Sunday, March 31, 2013

Review: The Bull Slayer by Bruce Machain

Pliny the Younger, now more than ten years older than the vice-prefect of Machain's first novel, Roman Games (my review), arrives in the Roman province of Bithynia-Pontus with a directive from the emperor Trajan to essentially clean house.  Rampant corruption has left the country in ruins.  Partially constructed aqueducts, temples and baths, starved of funding that has been skimmed by ambitious Greek contractors and greedy Roman procurators, are scattered across the landscape.

The Roman Emperor Trajan.
Photo by Mary Harrsch.

Pliny dives into this task wholeheartedly both in the novel and historically, as reflected in his first correspondence with the emperor Trajan upon his arrival:

"I am at present engaged in examining the finances of the Prusenses, their expenses, revenues, and credits; and the farther I proceed in this work, the more I am convinced of the necessity of my enquiry. Several large sums of money are owing to the city from private persons, which they neglect to pay upon various pretences; as, on the other hand, I find the public funds are, in some instances, very unwarrantably applied. This, Sir, I write to you immediately on my arrival. I entered this province on the 17th of September, and found in it that obedience and loyalty towards yourself which you justly merit from all mankind. You will consider, Sir, whether it would not be proper to send a surveyor here; for I am inclined to think much might be deducted from what is charged by those who have the conduct of the public works if a faithful admeasurement were to be taken: at least I am of that opinion from what I have already seen of the accounts of this city, which I am now going into as fully as is possible." - Pliny to Trajan, correspondence XVI.

Statue of Pliny the Younger on the façade of
Cathedral of S. Maria Maggiore in 
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
But, Pliny quickly learns that the local "Greeklings" have no affection for his diligence or any of their Roman caretakers.  So, when the latest procurator in charge of collecting taxes is found murdered, no one seems to want to cooperate in the investigation of his death.

Pliny begins piecing the clues together with the help of Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus.  Suetonius is often thought of as a gossip monger by modern scholars but he actually held a number of important posts in Roman administration and was Pliny's friend.  Although most famous for his literary work "The Twleve Caesars", at this point in his career Suetonius was working on a compilation of the lives of famous prostitutes, in his Pratum de rebus variis, a light natured work often referred to as the Playground.  So Suetonius' interest in the local prostitutes comes in handy when one of the clues leads Suetonius and Pliny to the wealthy madam of a local brothel.

They learn that the murder victim was a member of the mysterious cult of Mithras, the "Bull Slayer" of the novel's title.  With a doctorate in ancient history, Machain weaves the story artfully around what facts about the cult have been gleaned from the study of over 400 archaeological sites related to Mithraism.

Roman sculpture of Mithras slaying the sacred bull from
a Mithraeum in Ostia Imperial Period 1st - 3rd centuries CE.
Photographed in Ostia Antica by Mary Harrsch.
"Archaeological finds indicate the extent of Mithraism included most of the Roman Empire, from Rome to Turkey to Britain. It was especially concentrated in Rome (35 Mithraic temples found) and its port of Ostia (15 temples). In total, over 400 archaeological find-spots related to Mithraism have been found, along with about 1,000 dedicatory inscriptions and 1,150 pieces of sculpture.

A gilded frieze depicting Mithras slaying the bull (known
as the Tauroctony) from a Mithraeum  in Rome.  Photographed
 at the Terme di Diocleziano  (National Museum) in Rome, Italy
 by Mary Harrsch.
"As in its Persian form, Roman Mithraism was a religion of loyalty, contracts and friendship between men, especially between officials and rulers. There are no known women followers of Mithraism. The cult was supported by several emperors, including Commodus (180-92), Septimius Severus (193–211), and Caracalla (211–17). As part of an effort at renewing the Roman empire, Diocletian dedicated an altar to Mithra in Carnuntum (on the Danube near Vienna) in 307, designating the god patron of their empire (fautori imperii sui)." - Mithraism

Gilt Head of Mithras found in the Mithraeum of
Castra Peregrinorum under Santo Stefano Rotondo
 2nd century CE.  Photographed by Mary Harrsch
at the  Terme di Diocleziano in Rome, Italy
The murder victim held the rank of Lion, one of the seven ranks known from frescoes in the Santa Prisca Mithraeum in Rome and the mosaic pavement of the Felicissimus Mithraeum in Ostia. As the plot unfolds we discover other members of this clandestine sect hold the ranks of  Soldier, Persian and "Sun-Runner" (Heliodromus).  The youngest initiates join the group with the rank of Raven and Machain imagines the mysterious initiation ceremony in one of the novel's opening scenes.

