Thursday, December 24, 2015

Review: Daughters of Rome by Kate Quinn

A history resource article by  © 2015

The momentous Year of the Four Emperors, 69 CE, has attracted a number of historical fiction authors.  This year alone I have read three different novels using the events preceding the rise of the Flavian dynasty as a framework for their stories, with Kate Quinn's "Daughters of Rome" being the latest.  Quinn's novel, however, is the first to view the events from the perspective of four patrician women, two sisters and two cousins, all named Cornelia.

To help the reader keep them all straight, Quinn gives three of them nicknames, Marcella, Lollia and Diana.  The eldest and most reserved of the women retains her own name, Cornelia (Prima).

As the novel begins, we meet most of the main characters at cousin Lollia's wedding. Lollia, her scheming and very wealthy grandfather's "little jewel", has endured a series of marriages and divorces to promote her grandfather's business interests.  This wedding (for the third or fourth time) is to an old senator she casually refers to as "old flacid."  We later learn that Lollia was once married to Vespasian's eldest son, Titus, and has a little daughter by him named Flavia.  Historically, Lollia's real name would have been Marcia Furnilla, Titus' second wife, whom he divorced because of her family's connections to the Pisonian conspiracy during the reign of Nero.  Titus' daughter lives with Lollia because her father is campaigning in Judea.  Historically, this would not have occurred as a Roman male's offspring are considered his property and upon dissolution of marriage would have been raised by other females of the Flavian gens but this is fiction, after all.

Relief depicting a Roman wedding ceremony.  Photographed
at the British Museum by Sarah Tarnopolsky.  Reproduced
with permission via Creative Commons by-NC-ND 2.0

Quinn does a good job of describing the excesses of a Roman wedding feast.  As the celebration progresses we learn that Diana, whose father is a famous sculptor, is a free-spirited young woman who is totally obssessed by chariot racing, the red faction in particular, and despite her beauty has no interest in anything without four legs.  Marcella, we discover, is an aspiring historian although she realizes as a woman she would probably never be published.  Marcella is married to a lackluster, miserly senator named Lucius Aelius Plautius Lamia Aelianus (also a historical person) who is serving as a military observer in the east.  Since he is not in Rome he sees no reason to spend money on a home for Marcella.  So, Marcella is forced to live with her brother, Gaius and his shrewish, social-climbing wife, Tullia.

Mosaic pavement depicting a charioteer of the red faction from the Villa dei
Severi 3rd century CE.  Photographed at the Palazzo Massimo venue of the
National Museum of Rome in Rome, Italy by Mary Harrsch.

We learn that Servius Sulpicius Galba has been proclaimed emperor by the senate and that Cornelia (Prima) is married to Lucius Calpurnius Piso, a young aristocrat that is named Galba's successor within the first few chapters.  We also meet  the charismatic Marcus Salvius Otho.  Unfortunately, Quinn does not include any of the political background between Galba and Otho that would have provided more context to the story and heightened the tension.  Quinn only sporadically mentions glimpses of life under Nero's rule, too, so uninitiated readers would have little idea what made Galba seize the throne in the first place.

The women gossip about Galba's dour personality and that Piso has been tactfully trying to get Galba to pay a promised donative to the Praetorian Guard, but the Cornelii seem only vaguely aware of the level of unrest that is increasing around the new emperor.

Cornelia (Prima) looks and behaves every inch the soon-to-be empress as she glides around the room greeting guests.  She is also very much in love with Piso and I couldn't help but think what few days were left to her beloved.

Galba orders a Praetorian body guard for Piso and it is led by a handsome and seriously honorable centurion named Drusus Sempronius Densus - the Densus who is revered in history as the only Praetorian who honored his loyalty oath and defended Galba when the assassins attacked Galba's litter.

Detail of a triumphal arch depicting Praetorian Guards.  Photographed in The
Louvre by Eric Huybrechts.  Reproduced with permission via Creative
Commons by-SA 2.0
Quinn has Densus narrowly survive the attack on Galba and Piso, although he is severely wounded. Ancient sources do not agree on the details, but they state unequivocally that Densus fights to the death.  His fictional survival, however, provides an important dramatic plot point so I understand why this variation from history was chosen.  Furthermore, Quinn does remain true to history when Piso meets his demise on the steps of the Temple of Vesta.

