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A Gross of Pirates

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While there’s really no way I could claim to have read this for research, read it I did, and entirely for fun. I have written about pirates many times: the fictional Ghassan and Samir in Dark Empress, Kemal Reis and other Barbary sailors in The Priest’s Tale, and the Mauri pirates in my forthcoming fourth book in the Praetorian series (Lions of Rome), and so I thought I had a pretty good handle on pirates of all sorts of eras and cultures. Heck, I even own three textbooks on historical piracy.

This book opened my eyes. And gave me so many ideas for novel plots it’s untrue, to boot. A gross of pirates is exactly what it claims to be. I expected it to be another informative, and perhaps dry, history of piracy. This it is not.

What it is is a catalogue of real historical figures. A gross of them, in fact, categorised into eras and cultures. There are well-known names in there: John Paul Jones, Barbarossa, Morgan, Drake, Calico Jack. But with 144 pirates in there, clearly you are going to find names you’ve not discovered before.  For me, particularly fascinating were Jeanne de Clisson, Uluj Ali, and Henry Every.  In fact, of 144 pirates, I could say in truth that I knew less than 20, which is pretty good.

Each pirate is treated with a brief precis of their life – a mini but well-presented biography. With 308 pages and 144 pirates, you can immediately work out roughly how much page space is given to each character. As a writer, I can tell you that this is no bad thing. Having a word limit imposed makes you hone and pare down the text so that what you end up with is a really well-written and pertinent piece of writing, rather than perhaps a rambling account given to descriptive. The old Dragnet line leaps to mind: ‘Just the facts, ma’am’. And Breverton does an excellent job with this. Each account is engaging and informative.

In short, if you are an academic or writer with even a remote interest in the sea and its history, this book will give you endless resources. If you are just a lover of history or the sea, this will be an engaging and fascinating collection. If you simply like to read something fun, then this is actually for you too. Read. Enjoy. ’nuff said…

You can buy the book here, and I urge you to do so. 🙂

Written by SJAT

December 15, 2018 at 10:29 pm

Agent of Rome – The Emperor’s Silver

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Quite simply there are perhaps 5 or 6 series that, when their new books are released, I drop anything I’m reading and dive into. Anyone who follows my reviews will already know my opinion of Nick’s work, so this should be a nice easy review.

The Agent of Rome series began with The Siege, which was one of the strongest debuts I’ve ever read and immediately defined the pace and quality of the entire series. There was little room for the author’s ability to grow and shape as he wrote, which is the natural thing to observe over a series, since the first volume was already perfectly polished. The problem with that kind of start is that it’s difficult to keep to the expected quality. So far, though, I’ve seen no dip in the series, which is excellent.

And while I say that there’s little room to grow when you begin at the top anyway, that’s just regarding the author’s ability to put across his tale. There is always room for the work itself to grow, and Nick has become extremely proficient at crafting a plot that is tight, clever and self-contained, and yet allows for exploration of subplots, outside themes and character expansion throughout. I think that is the most notable thing about this novel: the character growth.

In book one we were introduced to Cassius Corbulo, unwilling secret service man, and to his stalwart slave Simo. In book 2, in a move about which I was initially skeptical, we met the gladiator Indavara and saw him become Corbulo’s bodyguard. In book 4, they acquired a mule. Essentially, several disparate characters, each as deep as the next, have become a family and the reader cares about them all, and not just the principle protagonist. In fact in some ways, he is the shallowest of them and it is the lives of his companions that actually draw the sympathy and interest of the reader.

In The Emperor’s Silver (the fifth volume in the series) we find Corbulo in Syria following his unpleasant sojourn in Arabia in the previous book. He and his people are still suffering strained relationships after those events and Corbulo himself is still trying to come to terms with killing a man in cold blood. In an effort to avoid the bloody revolt going on in Egypt, Corbulo inveigles his way into Marshal Marcellinus’ good books and gets himself assigned to the Levantine cities to investigate a case of counterfeit coinage.

The beauty of the Agent of Rome series’ premise (as opposed to say my own Marius’ Mules books, which are grounded solidly in military campaigning) is that the potential for stories is vast and all-encompassing. Nick’s plots are each fresh and varied, and each book carries us to new territory, never growing stale. Appropriately, this is a new and fascinating plot, investigative and tense, more social and character-driven than the previous work, which involved a great deal more action and espionage.

