Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Review: Vindolanda by Adrian Goldsworthy

A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2018


Having recently delved into Adrian Goldsworthy's "Pax Romana" which I found eminently readable and stuffed with fascinating facts and insight into the Roman world, I was excited to see that Goldsworthy had tried his hand at historical fiction when "Vindolanda" showed up in my list of audiobooks available on Audible. Without hesitation I used one of my subscription credits to purchase it and began listening to it as soon as I finished my last of eleven novels by Anthony Riches.

I realized this novel appeared to be his first effort at using his formidable knowledge about the Roman world in a fictional tale but I was not daunted by that since one of my favorite series, "Warrior of Rome", was written by a the Director of Studies in Ancient History at Oxford University, Harry Sidebottom.

Goldsworthy's protagonist, Flavius Ferox, is a prince of the Silures tribe who, as a hostage taken after the Roman conquest of Britain, was educated in Rome and inducted into the legions.

The Silures were a powerful tribal confederation that occupied what is now southeast Wales. Their first resistance to Roman conquest began in 48 CE with the help of Caratacus, a prince of the  Catuvellauni, who had fled from further east after his own tribe was defeated. The Romans, led by  Publius Ostorius Scapula, spent several years campaigning against the Silures, and found the Silures so adept at guerrilla warfare that Ostorius announced they posed such a danger that they should be either exterminated or transplanted.

After Ostorius died the Silures, still undefeated, went on to defeat the Second Legion. But, they were eventually subdued by Sextus Julius Frontinus in a series of campaigns ending about 78 CE. Of the Silures, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote: non atrocitate, non clementia mutabatur– the tribe "was changed neither by cruelty nor by clemency".

When the novel begins, Ferox is a  Centurio Regionarius, an officer responsible for local law enforcement, who has been sent to an isolated outpost within a days ride of the more formidable Roman fort at Vindolanda. We learn from his own recalled memories or from comments made by a Brigantes scout named Vindex, that Ferox has a past littered with moments of extreme bravery clouded by an irascible nature that has resulted in conflict between Ferox and his commanders, ultimately leading to his apparent banishment to this backwater post.

Ferox also appears to have a sporadic drinking problem that crops up whenever he is not kept suitably occupied. We learn his wife mysteriously disappeared some years ago and he blames himself. Whether she was kidnapped by disaffected druids or simply left for personal reasons is not made clear. This plot point was apparently introduced to justify his rather unprofessional initial behavior.
Vindex has known Ferox for some time and knows how to handle him during his despondent periods. The best medicine is loosing Ferox on the scent of a murder and fortunately, Vindex rides in with two bodies.

At this point I had to adjust my expectations for this story. I was expecting a story about a Centurion and a band of reluctant cohorts that he had to whip into shape to confront a threat from local rebels. But, I was only partly correct. As it turns out, Ferox is first and foremost, a highly skilled tracker and more of a detective type, than cohort commander. Ferox appears to have little influence on his own troops but soon leaves them anyway so I guess it doesn't matter. The only relationship he has developed is with Vindex and it is more like that between two lone wolves than the close brotherhood of centurions I had grown so accustomed to after reading eleven novels by Anthony Riches.

This lack of depth in character dynamics left me feeling detached from any of the people I met, including Ferox. So I began to struggle to become engaged in the plot.

Ferox and Vindex find evidence of a rebel war band and track the rebels to the road leading to Vindolanda. They find the rebels attacking a Roman carriage escorted by a Batavian cohort from Vindolanda. But, the Batavians are outnumbered and are being overwhelmed by scantily dressed warriors emblazoned by tatoos shaped like a horse.

At this point, I really had to struggle to remain open-minded as I had just read "Betrayal" and "Onslaught" in Anthony Riches' "Centurions" series about the Batavian Revolt in which I learned the Batavians were considered the "best of the best" Roman auxilliaries. But this was about thirty years after that time and perhaps the Batavians had lost some of their edge after being put in their place when the Romans exacted "Retribution" (the third novel in the series due out in April).

Anyway, Ferox and Vindex turn the tables and Ferox ends up saving the life of Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of the prefect of Vindolanda, Flavius Cerialis (and a real woman in history as attested to by letters that have been recovered by archaeologists there).

Ferox and Sulpicia are apparently attracted to one another and their relationship will become a subplot throughout the rest of the novel.

Ferox and Vindex return the lady and her maid to Vindolanda and confer with Cerialis about the looming rebel threat. Then Ferox and Vindex ride out to the signal tower to see why the warning signal was delayed. There they find the detachment slaughtered with the exception of one soldier who is missing. At this point Ferox begins to suspect there must be a high-ranking traitor among the Romans who is working with the enemy.

The rest of the novel follows Ferox as he tries to determine who has betrayed Rome and survive the forces of "The Stallion."

With Goldsworthy's extensive classical education, the descriptions of Roman life and military deployments is, of course, authoritative. However, sometimes the extensive descriptions actually get in the way of the story and slow the pace considerably.  I also felt the supporting characters lacked sufficient development to make the story as compelling as it could have been. I didn't know enough about the officer who turned out to be the villain to be appalled by his behavior and Goldsworthy didn't supply enough information about why his family opposed the newly minted emperor Trajan to really justify his betrayal. I also didn't think there were enough "breadcrumbs" left throughout the story so a reader could at least have an idea who the traitor might be. At the end, when all was revealed, I felt no catharsis, since I didn't have hardly a clue about who it might be anyway.

