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Posts Tagged ‘Hadrian

Deconstructing Jerusalem

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My next Praetorian book will be released in early/mid 2021, and among the interesting places Rufinus will be finding himself wandering in book VI is the Holy City, the hub of the three Abrahamic religions. But the problem is that at the time the book is set, Jerusalem is a thing of the past… and but a dream of the future. In 193AD, on the site of that Jewish city is a Roman metropolis by the name of Aelia Capitolina.

What? Well here’s the thing. Once upon a time, during the days of the Jewish kings and the Roman republic and early empire, Jerusalem was the powerful capital city of the Jews. At its religious heart was the great Temple of Solomon, and the city had stout defensive walls that had been there for more than a millennium, with the impressive palace of Herod attached to the ramparts. The urban mass spread over three hills. Jerusalem was proud, strong, and one of the most important cities in the east.

The Temple of Solomon

The problem lies within that infamous inability of the Jews and the Romans to get along. One of the most basic tenets of the Jewish faith is that their god is the only god, and no Jew could bow to another. The Romans, unfortunately, had a series of emperors who had been deified, often while still alive, and the emperor being a god was somewhat central to Roman culture. Herein lies an unbreakable wall. The Romans could not accept citizens who defied a god, and the Jews could not recognise that god. Oops.

This trouble boiled over a number of times into violence. The first real world-changing event occurred late in Nero’s reign. A rising of the Jewish population brought down a strong Roman military response, and the future emperors Vespasian and Titus devastated the Jewish world, culminating in a siege of Jerusalem that ruined its walls, saw the city sacked, and resulted in the destruction and looting of the great temple.

Roman troops loot the temple, carrying off the menorah- frieze from the Arch of Titus

Clearly, the following decades were ever more strained, and eventually it was guaranteed to boil over once more. This happened in the reign of Hadrian and sparked a second dreadful war in 132AD, known as the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Tradition tries to present us with a Hadrian that was a pleasant, intelligent, calm, thoughtful and peaceable emperor. Think again. The Hadrian that dealt with this Jewish revolt was brutal in his choices.

Hadrian

Once again the Jews were stamped upon and the city of Jerusalem occupied. This time, however, the emperor was leaving no chance of further trouble. His response was impressive in its savagery. The great temple was this time torn down completely. The only remnant was a single supporting wall which still survives and is now known as the Western, or ‘Wailing’ Wall. In its place went up a great Roman temple. The city walls were torn town and the Jewish city itself more or less flattened. Herod’s palace was destroyed, barring three towers which were left to house the Roman garrison, and the famed Antonia Fortress was destroyed. Even the city’s name was wiped clean, replaced with one that carried the emperor’s own name.

Jerusalem was gone. Aelia Capitolina was born. But this was more than a mere civic rebuild or even a ‘rebranding’. This was the systematic destruction of the heart of Judaism. The temple that was the centre of the Jewish world had been removed and replaced with one to Jupiter, the walls that had protected the Jews for untold generations were gone, leaving them defenceless the ancient city was flat and had been replaced with a Roman one including triumphal arches and fora and more. But the worst thing to happen was Hadrian’s edict. No Jew was to be allowed within the city limits except on one day of mourning, a brutal opportunity for them to remind themselves what they had lost with their revolutions. In fact, according to some sources, no Jew was even to be allowed close enough to see the city. Some of this may be sensationalist reporting, of course, in that the latter would be very hard to police, but the core of it was clearly law.

The remnants of the Roman triumphal arch of Aelia Capitolina

Sources tell us that the Roman temple complex occupied Temple Mount, the Roman city occupied the main former urban region of the northern hill, and the western hill had been cleared and became the camp of the Tenth Legion. In truth, the Tenth Fretensis would be spread out in vexillations across the region, and so few troops would be left in the city garrison that the hill would be too vast for such minor occupation. Likely less than a cohort remained to police the defenceless city. Moreover, no sign of Roman defences have ever been unearthed there, except in one corner where the Herodian fortress had once stood. In fact, it seems then that the Roman garrison occupied the three remaining towers of Herod’s fortress, while the hill remained unoccupied by Rome. It may be that the western hill became a shanty town of Jews who were not allowed to enter the Roman city, if the edict did not in truth prevent Jews from even looking at their city.