Book 5, though, has two particular subplots running throughout that add something strong. The first is Indavara. After three books with the history of the gladiator only loosely hinted at (the man has no memory of his time before the arena) Nick has opened up the Pandora’s box of Indavara’s past. Only a crack so far, with tantalising glimpses of what’s to come. And secondly, someone is after Corbulo! I mean there’s always someone after Corbulo. It’s part of his job that he makes enemies, but in this case, it seems to be something else, disconnected from the plot. And these two subplots are not quite what they seem. They… oh well I’ll let you discover that for yourself. No spoilers here.

If I had one small criticism of book 5 it would be the number of plot threads left open at the end. I realise that this is a deliberate choice and understand clearly why Nick has concluded it in such a manner, though it feels a little like the last page should simply say ‘Tune in next week for…’ The flipside of that, of course, is that we know how book 6 is going to start and what at least part of it is going to be about. Personally I can’t wait to see what happens next and as usual I will be on Twitter, badgering Nick for news of the next book.

The Emperor’s Silver continues the high standard Nick Brown set himself to begin with, the plot strong, the characters vivid, the atmosphere heady and exotic, the descriptive imaginative and the pace fast and comfortable. As with all the previous volumes it is a book that I picked up intending to ready 20 or 30 pages and put it down 100 pages later.

If you’ve read books 1 to 4, The Emperor’s Silver is released today and you really should go get it. If you haven’t, where have you been? But now is an excellent time to catch up.

Go buy Agent of Rome 5 today and you’ll be glad you did. Put aside a few days and be prepared to lose yourself in Roman Syria.

Written by SJAT

June 4, 2015 at 9:41 am

Nautical Meanderings

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Despite the fact that my books mostly revolve around land-cased military history, I have inevitably found myself involved in the retelling of naval actions from time to time. Given than my books centre on the Roman period and the later middle ages it is no surprise that the majority of what I have written involves the use of Galleys by one power or another. And so I have found myself studying the ‘galley’ (a ship with sails but also powered by banks of oars and largely designed for head-on ramming acts) in various locations, times and situations. And so I thought it might be nice as part of this great Nautical Blog Hop to recount some nuggets of interesting and fun facts rather than banging on about a specific era or location. And so, here we go… some fascinating facts about the galley:

There can be little doubt that the galley is the longest running design for a military ship in nautical history. With few critical changes, variations on the design existed from at least 3rd Millennium BC Egypt to 19th Century Eastern Europe. A lifespan in excess of four thousand years is pretty impressive.

The ‘Isola Tiburina’, the Tiber Island in the middle of Rome, has a curious connection with the galley-style vessel.  According to legend, the Roman people sent a deputation on board a ship to the Greek city of Epidauros to obtain a statue of the healing God Aesculapius. When it returned, a prophecy-laden snake indicated the island as the site for the proposed temple and one of the resulting aspects was that the island was formed into the shape of a quinquereme to bear the temple. A glance at an aerial photo will give you a good idea of the shape, and a visit to the place will reveal one remaining piece of carving hidden on the city side of the island:

513 Isola Tiburina

Galleys throughout history have taken much the same form: a forward firing platform, a rear housing, and between them row upon row of oar benches with a narrow passage between them. This design (especially taking into account the ram at the fore) made the front a powerful attacking force in combat, but the sides, with no defences and bearing only the oar banks was a vulnerable point. The result of this was a reliance upon formations among fleets that allowed multiple galleys to protect one another’s flanks, a tendency that informed the tactics of galley fighting for millennia.

One of the largest galley-type vessels ever built (according to Athanaeus) was that of the Graeco-Egyptian pharaoh Ptolemy Philopator. This immense vessel was a catamaran-style twin-hull, 130m in length (as opposed to the largest Roman vessel, the quinquereme, at 45m), had 7 rams (as opposed to 1), 480 oars with 4000 rowers (as opposed to 180 manned by 300 rowers). Sounds info-dump and not exciting? Then picture a twin-hulled, catamaran-style oared galley twice the size of HMS Victory (Nelson’s flagship) and with a crew complement larger than any aircraft carrier ever built! Now, how’s it look?

