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An Imperial Miscellany

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Most of us know a few of the Roman emperors. Many of us can recall important facts about the better known ones. What occurred to me as a fascinating question was whether it was possible to say something short but interesting about each of them drawn from their contemporary sources, and so I decided to try. I’ve used here only classical sources and gone from the first acknowledged emperor (Augustus) to the last emperor of a unified empire (Constantine), and so a period of just over 3 centuries, for a total of 53 rulers (not counting most co-emperors or usurpers). Of course, these ‘facts’ are only as accurate as the ancient writers who recorded them for posterity. Fake news is nothing new….

Augustus – The first emperor, famed for enacting numerous morality laws, yet was accustomed ‘to lie among twelve catamites and an equal number of girls.’ Let’s hope he had a king-sized bed eh?

Tiberius – Narrowly escaped being crushed by a rockfall in the grotto of his villa near Tarracina. Shame it missed, really…

Caligula – Bridged the Bay of Naples from Baiae to Puteoli, held a triumph across it and claimed to have conquered Neptune. Neptune may have thought otherwise.

Claudius – Had knives fashioned from the swords of two gladiators who felled one another simultaneously.

Nero – Sent his mum down the Tiber on a ship designed to collapse, yet she survived the shipwreck and he got so frustrated he just sent a centurion to kill her instead.

Galba – Claimed descent from Jupiter on his father’s side and from the wife of King Minos on his mother’s. Talk about connected….

Otho – ‘Splay-footed and bandy-legged’ and ‘almost feminine in his care of his person.’ Clearly he was no oil painting.

Vitellius – Banished astrologers from Rome. Well done, Vitellius!

Vespasian – Imposed a tax on public urinals and it was so unpopular that they soon became known as Vespasiani!

Titus – In the arena he had a battle between cranes! While I love to picture this as Roman scrapheap challenge, I think it means birds, though that raises its own questions….

Domitian – He prided himself that he didn’t bury perfidious Vestals alive as was custom. He just had them executed in other ways. Ah well, that’s alright then…

Nerva – Always had to ‘vomit up his food’! I’ve seen his beak-like nose. Maybe he was trying to feed the fledglings.

Trajan – Brought pantomime back to theatres, an artform periodically banned, since it often led to riots! Pantomime riots? Who knew?

Hadrian – It is because he lost a cloak that emperors thenceforth never wore such a garment in civilian public.

Antoninus Pius – Swarms of bees settled upon his statues all over Etrutria!

Marcus Aurelius – The famed philosopher king was fond of boxing and wrestling. Not bad for a sickly child…

Lucius Verus – Out in Syria he became so fond of restaurants that when he came home he had one built and staffed in his villa. A McVerus Happy Meal, please…

Commodus – Put a starling on the head of a man with thinning white hair so that it pecked at his skull, thinking they were worms. Strange behaviour, but stupid bird!

Pertinax – At meals he would serve nine pounds of meat in three courses, no matter how many were eating.

Didius Julianus – On the other hand (see above) made a hare last for three days!

Septimius Severus – Was charged with adultery in his youth, but acquitted. He wasn’t, however, charged with youthery in his adulthood.

Geta – Never gave presents.

Caracalla – Was busy having a whizz when he was killed by a knife blow to the side at the urinal.

Macrinus – Gave himself the nickname ‘Felix’ – lucky. Ironic, really, given he reigned for only a year and was decapitated.

Elagabalus – Had himself completely waxed or plucked regularly. Mmmmm… smoooooth.

Severus Alexander – Was born on the same day that Alexander the Great died.

Maximinus Thrax – Punched a horse and knocked out its teeth.

Gordian I – Owned a house once owned by Pompey the Great.

Gordian II – Had 22 concubines, with 3 or 4 children from each. Playaaahhhhh!

Maximus & Balbinus – Maximus thought Balbinus was weak, while Balbinus though Maximus was too low class. A partnership made in heaven…

Gordian III – When he was proclaimed emperor there was a solar eclipse.

Philip the Arab – May have been the first emperor to convert to Christianity.

Decius – Disappeared in a swamp.