This, then, is the place into which I am about to throw Rufinus. A city that is Roman and sterile, anti-jew and forbidden. A city of gleaming Roman monuments, garrisoned by a cohort in the ancient palace of the kings, with not a Star of David/Seal of Solomon in sight, and a tent and shack city of ousted Jews clustered on a ruined hill, watching in dismay the site of their fallen capital.

Remains of the Herodian palace

In the future, Jerusalem would regain powerful walls, acquire the Dome of the Rock and many Christian churches, grow to far beyond those original hills, once more become the centre of the Abrahamic world and then eventually the centre of the Jewish world again. It would become a jewel fought over by crusading nations from Britain to Constantinople, from Algeria to Iran. But that is not the Jerusalem of the Antonines and Severans and not the Jerusalem of Praetorian VI. Rufinus is about to enter a city with an incredibly complex identity. Buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride…

Written by SJAT

December 31, 2020 at 11:00 am

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

Tabula Rasa

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Only an excellent writer with a superb set of characters and an imagination full of fresh ideas can fuel a series to last more than maybe 4 or 5 books in a series. The fact that Tabula Rasa is book 6 in Ruth Downie’s series, then, is telling. The fact that, yet again, it is an absolutely cracking tale is even better.

I figure I’m past having to explain why I love Ruth’s books at this point, but to recap my view over the whole series, this is it in a nutshell:

  • Truly believable, very sympathetic and engaging characters
  • Intricate, carefully-crafted plots
  • Deep, realistic, historically accurate portrayal of the ancient world
  • Fascinating details that add colour and realism
  • Quirky sense of humour that always hits the spot
  • True historical mysteries, shot through with shrewd social observations

So there you go. That’s why I love the Ruso books. This book, in particular, brings in some of my favourite characters in the whole series. Some returning, some new. Tribune Accius, Valens, Albanus, Virana… and in particular Pertinax and Fabius. Oh, boy but Fabius is one of my fabourite supporting characters of any book I’ve read.

Tabula Rasa (‘Clean Slate’) is set in the forts on the Stanegate during the building of Hadrian’s wall. Ruso is back with the army, along with his better half, Tilla. He is serving as the medic in a tiny fort in the middle of nowhere that happens (much to his chagrin) to be close to the farm of one of Tilla’s relatives. Essentially the root of the tale is a case of ‘missing person’. Well, missing persons, at least. Ruso’s clerk has vanished, while his uncle Albinus is coming north to see him. And a local boy has vanished. As if the tension between locals and Roman invaders were not enough, the medicus pulls what I am coming to think of as ‘a Ruso’ and exacerbates the situation completely by accident. What follows is an excellent investigation that roams across the Stanegate forts and even beyond the wall, searching for the boy and trying to piece together why he was taken.

This area is somewhat home turf for me, so it was fascinating to read about places I know well. And I have to say I’d not twigged what was going on until Ruth revealed the truth towards the end of the book, so kudos there.

As usual, Tabula Rasa is pacy, clever, witty, thought-provoking and fascinating. I am starting to twitch at the thought that I now only have one Ruso book left before I will have to wait like everyone else.

Highly recommended as always. Ruth Downie’s books sell themselves.

Written by SJAT

October 21, 2016 at 9:02 am

Semper Fidelis

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Book 5 in my tour of the life of Ruso and Tilla. It’s a rollercoaster ride, for sure. I’ve followed Ruso and his slave/housekeeper/girlfriend/wife from Chester to Northumberland, to the south of France, then London, and now to York. It’s like a pit-stop tour of some of my favourite places guided by two of my favourite characters and penned by one of my favourite writers.