As each successive emperor takes the stage, Quinn pretty much follows the overall historical narrative while providing insight into the lives of patrician women in the first century.   The women are not in positions of power, however, so are pretty much subject to the whims of the male power players around them.  Dramatically this would be considered a disadvantage to a story's protagonist(s) but would be difficult to avoid if your protagonists are women during this historical period.

To overcome this character disadvantage, Quinn injects quite a bit of fantasy into the storyline surrounding Diana, who learns to be a charioteer.  Although women eventually tried their hand at becoming gladiatrices, I could find no reference whatsoever to women attempting to become charioteers, probably because of the sheer upper body strength needed to control four horses racing at breakneck speed.  However, Diana's skill becomes crucial in an exciting escape sequence towards the end of the novel so I understand why this subplot was introduced, although it was pretty far fetched.

A cultural faux pas that Quinn should have avoided was repeated references to a vomitorium as a room where satiated banquet guests go to relieve their overfull stomachs.  Although this is a common misconception, a vomitorium is actually a passage situated below or behind a tier of seats in an amphitheatre or a stadium, through which big crowds can exit rapidly at the end of a performance. Although the word vomitorium is derived from the Latin word vomō, meaning "to spew forth" and hence the root of our word vomit, it has nothing to do with the act.

Quinn also mentioned salmon at a banquet and that gave me pause as well.  The salmon I am familiar with (being from the Pacific Northwest) are from the colder regions of the North Pacific and North Atlantic. Although they may have been served in the northern provinces, I had serious doubts about fresh salmon on the menu in Rome.  However, I did some research on this and I guess there are species of salmonids in the Adriatic and Black Sea so it was theoretically possible, I guess, although I've never read any other books that mention it in their sometimes extensive descriptions of dishes served.  I felt much more comfortable when Quinn talked about the possibility of a poisoned mullet that sickened Vitellius' general (and another of Lollia's husbands), Fabius Valens.

Roman mosaic pavement depicting various fish species from the House of the 
Severi.  Photographed at the Palazzo Massimo venue of the National Museum
of Rome in Rome, Italy by Mary Harrsch.
My biggest source of confusion, however, was the names of the female protagonists, as I could not recall any Cornelii having any connections to the historical men in the story.  My confusion only increased when Quinn has a teenaged Domitian become infatuated with Marcella.  I kept thinking to myself that he obviously must lose interest in her when Domitia comes along.  Then Quinn mentions Cornelia and Marcella's father, Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, the famous Roman statesman and general. These sisters were really Domitia (Prima) and Domitia Longina.  I'm baffled why she named the characters Cornelia unless it was to emphasize their aristocracy by recalling the consumate Roman matron who gained fame as the mother of the Gracchi or to make this a plot surprise (sorry for the spoiler if that's the case).  The Domitias certainly did not need any help from the ancestry of the Cornelii as they were direct descendants of Augustus.  Not only is this naming convention confusing to those of us who have studied the history but made it necessary for Quinn to contrive an awkward name change forced on Marcella by Domitian when she becomes his empress.

Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo.  Photographed by
Quinn Dombrowski at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal.
Reproduced with permission via Creative Commons by-sa 2.0.

I also thought her characterization of Corbulo as a cold father who probably could not even tell his daughters apart was unlikely.  Corbulo, besides being a brilliant general, was also a revered stateman and consul, which means he would have been resident in Rome for extended periods.  I'm relatively sure he would have not only known his daughters but been instrumental in the formation of their characters.  I much preferred Douglas Jackson's portrayal of Corbulo (and Domitia for that matter) in his novel "Avenger of Rome".

