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:

1 comment:

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