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Damned if you do, Damned if you don’t

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(or Why I choose to write about the ‘damned’ emperors.)

Alright, you’re going to argue with me from square one, but in my opinion, if we can call Augustus an emperor, when he never acknowledged himself as one and assiduously kept republican characteristics, then we might as well apply the same to the somewhat infamously dictatorial Caesar, his great uncle.

I trust we need not delve too much into the history of this man. His life and death are fairly well known by even the least academically minded. Et tu, brute. Infamy, infamy… they’ve all got it infamy! And so on. So, yes, Caesar was not an official emperor, yet he bears all the hallmarks of it. By his death he held unshakable power in Rome, and the laws had been repeatedly bent or ignored entirely to allow him to continue his rule. It was rumoured that had he lived, he intended to move his centre of power away from Rome to Egypt, which was likely one of the contributing factors to his assassination.

Though Caesar never suffered the specific Damnatio Memoriae that later emperors enjoyed, his death was no murder by a power-hungry opponent or a personal beef settled with a blade. Caesar was stabbed 23 times, and each blade was wielded by the great and the good of Rome. After his death, Brutus addressed the crowd with the words ‘We are once again free.’ If this is not being damned by the senate of Rome, then I don’t know what is, so we’ll proceed with that justification and classify him as damned.

And it’s important that I do, because that’s where it all began. I came to write about Caesar through the eyes of one of his officers in the Marius’ Mules series, the first novel I ever wrote, back in 2003. Up to that point, I had viewed Caesar as a bold and heroic character. A genius and a general supreme. Essentially, history’s common view. And unlike most of my forays into the world of such characters since then, where I have had to look beyond later character assassination to redeem a human within, in Caesar’s case it is more a matter of finding fault with a man given to us as a perfect Roman, because the sources we have for Caesar generally praise him. Once the civil war that followed his death had settled, it was his own blood who controlled Rome for the next century, and the entire imperial system owed itself to Caesar and his direct successors, so while emperors may later have reviled some of their predecessors, Caesar remained on his pedestal throughout. As such, accounts of him were guaranteed to be positive. Perhaps most of all, the account we have of the high point of his career was written by the general himself. There may, therefore, have been something of a bias involved.

As such I spent my time throughout the series glimpsing tantalising images of a less perfect man, and tried to portray him as such. Caesar loses his temper a few times, yes, but he is always gracious and merciful, brave and powerful, shrewd and resourceful in his writings. Surprise, eh? But the first works to cover his campaigns that were not written by him were the “Alexandrian War” and the following “African War”, both of which were probably written by his deputy Aulus Hirtius. In those two works, Caesar’s actions often come across as rash, hasty and ill-thought out. In both cases he still wins the day, but unlike the earlier texts of Caesar himself, they portray a man who essentially ****s up the entire campaign and only survives through a combination of thinking outside the box and blind luck. Add to this the fact that Caesar had many lovers, possibly several love-children, and three wives, the last of whom was still his wife when he was messing around with Cleopatra, and the image that begins to form is of a rather less than perfect man for all his genius and glory.

This is why I loved to write about Caesar, and this is what has spurred my interest in other such cases. The sheer fascination of delving into a well-recorded character and trying to reassemble a real person from the caricatures of history.

Next up is Caligula. This was my first foray into truly studying a damned emperor. Most people will be aware of Caligula, at least as a raving lunatic, a murderer and a weird porn character played by Malcolm McDowell. There probably has not been an emperor damned after his death who became as famous as this man. He is given to us as the man who made his horse a consul, who fought a war against the sea god, who made his men gather shells and stones and bring them back to Rome as spoils of war, of an incestuous weirdo who slept with his sisters.

Alright, so that is what we’re told. Caligula ruled for four years and upon his assassination, he was the first emperor to suffer what we now call Damnatio Memoriae, in which his name was erased from everywhere, his statues smashed, his laws repealed, his coins defaced, his very name condemned, and he being denied the right to ascend to godhood. He was stabbed by members of his own Praetorian guard, who suspiciously found Claudius hiding nearby and proclaimed him emperor immediately. It might be noted that Claudius was Caligula’s uncle, who was undoubtedly rather put out for those four years that the imperial throne had completely bypassed him. He was not treated well by Caligula, and so a suspicious man might suggest that Claudius was behind the plot to murder his nephew. Otherwise it’s all a little too convenient.