Trebonianus Gallus – Exiled not one, but two Popes…

Valerian – Was captured in battle by Shapur of Persia and lived out his days used as a human stool when the Persian king mounted a horse. So he was sort of… a stool sample?

Gallienus – Planned a colossal statue of himself that was never quite finished.

Claudius Gothicus – Had two gold statues set up by the senate

Aurelian – This emperor was one of three Aurelians around at the time, and so this particularly martial one was nicknamed ‘Sword in Hand’ to distinguish him from the others.

Tacitus – Forbade the wearing of purely silk garments

Probus – Cultivated viticulture in Western Europe. He is the man responsible for French and Spanish wine! All hail Probus, Lord of vino!

Carus – May, or may not, have been struck by lightning. Crispy…

Carinus – Appointed a hobo to sign documents for him!

Numerian – Was killed in secret in his litter on campaign, and then still carried around until the stench alerted his soldiers, and the killer was attacked.

Diocletian – The only emperor who successfully retired, Diocletian grew the most astounding cabbages, or at least, according to him. He refused to return to power in case his horticulture suffered.

Maximian – Built a palace near Sirmium on the spot where his parents had once been ordinary tradespeople.

Galerius – Died as the result of a ‘malignant ulcer’ in his ‘secret parts’!!!

Constantius – The nickname ‘Chlorus’ he later acquired means yellowy-green and may point to a long-term illness he suffered

Severus – Called a dancer and habitual drunkard by Galerius, who was one of his better friends!

Licinius – His ‘boundless ignorance’ made him ‘hostile towards literature’

Maximinus Daia – Suffered an illness so painful that he went mad and began to eat handfuls of dirt

Maxentius – The last emperor to have a Praetorian Guard, and the last to be appointed by them.

Constantine – Through the marriage of sisters of Maxentius, he was both the brother-in-law, and nephew of his opponent! Duelling banjos, anyone?

And thus ends our exploration into the world of imperial miscellany. Hope you’ve enjoyed it.

Oh… alright then 😉

Written by SJAT

October 16, 2020 at 9:00 am

Posted in Non Fiction

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What has that Roman ever done for us?

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Yes, I’m talking about what one Roman in particular did for us. As you may know if you’ve been following my social media recently, I have a new book coming out imminently (14th October in ebook, 10th December in hardback), written alongside the redoubtable Gordon Doherty, a fabulous author and a good friend.

Sons of Rome is the first volume in the Rise of Emperors trilogy, and deals with the early days of the emperors Constantine and Maxentius in the late 3rd and early 4th century. Most people will be familiar with the world-famous Constantine, I’m sure, though I expect fewer of you know much about our other protagonist.

Of course, history is written by the victor, and so Constantine has become both a saint and a household name, his image still visible all over the Roman world and his reputation impressive, while Maxentius has been resigned to barely-remembered footnotes and piecemeal wicked legend.

But the fact remains that though Constantine has left us a few monuments, it is actually Maxentius who has bequeathed to posterity a large spread of monuments that can still be seen and visited. Constantine’s main architectural legacy remains the impressive palace, basilica and baths in Trier (Augusta Treverorum), while the towers often attributed to him in York are now believed to be Trajanic, and the arch erected to celebrate him beside the Colosseum is largely pieces of much older imperial arches that have been stolen and rebuilt for the new hero.

As we shall see, Constantine actually appropriated many of his opponent’s works in his own name, and the main monument in Rome that could be said to be definitively his (a bath house on the Quirinal) has left no visible traces above ground. So what of the other contender. What has Maxentius left us? Well there are still a few monuments in Rome that bear his name, and others that might be a surprise for you. Let’s have a look at them.

This grand structure, just one remaining aisle of what would have been one of the world’s most impressive basilicas, is still mostly known as the Basilica of Maxentius, though some sources do refer to it as the Basilica of Constantine, which is satisfying evidence that while the victor attempted to take credit for everything, it did not always work. Lying within the forum, on the far side to the Palatine Hill, the building remains an iconic monument in Rome. It was most certainly begun by Maxentius, some time after 308 AD, but was probably finished and consecrated by Constantine after 312.