Marcella's unfeeling comment about the murder of Vespasian's "silly" brother, Sabinus, and Domitian's narrow escape from the Vitellian mob by cowering in the temple of Isis also showed little understanding of the value of Titus Flavius Sabinus to both his brother, Vespasian, and his nephew as well as the traumatic impact on Domitian when he witnesses the crowd tear his uncle to pieces. Perhaps Quinn intended this remark to reflect the insensitive nature of Marcella, but it seemed to strike a false chord for someone like Marcella who prides herself on her understanding of Roman politics.

Of course a major problem with portraying this period from a female perspective, too, is that you have no protagonist involvement in pivotal battles fought during this contentious period.  If Quinn had developed the Densus character more fully she could have written a more visceral battle sequence as seen through his perspective.  Instead, Quinn chooses to have Marcella supposedly convince Otho to let her travel to the first battle of Bedriacum as an observer.  But Marcella, the consummate historian, describes this horrendous confrontation of Romans fighting Romans in vague terms as if she is watching a stormy sea from a remote hilltop.  As someone used to reading the dramatic battle sequences in the novels of Douglas Jackson and Harry Sidebottom, this lackluster passage did little to drive the story forward, other than to describe the death of Otho, and would not have been very satisfying to male readers.

At least Quinn did have Densus go into hiding after the battle of Bedriacum to escape a Vitellian death sentence.  She made it sound like he was, ironically, blamed for the death of Galba and Piso, when historically Vitellius issued execution orders for all of the centurions of Otho's Praetorian Guard who fought at Bedriacum.  Perhaps she was trying to increase the reader's sympathy for Densus, but Quinn gave Densus so little to do with the events driving the narrative after Piso dies until almost the end of the story that this plot development was, in my opinion, not fully exploited for dramatic potential.

Still,  I found Quinn's evocation of first century Rome immersive and her characterization of the women compelling enough to keep me interested in what would happen to the women and their paramours.  If you would like more details of the actual politics and battles during this turning point in Roman history, though, I would highly recommend Douglas Jackson's historical novel "Sword of Rome" or Nic Fields historical text, AD 69: Emperors, Armies and Anarchy.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

E-book Review: Inside the Egyptian Museum by Dr. Zahi Hawass

A history resource article by  © 2015

A couple of weeks ago I noticed Dr. Zahi Hawass had released an e-book version of "Inside the Egyptian Museum Pt 1".  The e-book is the first of four e-books that will be released highlighting the collections of the Egyptian Museum.  I thought it would make a perfect companion to take with me if I ever get a chance to finally visit Egypt so I downloaded both the iPad and iPhone versions from iTunes ($2.99 US).

Although I have never read the hard copy version of the book that was originally released in 2009, I have read "Valley of the Golden Mummies" by Dr. Hawass, so was sure his text would be fact-filled. Furthermore, I hoped the features  available on the iPad would enable me to study the images more closely than I would have been able to by simply browsing a physical book.

Dr. Hawass begins his journey through the museum as you physically would if you visited the galleries in person.  First, though, he describes some of his favorite objects.  These include, naturally, the golden mask of Tutankhamun, as well as a statue of a dwarf named Perniankhu.  As it turns out, Dr. Hawass was present when the dwarf statue was discovered and he describes the experience.  Dr. Hawass did the same thing in his book Valley of the Golden Mummies and I think these insights make the artifacts seem more personal than just a physical description of them.

As I had hoped, the retinal display of my iPad presented the high-resolution images in wonderful detail. If you hold your iPad in the horizontal position, the e-book is designed so each page has a panel of scrollable text on the right side and an image of the object Dr. Hawass is discussing on the left .  If there are multiple images of the artifact or the text describes more than one artifact, you will see little dots under each picture that you can select to view additional images.  Whenever I am photographing artifacts in a museum I try to take images from different angles and closeups as well as full length views. The photographer for this book, Sandro Vanini, has done the same thing, which I really appreciated.  You can also expand the images by spreading your fingers to really study specific details, something not possible with a physical book.

Each page also includes a little map to show you exactly where the object is in the actual museum. So, the iPhone version would work well as a gallery guide if you prefer not to travel with your iPad.
Dr. Hawass presents the artifacts in chronological order beginning with the early Pre-Dynastic Period. Each era in the book is preceded by beautiful full screen images of ancient remains as well as overhead views of the museum gallery pertaining to the period.