"Contemporary sources indicate this included ablutions (or baptism), purifications, chastisements, fetters and liberation, and ceremonial passwords. Frescoes at Capua (Italy) show the initiates blindfolded and kneeling. A simulated death and resurrection was probably part of the ceremony, as the ascent through the initiation grades was seen as prefiguring the ascent of the soul after death." - Mithraism

A reconstruction of a Mithraeum prepared for the communal meal at
Nijmegen, The Netherlands.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tertullian tells us that the simulated death involved the refusal of a crown:

"The Christian author Tertullian sheds some light on intitiation to the third level, "Soldier," in a treatise about Christians refusing crowns in military service. He notes that a Soldier of Mithras, during his initiation in some gloomy cave, is presented with a crown at sword-point. He refuses it, saying that Mithras is his crown, and he never wears a crown after that." - Tertullian (c.200), On the Soldier's Crown 15.

Pliny finds a book of astrology among the victim's possessions and assumes that joining the cult also involves the study of astronomy.  This is consistent with the beliefs of some modern scholars who have speculated that the typical iconography of Mithras slaying the bull found in Mithraic sites is an astrological allegory since Mithras is accompanied by a dog, snake, scorpion and raven, each representing astrological signs.

This fragmented sculpture of Mithras slaying the bull includes a dog,
snake and scorpion representing astrological signs.
Photographed at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art by Mary Harrsch.
So I found Machain's use of Mithraism as a plot point to be both entertaining and educational.

I only found one aspect of the novel troubling.  Machain uses Pliny's relatively young wife, Calpurnia, as  the foundation for a subplot.  Although the subplot was plausible, I had a hard time accepting that a proconsul's wife, and the level-headed and well educated Calpurnia in particular, could have become involved in something so foolish.  Her actions seemed to be more of a silly adolescent even though at this point in her life she was close to thirty years old.

One of the things I enjoy about Pliny's letters is his expressions of unabashed love for his wife.  Pliny clearly adored her in his letters.  One of the most poignant is his Letter LXXIV written to his wife while she is convalescing from a serious illness in Campagna.

"You will not believe what a longing for you possesses me.  The chief cause of this is my love; and then we have not grown used to be apart.  So it comes to pass that I lie awake, a great part of the night, thinking of you,; and that by day, when the hours return at which I was wont to visit you, my feet take me, as it is so truly said, to your chamber, but not finding you there, I return sick and sad at heart, like an excluded lover.  The only time that is free from these torments is when I am being worn out at the bar, and in the suits of my friends.  Judge you what must be my life when I find my repose in toil, my solace in wretchedness and anxiety.  - Pliny the Younger To Calpurnia, Letter LXXIV

Machain must have had this period of absence in mind when he was crafting the subplot although he applied a much darker undertone to the event than I would have preferred.  All marriages have their highs and lows but I would rather keep my vision of unblemished love between Pliny and Calpurnia that has endured through the centuries as revealed in the pages of his letters rather than replace it with a scene from a modern tabloid.

I assume Machain added this plot point to appeal to more female readers and maybe I am just a victim of my own streak of romanticism.

Nevertheless, Machain has once again produced an intriguing story filled with vibrant characters while, at the same time, providing a wealth of historical information about Rome in the second century CE.

Historically, Pliny disappears from the record while either in Bithynia or shortly after his return to Rome as no further correspondence between Pliny and his wide circle of friends has been found after this period leading scholars to believe he died at about the age of 50.  So, I'm unsure Machain will write another tale with Pliny at its core.  He leaves a few loose ends in "The Bull Slayer" that appear to be pointing to a sequel, though, so I am hopeful!

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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Review: The Joy of Sexus by Vicki León

Vicki León has been out collecting ancient trivia again and this time her subject is sex.  In her latest collection of the obscure, she has assembled anecdotes about ancient aphrodisiacs, wandering wombs, practitioners of erotic mysteries and victims of doomed love.

By reading her book I learned about Callipygia worship - a fixation on a person's derriere - and divine gender-bending that affected such ancient prophets as Teiresias the Seer.  I think my favorite passage from the book, though, was a retelling of the story of Pherenike of Rhodes.

I have not studied ancient Greece as extensively as I have studied Republican Rome so, although I knew that the ancient Greek Olympics were conducted in the nude and that women were not allowed to attend, I had never read any background material to explain why.  León provided me with all the information I could have hoped for in her passage about Pherenike of Rhodes.

