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

Reviews, news and inside the world of books.

Posts Tagged ‘Flavian

Finding Agricola – a review of texts (pt 2)

leave a comment »

And I’m back with another 4 ancient Rome texts I’ve been using to research Gnaeus Julius Agricola. My first example is

With my Agricola research, I’ve looked at the effects of his civil governance, largely through Hertfordshire and Chester, and his early campaigns against Boudicca and in Wales. But the prime evidence of Agricola is the northern campaigns, and that starts in Yorkshire, more or less with the fortress of Eboracum. As such this book was a given, because York is also my local legionary fortress and a favourite haunt.

The author is a curator of the Yorkshire Museum, and it is this fact that largely informs the book. After an initial foray into the reasons Roman York exits, its founding, its form and its archaeological history, the majority of the book covers both the Legionary fortress and the civilian settlement in terms of subject. One at a time, he covers religion, burial, art, architecture, and so on. Each subject is built up for the reader and displayed in terms of finds in the museum’s collection.

In truth, the coverage of Agricolan activity was minimal and nothing I could not have taken from another book, but as a guide to Roman York, or even as a basic text on the Roman world, it has much to offer. The images are fabulous, there are a few gem-like nuggets of info in particular, and the whole thing is well presented and authoritative.

Anyone with an interest in military history is surely aware of the books of Osprey publishing. Most of their titles are excellent, and this is, in fact, one of the best. Where Simon Forder’s book (previous review) proposes, based upon camps, a site for the final battle against the Caledonii not far from Perth, this book centres on the more traditional assumption of Bennachie.

The book covers the Roman frontier north of Hadrian’s Wall from their first arrival in the region to the end of the Severan era. Fully half the book is devoted to the Agricolan campaigns and to the Gask Ridge system, both of which are pertinent to me, and both are covered in detail and with a good deal of authority. Indeed, the rest of the book which covers the Antonine era and the Antonine Wall is also very good, if less pertinent for me at the moment.

As with all Osprey books, this is a good historical book, yet an easy read. Accurate and still light, accompanied by illustrations and maps galore. One of their best.

I’ve had this book for a long time and used it in many circumstances. Though now more than 40 years old (like myself!) it remains a solid and respectable text, and few writers could hope to better it. In truth I’ve never read it cover to cover. This remains one of my textbooks I dip in and out of for specific details.

In this case, I was studying the civic centre of early Verulamium at Saint Albans, which has supplied one of only two pieces of epigraphic evidence for Agricola’s governorship. In truth, I learned far more about the specific subject than I expected, the level of research, deep into the archaeology, exceeds what I needed, but that is Wacher’s book. It is no gleaming starter for new students, but a detailed and archaeologically informed work.

In essence I have yet to find a book on the subject that matches Wacher, whether you are looking for a more wide-spread study of the nature of Roman towns or their development, or specific treatments of individual towns to street and building level.

This is one of my most prized, go-to texts on the subject. Wooliscroft and Hoffman are the preeminent academics on the subject of the Gask Ridge frontier system, and their in-depth knowledge of Roman Scotland is hard to match. Indeed, they run the Roman Gask Project, which is revealing more of the system every year. Moreover, this book focuses only on the Flavian era, which makes the whole thing pertinent to my research.

The book is divided into two parts, with the first being the archaeology of the sites which the authors can put forth largely from personal knowledge, divided into regional groups of like sites. The second is an interpretation of this and the conclusions that can be drawn from it.

I will state at the outset that this book is not for everyone. Whereas Roman York will appeal to the beginner, and the Osprey book to most, and Wacher moves more into the wordy and academic, this book is one of the best available, but with its level of archaeological basis it might be a little dry and detailed for anyone who is not thoroughly invested in the subject,

So there we go. Four more books in my research pile. There are many more to go, so look out for a third review at some point.

Written by SJAT

October 21, 2019 at 12:42 pm

Colossus: Stone and Steel by David Blixt

with one comment

css

Every now and then you discover a book that has somehow completely passed you by. I generally like to think I’m aware of the better releases in the Roman genre. I write in it, so I keep my eye on it, of course. I became aware of Blixt and his books through mututal connection. I write books with the historical fiction collective known as H360. So does David. We’ve not worked on a project together yet, but there is that connection, and I discovered in looking at his Verona series that he also has a Roman series.

Now the H360 team don’t take on bad writers, so my interest was truly piqued. I opened the book not knowing what to expect. Sometimes I will read a book purely on the author’s name, sometimes on the title and sometimes (yes I know they say you shouldn’t) on the cover., without reading even a basic blurb. Consequently I had no idea what Colossus: Stone and Steel was about other than it was Roman and written by David Blixt.

Pleasant surprise time. Stone and steel drew me in and kept me reading at any given opportunity until I hit the end and wished I had time to start the next book. Stone and Steel was simply an excellent book.

