Saturday, August 16, 2014

Review: Wolves Of The North by Harry Sidebottom

A history resource article by  © 2014

In Book Five of Dr. Harry Sidebottom's best-selling series, we find my favorite "Warrior of Rome", Marcus Claudius Ballista venturing even further north into the Asian steppe on a mission to deflect a potential alliance between the various tribes living there and the Persian Empire.  Ballista is stIll on tenuous terms with the Roman emperor Gallienus since Ballista was briefly forced to don the purple after the events in book 3, "Lion of the Sun".  But, his old friend has continued to avoid ordering Ballista's execution despite pressure from advisors in the emperor's concilium.  But, Ballista has other problems plaguing his faithful little band.  Even he is concerned about the curse called down upon him by one of the barbarian priestesses he refused to "marry" in Book 4, "The Caspian Gates" and now members of his column are being found murdered and horribly mutilated.

I read that Dr. Sidebottom had become interested in branching out to murder mysteries and it is reflected by this subplot.

Ballista's mission to attempt to negotiate a peace treaty with the fierce Heruli, notoriously known as eaters of flesh, is viewed as nearly impossible and the murders up the ante considerably.  So the tension in this novel is pretty much non-stop.  

A 54mm figurine of a 3rd century Alamanni
Warrior who attacks Ballista and his allied
Heruli.  Image courtesy of

Dr. Sidebottom immerses both Ballista and his readers in the culture of the Heruli as described by 6th century historian, Procopius.  In his author's notes he admits that Procopius was hardly objective about these Germanic peoples but Dr. Sidebottom had few other sources to rely on.  He then assumed the Heruli also assimilated cultural practices from other tribes with which they came into contact - cannabis use from the Scythians, wife sharing from the Agathyrsi (both attested to by Herodotus) and scapulimancy (divination by the study of a mammal's scapula - shoulder blade - that has been heated in a fire) and cranial deformation practiced by the Huns.

When Dr. Sidebottom first described the Heruli' s cranial deformation I was surprised as I had not studied the Huns in depth so associated cranial deformation with New World cultures like the Maya, especially since I have photographed a number of Pre- Colombian artifacts depicting individuals with apparently deformed skulls.  But when I researched this practice further, I learned that archaeologists have found a Neanderthal skull with evidence of intentional deformation dating back 45,000 years.  

The earliest written record of cranial deformation dates to 400 BC in Hippocrates' description of the Macrocephali or Long-heads, who were named for their practice of cranial modification. 
In the Old WorldHuns and Alans are also known to have practised similar cranial deformation. In Late Antiquity (AD 300-600), the East Germanic tribes who were ruled by the Huns, adopted this custom (GepidsOstrogothsHeruliRugii and Burgundians). In western Germanic tribes, artificial skull deformations have rarely been found. In the Americas the MayaInca, and certain tribes of North American natives performed the custom. In North America the practice was especially known among the Chinookan tribes of the Northwest and the Choctaw of the Southeast. The Native American group known as the Flathead did not in fact practise head flattening, but were named as such in contrast to other Salishan people who used skull modification to make the head appear rounder. However, other tribes, including the Choctaw,Chehalis, and Nooksack Indians, did practise head flattening by strapping the infant's head to acradleboard. The Lucayan people of the Bahamas practised it. The practice was also known among the Australian Aborigines. -Wikipedia
This elongated Allamani skull is an example of cranial
deformation.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Apparently. Germanic deformation has been confirmed archaeologically by remains found in a burial discovered in Austria. Anyway, I thought this vibrant culture provided a fascinating context for the novel's events.

Another fascinating aspect of the book is one of the characters practices physiognomy.  Physiognomy is the assessment of a person's character based upon his physical attributes, particularly the structure of their face. It is thought to have been formalized by Greek philosophers of the 5th century BCE Athens.  It gained widespread acceptance among philosophers of the 4th century BCE and was even embraced to some degree by Aristotle.

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.  — Aristotle, Prior Analytics 2.27 (Trans. A. J. Jenkinson)

The oldest extant work about physiognomy
was written by Aristotle.  Photographed at the
Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy by
 © 2009
So it was interesting to read what the book's practitioner inferred from the physical appearance of those around him.
As for Ballista himself we are now in fictional territory since he disappeared from the historical record after the battles with the Persians and Roman usurpers portrayed in "Lion of the Sun".  Although he is struggling a bit with getting older, he is still the courageous warrior I first admired in "Fire In The East".  I fear my time with him is drawing to a close, though, as death seems to be circling his familia. I've alway had a hard time saying "goodbye" and it will be especially hard this time after journeying with Ballista through so many adventures. I guess I'll find out if he finally meets his end as I've already purchased Book Six, "The Amber Road."

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