First up was a marvelous image of the Narmer Palette.  I had read about the Narmer Palette when I took the Great Courses lecture series "History of Ancient Egypt" presented by Dr. Bob Brier some years ago.  But it was wonderful to be able to examine it in such detail.  I also had a chance to examine the Libyan Palette, too, which I had never seen before.

The Narmer Palette from the Pre-Dynastic Period 3000 BCE Egypt

There were also images of Naqada II pottery.  I had first photographed Naqada pottery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art back in 2007 but knew very little about it.  Dr. Hawass carefully describes the imagery on them and I'm glad he did as I wouldn't have realized what some of the objects portrayed were.

Naqada II pottery at
the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo by Mary Harrsch  © 2006
Leaving the Pre-Dynastic Period you see an amazing image of the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara.  What made this image particularly interesting to me was the viewpoint of the pyramid with its chapels in the foreground.  Most documentaries I had seen always show the Step Pyramid from a distance and I don't recall ever seeing the mortuary chapels before.

The Old Kingdom, known as the Pyramid Age, begins with the 3rd dynasty and ends with the 6th dynasty.  One of my favorite pieces from this period was a wooden statue of the Lector Priest Ka-aper.  He looks almost kindly with the hint of a smile on his plump face and his lifelike eyes outlined in copper and crafted of quartz with black paste for pupils make him appear to be looking right at you.  I also found images of inlaid bracelets and a sedan chair particularly interesting.

Moving on we come to the Middle Kingdom.  There is an image of a statue of Queen Nofret, wife of the Pharaoh Senwosret II that caught my eye.  Just a few months ago I saw a similar statue on display at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and learned from Dr. Hawass that the distinctive wig worn by Queen Nofret and the statue I had seen in Baltimore is known as the Hathor wig.  I really appreciate these little details.

Egyptian Queen with Hathor wig 30th Dynasty.
Photographed at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore,
Maryland by Mary Harrsch © 2015
I was also fascinated by a very lifelike statue of Senwosret III.  Many statues I have seen of Egyptian pharaohs are so stylized they sort of look alike to me, but this statue had a very distinctive, care-worn face.

"...his tired eyes, the bitter mouth, the forceful frowning, and the large ears. The tormented visage of the king reflects his new role and responsibility as administrator of Egypt, a result of the later 12th Dynasty kings' policies of expanding the Egyptian border further south, and of crushing the authority of the independent Nomarchs in order to create a more powerful centralized government." - Dr. Zahi Hawass, Inside the Egyptian Museum

Another more realistic sculpture depicted is a statue of Amenenhat III as a priest with a stern face and unusual haircut as well as a sphinx with the face of Amenenhat III and large tufted ears.  Dr. Hawass points out in the book that large ears are a distinctive feature of Middle Kingdom art, an interesting tidbit I will tuck away for future reference.

The book concludes with an extensive bibliography that provides sources for future study if you are so inclined.

I am really looking forward to the next three installments in this e-book series!

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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Upcoming presentations: Ice cores and dendochronology correlate climate change to human conflict in the ancient world

A history resource article by  © 2015

I received an announcement of two upcoming presentations from researchers at the Yale Climate and Energy Institute (YCEI) that sound really fascinating.  On Monday, November 16, 2015 Francis Ludlow will present information he has gleaned from the study of tree-ring growth in Ireland and ice core samples then compared to Irish chroniclers' records of severe frosts, droughts, dried rivers and discolored sunsets that shows how short term climate change appears to be a driver of historical conflict and violence using medieval Ireland as an example.

