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Archive for the ‘Non Fiction’ Category

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.

Image result for pilum

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

In search of our Ancient Ancestors

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I received this book from Pen & Sword courtesy of UNRV, where this review will also appear. I will say from the outset that the reason I accepted the review copy was because I found the concept interesting enough to draw me in to read, so I started on good terms.

I am, for those who don’t know me, a historian and author with a solid bent towards the classical world (especially of Rome) and to the successor world of Rome. I am a scientific dunce. I cannot change a lightbulb, or even explain how one works. But just ask me about the religious policy of Maxentius, I dare you. So it turns out that there’s only a small amount of this book that I can say deals with my area of expertise.

Adoph has set out on the grandest of missions: to explain to the layman how the universe came into being, how life and eventually humans evolved and how they began to shape their world into one in which succession and descendency mattered. Nothing too grand, then…. I would say the book can be neatly split into perhaps 6 parts (which clearly do not correspond with the 5 parts into which the author divides it!)

1. Adolph begins by spending perhaps a third of the book on dealing with the creation of our world, from a fairly in depth look at the big bang, right down through our evolution with legs and lungs, right to sloping foreheads, neanderthals, Homo-everything etc. I personally found this section fascinating, as it examined a subject about which I am vague at best, and did it in an engaging and clever manner.

2. The evolution of humanity from our earliest stages down to the city-builders and farmers was equally interesting to me, as it filled in a lot of blanks in my knowledge and did so, again, in a engaging way.

3. Sadly, for me, part 2 slid into what I consider part 3, which was a seemingly endless investigation of genetics. I coped with the subject until about the thirtieth use of the world ‘haplotype’, but after a while the sciency section really blurred, and I had to fight to keep my interest. Did I mention I am about as scientifically-oriented as a cheese and onion baked potato. Now don’t get me wrong – there will be people who love this section, and good on them. But not I.

4. Aha… suddenly we’re back to the fun stuff for me, with an investigation into the world of the Neolithic through to the iron age. Troy, Sumer, Greece, Rome, Egypt, ancient Britain etc. Now, to be honest I was a little taken aback here by some of his precise text. ‘Hallstatt culture – a social order dominated by violent warriors whose faith in the druidic concept of reincarnation…’ is a prime example. The only records of the druids are from Roman authors and are heavily influence by Roman views. We simply have no idea what the druids’ concepts actually were. Similarly, talking of William I of Normandy, Adolph says ‘His descendants sit on the British throne to this very day.’ They do not. There is no direct blood link between the Norman Duke William and the house of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, separated by a series of incoming bloodlines and usurpers. I know this is probably small fry in the scheme of the book and has been simplified to smoothly put the point to the reader, but if discrepancies like this appear here, might they appear elsewhere? Perhaps this is me on my historian soapbox and, to be honest, it does not invalidate the point and the general message of the book which shows a great deal of in-depth research.

5. An examination of the creation myths around the world, attempting to put them into a unified perspective and putting them against the background of evolution and descendency. This was, for me, the most fascinating part of the whole book, and the one which taught me most. I will take away with me pieces of this research as life knowledge. Moreover, without wanting to annoy my religious friends and readers, you all know my views, and I smiled at the following lines: ‘We can recognise them as the products of active, questing human minds, sometimes stimulated by religious trances and religious drug use. We can relax and enjoy them for the fantastic stories they really are.’

6. A conclusion and then a dip, briefly, possibly just to befuddle me, into the whole haplogroup science again.

Overall, the book was a thoroughly engaging and interesting read, clearly not entirely suitable to everyone. A science duffer like me had to frown and count the floor tiles throughout the genetic investigations. A true believing follower of any religion will have some trouble with the pragmatism. But I think everyone will find something of interest within and I can guarantee that everyone will learn something.

Written by SJAT

March 10, 2016 at 9:30 am

Demon’s Brood

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db

Every now and then you come across a non-fiction title that really stands out and is as much fun to read as a good novel. Such is Desmond Seward’s history of the Plantagenet dynasty. In fact, I found it so interesting that I kept highlighting little sections and will post them here in the review to give you an idea of why this book is so worth reading. Witness extract 1:

1

It came as something of a surprise to me to see the range of dates and kings covered by the book. I had always thought of the Plantagenets as being the sort of Henry II through to Edward I or II sort of era. Surprised me to see that the story begins in the 10th century and only comes to a close in the Tudor era with the last lost scions of the family. 2

The book takes a specific format, beginning with the origins of the Plantagenets and then taking us through the dynasty one king at a time, and then finishing with an examination of the fading of the family from the limelight after Bosworth Field.

3

For each king, we are treated to a brief precis, then a chronological acocunt of their life and reign, focusing on each important aspect separately, with an examination of their personality, the historiography, and then finally a summation at the end. This is a nice, neat way to deal with them and worked very well for me, with a sort of smattering of tit-bits that clung to the memory.

