Thursday, July 16, 2015

Review: The Amber Road by Harry Sidebottom

A history resource article by  © 2015

Last summer when I reviewed "The Wolves of the North", I expressed my fear that death stalked one of my favorite literary characters (who was also a real historical figure), Marcus Claudius Ballista, and I was afraid to read Book 6 in Sidebottom's "Warrior of Rome" series because I would find it hard to say goodbye to Ballista after accompanying him on so many adventures in Persia and beyond.   However, a friend on Facebook assured me that, even though trusty old Calgicus died as a result of his wounds from the traitorous Greek in Ballista's familia in Book Five, Ballista would not die in book six, "The Amber Road".

So, I once more got to accompany Ballista on yet another action-filled adventure, this time to his homeland on the shores of the Suebian Sea now commonly known as the Baltic Sea.  Along the way I met such fierce warriors as the Brondings (thought to originate from the Swedish island of Brännö), the Dauciones (from Scandinavia), the Geats (from Götaland in modern Sweden), the Greuthungi (possibly the Ostrogoths in later years), the Rugii, the Harii (who, according to Tacitus, painted themselves and their shield black and preferred to attack at night bringing terror to their opponents), and a lone Vandal who joins Ballista's hearth troupe and regales the familia with impromptu epics exalting Ballista's exploits.

This time the Emperor Gallienus has commissioned Ballista to bring the northern tribes back into the Imperial fold after they have been coerced into the service of the western pretender, Postumus.

The Roman Emperor Gallienus
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Marcus Cassianius Latinius Postumus was a Roman commander of possibly Batavian origin (some of his coinage honors Hercules Duesoniensis, with the suffix said to refer to the Batavian town of Deuso).  Postumus rose through the ranks and may have been promoted to imperial legate of Lower Germany by the emperor Valerian.  When news of Valerian's capture by the Persians reach the army in Gaul, who were battling an invasion of Alemanni and Franks, the army revolts and proclaims Postumus emperor even though Valerian's son, heir and emperor of the west, Gallienus, is still very much alive.

Gold aureus depicting Postumus coined in 268 CE.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Note: This revolt in 260 CE resulted in the Roman Empire's loss of control over Brtiain, Spain, parts of Germania and a large part of Gaul and these lands would later become known as the Gallic Empire.    The exact date of the revolt was uncertain for some time until an inscription was discovered in Augsburg in 1992 stating that Postumus was proclaimed Emperor in September of 260 CE.  The Gallic Empire remained independent until 274 CE.

2nd century CE Map of the Roman Empire with some of the tribes of Germania
indicated.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
But Gallienus has his hands full putting down insurrections along the Danubian frontier and trying to re-exert control in the east.  (The loss of Valerian and the disposition of the succession of usurpers that followed are the foundation of the narrative in Lion of the Sun, Warrior of Rome 3.)

However, when Postumus and Marcus Simplicinius Genialis crush the Juthungi and Gallienus' 18-year-old son, Saloninus, demands the spoils for his father instead of their distribution to the troops (probably at the behest of his praetorian prefect Silvanus),  the troops are enraged.  So, Postumus ignores the junior caesar and distributes the spoils anyway.

Aware they have stirred up a hornet's nest, Saloninus and Silvanus flee to Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (Cologne) with a small group of loyal supporters.  Postumus' Gauls then besiege Cologne and upon breaching the walls of the city capture and behead Silvanus and Saloninus. (In the novel, Sidebottom has Postumus regretfully thinking back on his order to have young Saloninus beheaded as he has heard rumors he is now considered a child killer.  There seems to be some disagreement among scholars on this point as some of the ancient sources appear to blame the Gauls for the murder and do not attribute it to a direct order from Postumus.)
An Antoninian of the ill-fated son of Gallienus, Saloninus
issued in 260 CE.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Needless to say, this immediately gets Gallienus' attention and he begins to gather forces to confront Postumus.  As only parts of Germania fell under the sway of Postumus, it would have been logical for Gallienus to send an embassy like the one led by Ballista to try to bolster imperial support in the northern provinces.  Remember, however, that the historical Ballista disappeared from the records after defeating the Persians, overthrowing Quietus and being acclaimed emperor himself in the east.  So Ballista's adventures detailed in this installment are fictional.

