Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review: Fortress of Spears by Anthony Riches

A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

As Anthony Riches' third novel in his "Empire" series begins, we find our protagonist Marcus, now known as Marcus Tribulus Corvus, preparing to attack the fortified encampment of the (fictional) rebel Selgovae chieftain, Calgus, and his warriors and allies, the fiercesome Venicones.  The Romans succeed in devastating the Selgovae at the encampment but with terrible losses including one of Marcus' own brother centurions. To make matters worse, Calgus is spirited away by the Venicones, although now he is their captive, no longer their war leader.  However, before his loss of power, Calgus dispatched a contingent of Selgovae to take over the Votadini capital, the daunting "Fortress of Spears" of this installment's title, and the Romans must now plan an even more dangerous assault to finally rid themselves of the last of the rebellious Selgovae and return the Votadini to their previous status as Roman allies.

Fortunately, the Votadini Prince, Martos, captured by the Romans in book 2, now shares their cause and harbors nothing but hatred for Calgus and the Selgovae who so ruthlessly betrayed him. Martos will prove invaluable in the ultimate attack on the "Fortress of Spears". But capturing the fortress is not the only obstacle to Roman victory. The Venicones king discovers the Romans have his treasured torc, found when the original encampment was seized, and vows to take it back or die gloriously in the attempt.

Celt Neck-Ring known as the Snettisham Great Torc Iron Age 150 BCE - 50 BCE Electrum photographed at the
British Museum by Mary Harrsch © 2008

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Marcus, the corrupt Praetorian Prefect in Rome, Sextus Tigidius Perennis, has dispatched a Praetorian assassin and a "corn" officer to hunt down Marcus, the last surviving son of a proscribed senatorial family.  Perennis' son, the villain of book 1, betrayed Marcus' biological father's Sixth Legion to engineer a promotion and accolades from the vile emperor Commodus. The younger Perennis' treachery was, as is often the case with wealthy, powerful men, covered up by the military.  So, the elder Perennis mistakenly believes Marcus killed his son and is being protected by an auxiliary unit of Tungrians serving on Hadrian's Wall.

In the novel, the Praetorian assassin holds a rank equivalent to a centurion but I was confused about the presence of a "corn" officer. However, if you read up on the importance of those charged with supervision of the Roman grain supply, it becomes quickly apparent that such officers carried quite a bit of clout.

"In classical antiquity, the grain supply to the city of Rome could not be met entirely from the surrounding countryside, which was taken up by the villas and parks of the aristocracy and which produced mainly fruit, vegetables, and other perishable goods. The city, therefore, became increasingly reliant on grain supplies from other parts of Italy, notably Campania, and from elsewhere in the empire, particularly the provinces of Sicily, North Africa, and Egypt. These regions were capable of shipping adequate grain for the population of the capital amounting to 60 million modii (540 million litres / 540,000 cubic metres or 135 million gallons / 16.8 million bushels) annually, according to some sources. These provinces and the shipping lanes that connected them with Ostia and other important ports thus gained great strategic importance. Whoever controlled the grain supply had an important measure of control over the city of Rome." - Wikipedia, Cura Annonae

Neronian coin with the reverse depicting the goddesses Annona, the personification of the grain supply, and Ceres, whose temple was the site of the dole
Throughout most of the Republican era, the care of the grain supply (cura annonae) was part of the aedile's duties. The Annona was personified as a goddess, and the grain dole was distributed from the Temple of Ceres. As early as 440 BC, however, according to Livy, the Roman Senate appointed a special officer called the praefectus annonae with greatly extended powers. His staff apparently carried a paramilitary rank and could have theoretically been suborned for "special" duties.

Perennis' assassins harbor no qualms about slaughtering anyone who gets in their way and they leave a bloody trail in their pursuit of Marcus.

Once again, Riches develops intriguing characters and empathetically portrays the comradery that develops between men struggling to survive north of Hadrian's Wall.  The action scenes are superb and draw the reader right into the beating heart of Roman military life.  Riches artfully transitions between scenes in the multithreaded plot and successfully maintains a high level of suspense until the novel's climactic conclusion. I highly recommend this series and have already plunged ahead into subsequent installments.