If you don’t know how much I love Ruth’s books by now then you’re clearly new to the blog. The Ruso mysteries are at the very top level of their genre – atmospheric, elegantly-plotted, immersively historical and delivered with rich prose. And yet also truly human tales, shot through with a sense of humour that never fails to make me smile and occasionally with deeper pathos. Ruso is not so much hapless as unlucky. He is skilled and clever and full of innovation, and yet regularly makes rather critical mistakes and finds himself in a mess. Tilla is practical and sensible and yet prone to headstrong decisions that show little forethought. Together they should be able to tackle any problem and yet more often than not they cause each other problems and worsen the situation exponentially. It makes for really engaging reading.

In Semper Fidelis (‘Always Faithful’, the motto of the US Marine Corps) we are brought to York as Ruso joins a small unit of the 20th legion who are there training recruits as they await the arrival of the 6th legion, who will be based there shortly. Ruso is back with the army now after his brief foray into the world of fiscal investigation, and the army is the focus of this book. For in York (Eboracum), the largely empty fortress has played host to native British legionary trainees, martinet centurions, beleaguered medics and desperate camp-followers. And a series of accidents and incidents that are believed to be a result of the curse on the unit point- to a clever investigator, anyway – to brutal and unacceptable behaviour on the part of the training officers.

Ruso and Tilla finds their selves delving into the incidents that have taken place and uncovering unpleasant truths within the army and landing their selves in deep trouble, which is only compounded all the more when the emperor Hadrian, his wife Sabina, and a unit of Praetorians arrive rather unexpectedly. Ruso knows Hadrian of old, since long before he came to power. You might think he could count on an old comrade to look after him. You might think that….

Semper Fidelis is yet again a beautiful offering from the pen of Ruth Downie and deserves to be read and enjoyed by all.

Oh, and the dog bite… Heh heh heh.

Go read it folks. It’s a treat.

Written by SJAT

October 6, 2016 at 8:51 am

Rome and Egypt

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Something a little different for you this week. Two short novellas from two excellent writers, both of whom are contributors to the imminent ‘A Year of Ravens’ to which I have added my own humble tale. And both of these works are available on kindle for free, by the way!

First up we have The Three Fates by Kate Quinn

kq Kate is an author of both ancient and Renaissance novels, though to me (and to many) she is best known for her tales of Rome’s more powerful women during the height of the empire. I recently read and reviewed ‘Lady of the Eternal City’, her latest, and you can check out my review here. I was perusing potential things to add to my kindle when I came across The Three Fates (and the second novella I will be reviewing). Instant download. The Three Fates, I will say from the off, is definitely not a standalone work. As Kate mentions in her notes, this is, in fact, the original beginning of that aforementioned novel, which was later cut and then made it into the world as a free novella by way of introduction. But then, it’s free, so it doesn’t matter to the reader if it is more of a prologue than a tale in itself.

The Three Fates is more of an introduction to the characters (or a reintroduction if you have read Empress of the Seven Hills). It doesn’t have a nicely-defined end, but it does provide a very good introduction to the protagonists and antagonists of ‘Lady’. As a taster it does the job impeccably. It introduces you in a short read to Kate’s writing, which is heady and absorbing and brings the perils and glories of the Hadrianic court into glorious light. Download it for free, read it and see whether you want to go on. I would recommend doing so, having read ‘Lady’, but with this novella you can make up your own mind with no pressure.

Secondly, I also found The Princess of Egypt Must Die by Stephanie Dray

sdI find it harder to comment on this one as an introduction since I’ve not yet read Stephanie’s ‘Lily of the Nile’ to which this connects. The difference between this and Kate’s is that this novella can stand alone as a read. Taking the story from Alexandria to the mountains of Thrace, this story hooked me for the oddest of reasons. Not because of the writing, which is certainly high quality, atmospheric and gripping, and not because of the characters, though they are well fleshed out and believable. And not because of the point of view, since it is written in first-person present tense, which is not my favourite POV to read from.