However, I do think Goldsworthy's battle scenes were visceral and authentic, reflecting his extensive study of the Roman military in action. For a first novel, it was a good effort and I do plan to give the sequel, "The Encircling Sea," a listen if it makes it to Audible.

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Sunday, March 18, 2018

Review: Atlas of Empires by Peter Davidson

A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2018


In the opening pages of this reference work, Peter Davidson tells us about his friend who defined an empire as "murder, incest, and the wearing of expensive jewelry!"

"There is the image here both of glorious conquest and of power held over far-flung lands, and indeed this captures something of what we have come to mean by the term 'empire,'" Davidson observes, "But how, then, does empire come about, what forms can it take, and does it have a defining characteristic?"

These are the questions he attempts to answer as he compiles information about most, if not all, empires that have arisen and collapsed throughout world history.

He begins by dividing up his work into nine main chapters, beginning with early civilizations formed when the social construct of empire was a new concept.  The first chapter, entitled "War and Peace", examines the contention between Sumer and Akkad, the rise of Egypt, how the attributes of a military society like Assyria could not achieve stability without advances in administration like those developed by the rulers of Babylonia, and how religion was used to forge unity between disparate peoples by the kings of Persia.

Chapter two focuses on empires of the classical world including Greece and Rome, as well as Alexander's conquests, the Parthians and Sasanians of Iran, the Mauryas and Guptas of India, and the Qin and Han of ancient China.

"The story of Rome is one of adaptation," Davidson points out. "The early growth of Roman power sprange from a zealous and rapacious republicanism that eventually threatened to destroy the republic itself. Unlike Athens, however, Rome restructured to resolve the tension between republic and empire. Subsequently, Rome began to resemble the Persia of Cyrus and Darius in the measures it took to cope with its increasing size and multiculturalism."

In chapter three Davidson leaves the ancient world behind and concentrates on what he terms "Empires of Faith", the Byzantine Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Abbasid Caliphate.
"All the classical empires found ways to supplement control by force with a measure of consent delivered by shared beliefs," Davidson explains. "As the classical world crumbled and people looked for something to hold on to, however, religious ideas promising salvation exerted a stronger pull than political ideas such as citizenship."

Empires of the horse take up Chapter Four as Davidson examines the conquests and achievements of the Mongols, the later empires of the Chinese beginning with the Sui and ending with the Qing, Muslim India with the splendor of the Mughals, and the Ottoman Empire.

"The horse made light work of invading Eurasia's agricultural civilizations but building empires was another matter," Davidson points out. "The steppe riders faced the usual tribal problems of creating a larger community. They also faced the dilemma of what to do with the societies they conquered. If they destroyed they gained little. If they bent themselves to an alien way of life they stood to lose their identity."

Chapter Five looks at what Davidson terms "Empires of Isolation." Three empires are examined here including Mali, the Aztecs, and the Incas. Davidson observes that the empires arising in Eurasia  were ultimately linked by trade and religion but such was not the case in sub-Saharan Africa and in Central and South America. And yet, spectacular empires arose even without the use of iron and steel, draft animals or even the wheel, in some cases.

Chapter Six looks at the first global empires, Spain, Portugal, the Dutch, and both Britain and France in the Americas.

"Managing such far-flung empires was a new challenge," says Davidson. "It was partly a question of money. To squeeze profit from the silver mines of Peru or the nutmeg trees of the Est Indies, ships had to be built, voyages that could take two years had to be financed, and things had to keep going at home."

Chapter Seven examines the conquests of Napoleon, the development of Tsarist Russia and the rule of the Austrian Habsburgs.

"As much in opposition to French occupation as in sympathy with French ideals, national independence movements sprouted across the continent," Davidson observes. "The age of the nation-state had arrived, with first Greece, and later Italy, Germany, and others finding their modern form."
The imperialism of Britain and Japan are examined in Chapter Eight.

"By the 1870s, nationalism had become as much a force to serve imperial ambitions as to incite independence movements. A second industrial revolution now gave Continental powers the chance to compete with Brtain, and , as the 19th century drew to a close, a single global empire gave way to a feeding frenzy for colonial possessions ending in the First World War," Davidson states.

In the last chapter, entitled "Empires and Utopias" Davidson looks at the U.S., the Soviet Uniion, and the European Union.  In it, Davidson says each of these entities were ultimately searching for a better world but with the world defined differently to different people with widely disparate histories.

Like any good atlas, this one is full of maps I found extremely helpful in understanding the migration routes of various groups that conquered or influenced specific civilizations. There are other illustrations of cultural art and architecture. Davidson also includes an index and suggested readings.

Davidson does a good job of defining and describing key cultural characteristics of each empire and the inherent challenges their leaders faced.  He also astutely defines the strengths and weaknesses of each and how these either helped it to achieve greatness or resulted in its ultimate decline and destruction. You will not find descriptions of specific battles or a comprehensive discussion of each emperor's reign. Davidson limits even the most complex empire to about four to five pages including illustrations. But, I think this reference work does an excellent job of providing an overview of peoples and forces that have shaped our world.