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Welcome to the Palladium

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Ever heard of the Palladium? No, not the theatre, nor the metal. The ancient Palladium, I mean. Well oddly it’s cropped up twice recently for me, after never previously knowing anything of it. Firstly, when I was writing the H360 book A Song of War, and then more recently in my biography of Commodus (which will be out in April – nudges you towards the pre-order button.)

So what was the Palladium? Well, let’s go back into some mythology to find it. You’ve heard of Athena, right? Greek goddess, connected with Athens and owls, worshipped in Rome as Minerva, sprouted from the head of Zeus like a pretty and rather powerful boil? Well did you know that she was raised by the sea god Triton and raised alongside Triton’s daughter like a sister. That sister-friend was called Pallas, and one day when soft play went wrong, Athena accidentally killed Pallas. In her grief, she made a divine wooden likeness of Pallas. This, then, was the Palladium. But how does it fit into my tales?

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Cassandra clinging to the Palladium in the temple in Troy (a painting in Pompeii)

Well, ‘A Song of War’ was the H360 tale of the fall of Troy, and it so happened that the Palladium fell from the heavens and landed in Troy, where it was worshipped, stored in the temple of Athena. So when we wrote of the sack and the fall of Troy, it inevitably involved researching  some of the greatest treasures and sacred objects of the city. As legend would have it, the Palladium survives the fall of Troy. In our tale, the team told of Odysseus and Diomedes’ theft of the Palladium (or Palladion in Greek.) So I read of this most reverent wooden statue in the terms of Vicky Alvear Shecter’s amazing tale of Odysseus. So the Palladium leaves Troy with the great intuitive Greek and his lion-skin-clad mate. But somehow it leaves the city after the war, and not via Odysseus, since he heads back to Ithaka in order to drink some Ouzo and relax as he imports washing machines cheap from Albania.

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Diomedes and Odysseus stealing the Palladium (from the Louvre)

Now here the tales seem to peter out. Somehow the Palladium leaves Troy, though it doesn’t seem to be in the hands of Odysseus. It perhaps left with Diomedes, who is recorded as ending up in Italy, or perhaps with Aeneas somehow. However it went, the next time it appears in the Historical/Mythological record is in Rome. Exactly how it stops being a Graeco-Trojan religious focus and becomes Roman is something of a mystery, but then the Romans were ever masters of claiming older valuable things as their own, a bit like Melania… I personally blame Virgil, who seems intent on making Troy Rome’s ancestor at any expense. Either way, the Palladium eventually ends up in the Temple of Vesta in Rome, where it is one of the city’s most sacred relics. There it is kept inviolable and hidden, away from the masses.

Louvre Palladium

Nike and a warrior either side of a pillar topped by the Palladium (in the Louvre)

And this is where, for me, it turns up a second time in my research. I have just finished writing Commodus, my second book for Orion, in which I re-examine that infamous emperor in a new light, and lo and behold but what should suddenly crop up in my research but the Palladium!

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Commodus as Hercules (in the Capitoline Museum)

I shall try and avoid spoilers of course, but suffice it to say there is, during that story, a fire in Rome. Let’s face it, Rome burns every ten minutes. Fires in ancient Rome are more common than non-sequiturs in a Richard Ayoade monologue or failures in Anglo-American government. This particular fire threatens the forum and the Palatine, and in the process catches and incinerates the temple of Vesta and the house of the Vestals. I give you my source material, the ever-entertaining Herodion:

“1.14.4 After consuming the temple and the entire sacred precinct, the fire swept on to destroy a large part of the city, including its most beautiful buildings. When the temple of Vesta went up in flames, the image of Pallas Athena was exposed to public view – that statue which the Romans worship and keep hidden, the one brought from Troy, as the story goes. Now, for the first time since its journey from Troy to Italy, the statue was seen by men of our time.

1.14.5 For the Vestal Virgins snatched up the image and carried it along the Sacred Way to the imperial palace.”

Rome

Rome burns

So there you have it. I wrote a tale set 1600 years BC in Anatolian Greece and it involved the Palladium. Then I wrote a tale set in the late 2nd century AD, almost two millennia later and half a known world away, and lo and behold there again is the Palladium.

Interestingly, I have since found a reference that Constantine (about whom I am also writing with the indomitable Gordon Doherty), when he founded the new Rome, moved the Palladium to Constantinople where he buried it below his column (hur, hur, hur – said in a Beavis and Butthead voice).

