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Archive for the ‘Non Fiction’ Category

Lucius Verus by M.C. Bishop

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Sometimes books just appear at serendipitous times. Last month this book was released, penned by one of the top scholars in his field, a man whose work I trust implicitly. I happened to have just finished writing my novel on Commodus and sent it to my editor. But since Verus was the uncle of my emperor and has an important role in my tale, I simply had to read this. Glad I did. There was so much in here that I needed to add to my story, and fortunately I had that opportunity during the editing stage. ‘Lucius Verus’ was something of an eye-opener.

Bishop starts out on his journey through Verus’ life by explaining that he is not attempting to ‘rehabilitate’ Verus and remove the stigma that history has left, but rather to remove the chaff from accounts and reveal only what truths or perceivable truths lie beneath the endless bias of biographers ancient and modern. In a way, he might have failed in that task in the nicest possible way, because by the end, I found Verus thoroughly rehabilitated and sympathetic. Much, fortunately, like the character in my novel. Phew.

This book is actually two subjects rolled into one, as the title suggests. It is at one and the same time a detailed and as accurate as it is possible to be biography of the man who co-ruled the empire with the great Marcus Aurelius, and a military narrative on the Parthian campaigns of the 160s AD. That it achieves both aims smoothly and without feeling at odds with one another is superb.

For those who are unfamiliar with Verus, you will probably be aware of his adoptive brother Marcus Aurelius and his nephew Commodus. From 161 AD until his death in 169, he shared the rule of the Roman empire with Aurelius, the two working in consort as co-emperors. Verus is not one of those emperors who was damned by the state (with whom I am gradually dealing) but perhaps by dint of being an easy comparison with his famous brother, he has been somewhat tarnished and sullied by biased historians after his death in much the same way the damned emperors were. Aurelius is the great philosopher-king, an emperor who shunned war, yet spent much of his reign on the borders fighting the enemies of Rome. A man of wit and wisdom and a calm and mellow one, even. Verus has ever been painted as the dissolute playboy prince. He is presented to us by historians as a drinker, a hedonist, lazy and a poor comparison to Aurelius. Bishop set out to pull apart the clear bias and try to find the real man beneath. An admirable attempt, I have to say. Throughout the text, Bishop repeatedly shows two facets that make his work stand out:

  • An almost unparalleled knowledge and understanding of the Roman world, which manifests in every tiny detail he produces being presented with clarity, sureness and relevance.
  • A wry wit and easy style that prevents any danger of the book slipping into dusty irredeemable academia.

The book begins by explaining its purpose and goals. Bishop then goes on to examine in detail all the sources on Verus’ life and evaluate them carefully. From there, he moves onto a biography of the emperor’s life until his accession to power with his brother. We then learn of the situation in the east and are treated to a little history of the borderland. An examination of the joint emperors’ rule and the nature of their sharing of power follows before we head east with Verus to examine his campaign in more detail than I expected. On the conclusion of that, Bishop then goes on to tell us of Verus’ life from there until his untimely death, before evaluating the ‘wastrel’ emperor and presenting his conclusion to the reader. The appendices are as interesting and important as the rest of the text, too, including copies of the emperor’s letters ans, most impressive of all, an attempt at redacting the infamous Historia Augusta, trimming the chaff and presenting a more factual, more reasonable selection within it.

I am not going to go into any further detail on the contents here, though I will say that there was not a section or even a page that I was tempted to skim over. And I challenge anyone to read the book and not have their opinion of Verus altered. In short, the book is probably my favourite of Bishop’s works (and I have a dozen or so), and as a clarified biography of a maligned man, it matches Winterling’s Caligula, which was the main basis for my own last imperial work. Pride of place on my shelves and a more than worthy exploration of a man who has been largely ignored thus far by historians.

HIGHLY recommended.