The heights of galleys could vary. John of Austria had the beaks of his galleys removed so that his forward facing central guns could achieve a low enough trajectory to fire on his Turkish enemies. Worth noting here also is that young John was a tender 24 years of age when he commanded his fleet of 213 vessels against the power of the Ottoman navy in an engagement we will get to later on.

Back in 56 BC (and in Marius’ Mules III!), the Romans found themselves in war against the Veneti, a seafaring tribe on the Biscay coast of Brittany. In their first few engagements the Romans quickly discovered that the Veneti’s ships were too high and solid for Roman galleys to easily overcome by ramming, and their large sails and affinity with the sea allowed them to out-manoeuvre the Romans when needed. The Roman commander, Decimus Brutus, managed to solve the problem by attaching hooks to long poles so that when the ships closed, the Roman sailors reached up and raked the Gallic sails, rendering the Veneti ships immobile and helpless and allowing the ever-efficient Romans to board them and achieve victory.

The design of a galley left no room for leisure or comforts. The entire deck was taken up by rows of oar seats, fighting platforms, steering sections, artillery, masts and so on. This meant that there were no permanent above deck structures on a galley. The only shelter available was in the fairly limited hold below deck or temporary tent-like structures that were raised at the stern as required.

One of the most brutal and decisive galley-led battles in naval history occurred off the island of Djerba in southern Tunisia in 1560. The Ottoman fleet under Piyale Pasha and Turgut Reis, with 86 vessels, faced an alliance of Spanish, Maltese and the Italian city-states with in excess of 200 ships. The Turks took the Christians by surprise and achieved a resounding victory in a matter of hours, sinking 60 ships as opposed to only a small number of their own, the casualties being roughly 10 Christians to every Turk!

The different types of galley were more often than not defined simply by the number or oars, the number of oar banks, and the number of sailors on each oar. This has led to more than the well-known biremes, triremes, quadraremes and quinqueremes of the Roman world, but also the liburnian (a light bireme), the Ottoman kadirga (with single banks of oars and with varying rower numbers but with a unique sail configuration) and many others depending upon regional requirements.

A number of reconstructions have been attempted of galleys throughout history, but there is only one known surviving original galley in an intact condition and it survives in a museum in Istanbul. This Kadirga (which is the Turkish for galley) belonged to the Sultan Mehmet IV in the mid 17th century and is intricate and decorative, and yet still displays the brute basicness of an early-medieval galley. The entire vessel survives barring its masts and sails, and a video showing part of it can be found here:

Galleys were short range, day-trip vessels. The lack of living space and storage room for provisions meant that only essential supplies and water for the oarsmen could be kept aboard. This limited operation to a day, and therefore galleys rarely strayed far from the nearest coastline, putting in for the night.

Though it is tempting to think of galleys as either an ancient world phenomenon or a Mediterranean or Baltic thing, it will probably surprise most Brits to discover that Britain has been the target of numerous attacks and landings involving galleys over the centuries. Julius Caesar used them twice to land in Kent, several Spanish galleys were captured in battle at Winchelsea in Sussex in 1350, the French used them in the Battle of the Solent, which saw the sinking of the Mary Rose, were part of Spain’s armada in 1588, and even bombarded Penzance in 1595.

Polybius tells us of one of the most outlandish, peculiar and innovative anti-ship weapons in history. At the siege of Syracuse during the Second Punic War, the Roman galleys fell foul of ‘Archemedes’ claw’. This enormous weapon seems to have been a massive grappling hook on a crane that could grab attacking ships and haul them out of the water, tipping the up and sinking them. Archaeological evidence of this weapon has never been found, though some clever reconstructions have proved that such a thing could have existed and worked,

The most famous engagement of galleys since the end of the ancient world is the Battle of Lepanto, fought between the Ottoman Empire and the ‘Holy League’ of the western Mediterranean off the coast of Greece in 1571. A crushing victory for the Christians, this battle was the engagement that put a stop to Ottoman expansion to the west, and was also the last time a Mediterranean sea battle would take place between galley-based fleets. As an interesting side note, one of the Spanish combatants in the battle was Miguel de Cervantes, who would later find fame as the author of Don Quixote.

