S.J.A. Turney's Books & More

Reviews, news and inside the world of books.

Posts Tagged ‘agricola

Finding Agricola – a review of texts (pt 1)

leave a comment »

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.

Advertisements

Interesting People

with 5 comments

Today I have little to report, so I have instead decided to name 10 people in history that fascinate me. The interesting thing is that none of these people are figures that I knew all about because they were famous, but rather are people that I’ve found out about accidentally and become fascinated as a result.

Philip II of Macedon.

You see everyone knows about Alexander the Great, but fewer know much about his father. And yet, in reading a book a long time ago on Alexander, I came to the conclusion that I prefer his father and find him much more interesting. Philip was a third son of the King of Macedon and spent his entire youth in captivity in Greece. Yet at 22, he returned home, turned the almost collapsed heap that was Macedon once more into a powerful Kingdom, fought back the enemies that threatened it, reorganised the army such that it became the most powerful military machine in the world at that time, and conquered the whole of Greece. If he had not been assassinated by a bodyguard, what could he have achieved. Alexander may be more famous, but without Philip’s groundwork, he’d never have achieved what he did.

William Plunkett

In the belief that the story is true, Plunkett was a highwayman in the early 18th century (see him played by Robert Carlyle in the movie .Plunkett & MacLeane’. The thing about him that fascinates me though, is that he survived, emigrated to America and, according to at least one account, ended up as a colonel fighting for independence against England in 1776. That’s quite a fascinating end for a poor English criminal, eh?

Guzman the Good

Alonso de Guzman. First ever heard of him when I visited Tarifa in Spain many years ago. He is remembered there as a great hero in the mould of El Cid. Guzman was charged by the King with defending Tarifa castle against the moors. His son was held captive by the King’s brother who sided with the Moors and the Prince threatened to kill Guzman’s son unless he surrendered the castle. Guzman said that he would not allow himself to betray his country and that if the Prince killed the boy, he would just damn himself and heap honour on both of them. He even threw his own knife down to them to do it with because it was an untarnished Christian blade. This is a man who put honour above everything. Such people are rare.

Harald Hardrada

Heard of him? Probably not. He was a viking in the 11th century. However (and I think I’ve talked about him before) he lived the most amazing life before dying in battle only 30 miles from where I sit. Though you probably think of vikings as hairy barbarians who lived in the icy north, Harald fought all across eastern europe, making a name for himself, served as an officer in the Varangian bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople, was imprisoned and escaped, fled to Russia where he married a Russian/Swedish princess, became King Harald III of Norway, conquered Denmark for a time, founded the city of Oslo, and invaded England, dying at the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 where he was defeated by Harold II of England, who then had to rush south to fight the battle of Hastings against William the Bastard less than 3 weeks later. Had the battle gone the other way, we would have grown as a Scandinavian country rather than a middle European one. Harald is widely regarded as the last great Viking and with him, the Viking age passes.

Robert de Brus

The one I’m talking about isn’t the famous Bruce who was King of Scotland and featured in Braveheart, but his dad. The de Brus (or Bruce) family are good Yorkshire folk from near me. They founded the priory at Guisborough and only became involved in Scotland when one of them was made Lord of Annandale. The 6th Lord (the one I’m talking of) fought in the Holy Land during the 9th Crusade, helped the English King Edward I crush Wales, and finally took part in the first war of Scottish Independence, on the side of the English! Yes, the father of the man who became King Robert the Bruce and the greatest symbol of Scottish independence, fought against Saracens, Welshmen and Scots all on behalf of the English, and was from a Norman-French family who settled in northern England.

Gnaeus Julius Agricola

Agricola is a well-known name among Roman historians, though many of you will never have heard of him. He was a general under the Emperors Nero, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. He was the uncle of the great writer Tacitus, who wrote his biography. Agricola was governor of Britain for a time, is responsible for some of the great roads of the province, built the Stanegate line, the precursor for Hadrian’s Wall, conquered the rebellious north, actually beat the Scots and pacified Scotland (though it was subsequently abandoned) and may indeed have even briefly invaded Ireland. His success and reputation were so great that the Emperor eventually had him recalled and shuffled into retirement, Tacitus suggests because his achievements were outshining the Emperor’s. And yet despite a life of military campaigns, involvment with the Boudiccan revolt, the civil war in Rome in 69, and irritating an Emperor not known for his patience, he died peacefully on his estate in the end.

John Lilburne

Freeborn John. He’s actually very important and deserves to be more famous than he is. I’d never heard of him until wifey and I went to see a ‘folk opera’ called Freeborn John in 2008, starring New Model Army, the Levellers, Maddy Prior and Rev Hammer. Since then I have read much of him, and seen him in ‘The Devil’s Whore’ on BBC TV. Lilburne was a radical during the English Civil War. Even back in the 17th century, John espoused the ‘freeborn rights’ of man. He was repeatedly jailed, punished and tried for illegal pamphleting and causing disturbances. He fought for Parliament in the civil war, but resigned his commission in 1645 because he claimed the army was trying to curb his free rights. He may be considered a member of the ‘Levellers’ movement, though he claimed not.  He drafted three constitutions that were never ratified but have been used as the basis for many great documents since. Finally, he was exiled to the Netherlands, though he returned eventually and was subsequently imprisoned yet again. Finally, his health declined in prison and he died while visiting his pregnant wife. He is remembered as one of the earliest proponents of the rights of man.

Colonel Thomas Blood

You may know that name, but probably not. I had heard of him. Blood is infamous in England as the Irishman who, in the late 17th century, attempted to steal the crown jewels of England. He had been a royalist during the civil war, but had switched sides halfway through to support Cromwell. After the royal restoration, he attempted to kidnap the Duke of Ormonde in Ireland and escaped to the Netherlands when his co-conspirators were caught and executed. He returned as a wanted man and attempted to kill the Duke this time, being foiled once again. Then, in 1671, he, in disguise, ingratiated himself with the keeper of the Tower of London’s crown jewels and as a result, managed to steal them, hammering a crown flat and sawing a sceptre in half for transport! However, he was capture while leaving the castle and the crown jewels retained. Blood was taken before the King where, and this is where he becomes a legend in my eyes, the colonel was cheeky and so engaging that the King discovered he liked the man, pardoned him and gave him land! A familiar figure at court afterwards, he continued to be the same audatious man until he eventually fell ill and passed away a free man, never having served punishment for treason, kidnapping or attempted murder.

Alcibiades

Greek statesman from the 5th century BC. Alcibiades is another of those rogues and scoundrels that I like. He was an Athenian that advocated war against Sparta. However, after he was accused of sacrilege and brought to trial in Athens, he fled to Sparta. In Sparta, he advocated war against Athens and became a general. However, he pissed off important people in Sparta and ended up having to run away again, this time to Persia, enemy of all the Greek states. Here, he became a military advisor to Persia until Athens cleared his name and invited him back (not sure why!) He served once again as an Athenian general before being exiled. He was once more on his way to seek refuge with Persia when he died, possibly at the hands of Spartans. Alcibiades is the ancient Greek pinball.

Charles Piazzi Smyth

My final choice is local for me. He is buried in a churchyard in a village on the edge of Ripon, my hometown. Smyth is an interesting 19th century man. Born in Naples, he became Astronomer Royal of Scotland, designed a tent with an attached groundsheet, wrote a book about his travels to Tenerife, travelled to Egypt and became a ‘pyramidologist’ and is buried beneath a small pyramid with a cross on top.

I bet you’ve all got favourite interesting people too eh?

Go on… who are they?