And the odd thing, if we accept these stories at face value, is that Caligula seems to have been very popular with the majority of Rome. The army liked him. The masses liked him. The only people that didn’t like him were the senatorial crowd, who, you might note, were the ones who wrote all the stories of his madness after his death. Now, a suspicious man might be scratching his chin and wondering how much of what we know is actually complete garbage, and what the real Caligula (who’s true name, coincidentally, was Gaius Julius Caesar) was actually like.

Just to give a couple of examples of my research and conclusions on the real Caligula, we’ll first take his horse, Incitatus. There is no denying Caligula loved horses and the races and so, in fact, did many emperors. But what do we actually know of Incitatus? The horse is recorded in two sources. Suetonius tells us “Besides a stall of marble, a manger of ivory, purple blankets and a collar of precious stones, he even gave this horse a house, a troop of slaves and furniture, for the more elegant entertainment of the guests invited in his name; and it is also said that he planned to make him consul.” Very well, he spoiled the animal for sure, if Suetonius can be trusted. But even Suetonius, who repeatedly condemns Caligula only gives us a vague rumour that he would have made his horse a consul. Cassius Dio gives us “One of the horses, which he named Incitatus, he used to invite to dinner, where he would offer him golden barley and drink his health in wine from golden goblets; he swore by the animal’s life and fortune and even promised to appoint him consul, a promise that he would certainly have carried out if he had lived longer.” More of the same, and this time only personal opinion that he would have done such a thing. One might remember that Suetonius was writing imperial biographies in the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian, some 80 years after Caligula’s death. His source material was already biased, for Suetonius was not born until 30 years after Caligula’s death. Similarly, we might view Dio with suspicion, for he was even later, writing nearly two centuries after Caligula’s death and basing his tale on a long-held tradition of madness. Thus, our main sources are the equivalent of me now putting together a biography of a Hanoverian monarch, only with much less to work from. Both of those writers were working with an imperial agenda in mind that necessitated the condemning of Caligula and the Julio-Claudians, and if these recorded events ever actually happened, a tempting suggestion is that the whole thing was a rather acidic joke on Caligula’s part aimed at humiliating the senators.

Similarly, the story of the chests of shells and pebbles the legions carried back as plunder can be seen very differently, when one realises that Caligula had gathered his legions for an invasion of Britain, where they seem to have revolted against him on the French coast. What better humiliating punishment for soldiers who have rebelled than making them carry chests of stones all the way back to Rome as the spoils of their war? Again, this reeks of Caligula’s very dry and potentially dangerous sense of humour. Not a sign of madness, but an indication of a man not afraid of dark humour aimed at those who defied him.

Essentially, when one looks deeper at Caligula, one can see a character greatly different from the one presented to us. Oh, he was no god, for sure. His sense of humour seems to have been cruel and acerbic and to have missed the mark repeatedly. He was suspicious (but then any man who had watched his entire family arrested and executed in his youth might be suspicious). But he also appears to have been glorious, beloved of his people, brave and wily. One thing he does not seem to be, if you pull apart the sources, is insane. This, then, is what I love about damned emperors.

Next up is Domitian. The second son of the renowned Vespasian and brother of glorious Titus, Domitian never expected, and was never expected, to rule. He was . History has presented us with a quiet and bookish, yet also wicked and brutal, character. Domitian ruled for a good 15 years, in the end falling to a conspiracy of the emperor’s own freedmen. His character has come down to us mainly through the writings of Tacitus and Suetonius, both of whom solidly condemn him, and yet one might note, both of whom are writing in the reigns of the emperors who only owed their existence to the fall of Domitian and the Flavian dynasty, and who naturally vilified their predecessor in order to justify their own power.

If, however, one looks at the scant evidence we have of contemporaries who were writing during the time of Domitian, such as Statius, we find the emperor being praised and portrayed as a glorious figure. One must always be aware of bias in both directions with ancient biographies.