Diskobolos (discus thrower) 2nd century CE Roman copy of  450-440 BCE 
Greek bronze by Myron recovered from Emperor Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli, 
Italy.  Photographed by Mary Harrsch at the Body Beautiful exhibit at the 
Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR.
It seems that Pherenike was a young woman born into a family of Olympic victors.  Her father was a champion boxer at the Olympic Games in 464 BCE.

"Her big burly brothers continued the winning streak.  In boxing and the ferocious boxing-wrestling event called the pancratium, Pherenike's brothers swept six different Olympic Games." - Vicki León, The Joy of Sexus

León goes on to surprise me by observing that Pherenike probably watched her athletic family compete in the games when she was a young girl and later before her marriage.  Apparently, young virgins were allowed to watch the games - just not married matrons!

Then León continues saying Pherenike also married a famous athlete named Callianax and bore two sons who also trained for the Olympics.  Pherenike's older son, Eucles, won his boxing event but, because Pherenike was now married, she was not able to witness his victory.

A few years later, Pherenike's younger son Pisodorus entered his name as a contender for the boys boxing competition but before he could complete his ten months of training, Pherenike's husband died.  So, secretly Pherenike took up the mantle and resumed training her son dressed in the male garb of an official trainer.  When his time came to report for the 388 BCE Olympics, his mother went with him disguised in the full length robe of a trainer and carrying the traditional wooden staff.

Boxer Resting 1st century BCE Roman copy of 3rd century 
Greek original by Apollonius.  Photographed at the Palazzo
Massimo in Rome, Italy by Mary Harrsch.

When her son was ultimately victorious, Pherenike, forgetting her precarious situation since a woman attending the forbidden event faced the death penalty of being thrown from the Typaeum cliffs, let out a high-pitched whoop and jumped over the fence to run and kiss her son.

"Either the high-pitched sound of her voice, or perhaps what her jump over the fence revealed, blew her disguise." - Vicki León, The Joy of Sexus

Fortunately for Pherenike, the ten Olympic judges decided not to punish her because of her illustrious family's contributions to the games, but forever after both trainers and athletes were decreed to appear in the nude.

So now I know why athletes are always depicted in the nude on all of those red and black-figure vases!

I also learned about Koan silk, a sheer see-through fabric.  I guess I hadn't kept up on all the latest discoveries and still thought silk worms were a closely guarded secret until much later in history than ancient Greece.  León reveals that some silk worms were purloined by the ancient Persians and made their way to the Greek islands of Amorgos and Kos.  Unlike the Chinese, who killed the worm to harvest the silk from their cocoons, the Greeks let the worm emerge naturally, breaking the threads as it went.  Then, using the same method they used with flax known as hackling, the women produced a gossamer silk that commanded a premium price.  The silk was so popular that Aristophanes referred to it in his play Lysistrata where women go on a sex strike to keep their men from going to war and sexually tease their husbands by prancing around "naked in their Amorgian chitons."

Apparently, in a surviving letter from Plato, the famous philosopher (and León questions "cheapskate?") orders three tunics for the daughters of a host but says "not those expensive Amorgian ones!" (I always love little tidbits that reveal what kind of person  a famous ancient was!)

The fashion eventually reached Rome and León found a quote from Pliny who called Koan silk "the vestments that cover a woman while at the same time revealing her naked charms."

These wonderful little glimpses about the truly personal lives of the ancients is what makes León's book so enjoyable.

There were only a couple of missteps that made me say "What?"  In her chapter about Alexander and Hephaestion, León explains that the Macedonians defeated the Persians at the battle of Issus. Then in the next sentence she says Persian King Darius was killed and his queen Statira captured. (p. 69 - 70) She may have been simply trying to condense the chapter but it makes it sound like Darius was killed at the battle of Issus and, of course, he wasn't.  Darius was killed some time after he fled the battle of Gaugamela and was assassinated by his own officers, who hoped to impress Alexander.  Alexander was not impressed with their treachery and ordered their execution.

Roman emperor Caracalla by Italian sculptor
Cavaceppi 1750 CE after ancient original.
Photographed by Mary Harrsch at the
J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, CA

León made another confusing statement about the Roman emperor Caracalla.  She alluded to his death being the result of too many mistresses and a gladiator.  Although Caracalla may have dallied with too many mistresses and maybe a gladiator, too, this sounded much more like Commodus.  Caracalla was killed by a member of his own body guard when he stopped to relieve himself while marching with his army near Carrhae during a war with Parthia.  Historian Cassius Dio said the assassin, Martialis, was disgruntled for not being promoted to the rank of centurion.

But, I salute Vicki for such a revealing and fascinating look at lust, love and longing in the ancient world!

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