The Palatine Hill was the main city residence of the emperors from the time of Augustus far into the 3rd century. Only by the late 3rd did emperors put more stock in foreign locations, and the Palatine complex declined. Maxentius was the last of Rome’s emperors to have definitely resided upon the Palatine, and he has left his mark in a small way, for atop the Severan Arcades overlooking the Circus Maximus a visitor can find the remnants of a small but ornate private bath house built by Maxentius during his short time ruling the city.

A short distance from the urban sprawl, along the Via Appia Antica (a beautiful walk on a sunny day), lie the remains of several structures that if you are lucky will be open when you pass. The most obvious one is the remains of a chariot-racing stadium, constructed by Maxentius as part of his suburban villa. It remains one of the better preserved stadia in the western world and is impressive in scale.

Attached to the complex I just mentioned, and close to the stadium, lies a great brick box of high walls, surrounding a drum-shaped structure. This is the mausoleum of Romulus, Maxentius’s son, and abuts the road itself, where generations of Roman greats had been interred in mausolea. Despite that this is quite late for Rome, the form of this tomb echoes the great mausolea of Augustus and Hadrian, giving some clue as to how rooted in tradition this emperor of Rome was.

And the last part of that great complex on the Via Appia is the villa itself, Maxentius’s home away from the bustle of the city. There is some suggestion that this villa is a rebuild of a much earlier villa that belonged to the famous Herodes Atticus. Now little remains of the villa above ground, barring a cistern nearby, and the attached mausoleum and stadium, but the importance of this site cannot be overestimated.

Back to the city now, and you might have seen this one in the forum. It is a temple known as the Temple of the Divine Romulus. Though it was possibly an earlier structure dedicated to another divinity, this building was renovated by Maxentius, and seems to have been dedicated to the memory of his son. It forms the rear end of the Church of Saints Cosmo and Damiano. Impressively, the bronze doors are original!

You might now be sputtering angrily, and telling me that the Temple of Venus and Rome at the end of the forum and overlooking the Colosseum is nothing to do with Maxentius. Alright, the temple is definitely far older, yet Maxentius had a hand in it. By the time he reigned in the city, this temple had seen much better days and was in much need of work. What we can now see is largely the result of Maxentius’s reconstruction. So there you go!

What? But the walls of Rome are Servian and Aurelianic, are they not? The great stretch that surrounds the city are most definitely attributed to Aurelian and Probus, decades earlier than Maxentius. But what you might not know is that they were considerably lower and less defensive in their original form. It is thanks to Maxentius’s rebuilding of the walls that they remain the impressive specimen they are. Maxentius raised the height of the walls, added buttresses and hole storeys to the gates, added an archer’s gallery to large stretches of the circuit, and essentially turned them from ‘good’ to ‘formidable’.

My penultimate offering will now have Constantine’s fans spitting feathers. This, clearly, is the famous ‘colossus of Constantine, or the remaining pieces of it in the Capitoline museum on the Campidoglio, Well, yes it is, but the thing is that Roman emperors had this nasty tendency of tearing down the statues of their predecessors if they were unpopular or opposed and vanquished, and having them re-carved to resemble themselves. The simple fact is that this iconic statue shows all the signs of having been reworked from an earlier one (the head is a weird flat shape where the original face has been chiselled off.) The fact is that this was quite possibly a grand statue of Maxentius. But the more enticing fact is that it might just be of his son Romulus. The governor of Sardinia paid for a massive statue of Romulus, and it is more than possible – likely even – that this image of Constantine once bore the image of his opponent’s son.

The rarest thing of all to finish. This is something Maxentius bequeathed to us that is utterly unique. In the national museum in Rome sit these pieces. Discovered just over a decade ago under some stairs in a structure below the Palatine hill, they are the only known Imperial regalia ever found. The sceptres and wands of office of a Roman emperor, probably buried by Maxentius’s men after his demise. They are fabulous and one of a kind, and a reason alone to remember this most obscure of men.

Maxentius is one of those emperors who have suffered Damnatio Memoriae, their memory damned and cursed, their images destroyed, coins defaced, inscriptions scratched out and laws repealed. But while Constantine’s favoured bishops might have done their best to wipe the record of his reign from history, the monumental record speaks for itself. Here was a man who was a traditional Roman, in the mould of the oldest emperors. Thank you, Maxentius, for your gifts to us.