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Written by SJAT

June 15, 2018 at 11:47 am

Joan of Arc by Moya Longstaffe

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joa
Joan of Arc is one of those fascinating iconic figures that we are all drawn to: an underdog who stands her ground and defies the establishment. I have had a minor fascination with her since I was a kid, standing in Rouen and looking up at the tower that bears her name, or looking at the horseshoe she reputedly nailed to the door of a church in Chablis.
That being the case, this was guaranteed to be an interesting book for me. But it was so much more than I expected. I should have noticed the clue in the title. Joan of Arc and the Great pity of the land of France. This is more than just a biography of the maid of Orleans (it is that too, and it’s a good one, but she’s been dealt with often.) What this really excels at is putting Joan in the historical and political context.
I expected to belt through the first few chapters that were essentially scene-setting. Mistake. Partially due to the fascination of the subject, and partially due to the way Longstaffe puts it over, I as dragged deep into the text on every page, always learning, always fascinated. The mad king of France in particular impressed me. By the time we started to learn about Joan, it was extremely easy to see how the Franco-English situation had created the perfect world for such events, and how she fitted into it.
The portrayal of Joan and the examination of her life and events that follows is detailed without being a slog, colourful, interesting, and above all objective. In fairness, I’ve read other biographies and seen documentaries and films, so little was truly new for me, though there was some deeper investigation into some of the more obscure angles. It was a good, solid biography though, as I said before, made far superior by the context into which it fit.
The last third of the entire book deals with her capture, trial, execution and the ongoing story. This was nice. All too often a book on Jeanne skips the preamble and the later moves. Often they rush to Joan believing she was given a task by god so they can trawl through the military and political manoeuvrings that constituted her life and works, and then pretty much end with the gruesome burning. Not this book. Just as it sets the scene and then places Joan in it, it slowly, methodically, and very thoroughly, wraps it all up. we are treated to an in-depth investigation into her trial and then tantalising ideas of what it meant for the future.
All in all, this was an excellent biography. Not necessarily new ground, but examined in a new way for me, and made richer and more meaningful in doing so. I heartily recommend it not just for research but also simply for the joy of learning. A lovely read.

Written by SJAT

March 21, 2018 at 11:23 pm

Heroines of the Medieval World

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In the interest of transparency, I’ve been a friend of the author of this book on Facebook for years, our joint interest in history being the connection. That being said, our direct historical paths have rarely intersected, mine being military in the classical era and hers being more of a social history angle in the Medieval era. Then, oddly, there came a convergence. In the same year I signed up to writing a Medieval novel and selected as major characters two strong women, Sharon Bennett Connolly announced this book. Given the odd connection, I was dying to read it. I was therefore really pleased to be offered a review copy and a chance to be part of her blog tour.

My Medieval heroine characters (whose identity I will not reveal for fear of spoilers) actually do not appear in Sharon’s books. In fairness they are REALLY obscure characters, so that’s not a surprise. But the fact is that, despite their absence in the text, Sharon’s book is a wealth of information and a learning curve for anyone wanting to research the role of women in the era. And, of course, for anyone simply with a passing interest in the subject. It has great value for research and just for general interest and gave me a number of new insights that will inform my own tale.

I had expected the book to be a series of biographies, with each section focusing on a different woman. I was surprised, therefore, to find that it had instead a thematic approach. Each chapter covers one aspect of women in the medieval era. One, I was interested to find, was about women and religion, which was the subject that currently interested me. But there are other aspects that also touch on my subject. Really, the book covers ever angle I can think of on the subject, missing nothing.

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(Medieval women playing music)

I shall condense my review of the book into pros and cons. You will be pleased to hear, no doubt, that I have only one con to mention and consequently I shall start with that.

Cons: The only downside I found in the book may be more of a failing in me. There was, I thought, a tendency to assume that the reader was familiar with the era and comfortable with the names and details. Consequently, I spent time either dazzled by a machine gun barrage of Medieval names or having to read back and re-check facts. I am, of course, used to writing Roman military, and while I’m currently working on Medieval stuff I spend a lot of time double and treble checking and correcting things. I suspect that this con is unlikely to touch on the general readership, since most people who buy and read this book will be more comfortable with the era and conventions than I. The upshot? Not much of a con at all I guess.