The Palladium, then. A battered wooden image of Pallas fashioned by a god, which seems fated to crop up in what I write. Bet you’ll remember it now when next it crops up.

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One day I’ll be here, receiving an award…. 😉

 

 

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Written by SJAT

September 15, 2018 at 8:59 am

The Oracles of Troy

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I’ve had this book in my reading pile for some time, but didn’t want to read it until I’d finished writing my section of the coming collaboration on the Trojan War (A Song of War) because I didn’t want to directly influence my own telling. Now that my work on that tale is done, I allowed myself to read Iliffe’s book. And by happy coincidence, the author has agreed to write the foreword for our collaboration, so boy am I glad that I liked his book, else this could have been awkward! 😉

Fortunately, The Oracles of Troy is an excellent piece of writing. It tackles the end of the Trojan war only, long after Achilles’ death and the events of the Iliad. It deals with the fall of Troy and the end of the war, telling a tale that is rarely covered. In fact, early Greece is rarely touched by authors at all, so it is very much virgin territory, so this should be of great interest to all readers of ancient historical fiction.

One thing that stood out for me is the legendary feel of the tale. While in our own work we tried to pare out the myth and work with a prosaic, real-world Troy, Iliffe has given the world of Greek myth full reign in his story, which makes it a whole different beast, and a fascinating one at that. In this era the lines between history and fantasy blur a great deal, as any student of Homer will know, and so we discover mystic visions, monsters, magical weapons and invulnerable heroes here in very much the mould of Homer himself. That adds a certain level of adventure to the story beyond straight history and pushes it into the world of myth. The result? Magnificent. And a book that should appeal to readers of fantasy as well as those of history. And at no point does the use of this legendary mythic aspect interfere with the readability or flow of the story. In fact, it is such an inherent thread that the tale would be comparatively dull without it.

Beyond that, the characters deserve mention. This tale is told principally from the point of view of Odysseus (being part of the chronicles of that most wonderful hero.) But his is not the only view we are treated to. Sometimes we see through Diomedes’ eyes. Often through those of Helen herself. But most of all we are treated to a fictional character’s view – a man called Eperitus with a complex history, who travels as Odysseus’ closest friend and helper. And though Eperitus is Iliffe’s own creation, he syncs so well with the extant cast of Greeks and Trojans that any reader not fully conversant with Homer would never know it. The whole nature of Eperitus is so well constructed that I have to applaud the author on this most stunning piece of plotting.

So grab a copy of the Oracles of Troy and set sail with Odysseus as he investigates ancient tombs, fights monsters, builds horses, sneaks into cities, becomes a master of disguise and brings about the downfall of the greatest city in the world.

Highly recommended, folks.

Rome and Egypt

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Something a little different for you this week. Two short novellas from two excellent writers, both of whom are contributors to the imminent ‘A Year of Ravens’ to which I have added my own humble tale. And both of these works are available on kindle for free, by the way!

First up we have The Three Fates by Kate Quinn

kq Kate is an author of both ancient and Renaissance novels, though to me (and to many) she is best known for her tales of Rome’s more powerful women during the height of the empire. I recently read and reviewed ‘Lady of the Eternal City’, her latest, and you can check out my review here. I was perusing potential things to add to my kindle when I came across The Three Fates (and the second novella I will be reviewing). Instant download. The Three Fates, I will say from the off, is definitely not a standalone work. As Kate mentions in her notes, this is, in fact, the original beginning of that aforementioned novel, which was later cut and then made it into the world as a free novella by way of introduction. But then, it’s free, so it doesn’t matter to the reader if it is more of a prologue than a tale in itself.

The Three Fates is more of an introduction to the characters (or a reintroduction if you have read Empress of the Seven Hills). It doesn’t have a nicely-defined end, but it does provide a very good introduction to the protagonists and antagonists of ‘Lady’. As a taster it does the job impeccably. It introduces you in a short read to Kate’s writing, which is heady and absorbing and brings the perils and glories of the Hadrianic court into glorious light. Download it for free, read it and see whether you want to go on. I would recommend doing so, having read ‘Lady’, but with this novella you can make up your own mind with no pressure.

Secondly, I also found The Princess of Egypt Must Die by Stephanie Dray

sdI find it harder to comment on this one as an introduction since I’ve not yet read Stephanie’s ‘Lily of the Nile’ to which this connects. The difference between this and Kate’s is that this novella can stand alone as a read. Taking the story from Alexandria to the mountains of Thrace, this story hooked me for the oddest of reasons. Not because of the writing, which is certainly high quality, atmospheric and gripping, and not because of the characters, though they are well fleshed out and believable. And not because of the point of view, since it is written in first-person present tense, which is not my favourite POV to read from.