Read about Maxentius and Constantine in Sons of Rome, out tomorrow! Buy it here

Caligula – from the horse’s mouth

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Mad, bad and dangerous to know. Well, actually, that was Lady Caroline Lamb describing Lord Byron. But it got your attention…

So I don’t often blather about my own books on this blog, but today is release day for the paperback of Caligula. And while like every author I love books to sell for obvious reasons, this is the first book I’ve sold that you can readily buy in bricks-and-mortar bookshops. And the success of Caligula will determine how many sequels I get to write. Caligula is out there, and Commodus is coming in spring, but there could be two more. If you lovely people buy Caligula, that is.

Caligula. A new telling of an old, old story.

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Rome 37AD. The emperor is dying. No-one knows how long he has left. The power struggle has begun.

When the ailing Tiberius thrusts Caligula’s family into the imperial succession in a bid to restore order, he will change the fate of the empire and create one of history’s most infamous tyrants, Caligula.

But was Caligula really a monster?

Forget everything you think you know. Let Livilla, Caligula’s youngest sister and confidante, tell you what really happened. How her quiet, caring brother became the most powerful man on earth.

And how, with lies, murder and betrayal, Rome was changed for ever . . .

So now is the time. If you like your Roman history, try Caligula. And watch out on my social media for the next week for one heck of a competition to win some AMAZING goodies. Wander in to your local book store and order it. Or go online and buy it. Christmas is coming up. I bet your dad would love to read a juicy tale about Rome’s most infamous emperor. Heh heh heh.

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Caligula is available in paperback (or hardback) with free worldwide delivery from Book Depository here.

The kindle edition is available here (UK and Commonwealth only, sadly not in the US)

Also available as an Audible audio book here. And really, it doesn’t get better than in the lovely tones of Laura Kirman.

That’s it, lovely people. All I have. Now off to potentially plot two more damned emperors.

🙂

Vale

Written by SJAT

November 15, 2018 at 10:13 pm

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.

Written by SJAT

June 15, 2018 at 11:47 am

The Last Hour

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Rarely does a book all-but leap off the shelf, batter me round the head and say ‘read me’, but the Last Hour was one such rarity. At first glance all I knew was that it was a thriller set in the later Roman empire about a man struggling to make his way through the city against unassailable odds to halt a plot. Sounded soooo good. And I love Sidebottom’s writing – his Ballista books are some of my favourites.

It was not until I actually opened the book, courtesy of Netgalley, that I realised this is for me absolutely the best of both worlds. This is all what I said above, but it is ALSO a Ballista book. This is a new Warrior of Rome novel, taking the whole series and its wonderful characters in a bold new direction, which I love.

It was interesting reading this after the other Warrior of Rome books, for gradually over the series Ballista has built up a familia of fascinating characters who have become almost as central to the plots as the hero himself. They are often set in quite a sweeping scale with epic fights and Cecil B. DeMille scenes. The cast of the Last Hour is seriously stripped back, focusing almost entirely upon Ballista himself, with walk-ons and mentions for everyone else. And it is all tightly-set. One man, in one city, in one day. The focus in terms of time and character is a new and very welcome thing.

With this whole novel set in a single day in Rome, Sidebottom gets to unleash every ounce of his considerable knowledge of the Roman world in a steady flow and in an incredibly engaging way. There is not a hint of ‘info dump’ here. Everything Sidebottom writes that will educate the reader is slipped seamlessly into the tale, and believe me, there’s a lot. I like to think I know the ancient city of Rome well. I’ve explored it endlessly in books and research and on foot with my camera. But even though I know the place well, still I get surprised by some of the revelations in this book.

Quite simply, this is a historical/political thriller that would sit well on a shelf alongside modern thrillers by Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, or Frederick Forsyth, but with an added dimension, in that it is also a cracking historical novel. As I said earlier: the best of both worlds. The book is out on the 8th of March. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Written by SJAT

February 7, 2018 at 9:36 am

The Centurions 2: Onslaught

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Early this year I had the opportunity to read and review Anthony Riches’ first Centurions book, Betrayal. I have now finished the second volume in this trilogy. It should be something of a clue as to the value I place on Riches’ work that my reading time has dropped by 75% this year due to work commitments, and yet I still made time to read both of these.