No. This hooked me because it is a fantastic, strange and wonderful mix, belonging to an era of great change and cultural mixing, when the pharaohs were as much Macedonian as they were Egyptian. The world is an odd mix of Egyptian, Greek, Macedonian, and even more barbarous peoples such as the Thracians. And Stephanie seems to have submersed herself in the cultures of all of them and got into the heads of her characters who feel truly alive in a fascinating world. In fact, it was so absorbing that Lily of the Nile is now on my list, largely because having read the novella I need to read on…

So there you go. Two free novellas to help you while away an hour or two. I highly recommend them both.

Happy Thursday, all.

Written by SJAT

October 15, 2015 at 9:25 am

Lady of the Eternal City

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lotec

Kate Quinn first came to my attention last year when I read Day of Fire, the collection of cross-threaded tales by various Roman authors set against the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. I have to say that normally, since my trend in reading is towards the military and espionage end of the historical fiction, I probably wouldn’t have read a book with this title or cover until I had run out of books where legionaries smash someone over the head, but the thing is: Kate Quinn’s contribution to that collection of Vesuvius tales was one of the highlights of it – one of the finest pieces of writing. It showed her skill at the craft of not just writing, but storytelling. And in recent years I have learned to approach literature with an open mind. So when I was given the opportunity to read an advance copy of Lady of the Eternal City, I snapped up the chance and thanked Kate very much.

A quick word on the plot. As usual, I hate to expound too much on plots for fear of spoilers, but this plot deserves a solid treatment, really, and so I’ve delved deeper than usual, and I hope I haven’t thrown in anything I shouldn’t.

This is a novel of Hadrian. Not a biography in any way, and he is not the protagonist, but it is definitely a story about him, for he is the hub around which the world and all Kate’s characters thereupon spin. We pick up the story at the very beginning of Hadrian’s reign, with the former empress still very much alive and a certain level of trepidation across Rome as its nobles anticipate the emperor’s arrival.

None is filled with more trepidation though than Vix (Vercingetorix the Red – I thought at first I’d hate that name and it would bug me, given its Republican Gallic connotation, and yet funnily I quickly warmed to it.) Vix is a former gladiator and slave, a legionary and war hero who saved the life of Hadrian’s predecessor Trajan, and finally a Praetorian tribune. He is strong, brave and well-placed. But he and Hadrian have a history that is not all roses. And Vix has a history with the emperor’s wife, which is troublesome to say the least.

Vix and Sabina are two of the rich cast in this novel, joined by Sabina’s neice Annia and … this is where students of Roman history will see how the book is going to get interesting … Vix’s adopted stepson Antinous. The history of Antinous and Hadrian is one well documented, but this additional connection brings it home and makes the tale so much more immediate and personal. In addition to this, though, and of great interest to me personally, was an extra cast member in the form of young Marcus Aurelius – always one of my favourite characters in imperial history.

The story deals with Hadrian’s growth into his role and life within it until his eventual decline, all seen from the point of view of those few around him who are able to influence his fickle, dangerous moods. And in parallel it follows the growing relationship between Hadrian and Antinous. I won’t tell you how that one ends, but many of you who know Hadrian will already know that!

We are treated to Hadrian’s great travels round the empire as events unfold, from Rome across the Roman world, beginning with Britannia. My favourite interlude in the trip incidentally, was for the Elusinian mysteries, which have long fascinated me and it was nice to see a novelised treatment of them. Although the descriptions of Egypt drew me right back to that haunting place.

Essentially, the plot follows the relationship of Antinous and Hadrian and their relations and loves from their first distant connections to the emperor’s final days via love and tragedy in between.