Eric Ellman of the YCEI, explains:

Bloody battles, slave and cattle raids, burning of crops and settlements, and the killings of secular and ecclesiastical elites feature prominently in Ludlow’s review of 1200 years of Irish chroniclers’ accounting of yearly events.  When mapped against tree ring and ice core records he has begun to see a recurring link to between periods of climatic stress and extreme weather, and an increased reporting of violence and conflict [see Figure 1 for one example]. The pathways connecting climate to violence are undoubtedly complex, with cultural and political factors playing a large role and mediating any influence of weather and climate. But the Irish chronicles make abundantly clear how conflict and violence can be triggered by the consequences of extreme weather, with the Annalsof Connacht reporting in 1465 CE howExceeding great frost and snow and stormy weather [occurred] this year, so that no herb grew in the ground and no leaf budded on a tree until the feast of St. Brendan [16th May], but a man, if he were the stronger, would forcibly carry away the food from the priest in church…”. As Ludlow remarks, “it is time to take climatic pressures seriously as a recurring factor in human history.”

Figure 1. Deaths recorded in conflict in the medieval Irish Annals of Ulster, for the years 728 to 748 CE. A notable jump in the death in conflict of members of Irish societal elites coincides with severely depressed Irish oak tree-ring growth in 738 CE, signifying severe drought conditions. 738 CE was also the year of the historically pivotal battle of Áth Senaig (Co. Kildare) that helped re-write the Irish political landscape for centuries to come. (F. Ludlow).

On Tuesday, November 17, 2015 Joseph Manning will present his studies of volcanic eruptions that indicate they triggered revolt and suppressed interstate conflict in Hellenistic Egypt.  

"Manning always suspected that shocks lay behind the problems that the Ptolemaic kings faced in the 3rd century BCE," Ellman observes.  

'We always knew that the Nile deeply effects Egyptian civilization in every way.  But in terms of social dynamics,' Manning says, 'it wasn’t so easy to see.'

Ellman continues, "Until Manning met Ludlow through the YCEI and Whitney Humanities-funded Climate History Initiative.  Ludlow showed him how sulfate levels in ice cores recorded some of the largest volcanic eruptions in human history.  'To my astonishment,' Manning says, 'dozens of them aligned with Egypt’s years of greatest hardship.' 

"The observation complemented historical references to failures of Nile flooding that Manning had collected in a shoebox over his career. Further investigation with atmospheric scientists Bill Boos and Trude Storelvmo suggest a linkage between high-latitude eruptions and Nile flow."

"New precision regarding dates of climate disturbance -- along with other technological advances including the ability to now read charred papyrus records – reveals untold chapters of Egypt’s history.  The 'Revolt of the Shepherds,' the only revolt in Roman Egypt, appears linked to an eruption in AD 168, subsequent cooling and a devastating plague."

"'The new chronology of volcanism,' says Manning, 'opens our eyes to a past we’ve been pretty blind to.' Combined with written archives from the Greco-Roman period, he says, fresh understanding of climate’s history helps to explain food crises, social unrest, political bargaining, and major wars through a new lens."

I wished I lived closer to Yale so I could hear these presentations.  Hopefully, I can obtain a transcript of each of them and share it with you in a future post.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review: Vespasian: Rome's Executioner by Robert Fabbri

A history resource article by  © 2015

I didn't realize it but I guess I started this series about one of Rome's "good" emperors with book 2 of the series.  However, the story, woven around the downfall of the infamous Praetorian Prefect Sejanus, stood on its own quite nicely.

There is no indication in history that Vespasian and his brother Sabinus conspired with the Lady Antonia, Tiberius' sister-in-law, to overthrow Sejanus to protect the reign of Tiberius.  However, a successful conspiracy is one in which the participants remain anonymous so Fabbri takes advantage of the lack of documentation to creatively spin this tale.

Sejanus was born into the equestrian class in 20 BCE at Volsinii in Etruria.  Sejanus' grandfather had improved the family's social standing by marrying a sister of the wife of Gaius Maecenas, one of the Emperor Augustus' closest political allies.  Sejanus' father, Lucius Seius Strabo, also married well and his uncle Quintus Junius Blaesus distinguished himself as a military commander and became proconsul of Africa in 21 CE.  Junius subsequently earned triumphal honors by crushing the rebellion of Tacfarinas, a Numidian deserter from the Roman Army who led a coalition of rebels against the forces of Rome in north Africa for 10 years.