I said in my last review that the first book felt like a step into a more serious and deep style for Riches. This pace and style does not let up in the second volume of the series. This is one of the deepest and most complex of all military history series I have read.

You’ve heard the phrase ‘does exactly what it says on the tin’? Well this series does just that. Book 1 was military and political, with many switchbacks. Betrayal formed a core theme to the tale. Book 2 continues that trend. Onslaught. That is precisely what this book is. If you are looking for Machiavellian politics or civic and historical investigation or cunning mystery, this is not the book. If you are seeking war, then boy, this is for you.

Onslaught picks up the story of the Batavian revolt in Germania. There is manoeuvring politically through the contenders in the Year of the Four Emperors, but it is done on a personal and unit level in the provinces, not in noble families on the streets of Rome. Onslaught brings you unrelenting war. But it is not dull or repetitive, despite its martial theme throughout. It is possible to make a book about unrelenting war engaging. Movies do it often. Zulu. The Longest Day. Too Late the Hero. So do not hesitate if you’re a fan of the Roman military. This series is for you.

The greatest beauty of this book comes in two parts. Firstly, Riches is a military historian and knows his Roman warfare to an almost unparalleled level. The result then is a deep exploration and illustration of Roman/Germanic warfare in almost every aspect. It is almost like a lesson in Roman war. Secondly, because half these people are Germanic whether they be fighting for Rome or the native contingent, and the other half are Roman but are of their own split loyalties, this is no simple Roman vs Barbarian romp, but makes the reader appreciate the complexities and shades of grey in real Roman history.

The upshot? Well if you read book 1 you’ll be reading 2 anyway. If you haven’t then you are missing out as this is a whole new step from Riches. If you’re new to Riches’ work anyway then what the hell have you been doing? Pick up a book and get caught up.

Highly recommended as always by this man, one of the top authors in the genre.

The Centurions 1: Betrayal

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betrayal

I’m sure if you’re reading my blog you’ll already be familiar with Riches’ work, in the form of his late 2nd century ‘Empire’ series. It came as something of a surprise to me last year to learn that while he is still continuing that series, Riches had sidestepped into a slightly earlier era with a trilogy project based on the Batavian Revolt.

For the record, I’m a huge fan of Riches’ Empire series, which has everything I look for in rollicking historical mayhem. But Betrayal is a different beast entirely. It feels considerably more grown-up than the Empire series (which sounds like an insult to Empire, but is not meant as such.) There is just something altogether more serious, thoughtful and… well, grown up… about this series. There’s no other way to put it.

Set during the Year of the Four Emperors, despite my love of Riches’ work, I approached Betrayal nervously. It is an era that has already been plumbed thoroughly by a number of very good writers, and the whole subject has become a little bit stale for me recently, the last good treatment I read being Doug Jackson’s. I needn’t have been concerned. Riches has done himself proud by looking at this oft-viewed piece of history from a new angle and a new point of view, which is impressive.

In fact, the general direction of the book reminded me of Ben Kane’s seemingly preferred angle, taking on a critical event in Roman history from a non-Roman point of view. In this case, it is largely told from the point of view of Civilis, a Batavian officer, with additional angles provided by a number of centurions on different sides of the conflict. And for anyone not familiar with the Year of the Four Emperors, there are most definitely more than two sides to look at.

Initially, I was a little perturbed by the number of angles and viewpoints, to be honest. Be aware that there are a lot of characters and units to familiarise yourself with, and that can require a lot of memory and concentration. But the same could be said with his Empire series, which involves a good number of important supporting characters, and yet that did not take me long to get the hang of. The same is the case here. It did not take too long to start grasping who was who and what was going on.

This is not a straightforward military romp. It is not a ‘swords and sandals adventure’. This is a deeply complex novel and, while it revolves around military units, the first book revolves more around the political machinations of powerful men, tribal politics and the strengths and failings of a number of imperial personas. In fact, battle scenes are rare for a Riches novel, with good in-your-face combat early and late in the story, sandwiching a knotty plot that is treated with respect and intelligence.

And the win for me? It gave me a new respect for the Batavians and their place in Roman history. Made me appreciate and consider the part they played in the early empire and the individuality of a people I had always rather lumped in as ‘one of those tribes.’

This is a superb book, and the start of what promises to be a cracking trilogy, given how this builds, and how it ends. The book is out on March 9th, and I suggest you pre-order it now or set a reminder to buy it in a fortnight!

Tales of Byzantium

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I am something of a lover of all things Byzantine these days, and an avid reader of historical fiction, of course, and so it’s no wonder really that this book came to my attention. Tales of Byzantium is a collection of three short stories, and so I shall deal with each individually briefly, and then the whole thing to finish.

The first story is primarily a love story. It is the tale of Constantine Porphyrogenitus and his lady Helena (he’s one of my heroes, responsible for Tekfur Saray palace in Istanbul.) This story actually takes up more than half the whole book. Once I realised that this was a romantic tale, just a short way in, I thought I probably wouldn’t like it – historical romance has to be done exceptionally well to hook me. But oddly I stuck with this, and am glad I did, for it is far more than a love story. It is an examination of the characters, of what it meant to be a member of one of the great dynasties, to be the empress, it’s an examination of the dichotomy of the whole Byzantine world, in that they were such a cultured ancient people, who were the most powerful nation imaginable, and yet they were also riven by self-destructive tendencies and unable to come to terms with their both east and west and the changing world around them. Perhaps for me, most of all, I enjoyed the scenery, for Istanbul (Constantinople) is my heartland, and I could picture every location as it was brought forth. No. In honesty, it was the characters of Constantine and Helena. They were beautifully portrayed. So if romance is not your thing, brush that trend aside and read it anyway, paying attention to the people.

The second tale is more my usual fare, being a military story based around a siege involving another of my faves, Manuel Komnenos (or Comnenus in the tale). The characters in this (Manuel in particular) are immensely likeable and deeply realistic. The story is one that has something of a twist, and I liked the way it was framed as a retrospective view. There are action scenes, some humour, and a light exploration of the politics of the era. War fans will enjoy the moments of the actual siege. My one complaint about this tale is that it could so easily have been a much bigger story. It could have been played out slower and longer, as long as the first story, really, and that would have given us more tension over the events that are central to the story and more opportunity to come to know Manuel. All in all, it’s a nice story and a good read. I just feel it was a slightly missed opportunity for something larger.

The third tale is of an exiled princess, who, trapped in a tedious life in a monastery, manages to live a life in almost solitude despite being in a city of millions. Demeaningly for a woman of her status, she is given the task of teaching a young nun to read and in doing so decides that an unfinished story should be finished. This is Anna Komnena, who wrote the great Alexiad which documented the empire at the time of the earliest crusades. Once more, this is a beautiful vignette well-written and lovingly-researched, with well-fleshed out characters and attention to detail. Once again, though, I felt that this came across more as the prologue of a much grander work than a tale on its own. If Stephenson decides at some point to write a grand epic of the eleventh and/or twelfth centuries in thew Byzantine world, this would make a lovely start to it.

Overall, then, the writing is lovely. The characters are presented just right, there is a depth and colour to the world that Stephenson has clearly treated as a labout of love. The stories are entertaining and intriguing and tell of some of the great characters of the Imperial dynasties with a great deal of historical knowledge and accuracy. The whole book is a very easy and enthralling read. My only issue was that of the three tales only one felt complete, the other two being a little brief for me. But at 99p in ebook form, it is well worth the money and worth a read nonetheless, and certainly made me appreciate the author’s skill. I shall look out for further work by her.

Written by SJAT

November 17, 2016 at 2:00 pm

Altar of Blood

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One of the best ways, in my experience, to guage the quality of fiction is how easy it is to read. Yes, there is some crap out there that is an easy read, and yes, there are great reads out there that require concentration and work. But more often than not a book that just grabs your attention and drags you along from beginning to end is a success. I find Anthony Riches’ books to be like that. They hook you in the first few pages, relieve you of sleep, food and work and occupy your waking moments until you reach the end and close the book with a smile. Case in point: Empire IX – Altar of Blood. Started it one morning. Finished it the next afternoon. Couldn’t stop reading it.

Part of it now has become the familiarity with the characters, the setting and the writing style. By the ninth book in a series, readers know they’re going to get what they want. They’re on a safe bet. But kudos is due any author who makes it to book 9 in a series and isn’t simply rehashing old stuff. I pick up Riches’ books and I know I’m in for a treat, though. And even this far into a series, I know I’m in for new twists and fresh discoveries.

Riches, you see, is unpredictable. He cannot be counted on to give us happily ever after, to give us tested formula for all my comments about familiarity. Riches might kill off someone important any moment. He will take us to new places and may even turn the tables so that previous friends are enemies and previous enemies friends. Such keeps things fresh.

With the ninth in the empire series, there is a new feel to the start. Altar of Blood begins with viciousness and eye-watering brutality, and then settles down into an opening tale of tragedy. Then gradually, as our hero is put through the emotional mill yet again, the true tale of the book comes out. We are re-introduced not only to the usual characters but also to the wicked emperor and the snake Cleander. And then our heroes are sent off on a dreadfully dangerous secret mission into barbarian lands, following a brief ‘Dirty dozen’ recruitment session. Interestingly, where the previous books have focused primarily on our friend Corvus/Aquila with interludes carried by his friends, this book is almost entirely narrated around characters that were formerly supporting cast, with Aquila only occasionally coming to the fore.

There follows a tale of subterfuge and double dealing, insurgency and counter insurgency, chases, battles in deep forest and swamp, catharsis and healing, treachery and betrayal and heroism in unexpected places. The tale owes something in form to ‘Heart of Darkness’ or ‘Apocalypse Now’, but one thing is certain: with Riches’ own blend of adventure, action, violence, harsh language and reality born of understanding the military mind, he is becoming something of a Tarantino of historical fiction. Fresh, unpredictable, fascinating and exciting.

And Husam! Oh, Husam, you are sooooo cool.

Altar of Blood is out in paperback today. Have you read the series? No. Then get started, as you’ve a treat ahead of you. If you have, then rest assured, volume nine is far from disappointing. Go buy it now.

The latter days of Rome

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Ok here we go. It might take a while to load as this is an image heavy blog post. There follow 23 images. And here’s your big quiz question to begin: which of these images are Roman. Go for it…

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Ok? Got your answers in order? Here we go…

It was a trick question. All of the above are Roman. Or, if I need to put it another way, if you could ask the builder or designer or commissioner of these structures, they would all tell you they were Roman. And they cover a period of over 2000 years. Yes, I know. It’s often staggering to think of that. At the end of the post, I shall detail the pics, if you’re interested.

Right, the reason for all this tomfoolery is because I keep finding myself confronted with words like decline, fall, and twilight applied to the Roman Empire. It is mostly the fault of Edward Gibbon and his renowned ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, of course. And because of him Alec Guiness was in a film with the same theme. And you know what? They are talking about the period following the death of Marcus Aurelius and the reign of Commodus. And here’s the thing: Rome had existed for 933 years when Aurelius died (if you take the founding in 753 as Gospel, anyway.) But if you count an emperor of an empire that consider themselves Roman in an unbroken chain back to the days of Augustus, then the empire went on til 1453 when Mehmed the Conqueror took Constantinople. That means there was still 1273 years of being Roman to go. So this decline and fall seems to have taken place less than half way through? Pah!

Ian Ross has written a series of novels based around the rise of Constantine around 305 AD. His series is called Twilight of Empire. Now don’t get me wrong, they are very good books and I would recommend them. It’s just that monicker that makes me twitch. 305? 1148 years is a hell of a long twilight, isn’t it? Especially in a day that’s 2206 years long. So can even that era really be called a decline or twilight?

Because here’s the thing: Rome changed. Everyone seems to have this set view of the Roman Empire being the legions in their segmented plate with rulers in togas building playing-card shaped forts, shouting in Latin, worshiping Jupiter and conquering barbarians. Think again. Rome had been through many phases even by Gibbon’s time of theoretical fall. It had been an Etruscan monarchy with a military heavily based on the Greek model. It had been a republic with a Hellenistic/Etruscan/Gallic model of armies. It had been a principate with the first true professional standing army. And it had been an empire that meets common public expectations.

And if we accept that Rome had changed, morphed and grown from its start as an agricultural village to the great empire Aurelius left to his son, then why should we consider the changes that follow a decline or fall?

There was a century or so of political turbulence, yes, and the borders came under much pressure, yes. But even during that time there were periods of golden stability. Gallienus ruled for 15 years with a record that does him credit, for example. And during this time, art changes and blossoms. The mosaicists become multichrome and complex following African influences. Paintings become more varied and imaginative. Religion starts to become a much wider and more complex animal. Cultural identity is becoming mixed. What is a Roman in the late 3rd or early 4th century? Many emperors have now come from Africa, Syria and the Balkans. This is, to my mind, not a decline but a period of change driven by struggle and need, but one of glorious revolution. Sometimes change is difficult, but that does not mean it loses its value.

And so Constantine marks another turning point, as he for the first time shifts the focus of power. Rome is no longer the heart, but Constantinople. Does that make it less Roman? No. The inhabitants are still Roman, ruled by Roman emperors. The army is now a more diaphenous, complex and mobile thing, and includes members of the very peoples they used to fight. The equipment owes as much to the Germanic peoples and the Parthians as to ancient Rome and Greece. But they are still, in their minds, Roman.

Then Rome (the city) falls to the Goths and a short while later the last western emperor disappears into obscurity. Chisel that headstone of empire then, as Gibbon predicted. But no… wait a minute… there’s this thing we now term the Byzantine Empire, centred around Constantinople. But guess what? They did not think of themselves as Byzantine. That is a modern monicker. To them, they were Roman. It was the Roman empire, plain and simple. It spoke Greek, and was centred on Constantinople, and it was a Christian world. But it was still Roman.

So there you have it. Rome, to my mind, fell in 1453 after 22 centuries. It did not decline and fall between the 2nd and 5th centuries. Commodus did not mark the crucial apex before the downward slide. Equally, Constantine ruled during an earlier period of empire, not its twilight. In fact, its final decline I would put at 1204, when the Pope’s crusaders sacked Constantinople and crippled imperial power for good. THAT is the decline and fall. Two and a half centuries at the end  consisting of desperate emperors clinging on in the face of Italian belligerence and Turkish expansion.

Anyway, that’s my two-penneth for the day. And it gave me the opportunity to post some nice piccies too. Back soon with another book review.

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Pic details:

  1. The ‘Romulean Huts’ on the Palatine in Rome (8th century BC)
  2. Outfall of the Cloaca Maxima sewer in Rome (circa 7th century BC)
  3. Temples at San Omobono in Rome (6th century BC)
  4. Temple of Castor & Pollux in the Roman forum (5th century BC)
  5. Servian Walls of Rome (4th century BC)
  6. Temple in Largo Argentina, Rome (3rd century BC)
  7. Walls of Tarragona in Spain (2nd century BC)
  8. Mausoleum of Augustus, Rome (1st century BC)
  9. House of Argus, Herculaneum (1st century AD)
  10. Hadrian’s Wall at Willowford, England (2nd century AD)
  11. Walls of St Albans, England (3rd century AD)
  12. Aqueduct of Valens, Istanbul (4th century AD)
  13. Theodosian Land Walls of Istanbul (5th century AD)
  14. Haghia Sophia, Isanbul (6th century AD)
  15. Church of St Titus, Gortyn, Crete (7th century AD)
  16. Haghia Irene, Istanbul (8th century AD)
  17. Church of St Paolo Fuori le Mura, Rome (9th century AD)
  18. Monastery of Constantine Lips, Istanbul (10th century AD)
  19. Chora Church, Istanbul (11th century AD)
  20. Church of the Pammakaristos, Istanbul (12th century AD)
  21. Palace of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Istanbul (13th century AD)
  22. Brontochion Monastery, Mistra, Greece (14th century AD)
  23. Bridge over the Armira River, Bulgaria (15th century AD)

Written by SJAT

June 26, 2016 at 12:11 pm