Thursday, January 10, 2013

Review: Semper Fidelis by Ruth Downie

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2013

Assimilating conquered warriors into the vanquishing army has been a problem for military commanders for thousands of years.  When Alexander the Great attempted to form an elite cavalry unit composed of the sons of conquered Persian nobles, his own officer corps was so enraged it led to the tragic death of Cleitus the Black, a longtime loyal officer to both Phillip II and Alexander, who was slain by Alexander himself after heated words about Alexander's efforts to incorporate Persians into positions of authority within his army.

It is this issue that forms the foundation for the plot of Ruth Downie's latest novel "Semper Fedelis".  We find our heroic medicus, Gaius Petreus Ruso, trying to find out what is happening to native Briton recruits at the hands of an apparently sadistic much-decorated centurion in second century Eboracum (modern day York).

As is usually the case, his native-born wife, Tilla, tries to help by questioning some of the local townspeople but ends up causing Ruso even more trouble with the commanding tribune who happens to be related to the family-honored centurion.  Ruso is summarily ordered to keep his nose out of things that don't concern him and Tilla receives a less subtle warning in the form of a severed pig's head found between her bedsheets.

But a recruit shows up at the hospital with a nasty infected arm after the young man had attempted to carve off a tribal tattoo to avoid any more abuse.  Then Ruso is further appalled when the man's friend turns up asking Ruso if he could remove the tattoos that embellish his arms as well.

With Tilla's urging, Ruso takes matters into his own hands when the emperor Hadrian shows up to inspect the fort, and Ruso attempts to explain the problem directly to Hadrian.  After all, Hadrian and Ruso served together in Antioch where Ruso was instrumental in saving the life of the emperor Trajan, Hadrian's adopted uncle.  Meanwhile, Tilla is called into the presence of the empress Sabina who thinks conversing with a colorful local would be amusing and Tilla attempts to bring the recruits plight to the empress' attention.
Interesting image of Mars the God of War with the face
of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and a female companion
whose face was resculpted in 170-175 CE to resemble
the Empress Lucille (according to The Louvre), wife of
the Roman emperor Lucius Verus (???) Photographed at The Louvre in Paris, France by Mary Harrsch

Then things take an even more nasty turn and the centurion in question is found murdered.  The related tribune throws Ruso into chains, more out of outrage that Ruso went to the emperor over his head than truly believing Ruso had anything to do with the murder. So Ruso and Tilla must scramble to discover the truth before Ruso is marched off to Deva for what is believed will be a summary trial and execution on the orders of the legate there.

The exciting conclusion involves Praetorian guards, conspiratorial royal secretaries, Tilla's less expert use of one of Ruso's scalpels, near mutiny of the recruits of the 22nd Legion and an ultimate solution devised by a very wise man who happens to be the most powerful ruler of the known world.

Again Downie has given us a mystery with twists and turns that keep readers guessing until almost the very end.  The characterizations of Ruso and Tilla are consistent with previous novels and, as I mentioned in a recent post to the Roman History Reading Group on Facebook, Downie offers each character's thoughts to us to flesh out their personalities.  She also provides a little backstory for tribune Accius letting us imagine his rather lonely childhood and the social importance of having an uncle publicly decorated for valor.  We can then understand, at least partly, the rational for what would normally be seen as outrageous behavior towards a respected medical officer.

The only thing I didn't understand in the plot was why Hadrian, who remained at the fort for several days during the time that tribune Accius imprisoned Ruso, did not act to prevent the mistreatment and possible loss of a valued medical officer who had proven himself in the Antioch earthquake?  Of course, our hero is ultimately saved but Hadrian's apparent indifference earlier in the story does not seem consistent with his obvious longtime respect for Ruso expressed at the end.

Of course, we don't know when Hadrian's knowledge of all of the events that occurred was realized, but as astute as Hadrian was, I can't imagine him not knowing that the tribune was blaming Ruso before Hadrian had left Eboracum for his next port of call.  If the tribune had simply locked up the native deserter, Victor, and blamed him from the beginning, it would have been more understandable that Hadrian would have been reticent to get involved.  Hadrian was a soldier's soldier and would not have intervened in a matter that should have been handled by the existing chain of command in circumstances that did not involve a professional officer held in high esteem by the emperor.  Perhaps this was Downie's way of developing events that would lead up to Russo's offer to sacrifice his own life to preserve order on the frontier and the emperor's continued successful reign.  Such an offer would then justify the size of the favor Ruso requests at the end of the story.

As for the supporting history behind the abuse of native recruits to the legions in Britain, we can look to the Vindolanda Tablets that include correspondence from the professional  auxiliaries from the Tungri tribe of the Aardennes region (Belgium/France/Luxembourg).  Although these men were not originally Romans from the Empire's heartland, they still  used a disparaging nickname for their British hosts: Brittunculi.

"In Latin, the suffix -unculus is both diminutive and pejorative: the term translates as "pathetic little Brits" (Vindolanda Tablet 164). The author was probably not referring to the provincial population as a whole, but specifically to young trainee recruits to the regiment. - Roman auxiliaries in Britain, Wikipedia

The Vindolanda Tablets, dated from 85 - 122 CE, also reveal that the military was understrength at the time of Hadrian's visit in 122 CE. The I Tungrorum listed its strength at 752 instead of the official 800 men expected to fill its rolls.  So, it would have been a time that recruits would have been sought, even from the local tribes.

Originally, Rome did not deploy auxiliary units in their home country or region but this policy relaxed to some degree as military shortages became more acute in the second century.