What impressed me so much about this book was the handling of character. Vix is a worthy protagonist, of course, though being fictional, he can be anything Kate wants to make him. But when you’re dealing with such larger-than-life characters as Hadrian, Antinous, Antoninus Pius (still known as Titus at this point) and Marcus Aurelius, not to mention Sabina herself – the lady of the eternal city, being able to achieve a three-fold win with them is near impossible. Because the best portrayals of real characters are: believable, historically accurate, and surprising. And to do all three is the work of a true master/mistress of the author’s craft. I will focus on the principal character here because, while he is not one of the book’s protagonist, he is the one who influences them all and who they all influence…

Hadrian is not what I’d expected. I’d never seen him as capricious and dangerous before. History throws at us the picture of the ‘great’ emperor Hadrian and we laud his abilities and vision. We do not notice the idiosyncracies that go along with such genius. The Hadrian in Kate’s novel is unpredictable, violent, dangerous, clever, far-sighted, loving, adventurous and brave, and so much more. He is a truly fascinating character.

What adds to the many facets of the man, though, is his progress as an emperor. Though he is strong willed and – let’s face it – has ultimate power at his fingertips, there is a recurring theme in the book that the great man would fall foul of his own dark side and bring the empire down with him if it were not for those clever men and women surrounding him, trying to nudge him onto a path of not only greatness, but also goodness. In that respect, Vix and Sabina are the most important characters in the novel, I would say.

At the start of the novel I dreaded reading on, for I feared Hadrian was set up as a true villain, but that is not the case, and as the book progressed I came not only to understand the man, but even to appreciate him. His final scenes in the book are wonderfully portrayed and stay with me.

Throw away your mental image of Hadrian and delve into that which Kate provides. It is a fascinating study of a man and a tale that is somewhat harrowing in places – the sort of harrowing you can only experience when you become too invested in a character.

The tone and writing of the book is rich and opulent, like the world in which the characters live, and at times it might seem over-so, but I think that is just a facet of writing well about character’s motivations in the world of imperial Rome and the circles of power. And I think that the book would have been poorer for a plainer approach. Interestingly for me, Kate is an American author, and I can usually spot an American voice in the prose straight away. To some English readers, a strong American tone can be distracting, but with Kate’s prose it blended seamlessly into the history and felt as comfortable to a British reader as a British author would.

So in short, this is a very intricate character-driven piece about the complex character that was Hadrian and the effects upon him of those few folk who were strong and wily enough to help him be what he needed to be. It is also a tale of more than one love and more than one loss. It is a rich Roman tapestry that draws your attention and holds it throughout.

Highly recommended, and confirms what I suspected: Kate Quinn is at the top of her game.

Written by SJAT

March 10, 2015 at 8:30 am

Roads and aqueducts

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atn nrl

A couple of years ago I became aware of Ron Gompertz’s opus ‘No Roads Lead To Rome’ and bought and read it. For some reason, I never got round to reviewing it, but I shall now make up for that error by reviewing the sequel with reference to the first.

Aqueduct to Nowhere is Gompertz’s third release (just out) and the second of his humorous Roman series.

I will open by stating for the record that both of these books are Historical Fiction, but with the emphasis heavily tilted towards the fiction part. Those of you who are seeking the heavy, fact-laden world of Rome, a la Harry Sidebottom, Ben Kane and the like may not appreciate the light-hearted style. It seems to me in both cases that Gompertz has not chosen the world of Rome as his arena and written a tale based in it, but rather has invented a plot and characters that enthralled him and then sought a milieu in which to base it.

Both books centre on humorous narrative with clever turns of phrase and rib-tickling moments rather than the gritty historical reality of many books set in the era. Historical accuracy is not a paramount concern, but then that is not what the books are written for. One does not slam a Douglas Adams or a Robert Rankin for their accuracy, but instead appreciates the humour they provide. And that is it in a nutshell. I have enjoyed both Gompertz’s books not as a historian but as a reader of light-hearted fiction, chuckling along as I read.