I have yet to write a novel centring on Domitian, though it is already planned and very much in my sights. However, in my first foray into non-fiction, I have biographised the general Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the father-in-law of Tacitus, and a man who served during Domitian’s reign. In researching this, I repeatedly came up against Tacitus assassinating the emperor’s character largely in order to heighten the glory of his subject. But often in Tacitus, while he attributes to Domitian a truly abhorrent character, when he actually provides detail, it often doesn’t marry up with that image.

As examples, Tacitus tells us Domitian: “was by nature a man who plunged into violence“, of his “sinister intentions“, of “the emperor’s cruelty“. He tells us straight that Domitian resented Agricola’s success and popularity, and harboured a great hatred. And then in his text, he tells us also that for Agricola “Triumphal decorations, a public statue, and all the insignia that go with an honorary triumph were therefore decreed by the senate on the emperor’s command, coupled with a flattering speech.” For an emperor who had no trouble imposing imperial will, this seems rather at odds, as does the fact that when jealous opponents repeatedly accuse Agricola of crimes, the emperor throws out the cases. Most impressive of all, when Agricola fell ill in his last days, Tacitus tells us that Domitian sent court physicians and freedmen to attend him, and even that there were “more visits […] than is usual with emperors.” Though Tacitus tries to inflect all these events with sinister motives, it really does not add up, and what we are left with is the impression of an emperor who actually values and cares for his general.

I can’t wait to get my teeth into a full novel about this fascinating man who was so damned and despised after his death and yet who had been a secret agent, an overlooked second son, and who had inherited an empty treasury and left a wealthy Rome for his successors and a huge architectural legacy across Rome.

Emperor Commodus facts

Ok, you may not have recognised him from the name, but I bet the pic jogs a few memories. Commodus, portrayed above by Joaquin Phoenix in the movie Gladiator, was my second foray into fictional biographies, with an eponymous novel. Commodus was my attempt to delve into the sources and tear apart the chaff to find the real character, as I’d done with Caligula.

Commodus is given to us mainly by Cassius Dio, Herodian and the Historia Augusta. While not portrayed as an insane and dangerous lunatic as was Caligula, he comes across as a megalomaniac and a man given to wild notions and flights of fancy, often cruelly at the expense of others. Once again, though, we must beware of the sources. We can say with some certainty that Commodus came to blows with the senate more than once, and that there was a gulf between the two that was filled with resentment and distrust. As such, one might expect senators to be somewhat damning of the emperor who had so defied and belittled them. Cassius Dio was one of those very senators Commodus hated. Herodian’s career is not fully known, but there is solid circumstantial evidence that he too was a senator at that time. The Historia Augusta’s section on Commodus is likely based on the works of Marius Maximus who, you guessed it, was of senatorial rank during the reign of Commodus. Thus our three main sources were all naturally hostile towards the emperor. Can we trust what we’re told? In this case less even than in other such works.

In some places, these biographies clearly delve into the fantastical and ridiculous. The HA gives us the laughable event: “he put a starling on the head of one man who, as he noticed, had a few white hairs, resembling worms, among the black, and caused his head to fester through the continual pecking of the bird’s beak — the bird, of course, imagining that it was pursuing worms.” Dio tells us of Commodus in the amphitheatre that “On the first day he killed a hundred bears all by himself“. Herodian, at least, steers largely clear of such fanciful notions, but even he dips occasionally into hyperbole.

Of the accusations of megalomania, several of his acts are cited, and yet once again, a lot of this is down to the angle one takes on them. He is known (confirmed in inscriptions) to have changed the names of the months to his own twelve names: Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, Exsuperatorius, Amazonius, Invictus, Felix, Pius. Mad? Really? When the month of Quintilis had been renamed after Julius Caesar two centuries earlier, and shortly after that, Sextilis had been renamed for Augustus – July and August as they now are? One might suggest this is a little over the top, yes, but there was a solid precedent for it, and that its usage is recorded even out in the Syrian desert suggests that it was not really considered unacceptable by provincials. And how crazed was it that he refounded Rome after a disastrous fire and named the restored metropolis Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana after himself? Mad, right? So why do we honour and celebrate Constantine for refounding Byzantium as Constantinopolis? Is that not the very same megalomania at work? Or perhaps we should worry about his identification with Hercules, for he dressed as the god at public events. Surely that’s properly barking mad? And yet a bust of a young Commodus portrayed as Hercules as a boy can only have been commissioned by his father, the great Marcus Aurelius, and so was Commodus perhaps merely continuing his father’s vision? Moreover, the identification of emperors with that god arose once more a century later during the tetrarchy, so really this is not an isolated thing, but an imperial trend.