As Ballista's troupe make their way to the northern coast of the Euxine (Black) Sea, they are constantly threatened, first by Goths who have sworn a blood oath to revenge the death of one of their leaders killed by Ballista and his men through trickery while defending Miletus (in an earlier book).  The troupe fights its way to the ancient Greek colony of Olbia just in time for Ballista to command the defense of the city against the Goths.

A closeup of the Grand Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus depicting
a battle between the Romans and the Goths.  Photographed at
the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy by Mary Harrsch © 2009.
Olbia, like the crumbling Roman Empire in the third century CE, was a shadow of its former self.  It was initially founded in the 7th century BCE by Greek colonists from Miletus who constructed a harbor for the export of cereals, fish and slaves to Greece and the import of Attic goods to Scythia.  It was even visited by Herodotus in the 5th century BCE and was important commercially for centuries until it was sacked by the Getae under Burebista in the 1st century CE.

I can't read about Olbia without thinking about the magnificent golden jewlery, dubbed the Olbia Treasure, I photographed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.  It was actually discovered by peasants in a female burial tomb at Parutino near Olbia in 1891.

The butterfly was viewed as a symbol of the soul so this necklace was considered
 an appropriate funerary gift to the deceased female buried in a 2nd century BCE
 tomb near Olbia.  Photographed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland
 by Mary Harrsch © 2015.
Anyway, Ballista successfully defends the citadel once again through courage and shrewd strategy. Sidebottom once more displays his extensive scholar's grasp of siege warfare and tactics originally showcased in his first book of the series "Fire In The East, Warrior of Rome Book 1".

Although Ballista was successful in the novel, sadly Olbia was eventually abandoned in the 4th century CE after it was burned at least twice in the Gothic wars.

Supplied with additional men, Ballista continues north up the Hypanis River where the embassy is eventually attacked by the Brondings, originating from the area of modern day Sweden.  In the novel, a mysterious warrior named Unferth has killed the Brondings king and taken over the tribe. Together with his son, Unferth, commanding huge longships, has pillaged many of the surrounding villages by the time Ballista reaches his father's lands.

When I was researching this review, I checked to see if Unferth was an historical figure and I discovered he was a Danish lord in the ancient German epic Beowulf.  Unferth taunts Beowulf, claiming he could not have possibly done some of the epic deeds he claims.  Beowulf replies that Unferth is known for nothing except killing his kin.  The Unferth in Sidebottom's novel is definitely doing that so I thought it was an appropriate character for the antagonist in the story.

Of course, there is actually more than one antagonist in this story as Ballista discovers his half brother Morcar is engaged in a number of intrigues to ensure he will become the "sinning" (leader of the Angles) upon his father's death.  Ballista's childhood sweetheart also has a secret of her own that will probably feature in a future installment of the series if Dr. Sidebottom chooses to continue the series (He's now pretty wrapped up in a new series "Throne of the Caesars" sort of a prequel to the "Warrior of Rome" series.)

Once again Sidebottom has delivered a gritty, action-packed tale founded in carefully researched history of the third century CE.  Best of all, from my perspective, Ballista, an admirable literary hero I have enjoyed reading about through six novels, lives to fight yet another day!

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Saturday, July 11, 2015

Roman remains of ancient Gaul: Nimes (Nemausus)

An ancient history resource article by  © 2015
The Tour Magne is the remains of
one of the Roman tours built
during the reign of Augustus.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

In May, 2013, I had the opportunity to travel to southern France to explore and photograph Roman remains there. I originally wrote this article six months later and saved it to draft.  I only now noticed that I hadn't finished it.  So I thought I better wrap it up and get it posted. Thankfully, it wasn't a time-dependent piece.  As time permits I hope to write other articles about some of the sites I visited in Roman Gaul.

The first Roman site I visited in southern France was the city of Nimes known as Nemausus in Roman times, after a local sacred spring located there.

Nimes became part of the Roman Empire sometime before 28 BCE.  It was colonized by veterans of the Roman legions who had served Julius Caesar in his Nile campaigns. By the reign of Augustus in the 1st century CE Nimes had reached a population of 60,000.

Augustus ordered the construction of
a ring of ramparts six kilometres (3.7 miles) long, reinforced by fourteen towers.  Although two gates remain today, the Porta Augusta and the Porte de France, as well as the remains of one tower dubbed the Tour Magne, we, unfortunately, did not have time to inspect them. 