A Kindle preview:

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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Review: Arrows of Fury by Anthony Riches Empire Series Book 2

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

In Book 2 of Anthony Riches' Empire series, we find our hero, Centurion Marcus Valerius Aquila, now known as Marcus Tribulus Corvus to deceive agents of the vengeful Roman emperor Commodus, heading to the coast to pick up a century of replacements from Gaul to fill in the ranks of the 2nd Tungrian cohort.  The cohort suffered horrendous casualties in the climactic "Battle of the Lost Eagle" at the end of Book 1 and the rebellious Selgovae chieftain, Calgus, is still at large and forging new alliances to drive the Romans back to Hadrian's Wall and eventually off the island of Britain altogether.

Unbeknownst to Marcus, though, the newly appointed prefect of the 1st Tungrian cohort, a nasty piece of work transferred in from the continent, arrives at the resupply depot first, bribes the replacements officer, and makes off with the sturdy, well-trained Gauls.  When Marcus arrives, the only replacements left are two centuries of Hamian archers originally from Roman Syria.

Hamian archers depicted in the video game "Rome Total War" courtesy of Creative Assembly
Historical note: "Cohors Prima Hamiorum Sagittaria", a unit of bowmen recruited from the city of Hama in the Orontes valley in northern Syria were one of only two whole regiments of archers known to have been stationed in Britain.  Although the original contingent arrived in approximately 120 CE, subsequent units served in Britain until the end of the Roman occupation.

Although these men are some of the finest archers in the world, Marcus quickly sees they do not possess the solidly muscled bodies and brute strength needed to man a shield wall against the ferocious indigenous warriors his unit will face in the next confrontation.  To make matters worse, the Hamians' armor is too light to withstand a spear thrust.  So, Marcus sets out to get them properly equipped and begins to train them in the use of sword and shield once they return to their auxiliary headquarters in the fortress known in the book as Noisy Valley.

But Marcus needs months of physical training to bring his new men to the same level of strength of the other Tungrian infantrymen. The Hamians struggle under the weight of infantry mail shirts and kit and can barely complete a standard day's march let alone be ready to fight if attacked.

Just a few days later, though, word is received that Calgus has attacked and overrun one of the nearby forts known as White Strength with the help of the previously friendly Votadini tribe.

Historical note: The Votadini occupied what is now southeast Scotland and northeast England, extending south of the Firth of Forth and from the Stirling area down to the English River Tyne, including at its peak what are now the Falkirk, Lothian, and Borders regions of eastern Scotland, and Northumberland in northeast England. Between 138–162 CE the Votadini came under direct Roman military rule as occupants of the region between the Hadrian and Antonine Walls. Then when the Romans drew back to Hadrian's Wall the Votadini became a friendly buffer state, getting the rewards of alliance with Rome without being directly under its rule, until about 400 CE.

Calgus' raid is successful but his relationship with the Votadini is contentious so Calgus conspires with his cunning seer to rid himself of the troublesome tribe's war band.

Meanwhile, although ill-prepared, Marcus and his Hamians are dispatched to hunt down the Votadini and Marcus finds his unit's archery skills indispensable when he is ordered to assault an old but well-positioned hill fort.

But the ultimate test comes in the novel's climax when Marcus' troops must fight for their lives against the ferocious Venicones, another of Calgus' allies, who have trapped Marcus' century on the wrong side of a strong flowing river.

Closeup of a second century CE Roman sarcophagus depicting a battle between the Romans and Celts.  Photographed
at the Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas, Texas by Mary Harrsch © 2006
Historical note: The Venicones, a small but fiercesome people, inhabited the area between the Firth of Tay and the Firth of Forth near the Roman fort of Horrea Classis on the eastern coast of modern-day Scotland. It is believed by modern scholars that their name meant "hunting hounds" or "kindred hounds." The Venicones were one of the few groups in northern Britain at the time that buried their dead in stone-lined graves and made ritual offerings of decorated metal objects, including massive bronze armlets, in local bogs and lakes.  These armlets could weigh over 1.5 kg each and were worn one on each arm. Tacitus in his Agricola, chapter XI (c. 98 AD) described the Caledonian warriors as red-haired and large limbed, which Tacitus considered features of Germanic origin.

Once again Anthony Riches has brilliantly recreated the precarious existence of the Roman auxiliaries stationed between the Hadrian and Antonine Walls in the late second century.  He has populated the novel with vibrant characters and made this reader feel part of the brotherhood that bonds courageous men together in times of crisis.  The battle scenes are visceral and not for the squeamish but I highly recommend this series and look forward to the next installments with great anticipation.

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