No. This hooked me because it is a fantastic, strange and wonderful mix, belonging to an era of great change and cultural mixing, when the pharaohs were as much Macedonian as they were Egyptian. The world is an odd mix of Egyptian, Greek, Macedonian, and even more barbarous peoples such as the Thracians. And Stephanie seems to have submersed herself in the cultures of all of them and got into the heads of her characters who feel truly alive in a fascinating world. In fact, it was so absorbing that Lily of the Nile is now on my list, largely because having read the novella I need to read on…

So there you go. Two free novellas to help you while away an hour or two. I highly recommend them both.

Happy Thursday, all.

Written by SJAT

October 15, 2015 at 9:25 am

Salamis (Long War 5)

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Fabulous historical fiction grabs you like a passing charioteer and drags you round the hippodrome at breakneck speed. Simply: Salamis makes that seem slow.

Book 5 of the Long War series is by far the fastest-paced, most direct, exciting and powerful of the series to date. Impressive at such an advanced stage of a saga.

After the breath-stealing ending of The Great King, Greece is not just in danger. It is on the eve of extinction.  Boeotia and Attica are about to be overrun by the Persians and are utterly hopeless. The Greek fleet languishes, unbeaten and yet still somehow losing the war. The eastern states of Greece are evacuating, fleeing west to whoever will take them, the Great King is coming, and Arimnestos has family and friends in the danger zone. And so the tale begins.

I had somehow expected book 5 to follow much the same format as the previous ones: a wide-ranging epic that covers a lengthy era and several themes. No. With a short opening of brutal fear in the face of advancing horror we are launched straight into a fight for the future of Greece, which occupies the bulk of the book. And this is not like Marathon (book 2, you might remember) which deals with a number of subjects around that great battle. This is a full on treatment of one of the world’s most important naval engagements.

This is, if you will, Cameron’s ‘The Longest Day’ or ‘Zulu’ or ‘Waterloo’. This is a military engagement told in breathtaking detail and heartbreaking style. From individual boarding actions and personal duels on board to grand strategies and political machinations on a huge scale, this battle – this novel – is enthralling.

Be warned: you are about to lose favourites. Obviously. No writer of military histfic can write about history’s greatest battles without cracking a few eggs so to speak. But on the brightside, there are genuine moments of bright glory and wonder here.

Because in addition to the great battle itself, this book contains a growing element of family and community, on both a grand and a personal scale. We are about to see new relationships formed, old loves rekindles, long enmities buried and endless loose threads tied up. Essentially, Salamis is a masterpiece, and announces the coming closure of the series.

Salamis is released today. Go buy it. Buy it now. For the love of Artemis, read this series!

The Great King (Long War 4)

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We’re well and truly Arimnestos’ captive audience now. We’ve seen him grow and become the warrior, the leader, the sailor, the merchant, the pirate, the explorer. But the third volume in the series, while being a departure that took us on a great adventure, ended with us coming full circle, back to old friends and right back into the heart of what our friend the Plataean had for so long left behind.

And so The Great King picks up from that moment. This book will take you to amazing places and see astounding things, and interestingly, it includes two of the greatest and most important pivotal moments in Greek history, though the reader will not be aware of this initially, since the book’s title refers to neither directly. I will try to hint and explain without spoilers.

To some extent, ignoring the divisions into parts that are handed us, I would say there are three distinct parts to The Great King. The Games. The Journey. The War. And throughout the three parts, certain themes wind and develop.

Our friend Ari finds himself in the company of old Persian friends and in the odd situation of having to help the enemy of his people form alliances with Carthage against Greece due to his old oaths. Of course, we also know that Ari’s great personal nemesis – Dagon – is Carthaginian and that there can be no doubt that these two will meet again.

And, having delivered Persian ambassadors to hated Carthage, Ari finds himself in the company of a Spartan athlete who seeks passage to Olympia for the games. Thus opens part one, in which we are treated to a stunning and fairly in-depth depiction of the Olympic Games, entwined with plots and enmities between competing states, and a gathering of some of the most important men in Greece to discuss what to do about the Great King in Persia, who has begun preparations for the invasion of Greece on a grand scale. Here a new thread in the tale is opened and in addition to the wonderful material about the games, we are treated to a great introduction to Sparta and the Spartans. This famous state and its people had, you might remember, fought against Arimnestos with his Plataeans and their Athenian allies four books ago. Frankly, with this new insight into Sparta (who I’d always thought of as complete tossers) I have suddenly found that I love them and their leaders in Cameron’s tale. And the Spartans are a theme that will play out throught the book.