Pros? Well there’s plenty, but four deserve mention specific here:

  1. The sheer level of depth and research Sharon has put into every nuance of her book is impressive. In fact it is this level of detail that led in some way to my only con (noted above.) It is impossible to argue against the veracity of her text, she is simply that thorough. I consider at best 50% of my non-fiction books to be ‘go-to’ texts that I feel I can completely trust. This book has joined that illustrious section.
  2. Also, it is put together in an almost conversational fashion, the information delivered in an easy, informal manner. There is an almost skald-like way she approaches these characters, as though they are not so historical characters under the microscope as friends about whom she has SO MANY STORIES.
  3. The thematic approach means that I could concentrate on the aspects that had more connection with my own subject. I suspect that as a reviewer I should approach all aspects equally, but that’s not really what non-fiction works are for. They are for specific research. And the organisation of this book works well in that respect in that it is also therefore non-consecutive and the reader can leap back and forth to the sections that are most pertinent without having to rely on missed text in between.
  4. Finally, this book covers a huge swathe of time and geography. From the pre-Norman conquest world deep into the age of chivalry this is a really all-consuming text. One might think, given the very specific nature of the subject that it would focus on a short period or locale, but this is actually a more far-reaching work than I expected.

Bravo to Sharon for her depth of work.

In short, this is a very accessible and informative book that should appeal not only to the serious student or researcher into the subject but to anyone with an interest in the Medieval world and/or the role of women in history.

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So there you go. Do have a look at the other pages in this blog tour, all of which are fascinating (I read them ALL yesterday!)

A review by Annie Whitehead here

An article about non-warrior heroines here

A guest post here

Another guest post by Sharon here

An extract here

Another excerpt here

An excellent review here

An interview with Stephanie Churchill here

A video review here 

A guest post on Nicolaa at the Review here

Another guest post here

And an extract here

About the author:

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Sharon Bennett Connolly, has been fascinated by history for over 30 years now and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites, including Conisbrough Castle. Born in Yorkshire, she studied at University in Northampton before working in Customer Service roles at Disneyland in Paris and Eurostar in London. She is now having great fun, passing on her love of the past to her son, hunting dragons through Medieval castles or exploring the hidden alcoves of Tudor Manor Houses. Having received a blog as a gift, History…the Interesting Bits, Sharon started researching and writing about the lesser-known stories and people from European history, the stories that have always fascinated. Quite by accident, she started focusing on medieval women. And in 2016 she was given the opportunity to write her first non-fiction book, Heroines of the Medieval World, which was published by Amberley in September 2017. She is currently working on her second non-fiction book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, which will be published by Amberley in late 2018.

Written by SJAT

November 11, 2017 at 8:40 am

Rome’s ballistic missile

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Image result for mike bishop pilum

Whether you’re a reenactor or a historian or a writer or reader of Roman history, you will have come across this weapon. Along with the gladius, it is the staple of the Roman soldier. In fact, given the varied evolutionary form of Roman swords, the pilum might be the ONLY staple.

Prepare to have your horizons broadened once more. I thought I knew quite a lot about the pilum. I was, of course, wrong. I suspect Mike Bishop counts ancient Roman military facts to fall asleep at night. By the time he moved into long trousers, he was already more knowledgeable than I will ever be.

Osprey produce some of the very best works of military history. Bishop produces the best in Roman text books. The combination is always going to be good, as was proved in his earlier outing with the gladius in the same series.

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This book opens by shattering the common myths of the weapon. The book moves through the disputed origin of this most infamous weapon, into its development and the many changes it underwent during the great length of Roman military power. Even relatively unexplored aspects such as the ‘throwing strap’ are dealt with – and this is something I only came across a year or two ago in my research.

The section on the pilum’s construction and manufacture is detailed enough that the reader (if he was more competent than I, anyway) could go away and make a pretty good example.

Other sections cover the methods of usage throughout Roman military history, maintenance, ownership, transportation and more. Notably, he even explores the end of the weapon’s usage, its successors and influence, but also the limitations and failures of the weapon.

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Not only is the text enlivened throughout with excellent illustrations, many by the author, but is also explained and clarified with tables of appropriate details from excavations and ancient sources

One thing that always stands out for me with Bishop’s work is how clearly it is the most explored and reasoned of studious texts. Constantly Bishop compares archaeological evidence with a wealth of primary historical sources, which is as far as many historians get. But Bishop also compares the work of reenactors and utilises common sense and logic to answer questions that none of these sources could do on their own. As such, I trust his judgement on Roman military equipment above all others.

And as a final note, the section of the throwing of the weapon makes it look so easy. I’ve done it. It isn’t!

Anyway, if you like your Roman history or your military/weapon books, this is a cracking tome. I like my Osprey books, but this is one of the best, and one to which I will repeatedly turn while writing my novels.

Go get it.