7 Another thing that struck me with the book is just how much I learned, even about the kings I thought I knew quite well. And, indeed, how interesting some of the kings I really knew little about (Henry IV for eg) compared with those I did (Richard I). So as I went through, I selected one little fact about each king that I hadn’t known by was fascinating.  10

*Guffaw*

Here’s a sample of what I learned:

  • Stephen & Matilda – if Matilda hadn’t come out on top, we’d probably have had a king Eustace!
  • Henry II – was given Ireland by the Pope. Who knew?
  • Richard I – offered coastal cities & his sister to Saladin’s brother if he would convert to Christianity…
  • John I – was unusually clean, with an impressive bathing routine
  • Henry III – was thoroughly happily married!
  • Edward I – rebuilt the sinking port of Winchelsea.
  • Edward II – he really did die in the gruesome manner we heard as kids. I’d always thought it exaggeration!
  • Edward III – at the battle of Berwick killed over 4000 Scots, but lost a knight, a squire & 12 foot soldiers…
  • Richard II – his clerk of the King’s Works was one Geoffrey Chaucer!
  • Henry IV – fought in the Baltic crusades with the Teutonic knights. Fascinating.
  • Henry V – first king since the Norman conquest to use English for his written business.
  • Henry VI – was a very prudish fellow who abhored nudity.
  • Edward IV – despite fighting some of the worst actions of his age, he never lost a battle!
  • Richard III – was a very capable sea captain and curtlailed the menace of Scottish piracy.

See what I mean? Fascinating little facts, and there are thousands more waiting for you in the book.

11

The book was released by Constable yesterday, and I recommend it thoroughly, whether you have an interest in the Plantagenets or not. It’s always good to learn more about our history, and this is to some extent the forging of the nation we know.

If I haven’t managed to hook your interest with these titbits then I never will. Go buy the book and have a read. You’ll be fascinated.

Written by SJAT

March 4, 2016 at 11:13 am

Tough Rides – India

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tri

Some of you will remember that a while back I ran a review of a book and DVD combination of an adventurous motorcycle journey around the periphery of China. The adventurers themselves were a pair of Canadian brothers, Ryan and Colin Pyle, who had pretty much staked everything they had to ride the adventure of a lifetime.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and DVD both and recommended them a number of times. Well it seems that our favourite Canadian bikers have acquired the taste for the extreme. I recently learned that they had followed up their journey around China with one around India, and are even now engaged on a similar escapade around Brazil. For those of you who didn’t hear about the first one, the premise was simple (even though the journey was far from): Two men on bikes riding around the circumference of the country.

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The second series (Tough Rides: India) follows the same principle, starting from Delhi and riding around the outline of India in a clockwise direction.

The first thing I can most definitely say is that compared with the first volume, which was self-funded and self-produced and was the brothers’ first attempt at anything like this, Tough Rides: India has a more polished feel. The first was an excellent DVD but at times had a little issue with clarity of sound or roughness of segue. That is gone in this series. Clarity and professionalism-wise, it might well have been BBC or Discovery Channel.

Also, this volume seems to have more depth to it. The first was based purely on the journey and the struggle to complete it (and that was enough, by the way, given the difficulties they faced.) In India, the brothers seem to have gone into the whole project more focused on the production of a travelogue than the journey it charts.

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The places they visit on the route are among those that are at the top of my Asian Bucket List. Varanasi, Amritsar, Taj Mahal and Mahabodhi temples to name but the biggest. It helps that in my heart I am more or less Buddhist in my belief, so the brothers’ journey took in some places that really interested me on many levels. And it seems the pair planned well the sites they would visit to give variety, culture, and the unexpected for the viewer.

As with their journey around China (and any good travelogue) the brothers visit places that are both famous and obscure, ancient and modern, meet fascinating people and discover peculiar customs. Unlike the China journey, there is less focus on the roads and the traffic, though it still plays an important part, obviously. Some scenes are enough to put you off the idea of driving in India, and make my complaints about bad British drivers pale into insignificance.

But the thing I like most about this, especially given the Buddhist leanings I mentioned earlier, is that the brothers explore something of what religion means to the vast and varied population of the sub continent. They visit Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic temples and speak to the holy men and the ordinary believers of them all. And the strange way in which the great religions sit juxtaposed and theoretically at odds, and yet actually work seamlessly to support the people and the land, is fascinating.

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And while the sound has improved immeasurably in volume 2, the photography was already superb and has maintained its high standard, perhaps also improving somewhat. The scenery and imagery is stunning.

As previously, the journey is at times funny, heart-stopping, exciting, sad and exhilarating. It certainly boosted my urge to visit the place.

Bravo Ryan and Colin Pyle. Job well done, I say.

If you have a liking for good travel documentaries, go get this and give it a watch.

Written by SJAT

August 20, 2015 at 9:00 am