In my research I came to the conclusion that Commodus was neither wicked nor insane, but rather suffered Bipolar disorder (previously known as Manic depression), which would fit his darker moods and periodic withdrawal from public life, as well as his somewhat over the top glorious notions. Certainly, Commodus cannot be the monster we are given.

Following the death of Commodus and the brief reigns of two successors, the next real power in Rome was Septimius Severus, but to secure his throne, he had to put down usurpations by Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus. Niger never managed to secure acceptance by the senate, and so was not truly an emperor, though Albinus was briefly legitimised by Severus.

I have yet to delve in depth into the lives of these two usurpers, though both have appeared in the Praetorian series, particularly Niger, in which they are portrayed simply as ambitious Roman noblemen. Let’s largely skip them for now and move onto more fertile ground.

For our last exploration, I’ve put the final two on my list together. Diocletian was the man who founded the tetrarchic system (splitting the empire in half and appointing a senior and junior emperor to each.) He ruled from 284 to 305 AD. Maxentius, one of several claimants to the western empire as the system collapsed again, reigned from 306 to 312. Both men are among the last to be damned, and their reputations have suffered in particular because of their opposition to Constantine. Their biographies come to us mostly through Christian writers who favoured their hero Constantine, and so any man Saint Constantine was set against is naturally vilified.

Of Diocletian, Eutropius says “He used his victory, indeed, cruelly, and distressed all Egypt with severe proscriptions and massacres. Yet at the same time he made many judicious arrangements and regulations, which continue to our own days,” gracing us with an unusually rounded image of a man both damnable and laudable in different ways. Cruel and dangerous, yet clever and an able administrator. Indeed, this juxtaposition is echoed throughout Eutropius: “He was willing to gratify his own disposition to cruelty in such a way as to throw the odium upon others; he was however a very active and able prince.”

Lactantius, on the other hand, not only gives us a very one-dimensional view of the emperor, but he also makes his bias very plain from the outset: “While Diocletian, that author of ill, and deviser of misery, was ruining all things, he could not withhold his insults, not even against God.” Thus, it is with extreme care that we have to consider anything Lactantius tells us. Diocletian was one of the greatest persecuters of Christians in history, and so the views of Christian writers are unlikely to be positive.

Actually, the evidence for Diocletian’s damnation is scant, for he retired and died naturally in a villa in Croatia, though an inscription found in Rome in which Diocletian’s name has been scratched out and replaced with that of Constantine hints that Diocletian’s reputation went the same way as his co-emperor Maximian, damned by Constantine even if he later rehabilitated the man’s memory. Diocletian is something of a bit part player in the Rise of Emperors series that I co-wrote with Gordon Doherty, an Emperor Palpatine to Galerius’s Darth Vader. In our work he is characterised as cruel and dangerous, possibly even mad. This may be a caricature, but given that even the more positive biographies of the man make him cruel, it seemed natural to follow the trend. Quite simply, even if you’re not a Christian, given that Diocletian presided over one of the most brutal and widespread persecutions in history, it is hard to see him as little more than a villain.

To the last of our emperors, then. Maxentius is the son of that very same Maximian mentioned above. Maxentius is my protagonist throughout the Rise of Emperors series, alongside Gordon’s Constantine, and with him I had to apply much the same system of research as with Caligula and Commodus. Maxentius has once again come down to us as the villain of the piece, a brutal and cruel usurper facing the sainted and wonderful Constantine. Our sources for Maxentius are universally Christian and therefore in Constantine’s pocket, and so it should come as no surprise that they damn Maxentius. The approach here, though, is different to those earlier emperors, for there is no accusation of madness among these biographies. Maxentius is simply wicked, dangerous, licentious and evil.

One might note from the outset that Maxentius had every bit the same claim to the Western Empire as Constantine. Both had been sons of emperors, and both had expected to be included in the succession. When they were not, both took matters into their own hands, Constantine proclaimed by his army in York, Maxentius proclaimed by the Praetorian Guard and the senate in Rome. There are, in fact, few lines in the sources at all on Maxentius. He is not well covered by contemporary writers.