Galleys (or in Turkish: Kadirga) were the stock vessel of the infamous Barbary pirates, such as the dreaded Hayreddin Barbarossa. From the late 15th century until the 18th, these vessels were a feared and all-too common sight around the western Med. Operating from Ottoman controlled ports in North Africa (the Barbary coast), Turkish galleys raided so freely and with impunity that Spain went to the trouble of fortifying their coastal churches and building watchtowers around their entire coast at mile-long intervals. My novel The Priest’s Tale involves the first flowering of this feared force.

Polybius tells us of one Roman invention that dates from First Punic War. The ‘corvus’ (raven) was a hinged bridge fitted at the prow of a Roman galley, with a bird’s-beak-shaped spike beneath the outer edge. As the Roman vessel rammed a Carthaginian ship, the bridge could be lowered, the spike sticking into the deck and allowing a relatively-stable boarding platform to overcome the enemy ship. The effectiveness of the weapon is questionable, given the drawbacks on heavy swells, but it marks yet another Roman advance in galley-based war.

Salamis! No, not a collection of northern Italian sausages, but one of the most famous sea battles in world history. Fought off the coast near Athens, this entirely galley-based action between the Greeks and the Persians in 480BC, aided by the famous defence of Thermopylae by 300 Spartans, effectively ended the Persian invasion of Greece which until this point had looked unstoppable. Despite being outnumbered and outclassed, Greek tactics won the day as they lured the Persians into a small bay where the weight of numbers made no difference, and they resoundingly smashed the fleet of Xerxes.

One of the most feared weapons of the ancient world could be found on the prow of the Byzantine Dromon. ‘Greek Fire’, though its precise makeup is uncertain, was essentially the napalm of the ancient world. A liquid fire that burned even on water, such a weapon could be dangerous to the wielder on board a wooden vessel, but if used right (fired from a tube according to evidence) it was brutal and deadly against enemy shipping. Imagine the effect of napalm on a timber vessel!

Though they are easily considered ancient or medieval vessels, the last galleys built were surprisingly recent. In 1796 the last galley class vessels were constructed in Russia as part of Catherine the Great’s forces in the coalition against the French Empire, and these vessels were yet to see military action.

Polybius (that great and informative storyteller of the ancient world) has a last nugget for us. Those of you who have studied the Romans will recognise their tendencies toward innovation rather than invention, and this tendency was never better illustrated than in the case of war with Carthage. Rome had been repeatedly chastised by the Punic fleet, whose ships were bigger and better. Polybius tells us: “On this occasion the Carthaginians put to sea to attack them as they were crossing the straits, and one of their decked ships advanced too far in its eagerness to overtake them and running aground fell into the hands of the Romans. This ship they now used as a model, and built their whole fleet on its pattern”. In short: a shipwrecked Carthaginian quinquereme formed the blueprint for the new Roman fleet which would turn the tide of naval war against Carthage.

In the mid-15th century BC the Pharaoh queen Hatshepsut sent a five-galley fleet to exract taxes and oaths of allegiance from the fabled land of Punt somewhere south of Egypt (possibly in the Somalia/Eritrea area.) The images of these ships are still to be seen on her temple at Deir El-Bahri and are among the earliest recorded pictures of galleys.


The battle of Actium in 31 BC remains one of the most famous sea battles of the ancient world. It also marks the high point of the Roman fleet’s value as, from this point on, the Roman navy becomes more of a troop-transport and pirate-control force than a military fleet.  The final naval action of the Republic and the end of the civil wars, Actium saw a Roman fleet under Antony and Cleopatra thoroughly smashed – through a combination of misfortune, misinterpreted signals, betrayal and panic – by a roughly equal Roman fleet under Octavian and Agrippa. This victory heralded the rise to unrivalled power of the man who would become Rome’s first emperor.

Despite the early era of the majority of galley action, the last battle seen by a galley was actually surprisingly recent, in 1854. As part of Russia’s Baltic fleet, galleys were deployed in the abortive attacks on the Finnish port city of Turku.