No Roads Lead To Rome was the tale of an itinerant centurion seeking his retirement pay, and an unfortunate Jewish boy sought in connection with a crime, and focused on the way the two characters’ lives intersected, involving along the way: a hapless governor, a greedy and dubious advisor, a peasant girl, a former gladiator, and a plot to do away with the Emperor Hadrian. It was a somewhat intricate plot and, while containing a few jarring historical inaccuracies, tickled me enough that I enjoyed it on its own narrative merit rather than the Classical history I had initially expected. The tale was a little disconnected at times, jumping hither and thither and perhaps a little loosely wound, but I would recommend it to a reader who sought light, humorous entertainment and had at least a passing interest in the era. That last is, however, less important than is usually the case with books set in ancient Rome.

Aqueduct to Nowhere picks up where the first book left off with a plot involving the same young Jewish protagonist, the same hapless governor and motley assembly of villains and lunatics. Set during the Saturnalia festival and involving a plot to bring the governor to trial for his crimes, ‘Aqueduct’ will appeal to the same audience as ‘No Roads’, with a rib-tickling formula that blows raspberries at serious Roman history. However, despite still displaying a fewinaccuracies, I would say that Gompertz has pulled together a lot more realistic colour and trivia for the second book, and has created a much tighter plot and narrative which lacks any of the discontinuity of the first. In fact, while historical accuracy still plays second fiddle to plot and style, there are a lot more snippets of Roman life that sneak into this book. I would also say that the author’s humorous turns of phrase have noticeably stepped up, to the point that I took note of a few corkers which sadly I cannot relate as windows update restarted my laptop and lost my list!

So there you have it. These tales – and the new book in particular – are enjoyable, tongue-in-cheek romps through a dishevelled and poor backwater province, set against the glorious, rich, deep tapestry of Hadrianic Rome. If you want a good few hours of entertainment and colour, dive right in.

Written by SJAT

October 14, 2013 at 7:57 pm

Scots invade Hadrian’s Wall…

with 10 comments

Well, sort of.

I have just spent a magnificent long weekend in Gilsland on the Northumberland/Cumbria border with my lovely wife and children and with Gordon Doherty (of Legionary and Strategos fame) and his wonderful better half.

Gordon’s current portfolio:

 

Now the weekend was a particularly good one for three distinct reasons:

Firstly: Location. Our holiday cottage was close enough to Hadrian’s Wall (or at least the turf ridge that marks its passage) that I could have hit it with a thrown weasel, had I had one to hand. That kind of proximity to the ancient always gets my blood and imagination going. It also meant that in our available time we had the chance to visit a number of Roman sites (Birdoswald, Chesters, Poltross Burn, Willowford, and the Greenhead Roman Army Museum. Now that in itself is superb and worthy of pictorial memoirs and so here we go. Time to clog up your browser, broadband and memory with a run of photos:

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1. Two JAFRAs (in-joke term for a Roman Author) posing in their place of work. Do ya think we’re sexy?

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2. In case you didn’t get the details! Heh heh heh

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3. The Eastern wall and main east gate of Birdoswald (Banna) Roman fort in glorious sunshine.

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4. Marcus investigating every crevice of the Roman world.

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5. Tracey, Marcus and Callie taking in the view from the walls of Birdoswald.

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6. Simon (me) and my poser of a boy Marcus at Birdoswald. Future catalogue model in the making, you think?

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7. Poltross burn milecastle at Gilsland. One of the most sloping, geographically-challenged of all British Roman sites. Bet they never played dominoes or tried to eat soup from a shallow bowl!

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8. Renowned author of late Roman and Byzantine novels Gordon Doherty surveys his domain from the top of the wall. He is clearly uninspired by the railway fencing and the other tourists!

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9. Marcus tries to recreate Willowford’s early 3rd century Roman bridge by dropping stones into the river one at a time.