It is thought Strabo eventually came to the notice of Augustus through his connection to Maecenas. Anyway, sometime after 2 BCE, Strabo, Sejanus' father, was appointed prefect of the Praetorian Guard.

We know little of Sejanus' early career until, according to Tacitus, Sejanus accompanies Gaius Caesar, adopted grandson of Augustus, to Armenia in 1 BCE.  Gaius Caesar dies from wounds supposedly received in a campaign in Artagira, Armenia in 4 CE.  Tacitus suggests there may have been foul play involved in the death of Gaius, orchestrated by Augustus' wife Livia to facilitate the accession of her own son Tiberius to the throne of the Roman principate.  However, Tacitus does not point an accusing finger at Sejanus.  But when Tiberius is crowned emperor in 14 CE, Sejanus is immediately appointed prefect of the Praetorian Guard as a colleague of his father.

A young Patrick Stewart as Sejanus in the 1976 production of
"I, Claudius".  Image courtesy of the British Broadcasting Company.
© 1976
Then when Sejanus' father is appointed to the governorship of Egypt in 15 CE, Sejanus assumes sole command of the Praetorians.  He centralizes the guards into a single garrison on the outskirts of Rome, personally appoints the centurions and tribunes and increases the number of cohorts from nine to twelve, resulting in a force of 12,000 soldiers now loyal to him.

Sejanus then conspires with the wife of Drusus, Tiberius' son, to have Drusus poisoned.  But when Sejanus asks permission to marry Drusus' widow, Tiberius ominously warns Sejanus not to overstep his bounds.  So Sejanus sets about sowing unrest between Tiberius and the senate.  Tiberius, already deeply depressed over the loss of his son, finally retreats to Campania in 26 CE then the island of Capri, leaving Sejanus to essentially rule Rome in Tiberius' absence.  Sejanus then sets about eliminating anyone he deems a threat that includes many of the elite.

A bronze statue of the Roman emperor Tiberius (not Augustus)
with head veiled (capite velato) preparing to perform a
religious rite found in Herculaneum 37 CE.  Photographed at
the Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch © 2014.
While matters were going thus with Sejanus, many of the other prominent men perished, among them Gaius Fufius Geminus. This man, having been accused of maiestas against Tiberius, took his will into the senate-chamber and read it, showing that he had left his inheritance in equal portions to his children and to the emperor. Upon being charged with cowardice, he went home before a vote was taken; then, when he learned that the quaestor had arrived to look after his execution, he wounded himself, and showing the wound to the official, exclaimed: “Report to the senate that it is thus one dies who is a man.” Likewise his wife, Mutilia Prisca, against whom some complaint had been lodged, entered the senate chamber and there stabbed herself with a dagger, which she had brought in secretly. - Cassius Dio, History of Rome, 58.4
Sejanus was so great a person by reason both of his excessive haughtiness and of his vast power, that, to put it briefly, he himself seemed to be emperor and Tiberius a kind of island potentate, inasmuch as the latter spent his time on the island of Capreae. - Cassius Dio, History of Rome, 58.5

Sejanus is wielding this immense power when Fabbri's story begins in Thrace where Vespasian is completing his appointment as tribune.  The plot involves Sejanus' funding of a rebellion in Thrace as a strategy to weaken the empire and redirect the attention of the legions from politics in Rome to the provinces. The groundwork for these clandestine activities may have been laid in Book 1 but I had to simply accept them as described as I had not read book 1 and have not found any references to them in the ancient sources.

A portrait bust of the Roman emperor Vespasian.
Photographed near the Forum Romanun
in Rome, Italy by Mary Harrsch © 2005
Fabbri's pacing of the story is good and the characters thoughtfully fleshed out.  The only thing I found a bit distracting was Vespasian's use of colloquial language such as referring to "me mates".  I realize Vespasian was born into a rather undistinguished family of tax farmers and debt collectors in a little village northeast of Rome but I think he would have tried to speak in a more educated manner in the presence of military legates and a Thracian queen.

