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

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Spatha by M. C. Bishop

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I’m going to guess that anyone who knows my work or reads this blog is pretty conversant with military history, and therefore probably knows of Osprey Publishing’s renown in that field. I am the owner of scores of their books ranging from the days of ancient Greece to the Renaissance war galley, though more than half of them are on the subject of Rome and Byzantium. I love my Osprey books, and while I laud them above most military history works, even I can admit that they vary a little in quality. Some are a little assumptive and bold, others more technical and trustworthy. All are good, but from the point of view of a historical researcher one has to be aware of such things. So that’s Osprey. Leaders in their field.

Mike (M. C., which I know makes him sound like a DJ) Bishop is a name I count as a go-to for all things Roman military. Along with John Coulson, he is the preeminent authority on Roman military equipment, having studied it for decades, been involved in the archaeology that has brought some of it to light, written up the excavation reports for some of the most important of Roman military sites, and been a leading light in Roman military circles for some time. His is one of at most half a dozen names that I trust implicitly when I read their work, whether it be on military equipment or a guide to walking Hadrian’s Wall (also his excellent work.)

So when Bishop signed on to do a few ‘weapon’ books for Osprey, I knew these would be up there with the best of their titles. Pilum and Gladius I already have, and have reviewed. Now, he has turned his considerable talent to informing us about the Roman longsword, the spatha.

Spatha is a book that contains everything you need to know about the weapon. There is no need to consult another source. From the archaeological discoveries, largely based on ‘bog finds’ in Northern Europe, Bishop gives us immense detail of the form, composition, design, distribution, use and value of the weapon. Backing this up with accounts from sources such as the Historia Augusta, Arrian and Tacitus, every angle is explored. I consider myself knowledgeable about the subject from years of study, and yet I learned a number of things from reading this work, not least about the development of the ‘semispatha’ as a compromise between the long slashing weapon and the short stabbing weapon, often formed from re-pointing broken spathas.

From the development of the weapon based upon the original Spanish Sword, to the influence the blade would have on following centuries of cultures right to the late Viking era, Bishop provides a detailed narrative that attempts to fill in the gaps in the historical record with source-based logic, never even leaning towards assumptions without giving caveats and explanations, and identifies a number of unexpected aspects that cannot be denied.

Complete with wonderful illustrations from reconstructive paintings, through photographs of artefacts, to technical line drawings, this is the only book you’ll ever need on the subject and joins its peers as one of my go-to texts for research when writing Roman novels.

Written by SJAT

February 21, 2020 at 8:30 pm

Finding Agricola – a review of texts (pt 2)

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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

Silk and the Sword by Sharon Bennett Connolly


Almost a year ago, I read and reviewed one of the most innovative and refreshing historical texts I have ever come across, that being Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly (my review can be found here).

Imagine my glee in being able to dive in to Sharon’s second treatment of historical women, then. Silk and the Sword: the women of the Norman conquest is released in just three days’ time (15th of November). You can pre-order it here.

In ‘Heroines…’ Sharon gave us a very detailed, thought provoking, and fascinating view into an aspect of history that is rarely covered in academia: the feminine perspective. She explored what it meant to be a woman in the Medieval era, illustrating her narrative  by telling us the tales of some of the most interesting women ever to grace the pages of history.

Silk and the Sword is at one and the same time a similar sort of treatment, and yet quite different. Once more we are shown the lives and events and personalities of some incredible women, but in this case, those women tell a tale in almost chronological order. ‘Silk’ attempts to give us the events of the 11th century, and the book is split into three constituent parts.

Part one sets the scene from the beginning of the century, explaining the lead up to those tumultuous events of 1066. The political and social situation is revealed, and the acts and struggles of the kings, dukes, earls and other great men are shown to us through the lives of the women who were part of it all. From an initial chapter of ground-laying, we move into the lives of Emma of Normandy, the famous Godiva of Mercia, Gytha of Wessex and Judith of Flanders. Given the regions I’ve just described in the names of these women alone you can also see another aspect of this book that I appreciated. Too often the tale of 1066 is told with a focus on Normans, Harold Godwinson and the Norwegian invaders. This treatment gives us a much more holistic view, approaching the events of that year, the lead-up, and the aftermath, from many angles.

