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Finding Agricola – a review of texts (pt 1)

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You may or may not know that I am currently departing from the world of fiction briefly to pen a non-fiction work on the life and career of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, ‘The man who conquered Britain’. As such, I have probably read more texts on the subject than any other I have covered in my life. Seriously, the research pile might rival Trajan’s column. And having worked through many books, I am forming opinions of them as I go. Since currently I rarely seem to have time to read fiction, and my book reviews have taken a major back seat, I thought to myself ‘why not review the books I am reading, then?’ So I am. There have been many, but due to time constraints I’m going to look at them four at a time. So if you have an interest in the formation of Roman Britain and you want to know what to read, here’s part one of my review/guide to the subject:

Alright, I hear you. Agricola was in the 80s, along with bands like the Cure, while Hadrian’s Wall wasn’t built until the 120s. I make it my job to acquire all books on subjects that fascinate me, and I pick up HW books at a rate of knots. This one, being written by the most excellent Pat Southern, I could hardly miss. Her books are uniformly great. And having flicked through it I realised that there was a section in the early part on ‘Before the wall’ that delved nicely into Agricola’s time. And unlike many other books out there which have a chapter or less on the man in relation to another subject, this book was pretty sharp, in depth and challenging on our fave general. In fact, it contributed more nuggets of info to my notes than some books that are more or less centred on him. So this book is already a win, just on ‘before the wall’.

Books on the wall tend to fall into categories. ‘What it was like’, ‘What it’s like now’, archaeological treatises and suchlike. And there are many books. What Southern has done here, which was nice, is to cut across all the current literature and produce a nice one-piece book that explores almost every aspect of the wall’s history, purpose, archaeology, life and so on. Never does is dip too deeply into academia (and I have read texts that try to make analysis of pot-sherds in Agricolan Scotland sound like The Dirty Dozen and fail dismally, so steering clear of ‘too-dry’ is to be commended.) But equally it does not gloss over, or miss out. It is, in effect, just deep enough that the scholar will still find something that makes them ponder and question and say ‘ooh, I didn’t know that’, while the amateur enthusiast will not become bogged down in archaeological detail. It’s a lovely read and highly recommended.

For me, of all the texts I’ve used, this one presents me with the most problems, because there is something nagging that I didn’t like about it, but other than that it is one of my favourite books on Roman Britain. As such, I recommend it, but will provide a caveat. This book follows the history of Roman Britain chronologically, attacking each ‘era’ as a chapter, from initial Roman contact to the withdrawal and beyond. And it is really well written. I mean you could read this purely for leisure and consider it a win.

The up? Other than readability? It is fairly wide-ranging and probes well into each era and subject, providing a great deal of material (and I concentrated on Agricola, of course). It is written with occasional touches of dry humour, a lot of reference to sources and clearly a great deal of academia behind each revelation. What it does do, unfortunately, in my opinion, is occasionally make leaps in judgement. It has a tendency on occasion to state as fact something that might well be argued against, and I find that a little naughty in a textbook. It is what put me off getting more than partway through Dando-Collins’s book on the legions. But if you can either ignore such occasional points, or are happy with blissful ignorance of them, this book still has a great deal to offer and is eminently readable. Recommended, with said caveat.

To some extent this book irked me greatly, because it recently came out and covers half of what I was planning with my own manuscript. Damn the man! But then at least the angle for this book is different. The book focuses on Agricola’s great battle and the evidence that surrounds it, examining everything from geography to contemporary accounts. It covers my subject thoroughly, but from that fairly focused point of view, while my own work will be a broader subject, concentrating on Agricola more than the critical part he played in Scotland. In his own words, he has gone beyond Agricola for there is more to the subject that the man himself, while I will be doing in some ways the opposite.

Forder has done his research well, as I can attest, having done much of it myself. I now kick myself that I didn’t read this first, which might well have cut out a whole chunk of my required research. It is presented not chronologically, as a story, but more by subject, as Forder delves into what he concludes and why he does so, leading to his endgame. His reference to archaeological and historical evidence is excellent, and the book, while perhaps not having the easy readability of the previous tome, is much more accurate and laudable. Buy this book, but buy it now so that your wallet is full again when my Agricola comes out!

This book I bought on a bit of a tangent. In planning my own book, I knew I needed to revisit many sites of Agricolan interest in Scotland, and to visit some I’d never been to. This book had just come out. It is my third gazetteer-like tome of Roman sites in Scotland, but the prettiest! I’ll say from the outset that it’s also my favourite.

A listing by geographical region and then by a-z of all Roman sites in Scotland, it covers everything from the impressively visible to the ‘vanished under a housing estate’. That’s both wonderful and occasionally frustrating, but on balance I’d rather have EVERYTHING than miss something. Each site is looked at with brief history, what is known of the archaeology, its current status, and even maps. It is therefore probably the very best source for anyone wanting to visit Roman Scotland.

My only niggle with the book is that on occasion one of the sites will not be quite in-depth enough for me. In fairness, I think that’s my problem and not Tibbs’s. I am looking for a great deal of info on certain sites about which there is little interesting to write, and no guide like this could realistically be expected to cover what I want. So the upshot is this: this is the best book on the subject. It’s beautiful, informative, and eminently usable. Go buy it.

So that’s part one of my review on Agricolan books. Hope it’s of interest and use. Back soon with part two.

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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