the end of the year.  But Quintus does not return to Rome with his troops.  Aquila's 18th legion must remain behind to continue the struggle to pacify the Celts.  However, Aquila receives a silver Spear for his bravery and courage, the first of many honors, and a promotion to Centurion.

A reconstruction of an early Celt-Iberian House courtesy

As the years pass, Aquila becomes increasingly more frustrated as each year a new consul from Rome appears to plunder the territory and gain enough of a body count to claim a triumph in Rome.  Aquila finds their greediness and foolishness totally inexcusable but rescues them from certain defeat time after time, garnering even more honors and a promotion to Primus Pilus in the process.

Finally, a real commander with military experience and integrity arrives on the scene.  In the novel, he is named Titus Cornelius Macedonicus, the younger son of Aulus Cornelius Macedonicus.  Historically, the commander was Scipio Aemilianus, the actual son of Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus.

Titus decides to lay siege to Numantia, the most powerful hill fort in central Iberia, to finally bring an end to the Celt-Iberian Wars.  But first he must restore strict discipline to the troops that had been left in Spain and had grown demoralized and out of shape over the years .   With Aquila's help, Titus orders the expulsion of all of the legions' camp followers and sets about retraining the legions to bring them back into fighting condition.  This coincides exactly with the preparations of Scipio Aemilianus.

"When he arrived he expelled all traders and harlots; also the soothsayers and diviners, whom the soldiers were continually consulting because they were demoralized by defeat. For the future he forbade the bringing in of anything not necessary, or any victims for purposes of divination. He ordered all wagons and their superfluous contents to be sold, and all pack animals, except such as he designated, to remain. For cooking utensils it was permitted to have only a spit, a brass kettle, and one cup. Their food was limited to plain boiled and roasted meats. They were forbidden to have beds, and Scipio was the first one to sleep on straw. He forbade them to ride on mules when on the march; "for what can you expect in a war," said he, "from a man who is not able to walk?" Those who had servants to bathe and anoint them were ridiculed by Scipio, who said that only mules, having no hands, needed others to rub them." - Appian, Roman History, The Spanish Wars

Under Aquila's guiding hand, the Romans once more become a formidable force and Aquila is promoted to second in command.  Titus' legate, Marcellus Falerius, son of the ruthless politician that was the childhood friend of Titus' father, resents Aquila, claiming such a low born plebian has no social right to such an elevated position.  But Titus stands firm on his decision.

I found it ironic that Marcellus was so haughty to Aquila.  In the first book we discover that Marcellus is really the bastard child of a barbarian slave and the wife of Lucius Falerius Nerva, a ruthless politician who paid the slave to have relations with Falerius' wife because the politician was apparently sterile but wanted an heir.  Of course Marcellus does not know and never learns of the deception.

Titus does respect Marcellus, though, and finds him to be a promising officer.  So Titus grants Marcellus the command of an attack force against the Lusitani  to keep that formidable tribe busy so they cannot come to Numantia's aid.

Marcellus accomplishes this by building a fleet of ships and launching his attacks by sea. The sea battle passages in the novel are thrilling and extremely well written.  However, I could not find any historical references to indicate the Lusitani were defeated in this way.  But, after all, this is a novel, right?

I was really tense reading the sea battle passages, though, because I remembered that in the end of book 2, Marcellus visits the Sybil and receives what he thinks is a mundane prophecy saying he will inherit his father's fortune.  As the sole heir to Lucius Falerius Nerva, Marcellus does inherit his "father's" financial fortune but Sybilline prophecies are never what they seem.  Marcellus' real father was betrayed by Falerius who hired assassins to kill him.  The ex-gladiators succeed in wounding the slave but he escapes by leaping into the Tiber River.  However, the river's current is too swift and the barbarian is eventually pulled under and drowned.  So, every time Marcellus gets into a sea battle I was always afraid he would end up wounded and drowned.  I really liked the character of Marcellus so I didn't want him to suffer that fate.

Anyway, back to the story!

Titus lays siege to Numantia.  To prevent the inhabitants from escape or from bringing in provisions, Titus has the men build a boom of logs across the Durius River that courses through the hill fort.

This, too, parallels history quite closely.