Bishop

Written by SJAT

May 24, 2017 at 9:30 am

Gladius

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gladius

I love Osprey’s military history books. I have a shelf full, mainly of the ancient world ones, but with some variation. Each book is written and illustrated by different contributors, and consequently they are of varying quality (though only one or two I’ve come across have ever been less than good). On occasion, though, an Osprey book reaches the heights of excellence and becomes a real ‘go-to’ book on the subject.

As well as Osprey books, I like Mike Bishop’s books. I have half a dozen of them, published either by Armatura Press or by Pen and Sword. And I know when I pick up one of Bishop’s books that I will not be able to argue with or have reason to doubt a word therein. Along with Mary Beard and Adrian Goldsworthy, Bishop is one of those folk in whose knowledge I have implicit trust.

So an Osprey book by Mike Bishop? Hell yes! ‘The Gladius’ is one of Osprey’s most recent publications, part of their Weapon series, which covers everything from spears to assault rifles. I cleared my table, for I wanted no distractions, and I read it. Then, because I knew how much I’d learned and how much must have escaped my memory, I read it again. And soon, after reviewing it here, I’ll read it again. And as long as I am writing Roman fiction, I will constantly go back to it for reference, probably more than any other Osprey book.

This book takes you through the evolution of the ‘Spanish Sword’ from its origins, through adoption by the Roman republican army, its gradual changes in form, and to its eventual supplanting by other types of blade more suitable for the changing nature of Roman warfare. It covers the types of Gladius found, in incredible detail. Pompeii, Mainz, Ring-pommel and others, even less well-known to the lay reader. It examines their use and their role in combat, their methods of manufacture, the part they have played in Rome’s history, and even their effects on the world that followed.

The level of knowledge and detail in the book is impressive. I had not previously been aware of the level of variation or the sheer scale of finds that are referenced. I had not considered the possibility that blades were not formed from one forging of steel and not forge welded with separate edges of different types of steel. I had not considered just how clever the grip of the sword is. I was not aware of the discrepancies in the ancient accounts of their use that, to be honest, as a writer I can exploit!

And therein lies an extra level of value for me in this book. I have learned a number of things on a subject that I thought held little new for me. Boy was I wrong. And what I have learned will filter into my own novels, lending them an extra adge of authenticity.

What you have here is one of the very best Osprey books on offer. Knowledgeable, educational, and fascinating, yet put forward in a very accessible way (one of Osprey’s strengths and, helpfully, one of Bishop’s too.) It is also beautifully illustrated throughout, which supports the text beautifully, including some fascinating detailed drawings by the author. There is no filler or padding in this book. It is 100% on course with its subject and no matter how much you think you know your Roman weaponry, you’ll learn something from reeading it.

Pride of place on my shelf. Is it on yours yet?

Written by SJAT

December 1, 2016 at 10:50 am

Roman research – en Francais

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Something a bit different for this Thursday’s review. I’ve been tidying the bookshelves of my office and four of my research texts in particular caught my eye. Why? Because they’re the four I have that are in French. I’m not a fluent French speaker, by the way. I have ‘holiday French’ along with more specialised Gallo-Roman-connected French. This means that when I need to read a book on Rome in French, I can instinctively translate about every third sentence at a glance, and the other two I will need to work on. Hard work? Yes. Especially for research. But rewarding? Well yes. Let me explain why, for each book:

01

A comic book! Gods, yes. Some consider it a lesser form of literature, and maybe if you’re talking about Dennis the Menace I might nod, but this graphic novel of Rome vs Gaul at the last great stand is really a very high quality read. This was one of the books I bought when I was writing Marius’ Mules VII, which centred on the siege of Alesia, and it influenced my vision of the battle and the warriors as much as any archaeological or topographic research. The authors and illustrators have put such passion into the detail, that it is impossible to not appreciate it. The armour and equipment are authentic. The oppidum of Alesia itself is spot on, having walked the site a few years back, and the Roman siege works are very well done. What’s the story? Well, I couldn’t tell you in truth. I didn’t read it as a story. For me this was a visual thing. And as a series of images of the events leading up to Alesia and the battle itself, it is hard to beat. Some day I will read it as a novel too. Hopefully it won’t disappoint. I have the feeling it won’t.