With the ending of the games, Ari goes home and tries to put his house in order, and this is nice to see from the point of view of the character’s progression, but is something of an aside in the main plot.

For soon, Ari is bound for the heart of the enemy’s lands. He is tasked with taking Spartan heralds to the court of the Great King of Persia. Despite his Persian friends, guarantees of passage and so much more, there is tremendous danger in the exotic Persian court. Here we are treated to the most fascinating clash of cultures – the rigid, haughty, ascetic Spartans and the languid, oiled and perfumed, glittering Persians. But you know, if you have any inkling of what’s to come in Greek history (and if you’ve been paying attention in the book’s first half) that nothing can really come of this, barring intelligence gathering, for Xerxes of Persia will not be turned from his course of war.

And so we move into the third part of the plot for me, as Arimnestos returns from the great journey. There follows an odd little interlude of sailing, trading and piracy, and then, finally comes the main event. I won’t spoil it. You might already know what’s coming, but for those who don’t I won’t give the game away. Suffice it to say that the war now begins in earnest and one of the greatest moments in the world’s military history will come to pass. You will read lines early on that will reveal what is to come. The last part of this book contains the opening salvos of the greatest war the states of Greece ever fought. It contains battles on land and sea, Ari’s quest for revenge against Dagon, and pivotal moments that will leave you breathless and exhausted.

As with all the Long War books (and all Cameron’s work, in fact) the writing is excellent. It is at once immediate and action packed, and yet thoughtful and educational. A weight of knowledge and a wealth of powerful and heady descriptive is conveyed without sacrificing pace, excitement, humour and horror.

And you know what? Thank good old Zeus that Salamis (book 5) is out tomorrow, because when you read the end of The Great King, you’ll really not want to wait. Check in tomorrow for my last review in the Long War series.

Poseidon’s Spear (Long War 3)

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ps

So where can Cameron take us? Arimnestos of Plataea is a grown man now, fully trained and experienced. He has fought in and won one of the greatest battles of the age. But after Marathon, the world has changed, and so has our hero. Life as he has known it has gone.

It is all too wasy for a writer with a series to fall into a rut. Too easy to just keep telling the same story over and over again with minor variations or just to continue to tell a saga in fairly repetitive chunks. A few authors will, once their series is settled, run off at a tangent to explore new ideas and new themes and styles. It can be a gamble, as some readers will always just want more of the same. But if it’s done right it can invigorate and frshen an ongoing series. Sort of like a sorbet palate cleanser between courses. With Poseidon’s Spear, Cameron has done just that.

This is not a tale of war or family. It is not a tale of Greeks and Persians. This is the very spirit of adventure. A series of events conspire to see Ari at sea once more, where he falls foul of the powerful and dangerous Carthaginians and finds himself a slave, tortured and tested to the limit of his endurance. Really, there is too much in terms of twists and turns, changes and stories in this tale to relate them individually, and that would just ruin the book for you. Essentially, once he is freed from the clutches of the unpleasant Carthaginian ‘Dagon’ he sets off on his greatest adventure, collecting new friends on the way, including other former slaves.

The Carthaginians control the trade in tin, which is needed by smiths and armourers across the Mediterranean world, and Ari and his friends soon form a plan to secure tin and make themselves rich. Not through trade with Massalia or Carthaginian Spain, but by going directly to the source: a misty, cold semi-mythical island far to the north that one day will be Britain. Of course, to get there by ship requires that a sailor pass the Pillars of Hercules and sail out into the great western ocean. In those days, with the ships of the Greek world, such a journey was all but impossible and only legendary sailors of myth had done so comfortably.

This begins a journey that will see Romans and Africans and Greeks and Gauls sharing ships, making and losing fortunes, finding and losing loves, all as they journey in search of the source of tin. In the process, Ari will pick up an Illyrian prince (whose own fate forms the last part of the book), become a hunted man and an enemy of Carthage, shed his preconceptions of the non-Greek world and open himself to the great wealth of experience that is the west.