"... the river Durius, which took its course through the fortifications, was very useful to the Numantines for bringing provisions and sending men back and forth, some diving and others concealing themselves in small boats, some making their way with sail-boats when a strong wind was blowing, or with oars aided by the current." 
"As he was not able to span it on account of its breadth and swiftness, Scipio built two towers in place of a bridge. To each of these towers he moored large timbers with ropes and set them floating across the river. The timbers were stuck full of knives and spear-heads, which were kept constantly in motion by the force of the stream dashing against them, so that the enemy were prevented from passing covertly, either by swimming, or diving, or sailing in boats." - Appian, Roman History, The Spanish Wars

To prevent the nearby Arevaci tribe from coming to the aid of the Numantines, Titus sends Aquila as his envoy to dissuade them.   During his years in Iberia, Aquila, who already knew some of the Celtic language from his years with Gadoric, taught himself to speak the local dialect so was the perfect candidate for an envoy.  When Aquila meets Masagori, the chieftain of the Arevaci, the leader spots the golden eagle amulet around the neck of this Roman with the red-gold hair who resembles a younger version of Brennos, the old Druid leading the Numantines.  Recognizing Aquila as the manifestation of the ancient prophecy, the Arevaci agree to withdraw.

But, as the Numantine plight becomes desperate, one night Brennos orders a group of his men to assault the Roman log boom as a distraction so he and a handful of horseman can ride to the Arevaci for help.

"...a man of the greatest valor, induced five of his friends to take an equal number of servants and horses, and cross the space between the two armies secretly, on a cloudy night, carrying a bridge made in sections. Arriving at the wall he and his friends sprang upon it, slew the guards on either side, sent back the servants, drew the horses up the bridge, and rode off to the towns of the Arevaci, bearing olive-branches and entreating them, as blood relations, to help the Numantines. - Appian, Roman History, The Spanish Wars

But Masagori refuses Brennos and tells him of the tall red-haired Roman with an eagle amulet.  He says Brennos has brought on his own destruction by planting his seed in the belly of his enemy.

However, some of the younger warriors of the Arevaci, hoping to gain personal glory in this monumental struggle, voice their support of Brennos even though their chieftain will not relent.

"The chiefs of the Arevaci, fearing the Romans, would not even listen to them, but sent them away immediately. There was a rich town named Lutia, distant 55 kilometers from Numantia, whose young men sympathized with the Numantines and urged their city to send them aid. The older citizens secretly communicated this fact to Scipio." 
"Receiving this intelligence about the eighth hour , he marched thither at once with a numerous and well-equipped force. Surrounding the place about daylight, he demanded that the leaders of the young men should be delivered up to him. When the citizens replied that they had fled from the place, he sent a herald to tell them that if these men were not surrendered to him he would sack the city. Being terrified by this threat, they delivered them up, to the number of about 400. Scipio cut off their hands, withdrew his force, rode away, and was back in his own camp the next morning." - Appian, Roman History, The Spanish Wars

Brennos then seeks help from the Lusitani but Marcellus has done his work well and the Lusitani fear they no longer have the favor of their gods.  So Brennos returns to Numantia where he meets a grisly fate and the mighty hill fort of Numantia falls.

The present day archaeological site of Numantia
courtesy of

"Many, directly after the surrender, killed themselves in whatever way they chose, some in one way and some in another." 
"The remainder congregated on the third day at the appointed place, a strange and shocking spectacle. Their bodies were foul, their hair and nails long, and they were smeared with dirt. They smelt most horribly, and the clothes they wore were likewise squalid and emitted an equally foul odor. For these reasons they appeared pitiable even to their enemies. At the same time there was something fearful to the beholders in the expression of their eyes - an expression of anger, grief, toil, and the consciousness of having eaten human flesh." 
"Having reserved fifty of them for his triumph, Scipio sold the rest and razed the city to the ground." - Appian, Roman History, The Spanish Wars

So, do the visions described by the old crone, Drisia those many years ago come to pass at last?  You'll have to read the book yourself to find out.  But, Ludlow leaves several loose ends at the end of the novel.  Will Aquila use his newly acquired status to enter the political arena and support reforms that will eventually lead to the destruction of the Roman Republic?  Will Marcellus oppose Aquila and lead the opposition into a civil war?   Will the prophecy of the amulet totally come true and Aquila or his descendants eventually bring down the Roman Empire? I'm afraid we'll never know since Ludlow has moved on to other historical time periods and settings.

I still found this final installment of Ludlow's Republic Series offers enough resolution along with excitement and vibrant characters to be a very gratifying read, though.

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