Part two deals with the conquest itself, again with an opening chapter to set out the facts before leading us through this critical time via the lives of Edith of Wessex, the series of women in the life of the fascinating Harald Hardrada, the mysterious Edith Swanneck and Ealdgyth of Mercia (Harold’s early love and his later wife). And do not think because Sharon is focusing on the women of the time that any of the war and politics of the invasion is missed out. This is not the case.

Part three leads us through the aftermath of the conquest, once more with an opening chapter setting out the facts. This chapter ends with one line that seems to seal the fate of the country: “England had been conquered by the Normans.” But there is more to the aftermath of 1066 that simply a change in the ruling family. We’ve all seen right down a century and a half later in the tales of Robin Hood how the land is still portrayed as a broken and divided one between Norman overlord and Saxon underdog. This section of the book deals with the events following the conquest and the world it creates, seen through the lives of Matilda of Flanders, Queen Margaret of Scotland and Gundrada de Warenne (and here, for me, we start to enter more familiar territory, for I am aware of the powerful de Warenne family.) But the very last chapter of this part is for me the most fascinating of the book, for I love a historical mystery, and I enjoyed watching Sharon attempt to piece together the possible identity of a mysterious women shown in the Bayeux Tapestry (Aelgyva).

On a personal note, I wrote Caligula a couple of years ago, and Commodus this past year, both of which deal with famous, or more realistically infamous, Roman emperors and great events, and both are told from the point of view of the women in those emperors’ lives. So it was nice to see something similar happen to the great men of the Norman conquest. And in an odd moment of synchronicity, the paperback of Caligula is released on the very same day as Silk and the Sword.

Once more a refreshing and unique look at the women of British history, this book offers a perspective you’ll not find in any other work on the events of 1066. If you know the era and it’s already of interest to you, then you’ll find something new here and if, like me, you only knew the bare bones and the more famous names involved, then you’ll learn much in an enjoyable and innovative way.

Silk and the Sword is a valuable addition to any reference library on the Medieval world and simply a very good read.

Highly recommended.

Written by SJAT

November 12, 2018 at 11:33 am

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

Richard II: A True King’s Fall

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I do like to intersperse, in the rare leisure time I get, my fiction reading with a little non-fiction (quite apart from all the Roman non-fiction research I do.) This book was an interesting choice, because to sum up everything I knew about Richard II in one sentence: “Pubs called the White Hart are named after him.” Pretty feeble, eh? The white hart was Richard’s own insignia. Also I tend to get a little mixed up in the Plantagenet era. On the bright side, the Richards aren’t to difficult to separate. 1st was a bloodthirsty warrior who bankrupted the country fighting his crusades and yet for some reason is the country’s most beloved monarch, and 3rd is Shakespeare’s hunchbacked villain. No for me, of course. I’m a Yorkshireman, so I know him for the heroic king and Henry Tudor for the usurping French/Welsh tart. But that’s an argument for another time. Damn you, Stanley…

The book opens with a who’s who. More non-fiction should do this. A common issue with numerous eras is lots of very similar names and trying to keep them straight in your head. I get that a lot with Roman names. To have a handy reference point at the start is invaluable in a world where at first glance everyone appears to be called Henry or Edward.

Then we launch into the biography in chronological order beginning with his youth, obviously. And that, I would make clear, is what this is: a biography of the man Richard II, not an account of his reign. It delves into family, relationships, motivations and the minutiae of Richard’s personal life and connections. It does not provide a vast wealth of information about the time and events of his reign.

As such, I found it interesting, yet it left me with unanswered questions. Since I know so little about his reign I was constantly cross referencing with my friend Google to fill in the socio-political gaps. But hey, I’m used to that with my Roman research. And this being non-fiction, it’s not like you’re going to lose the pace and feel of it by branching out to find out more about Wat Tyler.

But what Warner omits in terms of the political history, we gain in terms of an in-depth look at the character and life of an oft-overlooked monarch. Oh, and it is graced with some lovely colour plates too. In short, if you’re wanting a study on the reign of the White Hart King, and you’re not au fait with the history already, this might not serve you so well. But if you want to understand the man, or you are already versed in the politics of the time, then it should be a treat.

Written by SJAT

February 17, 2018 at 9:27 am