Our first stop was the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple originally constructed in 16 BCE. Originally the temple was designed after the temples of Apollo and Mars Ultor in the Forum of Augustus in Rome.  The structure was rebuilt by the famous Roman admiral, Marcus Agrippa (victor of Actium), in approximately 2 - 4 CE.  The temple was dedicated to his two ill-fated sons, Gaius and Lucius, who had been adopted by his best friend Augustus so they would rule Rome one day.  However, both died tragically young (poisoned by Augustus' vile wife Livia if we believe Robert Graves' interpretation of events in "I, Claudius!") 

The Maison Carree, an example of Vitruvian architecture built
in 16 BCE now houses an information center and theater
in Nimes, France.
Photo by . © 2013
The structure is an example of architecture popularized by the famous Roman architect, Vitruvius.  It is almost twice as long as it is wide with its entry fronted by six Corinthian columns topped with ornately carved acanthus leaves.

A pidgeon nestles into the protective acanthus
leaves sculpted on the capital of a Corinithian
column of the Maison Carrée
in Nimes, France.
Photo by  © 2013
The deep portico or proanos consumes 1/3 of the building's length and features a ceiling accented by a relief of ornamental rosettes.  The ceiling was restored in the early 19th century.  The big bronze doors were replaced in 1824.

Like the Pantheon in Rome, the temple survived the widespread destruction of pagan centers of worship after Rome adopted Christianity because it was converted to a church.  In the years that followed it was subsequently converted to a meeting hall for the city's consuls, a canon's house and even a stable for government-owned horses during the French Revolution.  It now houses an information center and theater.

Inside we bought a three day pass for all of the surrounding historical sites for only 11 Euros. It included admission to a short 3-D movie about the history of Nimes that was very well done even though Cecelia, a medieval reenactor, made fun of the less than authentic fencing in one of the segments.

I thought the segment on gladiatorial fights was quite authentic with a properly attired Roman referee and a retiarius (net man with trident) and a Secutor battling it out with little blood spilled. Each time one of the gladiators was in danger of a mortal wound the referee would step in and separate the combatants. 

Finally one of the men went down and the referee looked to the crowd for a verdict and declared the victor without any further harm coming to his opponent. In historical times that type of encounter was far more common than the blood bath seen on the Starz' Spartacus: Blood and Sand series. The only thing that was not quite authentic was that the men were relatively svelt. In Roman times gladiators ate an almost vegetarian diet of barley gruel to put on a protective layer of fat and often appeared rather barrel-chested.

This Roman relief  found along the Via Appia near the tomb of Cecilia Metella
illustrates the well fed contours of arena combatants in the 1st century BCE
Photogaphed at the Baths of Diocletian venue of the National Museum, Rome, Italy by  © 2009
After the movie ended we climbed down the rather steep stairs and walked several blocks to the Roman amphitheater. The amphitheater was constructed in approximately 70 CE.  It measures 133 meters long and 101 meters wide and in ancient times could seat 24,000 people.  The stone for its construction was quarried at Roquemaillère and Baruthel located near Nîmes.

s er
A Roman amphitheater now serves
as a venue for bullfights
in Nimes, France.
Photo by  © 2013
Although several tiers of the structure are now missing, what remains is in very good condition. It is significantly smaller than the Colloseum in Rome, though. 

Once fortified by the Visigoths, the Nimes amphitheater was a target of destruction
by Charles Martel in 737 CE so only the lower tiers of the structure remain.
Photographed in Nimes, France by  © 2013
With the upper tiers of the structure missing I could not see any remnants of the supports for the sun shades that were usually extended to shade the spectators on a hot day. I also did not see any numbers carved in to the stone above the various entry doors that matched tokens given to attendees to tell them which door to use so ingress and egress could be accomplished in a relatively short time.  The official website for the site pointed out the fore-body parts of two bulls with their legs folded on either side on one of the arches.  I wish I would have noticed that. 

It also said there was a relief of a she-wolf giving milk to two children, Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome, on one of the pilasters opposite the Palais du Justice. Unlike the Roman version, the Nîmes she-wolf is looking towards the children. If you visit the amphitheater, don't overlook them like I did.

The archaeology museum in Nimes,one of the largest in France, is presently housed in the 17th century Jesuits College at 13 Boulevard Amiral Courbet, 30000. Iron age and Gallo-Roman artifacts comprise most of the collection with a host of everyday objects, including sigillated ceramics, bronze tableware, lamps, toilet and dress accessories. There is also an exhibit of Greek ceramics that have been recovered from the area.