Lactantius, one of Constantine’s great biographers, only deals peripherally with Maxentius, though he labels him from the outset “a man of bad and mischievous dispositions, […] proud and stubborn.” Though he treats the events of Maxentius’s reign only in snippets, even at the end, the demise of Maxentius is noted as “The hand of the Lord prevailed.” Thus is Maxentius presented to us as an agent of the devil, despite the fact that there is no real evidence of Maxentius’s cruelty towards Christians. Indeed, there is only actually one direct story of the man persecuting Christians.

The somewhat fanciful legend of Saint Catherine of Alexandria says that she went to Maxentius when he instituted persecutions. She argued her stance and managed to out argue 50 pagan philosophers summoned by the emperor. At this point he loses his temper and begins to imprison and torture he, eventually leading to her death, when her body oozed something like milk instead of blood. Quite apart from there being no evidence of a Maxentian persecution, the story holds less water than a cotton colander. And just to hammer a nail into that coffin, the Christians of Rome had been forbidden to elect a high priest (a pope) under Maximian, yet Maxentius saw the investiture of three popes. Hardly the actions of a persecutor of Christians.

Beyond Lactantius, various Panegyrics do Maxentius little service, though one of the other main sources is the 5th century historian Zosimus. Zosimus periodically has a stab at Max’s reputation here and there with phrases like “conducted himself with cruelty and licentiousness” and yet his treatment of the actual events is surprisingly neutral, and even tips in the direction of admiration occasionally with moments like “They would have destroyed the whole city, had not Maxentius soon appeased their rage.”

The simple fact is that whether the sources are entirely damning or just a little dubious, Maxentius is given to us as a hater of Christians, a bane to Rome and a dangerous and unacceptable usurper. No one has a good word to say about him, and yet we have to remember that all those writing do so under the aegis of his enemy and successor, Constantine. So if Maxentius the hater of Christians, the tyrant and the despot is a fiction of vilifying biographers, what do we know of Maxentius the real man?

Actually, the most telling thing about Maxentius comes from surviving archaeology and geography. While Galerius, Constantine, Licinius, Daia, and every other weasel barking during the tetrarchy, sought imperial power, each and every one imagined the seat of that power somewhere in the provinces. Serbia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Germany, each emperor ruled from a court somewhere in their heartland. Maxentius was something different. Though he had been born into a once humble family from the Balkans, it was Rome for which he stood and which became the heart of his domain. The only Roman imperial sceptres and regalia ever found have been attributed to him. At the very end, when facing Constantine, he consulted Rome’s most ancient scriptures and fought to protect Rome, even turning its walls into the impressive specimens we can see today. Logic and a little investigation suggest that despite his provincial origins, Maxentius was the only claimant of the era who represented Rome.

Furthermore, Rome had seen only a few eras of great public building in 300 years of emperors, and these projects were all attributed to great men. Augustus remodelled the forum and began to fill the Campus Martius with monuments. Vespasian and Titus extinguished the excesses of Nero and replaced them with magnificent public buildings. Trajan filled Rome with great works for the people. Other rulers constructed buildings in scattered numbers, but only the greatest of emperors embarked on city-changing projects of grand public works. And the last one to do so? The last emperor to embark on a plan of public buildings in Rome was Maxentius. And were the works mere self-aggrandizement? Alright he may have built a villa with the mausoleum of his son on the Via Appia and a new private bath on the Palatine. But he also built or reconstructed all of this:

If one looks at the archaeology and tries to ignore the worst of the propaganda, what comes out of it is the image of a traditionalist. In a world where emperors are trying to change the administration, the geography, the capital, even the religion of the empire, Maxentius stands for Rome, as an echo of the great emperors of the past. In a way, he is the last great pagan emperor of Rome. Indeed, he is the last emperor to rule from Rome, and the last emperor to reside on the Palatine. Maxentius is, to me, the last true Roman emperor.