For the reader, seeing the Pre-Roman west through the eyes of a wonder-filled Greek is a fascinating process, and it certainly made me wish I could go back and rewrite some of the Gallo-Roman work I have penned with one eye on this fascinating portrayal of the world.

As always, Cameron’s experiences with the military and reenactment inform his text and give everything a realism and accuracy that few could match. But what came across more in book 3 was the surprising level of knowledge the author seems to have concerning the world of ancient ships and sailing. I can only assume that among his talents and experience, Cameron has also sailed ships somewhat. And I am quite stunned by his portrayal of pre-Roman France, Spain and Britain, considering Cameron’s Canadian residence and American nationality. It feels accurate and immersive.

All in all, a departure for the series, a wonderful palate cleanser, and yet at the same time a great continuation of the saga of Arimnestos of Plataea. Oh, and the conclusion? Well Ari has now a new and great enemy out there somewhere we know will come up again, but also the end scenes come as something of a surprise, and set up the opening of book 4 beautifully. So drop by tomorrow for the review of The Great King

Marathon (Long War 2)

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How does a writer possibly follow the scale and originality of a book like Killer of Men? Well, follow me through this review, and I’ll explain how.

The first book of the Long War told of how Arimnestos became a Killer of Men. Through hard labour, unexpected fights, slavery, piracy and brutal war, the young Plataean became a great hero and killer whose name alone made Greeks and Persians quake. But while those events changed Arimnestos the man, they did not change his path. For at the end of them, he returned to his home and to his forge, gave up all the trappings of heroism and war and became a simple blacksmith once more.

Marathon, while a continuation of the tale, is a whole different story. Marathon is the story of how events changed the life and the path of Arimnestos of Plataea.

Our hero has settled in his ancient home. He is a man of name and property. His former comrades live and work nearby, but they still itch for war and glory. Not so, Arimnestos. He is content. But events will never conspire to leave him in peace. No. Soon, our friend finds himself heading to Athens, where he is dragged into legal difficulties and heads out to secure the forgiveness of Gods to clear himself of any shame or impropriety.

And so begins his next stage of the Long War. Rushing hither and thither in ships, saving cities, fighting hopeless sea battles, making new friends and re-acquainting himself with old enemies, Arimnestos soon leaves behind the life of a quiet smith and becomes the great Miltiades’ favourite war dog once more.

But things are about to change. For what started as the Ionian revolt in the previous book is about to explode. As the Great King of Persia’s most vicious satrap begins to move against Greece to chastise them for their involvement, the Greeks find themselves hard pressed and pushed back.

A survivor of one of the worst disasters of the war, Arimnestos returns home only to find old enemies still at work there. He is wed and tries once more to carve out a life in Plataea, but the world will not let him rest. Athens is under threat, and Plataea owes Athens its support. Elected as the military leader for Plataea, Arimnestos joins old friends and new (and even a few enemies) in a great bid to defy Persia – the greatest single power in the world. Persia is coming for Athens. And the focus of their meeting point will be the fields of Marathon.

What happens in this book will finally make it clear to Arimnestos that he can no more settle into life as a village smith than a duck could hunt an eagle. War is in his blood and the troubles of the world will leave him with nothing but the need to exercise his great abilities.

Enough of ruining the plot for you.

There is a terrible danger for any writer in tackling a famous battle. I’ve done it myself with Alesia. Ben Kane has done so time and again in his works. Few people can do a great battle justice. And let’s face it, Marathon is one of the greats. In fact, I’d bet money that if any layperson in the street were asked to name a Greek battle, the few who could would name Marathon.

And while this story is about far more than Marathon, that great battle is the climax. And it is treated in a MASTERFUL way. Cameron has hit the sweet spot in this series where he can carry in his story the hubris, glory and almost mythical bravery of ancient Greek warfare. There are elements of the Iliad in here, it is that authentic. But despite that he is able to also make the reader aware of the base level of that war throughout, giving a realistic grounding to the scenes. The hero may be godlike and leaping from wall to wall with shining spearpoint, a hero in every way. But the ground beneath him squelches with blood and filth and shattered bone and crying boys and widows. It is a gift as a writer to be able to carry off such a combination. It is what makes his battle scenes both glorious and horrific in equal measure.

The final scenes in this book will leave you exhausted.

Arimnestos, the Killer of Men, has led you through one of the darkest hours in Greek history in this second volume. Where will he go next? Check out tomorrow’s review…

Written by SJAT

August 10, 2015 at 10:04 am