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10. Gordon appears to like Willowford.

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11. A detail shot of the three stages of bridge abutment at Willowford for those interested in real historical things rather than just posturing or…

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12. Pictures of WILLIES!!!!

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13. Chesters museum hasn’t changed much since Victoria was on the throne, but that just makes it all the better for me. Great, isn’t it?

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14. Marcus and Callie seem to like it anyway. I think Marcus just squeezed one out, looking at that…

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15. Too cool for school. Gordon Doherty and S.J.A. Turney trying to look normal among the barrack blocks of the cavalry fort of Cilurnum (Chesters)

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16. Callie and Marcus making no attempt to look normal and yet still beating us at the game…

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17. Deep in discussion. Come on, ladies… two Roman fiction authors in a hot baths together… phwoooaaarrrhhh!!! Or… not.

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18. Callie tries to work out why her boat won’t float.

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19. Gordon Doherty being tour guide and discussing the relative heights of original floor level in a Roman bath house.

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20. Simon and Gordon take a seat in the apodyterium (changing room). It was too cold for just a subligaculum and wooden clogs!

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21. The underfloor heating of the Commanding Officer’s baths. Now if only they’d been working. Oooh that chill wind….

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22. The ancient military meets the modern. Love this shot that wifey took: Chinook helicopters over Hadrian’s Wall. Bet the Caledonii would have been a pushover had Agricola got his hands on a couple of those…

The second reason the weekend was good? Well, because of great friends and family. Gordon and his wife are excellent company and the weekend was just comfortable and great fun.

But the third reason: It was not all fun. In fact, only half of it was having a beer and gallivanting around the Roman sites. The rest of it involved Gordon and I sitting in a room surrounded by laptops, pads and pens and reference books while we took the bare idea of a plot we had a while back and hammered it out before folding it and adding a keen edge and turning it into a fully fledged story right down to a chapter plan. Yes, as you may have noted on Twitter or Facebook, Gordon and I will shortly be embarking on a collaborative project and the story we have so far is fabulous. I mean, it’s going to knock your socks off, so you’d best send home to mummy for more with the next delivery (Vindolanda joke – sad, I know.) But it really is a stunning idea. We will start to release occasional teasers once we’re properly involved in the writing, which will being some time after the release of Gordon’s Strategos II and my Marius’ Mules V. I will simply leave you with these images to give you something to chew on….

bust  bridge building

Have a really nice week, folks. Will be back the day after tomorrow with a book review and then something else at the weekend.

Written by SJAT

April 23, 2013 at 4:49 pm

Seven Wonders

with 3 comments

So, I was watching the Big Bang Theory and listening to its rather catchy theme tune, and noted the mention of the Wall and the Pyramids, which got me to thinking about what Herodotus would have included on his list of Wonders of the Ancient World if he had had access to more exotic places? The Great Wall would probably not have been one, since the wall as we know it is much later, the early versions not being up to Herodotus’ mark, I feel. And that led me to wondering what my Seven Wonders would be. So I’ve set myself the task to work it out.

The criteria must be the same as those available in the ancient world when ‘roddy wrote that list that rested in the library of Alexandria. Of the original seven wonders, only tiny fragments remain of most of them. Only the Great Pyramid at Giza still stands entire. So my seven wonders must be there and visible. I am going to allow ‘ruinous’ of course. And I must have been there. How can I compile a recommended list if I haven’t seen them?

1. The Pyramids of Giza

Image by Ricardo Liberato via Wikimedia Commons

Yes, the only survivor from the original list. Who could deny they’re a wonder? Quite simply they are breathtaking. Sadly, with every year, they are a little more invisible through hordes of tourists. Every year the urban sprawl of Cairo gets a little nearer to enveloping them. Already between the two visits I made to this amazing site (in 1982 and 2006) the city moved frighteningly closer. And given the troubles in Egypt, one has to fear for their future safety. But still… they remain an icon of the past and rightly so. Nice one, Herodotus!