So that’s it for now. I shall in time investigate and rehabilitate others, and certain names are already in my sights, but if you want to read about the emperors so far, here are the books. All are available through online stores such as Amazon and the iStore (except Agricola which is available as a pre-order only), and Caligula, Commodus and Sons of Rome are available in your local bookstore also. Happy reading and let’s reform the reputations of a few great men…

Written by SJAT

April 9, 2021 at 9:07 am

The Art of M C Scott

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rtaow

There’s only one way in which I could say Manda Scott’s work is predictable: every time I pick up a new Scott book, I can guarantee it will be new, refreshing, fascinating and totally different from anything that’s gone before.

I’ve loved the Rome series from the first book and it’s natural for a series to improve as the reader gets used to the characters, the milieu and the writer’s style. Scott’s series is different, though. The first and second books followed a style, being third-person tales revolving around a small group of characters based on a central protagonist. The third though, Eagle of the Twelfth, was a wonderful departure, continuing the series while yet taking it out on a wide swing, choosing a new viewpoint and treating the series’ main character in an almost peripheral fashion. I’d wondered after that how Scott was going to tackle a fourth book in the series. And the answer is that she’s thrown the reader another astounding curve-ball. Rome: The Art of War is a stunning tale written in the most unusual, fresh and astounding way that it will have authors crying out ‘Why did I never think of that?’

So what is this astounding style? Well the entire story (which takes place over a surprisingly short space of time) is told in the form of the affidavits or sworn statements of almost all the characters that had a role in it. Each chapter is told from the point of view of another character, in the first-person, and yet each picks up the tale where the previous teller left off, giving the reader a view of the entire story through the eyes of those that were instrumental in it. Once again, as in the previous book, the central protagonist of the series is not the teller – he is the subject of the story instead, and it is interesting to see him being assessed by each teller, often with different views of him. I cannot think of an adequate comparison for the method of storytelling, which in itself is a suggestion of how fresh the style is.

This is, of the entire series, the book most rooted in espionage. Though the main character throughout all four (Pantera) is a spy, this is the first time we’ve had a chance to see him in his element, doing what he does best rather than in the field, in the provinces. The result is a twisting, turning, often surprising trip into the seedy underbelly of Rome. A comparison struck me at one point that I can only see as favourable. One of my favourite movies of all time is Where Eagles Dare. If you’re familiar with it, you’ll remember the scene at the dining table with the German officers under the watchful gaze of Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. You’ll remember how the story suddenly corkscrews through the revelations of double and triple agents and plans and background set up so long ago that the characters must have live more than one life for a long while. THAT is the direction I found the Art of War going. Magnificent. Another comparison that leapt to mind is the scene of main characters besieged upon the capitol, which put me in mind of the stunning scene of Colchester’s temple siege in Doug Jackson’s Hero of Rome (to my mind one of the most tense and nail biting scenes ever written.)

Characterisation is, as always, perfect, especially given that a number of important characters or ones that will wind up dead cannot have a say in the tale and are only seen through the eyes of others. I’ll largely gloss over this because if you’ve read books 1-3 you’ll know what you’re in for, but I will state for the record that I’ve long had a hidden soft spot for the Emperor Domitian. He may have been damnatio and condemned by history, but we all know who writes the histories and the fact remains that Domitian had a very academic and studious mind, was very popular in a number of important circles, actually repaired Rome’s broken economy and probably only suffered history’s hammer because of his relationship with the senate. Well, Scott has painted a sympathetic and believable portrait of this strange and complex man and I found that one of the freshest and most memorable parts of the tale.

In short, this is the conclusion of the Year of the Four Emperors, taking the story from Vespasian initial claim to the purple, through to the death of Vitellius and the way being opened for him. It takes the manoeuvring of troops and men (and mostly spies and agents) that has slipped into being a footnote of Vespasian’s story and opens it up in fascinating detail, telling the tale closely and with great care. Mixed in with the documented facts are the interwoven storylines of Scott’s spies, from the secret network of Seneca to that of Antonia, the network of street urchins that rule Rome’s rooftops, the agents of the emperor Vitellius and his cruel and dangerous brother, and so much more, forcing Pantera to call in all his favours and contacts built up over a lifetime in an attempt to put the right man on the throne for the good of the empire.

Rome: The Art of War is a masterpiece and out on Thursday 28th. Read it and agree.

Written by SJAT

March 26, 2013 at 2:52 pm