02

Another text I bought for Marius’ Mules VII. This, however, is a serious text book. An archaeological treatise with a focus on the site and its remains rather than the famous battle that took place there. And this book I read whole chunks of. Not everything, since it is all encompassing, right down to dealing with the trial excavations in the days of the Second French Empire. For me it’s a 4* book, rather than 5, as it tends to be a little rambling at times, and could be more organised and focused. A two page spread on Napoleon III, I deemed rather unnecessary, for instance. And many pages are given over to antique illustrations connected with the subject (woodcuts and 19th century maps for eg). But as far as it lags in that respect, the upsides of this book are fabulous for anyone interested in Alesia. The archaeological work in the book is covered in such detail even a true expert would learn something. And the topographical illustrations are excellent, too. My interpretation of the Roman defences in my own account is almost entirely based on this book.

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Moving on from Alesia, this is a book I bought when writing Marius’ Mules VIII. Roman Marseilles is not a subject that is heavily covered in books, and certainly not in any depth. I bought this, expecting something a little like the Alesia one above – a graphic novel with some nice illustrations. It’s not. And any other books in the Voyages d’Alix series that cover places I will write about, I shall most certainly buy. The series covers many, many places in ancient times, from Jerusalem to Mexico, even! And it is not a graphic novel at all. It is a proper research book – just written for kids. Now that suits me down to the ground, since it meant it was picture heavy and much easier to read/translate. Each two page spread through the book covers an aspect of ancient Massalia, from religion to the port, to trade, to baths and so on. And along with a good descriptive text, it is illustrated with photos of remains and finds, and with reconstructions of the style and quality you can see on the cover above. Best of all for me, it had two panoramic views of the city, one during the period of Greek control and one later, under the Romans. Without this book, my view of Marseilles in MM8 would have been very different. And it will come into play again next year, when I get to MM10 and the siege of that same city.

04

The jewel of the collection. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, even if you’ve not a word of French. Anthony Riches, author of the excellent Empire series, put me onto this book and I bought it immediately, and have opened it at least once a week now for years. It is a complete visual topography of Rome in the age of Constantine. It is organised by region and nowhere is left out (most books covering this sort of subject focus on the famous bits and gloss over the rest.) Whole sections of very informative text, accompanied by lovely glossy photos of the current city’s remains, are punctuated with fold out maps in the form of panoramic reconstructions (again such as on the cover above.) But these are great big and very detailed images. Better still, each one is unlabelled and clear (again as above), but is accompanied by a copy of the same image a little washed out and with each location labelled. I cannot stress enough the value of this to anyone trying to understand the ancient city of Rome. Praetorian 1 and 2 were both written using this as an almost constant research text. Not so Marius’ Mules, as the book concentrates on the early 4th century city, and the Rome of Julius Caesar would look a great deal different. But…. well, just buy it and look at it. Try not to drool on the pages!

So there you go. Four French books in one review. If you’ve an interest in the subject, they’re all recommended, each for different reasons.

Back to normal next week with a 20th century historical novel review.

Written by SJAT

April 14, 2016 at 9:48 am

Welcome to Blackpoo

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wtb

Every now and then you read a bit of a game changer. I read a lot of historical fiction, and most of that is quite sombre and takes itself very seriously. So it’s nice once in a while to read something light-hearted. And that’s what this book is… in spades.

The story of one man’s first couple of years in teaching, this tale is told as a retrospective from the completion of his degree and his initial excitement at landing a job in teaching through disillusionment, pain and discomfort, practical joking, humour, alcohol, idiocy, madness and heroic stands against THE MAN (who in this case is ‘the woman’).

The story is a gentle, insightful, personal, and humorous look at the early days of a career. It is a beautifully written homage to that noble profession. And given the fact that this man is a science teacher, and my own interactions with science have been less than successful, it has to have been written well enough to keep my attention.

Back in the day, I read a number of excellent humorous books that were written in diary form. The prime one for me, which I read annually and never failed to make me laugh, was ‘The Art of Course Moving’ by Michael Green. This book reminded me of it. It is the first book in a year, I think, to make me laugh out loud, and even bring tears to my eyes. There is no better recommendation for a humorous book than that.

In short, this was a cracking read. Funny, touching, and easily readable, it is well worth less than the price of a pint for the kindle copy. Not currently available on paperback, but perhaps will be soon. Buy it, sit back with your feet up, and chuckle away a few hours.

Written by SJAT

March 31, 2016 at 10:18 am