We start with excitement and atmosphere in first century Judea. The characters are fictional but very realistic and strong, and I was being quickly drawn in when I read a name, made instant connections and realised we were reading about the writer Josephus, one of my fave personalities in ancient Rome. In fact, I had toyed with writing the story of Flavius Josephus myself, and it was a project in a shelf somewhere. Glad I never tried, because I couldn’t do him the justice Blixt does.

You know why? Because this book is partially about Vespasian and the Flavian family, and Rome and its pernickety emperors and implacable consuls. But it is more about the Jewish people in Roman Judea and their struggles against sometimes Rome but more often each other. And while I know imperial Rome quite well, my familiarity with ancient Israel is less than fragmentary. So this book really struck me perfectly. It was at once familiar and strange, Roman and Jewish, imperial and rebellious. Blixt shows a deep understanding of the time and culture and displays a most impressive ability to portray this in fiction.

So now you know this is about the Flavians and Josephus and the Jewish War. And for those who  know the history I will also add the name Jotopata. This is the tale of brothers and friends and family on both sides in a war that no one really thinks can do any good. This is a tale of internecine warfare, of the unstoppable war machine and the uncrushable Jewish spirit. It is the story of a brutal siege and of cultures clashing.

Essentially, Stone and Steel is well-written, beautifully researched, clever, informative, atmospheric and a must read for every fan of the genre. The characters are fully fleshed-out, the action exciting, the history accurate. The book ranks up easily along with the very cream of Roman fiction. I heartily recommend it.

Read Blixt’s book. You won’t regret it.

Written by SJAT

December 24, 2018 at 11:41 pm

Enemy of Rome

with 2 comments

Hi folks, sorry for the extended hiatus. A few books I couldn’t yet or wouldn’t review have combined with school holidays and then a punishing month of writing madly to schedule and resulted in little time to read, review or just plain whiffle. But recently I’ve been back to the reading again, and to get me started, I was spurred on by the resurfacing of an old fave…

eor

Valerius Verrens is back, guys, and back with a bang! Those of you who are following the series will remember that book 4 (Sword of Rome) had ended in something of a cliffhanger, as though the book hadn’t ended but rather hit an advert break. Well ‘Enemy’ picks up seamlessly where ‘Sword’ left off, continuing to tell the story of the Year of the Four Emperors from Verrens’ point of view.

In my review of book 4 I analogised the plot with a pinball machine, Verrens being twanged and shot back and forth betweem protagonists and antagonists almost against his will, necessity and honour requiring that he surrender himself to his fate.

Well I would say that book 5 follows suit, but it wouldn’t be a fair analogy. For unlike the ordered, almost Machiavellian maoeuvering of the previous book, Enemy of Rome picks up the pace and feels more like Verrens is a stick caught in the current of a fast flowing river as it plummets over a fall. He keeps hitting rocks and getting caught in eddies, and all the time moves closer and closer to the precipice.

That’s the feeling. Doug continues to tell the story of one of Rome’s most fateful years with style and vision. Indeed, I found in this book something of the same world-changing prose that created the infamous ‘temple scene’ of book 1 that remains one of my favourite pieces of writing of all time. You see Doug tackles something not many people can write convincingly: a night battle. Oh it’s easy enough to write the mechanical aspect of such an event. But few people can convey the panic, the confusion and the dread involved in it. Doug has done that in spades. The battle scenes in this are masterpieces, and none more so than the night fight.

But enemy of Rome is more than a string of battle scenes. As I noted with my stick and current analogy, Verrens does not often get to play the same role for very long: prisoner, general, negotiator, spy, protector, besieger. Verrens plays his part in the wars that we knew were coming between Vitellius and the rising star of the era: Vespasian. But he will also play his part in the intrigues in Rome, where camps are polarising and the streets are unsafe, while the woman he loves is forced to play a careful game in the house of Vespasian’s brother, for that same house plays host to the vile Domitian.

I think probably the only problem I ever have with these books is that my view of Domitian sits at odds with Doug’s. I see him as a somewhat withdrawn and antisocial character, but an able administrator and a man with sense who was handed the reins of a runaway empire and managed to bring it to a halt. But then every good novel needs antagonists, and Domitian certainly fits the bill with the Verrens series. He is certainly a loathesome character in these books. But praise due in a similar vein for changing my view of another historical figure. My picture of Aulus Vitellius has always been drawn from the views of his opponents and successors, and the picture Doug paints of him is a truly sympathetic one that tugs at the heartstrings. Bravo Doug for your Vitellius.

The story rockets towards the conclusion, which is every bit as exciting and tense as a reader of Doug’s work has come to expect, all the time keeping the flavour and the plot alive, and even leaving time for the characters to grow as it progresses. And what of the end? Well obviously I won’t ruin things for you. No spoilers. But suffice it to say that unlike the cliffhanger of book 4, this book has something of a game-changing ending that might see book 6 when it arrives being something of a departure. I’m certainly looking forward to it, anyway.

In short, then, this novel is a strong component in the continual growth of the Valerius Verrens series and really will not let you down. Full of tension and fury, tortured honour, impossible love and dreadful inevitability, it will keep you riveted til the very end.

Read the book, folks.