2. The Ayia Sofya (or Haghia Sophia)

Image by Philz via Wikimedia Commons

Not around until long after our Roddy made his list. The great church of Holy Wisdom was started by Constantine II, and there were several rebuilds between 360AD and 532 when the current structure was commissioned by Justinian. It is simply the most breathtaking religious building I have ever set foot in. It is a symbol of Europe and Turkey and Byzantium and Rome, the blueprint for the Ottoman mosques for half a millennium. Among the fascinating oddities to be found within are runic carvings by one of the Viking Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Emperor who went by the name of Halfdan. The place leaves me speechless.

3. The amphitheatre of Pozzuoli

Image by Ferdinando Marfella via Wikimedia Commons

The Colosseum is magnificent, yes. El Jem is wondrous. I am led to believe Pula’s amphitheatre is astounding. Yet surprisingly few people mention the great Flavian amphitheatre of Pozzuoli in Italy (near Naples.) It’s only a little smaller than the Colosseum (3rd largest in Italy), constructed only a few years later, and is easily better preserved than any of those previous three I mentioned. It is simply astounding to walk around and beneath. While I find most amphitheatres to be dead, emotionless structures (while still wondrous), the one at Pozzuoli sent a shiver through me. I felt loss there. Perhaps it is too intact not to?

4. The Siq at Petra

Image by David Bjorgen via Wikimedia Commons

I guess everyone knows this because of Indiana Jones if nothing else. But Petra blew my mind. All of it. You can’t see Petra in a day. You can’t see it all in 3 days. But the core area, in particular the Siq are easily taken in. The siq was a crevasse through the rock that contituted the main entrance to the city. It is astounding to walk through. Roman paving is visible beneath your feet and an aqueduct channel runs along at your side, dry for millennia. Carvings crop up here and there, and tombs are visible high in the rocks. And in places where the Siq opens up, you find carved monuments such as the Treasury (see above). How could that NOT make it to a list of the great seven?

5. Hadrian’s Wall

Image by Michael Hanselmann via Wikimedia Commons

I can”t imagine I need to do much enthusing about Hadrian’s Wall. It is quite simply one of the most amazing and evocative monuments in the world. Not only was it a feat of sheer engineering and planning brilliance, but it also marks something unique. It represents that very moment when Rome stopped expanding and defined borders. Until Hadrian, the idea that Rome had a limit was a flight of fancy. Despite the Roman influence that continued beyond the wall, for that reason alone, Hadrian’s wall marks the edge of the Roman world for me.

6. The Baths of Caracalla

Image by Pascal Reusch via Wikimedia Commons

There are many great bath houses of Roman construction, even in Rome. The baths of Trajan and Diocletian remain. Further afield, those of Licinius in Dougga, or Antoninus in Carthage. But those of Caracalla stand as a testament to the sheer scale of such monuments. The remaining decoration; the enormous walls; the supplying aqueduct and cistern; Mind-blowing. And, though not open to the visitor, the underground passages remain, with rooms and furnaces, shrines and more. It is, to me the height of the Roman bath house and will ever remain so.

7. The harbour of Carthage

By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The navy that actually beat Rome! Yes, Carthage for a while actually held the might of Rome at bay. They had the most advanced navy in the world, in history in fact. And the military harbour at Carthage was a wonder worthy of that fleet. Take a look at the picture above, as it survivies today. Upon a time, imagine this image, but with the circle complete, both the island’s edge and the outer circuit home to endless what are essentially hangars for warships. Room for around 300 warships to be berthed, each in its own building on an inland port with swift access to the sea by a channel. On the island’s centre was the admiralty. I stood on that road on the left side of the picture a few years ago and was simply stunned into silence.

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So there you go. That’s my Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Now, all those of you who blog… let’s hear yours? I’m intrigued.

Written by SJAT

November 24, 2011 at 3:10 pm