As a last note of interest, it will no doubt surprise a few people to learn of the great mistake in the classic Charlton Heston movie Ben-Hur. Made a galley slave, our hero saved his commander when the ship sank. The problem here is that Roman galleys did not utilise slave labour on their oars. Despite the regularity throughout history with which slaves were made use of in oared ships, Roman galleys were rowed by freedmen except in times of dire emergency when manpower was lacking.

File:058 Conrad Cichorius, Die Reliefs der Traianssäule, Tafel LVIII.jpg

And so that concludes my bit of fun on the subject of galleys. Hope you enjoyed it and maybe found something that you hadn’t known before. If you’ve had a good time, please visit the other excellent blogs on this blog hop:

J.M. Aucoin

Helen Hollick

Doug Boren

Linda Collison

Margaret Muir

Julian Stockwin

Anna Belfrage

Andy Millen

V.E. Ulett

T.S. Rhodes

Mark Patton

Alaric Bond 

Ginger Myrick 

Judith Starkston

Seymour Hamilton

Rick Spilman

James L. Nelson

Prue Batten

Antoine Vanner 

Joan Druett

Edward James

Nighthawk News

Written by SJAT

September 17, 2013 at 8:00 am

Agent of Rome: The Far Shore

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Some time back I read the first two Agent of Rome books back to back and reviewed them. They were excellent reads, quite different from one another, given the fact that they are part of a series.

So, when given the opportunity to read the third in the series, I leaped at the chance.

The Far Shore continues the adventures of Cassius Corbulo of the Imperial Security Service (the Grain men or Frumentarii), his Gaulish slave Simo, and his ex-gladiator bodyguard Indavara. It takes place only a short time after the events of The Imperial Banner, and continues to build the relationship between the characters.

I will (as usual) not delve too deep into the plot, in case of spoilers for people, but I will say a few things. For those of you who have read the first two, this third book bears a lot more resemblance to the second than the first, in that it is considerably more investigative than martial. While the first novel was an eponymous siege, and the second was based around the recovery of a stolen item, this third is a manhunt that crosses seas and takes place in more than one province. Do not be thrown by the cover, which might suggest a very naval tale. While large sections of the book take place at sea, there are also hefty sections on dry land. With Nick’s usual flair for the dramatic, the plot never lets up and even when you think everything should be over and settled, you look and realise there’s still a hundred pages left and the excitement is far from over.

Character is important in Nick’s books. Containing his protagonists to the three men with a small supporting cast means that the characters get a lot of exposure and shine. Given the huge differences in their character, background and status, the interplay between them is always stunning. The first book saw a great deal of development in Corbulo’s character, and the second did much the same with Simo. Well this third book expands the scope and depth of Indavara nicely. In addition, a few of the supporting cast were beautifully portrayed (I’m thinking particularly of Carnifex and Eborius).

There is, I think, a tendency in Roman fiction to place too much emphasis on authenticity at the expense of readability (while there is also – particularly in the self publishing market- much the opposite.) Nick Brown has hit it just right, I think, to feel authentic and maintain a good level of historical accuracy, and yet not compromise the ease of reading and the touch of modern colloquialism that makes the reader identify with the tale. His speech is realistic and his descriptive atmospheric without being burdensome. In all, the writing is so tight and comfortable that it drags you along apace without the requirement to expend effort.

I would say that in this third installment there are a few moments of predictability that were not there in the first two. Some actions and responses were a little obvious, but do not let that put you off in any way. To some extent it actually helps, given the subject matter. After all, this is basically a spy thriller/action adventure. James Bond would not be James Bond without a little capture and humiliation. Indiana Jones would have suffered had it lost a few of its predictable moments. A sense of anticipation of events helps. Action, excitement and mystery, mixed with a little vicious, bloody violence and a well-rounded tight sense of humour that surfaces at just the right times.

All in all, I would say that The Far Shore is a good, solid, thrilling continuation of the series and a growth of the main characters, while exploring newer, more varied territory.

I look forward to Corbulo’s next foray with impatience.

Read the book. Read all three if you haven’t. You won’t regret it.

Written by SJAT

July 18, 2013 at 11:05 am