In 2018, the collection will be moved to the new Museum of Romanity that is being built facing the Roman amphitheater.
An artist's rendering of the new Museum of Romanity slated for completion in 2018.  Image courtesy of  Nimes Tourism.

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Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Review: Sword of Rome by Douglas Jackson

A history resource article by  © 2015

When we left Gaius Valerius Verrens at the end of Book 4 of the "Hero of Rome" series of novels by Douglas Jackson, Valerius was attempting to elude the Roman Emperor Nero's assassins in Antioch and escape to the safety of Vespasian's headquarters in Africa. He has been charged with the care of the daughter of his former commander and mentor Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo who was ordered by Nero to commit suicide  and he and his faithful freedman and former gladiator, Serpentius, are determined to keep the lady (and future empress) safe.

I thought the next book, "Sword of Rome", would take place in Africa where Valerius would serve as a cavalry commander under Vitellius, but instead we discover it is 68 CE, the Year of the Four Emperors, and Valerius is leading a small contingent of cavalry escorting Marcus Salvius Otho to Rome where Otho's fellow conspirators are preparing to end Nero's tyranny and install the aged patrician traditionalist, Galba as the new ruler of the Roman Empire.

Roman emperor Marcus Salvius Otho
Photographed at The Louvre by Mary Harrsch
© 2008
Galba was childless and Otho has been assured by one of Galba's favorites, Titus Vinius, that Otho would be adopted by the old general if Otho would secretly marry Vinius' daughter.

The problem with "too many caesars" though, as Octavian once put it, is that troops loyal to different imperial claimants often run into each other in the surrounding provinces.  Such is the case when Valerius' troopers encounter a squad of Batavians still loyal to Nero and in the ensuing struggle Valerius kills the brother of a high-ranking Batavian commander.  The resulting blood feud shadows Valerius' missions throughout the rest of the novel.

When Valerius finally arrives in Rome, he is asked to secretly meet with Nero's vile Praetorian Prefect, Tigelliunus, who has accepted a bribe from the rebels to betray his longtime benefactor. Valerius finally has the opportunity to exact vengeance on the now cowering and terrified emperor, Nero, who ordered Valerius' father figure Corbulo's suicide.

Jackson then introduces a group of Roman sailors who Nero has promised the opportunity to become a new legion.  Valerius meets these men and, although they are not properly trained in the use of arms, Valerius is impressed by their courage and loyalty and assures them that he will try to get the new emperor to recognize Nero's pledge.

Servius Sulpicius Galba.  Image courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons.
But the pompous Galba will have nothing to do with them and orders his troops to slaughter many of the men when they confront Galba during his triumphal procession into the city.  Among other mistakes Galba makes is his tight-fisted refusal to pay a promised donative to the Praetorian Guard. Then Galba names a feckless patrician youth as his heir instead of Otho and Otho incites the Praetorian Guard to put an end to Galba's blunders.

Valerius is torn by his soldier's sense of duty and honor between Galba and Otho since, by now, he has already pledged the military sacramentum to Galba.  So, Valerius is caught right in the middle of this maelstrom of violence and he and Serpentius barely escape with their lives.  As history tells us, Galba was not so fortunate, however.

Otho finds among Galba's papers reports that the gluttonous Vitellius, now governing Germania Superior, has been declared emperor by the Renus legions.  So, in exchange for Valerius' life he asks Valerius and Serpentius to travel to Vitellius' headquarters as Otho's envoy to try to avert civil war.

The so-called pseudo-Vitellius at The Louvre,
a 16th century copy of an ancient bust thought to
be the gluttonous Roman emperor Vitellius.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The rest of the novel is focused on Valerius' journey to and from Germania Superior ending with the climactic battle of Bedriacum that leaves Valerius an "Enemy of Rome", the title of book five.

Once again Jackson has fleshed out the meticulously researched events of history with vibrant characters and breathtaking battle sequences.  Although I was aware of the key players in the "Year of the Four Emperors", I had not studied it in depth even though I have an, as yet unread, text on the subject, "The Year of the Four Emperors" by Kenneth Wellesley.  Jackson's narrative, however, has seared the events of that momentous year into my memory as no textbook could.

Once again, I am anxiously looking forward to the next novel in the series "Enemy of Rome" although it has not yet been released on audio which is my favorite format.  I keep checking my offerings and hope it will show up there soon.

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