The constant bickering between Vespasian and his brother Sabinus also grew tiresome, especially since I know the two Flavian brothers were actually quite close and during the tumultuous Year of the Four Emperors, Vespasian entrusted the care of his youngest son Domitian to Sabinus during a very dangerous period.  But, soon the action kicked into high gear and there wasn't much time for the siblings to snipe at each other any more.

Vespasian's relationship to Antonia's slave Caenis was also more out in the open than it was portrayed in Lindsey Davis' book, "The Course of Honor".  Their little trysts did provide the opening for the development of another strong female character, however, so I can understand why Fabbri plotted the story in this way.

Vespasian is portrayed as being a childhood friend of Caligula's and, although there is no evidence of this in the ancient sources, the plot device worked well to provide an inside source in Tiberius' household on Capri to enable the band of rescuers access to the emperor.

Fabbri developed Tiberius' character as described by his detractors, Suetonius and Tacitus - a sinister demented pervert.  I personally think Suetonius and Tacitus' accounts of Tiberius' behavior in his last years are full of discrepancies and represent more character assassination than fact (See my article "Sexual innuendo and character assassination in the ancient world".)

But, from a dramatic standpoint, such a character definitely adds a heightened level of suspense to the narrative.

Fabbri appears to have intentionally changed one aspect of history.  Early in his career Vespasian obtained a post as a minor magistrate in the vigintivirate.  In the book, Vespasian becomes a tresviri capitales, one of three magistrates charged with managing prisons and the execution of criminals. This places him in a key position to be informed of the Senate proceedings surrounding the treason of Sejanus (since he is not a senator himself) and to witness both the execution of Sejanus and his eldest son as well as the tragic execution of Sejanus' young children (and provide the title for the book). Scholars, however, think Vespasian served as a quattuorviri viis in urbe purgandis - one of four magistrates charged with road maintenance within the city of Rome.  He was so unsuccessful in this position it is said the emperor Caligula publicly stuffed fistfuls of muck down Vespasian's toga because the streets were so filthy.

All in all, though, the novel followed the history of the fall of Sejanus quite closely including the dramatic climax and the fates of key characters.  I will definitely add the first book of the series and the sequel to this novel to my "to read" stack!

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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Review: Ancient Assyria: A Very Short Introduction by Karen Radner

A history resource article by  © 2015

Years ago I somehow acquired the idea that the Assyrians were a fierce and brutal warrior society whose military had conquered much of the ancient Near East that lay between the kingdoms of Ur and the mighty Hittite Empire of Anatolia.  This idea was reinforced when I visited such museums as the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Oriental Institute in Chicago and the British Museum in London and viewed the awesome reliefs and monumental winged Lammasu, an Asssyrian protective deity usually depicted with the body of a lion or ox, the head of a human and the wings of a raptor, that once adorned the palaces of Assyrian kings like Ashurnasirpal II.

Recently, though, Oxford Press sent me a review copy of a small book by Karen Radner entitled Ancient Assyria: A Very Short Introduction and I finally had a chance to explore this culture in greater depth.  What I discovered was the Assyrians had a very sophisticated culture, enjoying fine wines, a fresh water supply, indoor toilets and a well-functioning sewage system.  Sounds rather Roman doesn't it?  But the Assyrian culture was founded in the 3rd millenium BCE although it didn't reach its apex until the 1st millenium BCE.

The Lamassu a human-headed winged bull figure from the palace of
King Sargon II in his capital city of Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad) stands
16 ft tall and weighs 40 tons.  Photographed at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
by Mary Harrsch © 2009
I learned the Assyrians enacted consumer protection for the buyers of their goods and even offered extended warranties although we usually don't think of these extending to the sales of human beings (slave sales were subject to a 100-day guarantee against epilepsy and mental instability!)

They were rather protective of some of their inventions, though.  Assyrians invented the foldable parasol but its use was restricted to royalty on pain of death!

