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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