Centurion abuse of young recruits, outside the demanding regimen of basic training, is also documented in the ancient sources, although the most prominent record involves the Germanic Batavians.  In the "Year of the Four Emperors" (69-70 CE), the governor of Germania Inferior was ordered to raise more troops.  The Batavians  were regarded by the Romans as the very best (fortissimi, validissimi) of their auxiliary so the governor attempted to conscript more Batavi than the maximum stipulated in their treaty.  This action was compounded by the brutality and corruption of Roman recruiting-centurions including reports of sexual  assault on Batavi young men.
A Batavian helmet with remnants of blonde wig,
Courtesy of the Nijmegen museum.

Then, Julius Civilis, himself a decorated veteran of 25-years service in Britain and prince of the Batavi people, led his people in open revolt.

"... the uprising soon became a bid for independence.  Civilis exploited the fact that some legions were absent from the Rhine area due to the civil war, and the rest under-strength. In addition, the Roman commanders and their rank-and-file soldiers were divided by loyalty to rival emperors. Civilis quickly won the support of the Batavi's neighbours and kinsmen, the Cananefates, who in turn won over the Frisii. First the rebel allies captured two Roman forts in their territory, and a cohort of Tungri defected to Civilis.  Then two legions sent against Civilis were defeated when their companion Batavi ala defected to his side. The Classis Germanica (Rhine flotilla), largely manned by Batavi, was seized by Civilis. Most importantly, the eight Batavi cohorts stationed at Mainz with XIV Gemina mutinied and joined him, defeating at Bonn a Roman force that attempted to block their return to their homeland. By now, Civilis commanded at least 12 regiments (6,000 men) of Roman-trained and equipped auxiliary troops, as well as a much larger number of tribal levies. A number of German tribes from beyond the Rhine joined his cause. Several other German and Gallic units sent against him deserted, as the revolt spread to the rest of Gallia Belgica, including the Tungri, Lingones and Treviri tribes. He was able to destroy the two remaining legions in Germania Inferior, (V Alaudae and XV Primigenia). 
By this stage Rome's entire position on the Rhine and even in Gaul was imperiled. Their civil war over, the Romans mustered a huge task force of eight legions (five dispatched from Italy, two from Spain and one from Britain) to deal with Civilis. Its commander Petillius Cerialis had to fight two difficult battles, at Trier and Xanten, before he could overrun the Batavi's homeland. Tacitus' surviving narrative breaks off as he describes a meeting on an island in the Rhine delta between Civilis and Cerialis to discuss peace terms. We do not know the outcome of this meeting or Civilis' ultimate fate. But in view of his former friendship with Vespasian, who had already offered him a pardon, and the fact that the Romans still needed the Batavi levies, it is likely that the terms were lenient by Roman standards." - Roman military Auxiliaries, Wikipedia

So, the situation described in the novel could have been equally disastrous for Hadrian, who would have been keenly aware of the outcome of the Batavian revolt just 50 years before.  Furthermore, by Hadrian's time auxiliaries outnumbered legionaries by 2.5 to 1 in Britain.  Unfortunately for Ruso, Tribune Accius was far more nearsighted, thinking only of his family's social standing and not the welfare of the empire.

I also though Downie accurately portrayed the relationship between Hadrian and his wife Vibia Sabina.  Downie's townspeople mention rumors that Hadrian preferred to spend more time with his mother-in-law than Sabina.  Although that sounds strange, Hadrian's mother-in-law was actually his second cousin and only eight years older than Hadrian.  Furthermore, they were raised together in Trajan's household.

Sabina, as portrayed in the novel, was known to be independent minded and by the time of the novel, she had already had an affair with the historian Suetonius, secretary to Hadrian.  So, it would be totally in character for her to admonish Tilla by saying "Don't pray too hard" when Tilla said she would pray for the empress to be fruitful.

As a war veteran's spouse, another issue I always ponder when I read about a character being particularly brutal to other characters is whether the brutal character may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.  Geminus was described as a valorous, much-decorated veteran about to retire when he finishes training this particular batch of recruits.  Although scholars like Dr. Jonathan Eaton question a diagnosis of PTSD in members of the Roman Army because of a lack of explosive or concussive events in a typical Roman battle (PTSD and the Roman Army ), I would point out that heroic epics like those of Homer formed a foundation of source material used in the formation of the Roman heroic ideal.  In Chapter 3 of "From Melos to Mylai: War and Survival", Lawrence Tritle asserts that the heroes portrayed in Homer, Tyrtaeus, Archilochus, and Aeschylus share the characteristic of being someone who takes revenge for the death of his friends and strongly believing a good man is a brave man.

Not only may Geminus have been subconsciously seeking revenge for friends lost in past campaigns but as the recruits quaked from the centurion's actions, he may have dismissed the lot of them as not worthy since they apparently displayed no bravery in his eyes.

Tritle further points out that in war, officers are taught to instill in the troops an image of the enemy as foreign and different.  "[these] emotional factors... were greater inducements to carry out brutal acts of violence than racially or culturally based perceptions of the 'Other'."

So despite his horrendous behavior, perhaps we should reserve at least a little sympathy for Geminus just as Ruso expressed for Geminus' dog, Bella.  She may have attacked Ruso because of her training, but in the end she waited calmly beside the body of her beloved master, unaware that she, too, would be struck down for her learned behavior and share his funeral pyre.

If you enjoyed this post, never miss out on future posts by following me by email!

No comments: