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Maxentius – the face of the damned

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It is an inescapable fact that history is written by the victors, and this is rarely as clear as it is in the case of the conflict between Maxentius and Constantine at the turn of the 4th century (click the link just there for a post by Gordon Doherty on that character). Because of the clean sweep Constantine makes of the world he claims, from the reuniting of a divided empire, through the legitimization of Christianity, to the very creation of a New Rome that bore his own name, Constantine’s legacy is hard to ignore. It is all around us in the Church that owes its existence to him, and even in his images. Rome abounds with statues of the man, and his likenesses can be found from Africa to Britain, from Spain to Syria.

But what of his opponent, Maxentius? The simple fact is that during his reign, between 306 and 312 AD, there will have been many statues, busts and images of the emperor who ruled from Rome, yet in the way of things, the majority of those images will have been destroyed following his defeat and his damnation at the hands of the victor. So while we have a very good image of Constantine, derived from numerous surviving busts, we have to search a little harder for Maxentius.

I will not here dive into the unfortunate emperor’s legacy in terms of architecture, though that remains perhaps his greatest gift to us. The Temple of Venus and Rome in its final form, the Basilica of Maxentius, the Temple of Romulus, the great villa and circus on the Via Appia, the baths that were the last structure added to the complex of the Palatine, even much of what we can see of Rome’s walls… all the work of Maxentius.

But what of the man’s image? Few statues have survived. One intriguing possibility is the so called ‘Colossus’ of Constantine, which survives as impressive fragments in the Capitoline museum in Rome. The statue shows signs of having been reworked from a previous incarnation, and therefore it is highly likely to have previously been a likeness of Maxentius, or possibly the statue of his son Romulus that we are told was erected by the governor of Sardinia.

Other busts have survived the destruction of images, though they are few and sparsely spread. Only one full statue of the man has been found in the imperial sanctuary at Ostia Antica, and which is now in the museum there. Appropriately, given history’s viewpoint of the two men who contested the throne, and Constantine’s subsequent sainthood, Maxentius in this statue is portrayed in the very traditional Roman pose of Pontifex Maximus, or High Priest of the Gods of Rome. Fascinatingly, despite the many changes in general attire over the three centuries preceding this date, the garb Maxentius wears, and the way he wears it, over his head, has not changed since the days of the republic, and Augustus, the very first emperor, is shown in exactly the same form three hundred years previously.

Other busts of Maxentius survive, including examples from the Dresden museum, the Louvre, Museo Torlonia, Stockholm museum, and a relief from the Arch of Constantine. The overall impression they create, for me at least, is of a pensive, intelligent and soft man, compared with the powerful, imperious and forthright image in statues of Constantine.

Our only remaining evidence comes from coins, a surprising number of which have survived intact, given the Roman habit of defacing coins of damned emperors. Once again, the image they portray seems austere and thoughtful, packed with Romanitas and tradition.

Maxentius, then, is represented in just six confirmed statues and friezes worldwide, and on a number of coins. By comparison, Constantine is represented in more than six busts and statues in the Capitoline Museum of Rome alone, let alone worldwide. Yet despite the paucity of images of the man who lost to Constantine, it is surprisingly easy to build a mental image and to endow it with qualities. This, then, is the man we should remember, the last pagan emperor to rule from the city of Rome, and the last man to expand its palaces. Hail and farewell, Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius. But his story is just beginning in a new saga from the pens of myself and Gordon Doherty, and the hardback of book 1: Sons of Rome, is out today and you can buy it here.

Written by SJAT

December 10, 2020 at 1:55 pm

Damned Emperors

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I guess it’s slowly becoming my speciality. It all started with Marius’ Mules, written back in 2003, in which I portrayed (and continue to do so throughout the series) the great dictator Julius Caesar. History gives us a larger than life hero in Caesar, (and Caesar’s own writings do nothing to disabuse us of this notioin) though even the slightest reading between the lines shows us a man of more depth and considerably more ambition and callousness than that. But from Caesar I’ve explored so much further.

Caesar accepts the surrender of Vercingetorix by Royer (1899)

The next step came with Praetorian: The Great Game, in which I dared, against traditional opinion, to show a Commodus who was golden and glorious, and not at all a sadistic, wicked and megalomaniac emperor. Admittedly he was young then, and even the ancient sources tell us that he started well. But still…

Then, persuaded to it by my agent (an all-round genius) I moved on to a truly great villain: Caligula, and I was determined to try and find the real man amid the cruel legend, picking holes in the logic or veracity of sources and trying to distill a truth from their viciousness. I think I succeeded, not in finding a nice man, for I don’t think that is true, but a man driven to cruelty by his experiences, not at all insane, and more a victim than a lunatic. This was followed up by re-examining Commodus once more, this time in great depth for his own novel, and from an angle that considered the possibility that he was actually bipolar. This opened up a wealth of possibility in terms of what could have been the truth. I have signed on to write two more fictionalised and rehabilitative biographies of damned emperors for Canelo in the coming years. Watch out for more rehabilitation…

Commodus as Hercules

Now, with the release of Sons of Rome, I’ve managed to get my claws into another maligned emperor: the enemy of Christians everywhere: Maxentius. Of course, once again, the meagre evidence gives us a very different picture to recognised history. This is a man accused of persecuting the Christians and yet who allowed them to elect a pope? Hmmm. I shall leave you to read the book to see what I mean.

What is it, though? What actually is a damned emperor?

Those emperors who suffered what we now call Damnatio Memoriae were surprisingly common when one looks down the list, and do not always tally with what we see as a villain in history. To take an objective point of view, let us say that it matters not how an emperor lived, but more how he died, as to whether he was damned or praised. There are plenty of emperors who started so well but ended corrupt and wicked (Tiberius) or who did the most appalling things but are remembered as great men (Hadrian), so I don’t think we can safely say that being a good man was a ticket to herohood, while being a bad one would label someone a villain for history.

Come on Caracalla, give us a grin….

Essentially, when an emperor, for good or ill, ended up at odds with the senate, or a powerful family member, or often his own bodyguard, and eventually the knife came in the dark (Caligula), or in the toilet (Caracalla), or in the groin (Domitian) or poison was given (Claudius), or sometimes they were just openly hacked to pieces (Didius Julianus), their fate beyond death was decided. Of the 81 emperors, or successful usurpers, who ruled Rome from the foundation of the Principate to the fall of the city in 410, up to 35 may have suffered damnatio memoriae!

If they were popular, even if they had been assassinated and their assassin seized the throne, they might well be granted apotheosis, and be given rites and said to have risen to sit among the gods. They would be given their own cult, they would be remembered in festivals, have priests assigned to them and be generally godly from then on. If they were unpopular, or their enemies were powerful enough to insist upon a course of action in the face of public opinion, the opposite would happen, and they would be officially damned. For the record there were odd occasions that buck the trend. Tiberius was neither damned nor ascended, while damnation for Caracalla was popularly sought, but not granted.

The emperor’s apotheosis as he rises to the heavens, from the column of Antoninus Pius

What happened, then, when an unpopular emperor was damned? Well it was pretty thorough as evidence, or lack thereof, clarifies. Firstly their statues and busts were torn down and destroyed, as well as other images. A famous painting of the Severan family has the face of Geta scratched out after his brother first murdered, then damned, him. Many damned emperors have left remarkably few statues for their incumbency.

Where’d you go, bro?

My latest investigation, Maxentius, has left half a dozen statues at most. Why? Not just because they were smashed. After all, marble was expensive. Bronze statues of an emperor could be melted down and recast, but with marble that was more troublesome. The great colossus of Nero that stood next to the Flavian amphitheatre in Rome (and gave it its eternal name) was changed to a statue of Sol Invictus after his death, and then into one of Commodus in the late 2nd century before being changed again after that. One of the most famous statues in the Roman world is the colossal Constantine that survives as fragments in the Capitoline museum in Rome.

Errrr…. Constantine

The interesting thing is that an examination of the head shows that it is unrealistically shaped, much wider than it is deep. This is a clear indication that the statue was not originally Constantine and has been cut back to change the face. Originally, it was almost certainly either his opponent Maxentius, or possibly his son Romulus who had a giant statue voted to him by the governor of Sardinia. The reworking of statues is an incredibly common theme in imperial imagery, and not as troublesome as you might think. After all, the statues of rich ladies were occasionally tooled to allow for separate hairstyles that could be changed depending upon the fashion of the time. For reference, the only surviving full body statue identified as Maxentius is now in the museum in Ostia. Not a single statue or bust remains in Rome.

Maxentius in Ostia

So does it stop there with the image? No it does not. The unfortunate’s name also gets scratched out of public inscriptions and even things like milestones. There is a wonderful milestone in the Tullie House Museum in Carlisle (RIB 2291) which has been changed three times. The first inscription is now illegible but then, after that was defaced, a new one to Carausius (a usurper emperor who ruled Britain for a while) was added. When Constantine’s time came, the milestone was upended and that end was planted in the ground, a new inscription worked into the other. Another nice example of this practice is to be found in the museum in Alba Iulia in Romania, where Geta’s name has been erased from a monument.

Oops… there goes Geta’s name
The Carlisle Milestone

Is there more to it? So far a damned emperor is lucky to have his face come down to us for posterity, and his name has been removed from most things but the rather damning accounts of later vicious biographers telling what must usually be apocryphal stories. Often the defacing goes so far that coins are deliberately mutilated. Remember that at this time, a coin’s value lies in its inherent metallic content, so defacing it does not necessarily decrease its value. And wait… there’s more.

Often decrees, laws and declarations made by an emperor would be repealed. A prime example is Commodus’s renaming of everything but the family cat in line with his own appellation. Clearly the city remained Rome, and not Colonia Commodiana (though an altar found in Syria confirms that the changes had been accepted readily before his death.) Tellingly, Gaius (Caligula) was in absolute power over the empire for four years and we know from contemporary accounts that he had made reaching changes to seating organisation in theatres, amphitheatres and circuses. We know that he made huge changes in laws to allow his sisters precedence. Yet there are no new laws or statutes surviving from his reign. That he might play with the social order but not alter laws and statutes seems unfeasible, which tells us that after his fall his opponents repealed everything he had put into place.

To some extent then, since usually any remaining family were executed alongside the emperor, they were by and large removed from history entirely, other than the defaming carried out by later biographers. As time went on, and Christianity became more powerful and rooted, the damning of emperors takes on a new angle. Nero is also now remembered as an aspect of the Antichrist in the Catholic Church, Julian was not damned politically as of old, but was demonised and damned by the Church. And my personal favourite, Maxentius, was turned into a vicious hater of Christians by Constantine’s pet Christian writers.

Julian the (fabulous) Apostate

But to those of us who like to study such things, the challenge presented by damned emperors is too much to resist. We are given men portrayed as monsters, with little in the way of evidence, yet there are tantalising hints throughout that there is more to their story than we are told, that they were more rounded and human than history tells us.

I won’t stop investigating them and writing about them, as the damned emperors fascinate me. I hope you find them as interesting.

Four ‘bad’ emperors in a classic Horrible Histories song – (from left to right) Commodus, Nero, Caligula and Elagabalus

Written by SJAT

October 28, 2020 at 10:56 am

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

Tagged with , , , ,

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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cal

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.

cal2

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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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