The Assyrians were not all that brutal in the conduct of warfare either, although they were highly skilled in the use of chariots and clearly embraced nuanced deployments of chariot, cavalry, archers, slingers and infantry.  The Assyrians were more interested in obtaining human resources from their conquered lands than in wholesale slaughter.  Skilled craftsman and educated scholars would be sorted out and relocated to the Assyrian heartland, initially centered on the religious capital of Assur.  Although slaves were sometimes taken, most conquered laborers were often relocated to areas needing colonization.

Babylonian city under seige by the Assyrians Nimrud Palace 728 BCE
Photographed at the British Museum by Mary Harrsch © 2006

"It has been calculated on the basis of references in the royal inscriptions that  4,400,000 + or - 900,000 people were relocated from the mid-9th to the mid-7th century BC, of which 85% were settled in central Assyria - a gigantic number, especially in a world whose population was a small fraction of today's.  For all of these people resettlement was meant to provide a better future while at the same time benefitting the empire.  Of course, their relocation was at the same time an effective way of minimizing the risk of rebellion against the central authority." - Karen Radner, Ancient Assyria: A Very Short Introduction

These conquered colonists were well provisioned and reliefs depict them without fetters.  An 8th century BCE letter from an official to King Tiglath-Pileser III, details the provisions allocated to a group of settlers from western Syria:

"As for the Arameans about whom the king my lord has written to me: 'Prepare them for their journey!' I shall give them their food supplies, clothes, a waterskin, a pair of shoes and oil.  I do not have my donkeys yet, but once they are available, I will dispatch my convoy."

Deportation of conquered Iraqi people after defeat by Tilgeth Pileser III of
Assyria Nimrud Palace 728 BCE.  Photographed at the British Museum by
Mary Harrsch © 2006
Once the new colonists reached their destination, the king provided further support:

"As for the Arameans about whom the king my lord has said: 'They are to have wives!' We found numerous suitable women but their fathers refuse to give them in marriage, claiming: 'We will not consent unless they can pay the bride price.'  Let them be paid so that the Arameans can get married."

Obviously the king wanted the colony to be a successful community of thriving families.

Although the above passage makes women appear to be chattel this was not necessarily the case, either.  Assyrian women were allowed to engage in business and I read that if the male head-of-household ended up fathering a child with a slave, the husband could not choose to adopt the child without his wife's consent.  So women obviously had some rights.

From the text, it appears average Assyrians were primarily monogamous although traders gone from home for extended periods sometimes took a secondary wife in one of the cities along their trade route.  However, such secondary wives never took precedent over the first wife.

Knowledge was revered in Assyria, so much so that by the 9th century BCE Assyrian King Assurbanipal II is depicted in reliefs in the North Palace in Nineveh with a writing stylus tucked into his belt, instead of the more usual knife.  The Assyrian's great library was already in existence in the 13th century BCE, almost a thousand years before the Great Library of Alexandria.  Radner tells us that when King Tukulti-Ninurta I sacked Babylon in the 13th century BCE, he records that  he brought back library tablets to add to his holdings.  Scholars estimate that the library collection probably extended all the way back to the 14th century BCE under the reign of King Assur-Uballit I.

A statue of Assyrian king Assurbanipal II outside the entrance
to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, California.
Photographed by Mary Harrsch © 2006

So obviously I found Radner's little tome brimming with information punctuated by actual quotations from translated cuneiform tablets of the period.  She also included some black-and-white images, diagrams of excavated structures, maps, a timeline, a recommended reading list and index.  I must admit I struggled a bit with Assyrian names and the fact that Assyrian archaeological sites like Nimrud had a totally different name in antiquity (ancient Kalhu).  Organizationally, I would have found it easier to follow a more linear presentation of material about the administration and achievements of specific rulers, but, I still found the book to be a welcome addition to my resource library.

Although this is the first book of this series I have ever seen here in the states, Oxford produces a number of them on a variety of topics.  They kindly sent me another one on Roman Britain that I look forward to reading as well.

A Kindle preview:

To learn more about ancient Mesopotamia, I also suggest the Great Courses lecture series:

Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopotamia

Or the following books:

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