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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Roman military novel with a difference
For a novel about the Roman world to succeed, in my opinion, it needs to combine historical accuracy, authority even, with an immediacy that snaps me out of the 21st century. I need to believe that the lives and events I am reading about could have existed, even if I know that they didn't. It needn't take much to throw a reader out of a historical novel but when the...
Published on 12 Oct. 2011 by Kate

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very much a mixed bag
This is the first in academic Harry Sidebottom's "Ballista" Roman series.

Ballista is sent to the far eastern edge of the Roman empire to prepare and defend the Citadel of Arete from the onslaught of Persian forces. So, in a nutshell this is the tale of the journey to Arete, and then the defence of the city where the `barbarian' Ballista has to prove both his...
Published on 18 Jan. 2013 by Nick Brett


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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Roman military novel with a difference, 12 Oct. 2011
By 
Kate (Oxford, Oxon United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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For a novel about the Roman world to succeed, in my opinion, it needs to combine historical accuracy, authority even, with an immediacy that snaps me out of the 21st century. I need to believe that the lives and events I am reading about could have existed, even if I know that they didn't. It needn't take much to throw a reader out of a historical novel but when the author is Harry Sidebottom the reader - and the characters- are in safe hands.

Harry Sidebottom is a Lecturer of Ancient History at the University of Oxford. By definition, that should mean that he knows his stuff. And indeed he does but it's the way that he carries this expertise that makes his Warrior of Rome series (or at least the quarter of it that I've read) so believable and readable. It helps, of course, that the series takes place during a difficult time in Roman history, the troubled third century, when more than one emperor was attempting to hold sway at the same time. The action also takes place in the mysterious east, in Syria, on the edges of the retreating empire. On both counts, Fire in the East is different from many other Roman military novels.

Fire in the East introduces us to Ballista, the long-haired barbarian from the north, an Angle, who has risen from dubious origins (to say the least) to be a commander of the Roman army. His mission is to fortify the city of Arete in Syria and hold it against the Persian King of Kings at all cost. Ballista has to dig in, win the favour of the mixed community within the city, and use all his wit, guile and courage to protect Arete from the thousands of soldiers and hoards camped around the city's walls.

With Ballista is his familia, gathered from across the empire, including Greeks and Spaniards. Not all are free, some are slaves, notably his bodyguard Maximus and his secretary Demetrius, but Ballista drinks with them all and will embrace them before battle. However, as Ballista is painfully aware, friendships are secondary when compared to the urgency of saving the city and its inhabitants.

This is a hugely exciting novel, carefully structured and paced, as we follow very closely Ballista's strategies to defend Arete and then his courage in facing the enemy, so much greater in number. You can almost feel the arrows fly past your cheek or the artillery smash stone and men at your feet. Ballista is an enormously likeable young man and the reader's feelings are intensified by the moments of vulnerability - for his past, his wife and child - that he lets slip to us yet to no-one else. He is mocked by the Romans in the city and yet the Romans are outnumbered in Arete by its eastern population and soon it's Ballista's name they chant. But the Angle can never forget that there are traitors around him and that his death may come just as easily, maybe even easier, from an act of betrayal as from an arrow or sword during battle.

The story moves around Arete, its different communities and religions. A range of characters are given leave to give their perspective on events. We know, for instance, that there are spies here and, as the novel progresses, part of the game is to guess who might be one of these `corn men'. The city itself is also a character, with its walls, towers, mines and tombs. The desert around it, with the mighty river flowing through it, is vividly presented.

Played off against the action of the siege we have the drama inside Ballista's head. Amongst his nightmares and dreams is the growing awareness that Rome is a long way away.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good .. at a different pace, 15 Jun. 2011
By 
Parm (A bookshop near you) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Warrior of Rome I: Fire in the East (Paperback)
Having taken a trawl through some of the reviews on here i am somewhat surprised at certain comments.
Ok the book is not an Iggulden, who lets face it is a natural fireside story teller, and he is not a Scarrow, who cuts straight to the action and delivers brilliantly real characters. But why do we want the same, surely we want something different, something new.
There seems to be a lot of Jump on the author for being an academic and oh no ...adding too much history to a historical fiction novel, now i for one don't want a text book when I'm reading fiction, if i want that i pick up a text book. But i want to be educated where possible, so bravo Mr Sidebottom, a book that entertains and educates, for me it was a real winner, one that i enjoyed.
Yes its a slow burner in comparison to others in the genre, but I'm happy with that and when i buy your future books (which i will be) then i will know to read them at a time that I'm in the mood for slow burn, great characters, great history, great plots, and well told tales.

Please keep it up and don't listen to those who say too much detail...just keep it tempered with the flowing blood and guts action. (Parm)
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75 of 80 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More swords and sandals, 21 April 2009
This review is from: Warrior of Rome I: Fire in the East (Paperback)
Other comments on this book have suggested it stands out from the competition because it is set during the decline of Rome. For me it stands out because it moves away from the common soldier and lower ends of society which is the perspecive used in other novels of this kind. The hero is a German favourite of the Emperor who is tasked to lead the defence of a town on the border of Roman-Sassanid territory.

The book divides into 3 parts - the journey to Arete, the preparations for the seige, and the seige itself. The novel contains naval warfare, spies, assassins, and a few twists and turns as well. Some story threads are left, presumably to be concluded in later books.

If you enjoy the Scarrow series of 'Eagle' books, Iggulden, or Jackson's Caligula you will enjoy this.
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76 of 83 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fire in the East, 10 July 2008
By 
Mr. John R. Baker (UK) - See all my reviews
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I have always been a keen reader of historical novels, especially covering the Roman to medieval periods. Warrior of Rome by Harry Sidebottom is set in the third century AD, when the Roman Empire had passed it's zenith and follows the character of Ballista, a northern barbarian in the service of the empire, who is sent to defend a border city against a threat from the east. As you would expect from a Fellow of Archaeology and Classical Art at the University of Oxford, this book has been carefully researched and is well written. Set on the borders of the Roman Empire, the story unfolds with irresistible momentum, bringing to life a violent and turbulent period. The characters are skilfully developed against a backdrop of everyday and political life in the period, heightened by the portrayal of exceptionally vivid scenes of siege warfare.
This is an exciting novel by a promising new author, which interweaves history and adventure to recreate a cracking good read in the style and class of Conn Iggulden and Bernard Cornwell. I found it difficult to put down. Now I can't wait for the next book in this promising series.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sidebottom's main gem, so far..., 30 Mar. 2012
By 
JPS - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Warrior of Rome I: Fire in the East (Paperback)
This book, which I bought from Amazon in 2008 but failed to review at the time, is, I believe, Harry Sidebottom's best so far. It is certainly the one that established his reputation as a writer of historical fiction. He is, of course, a Lecturer of Ancient History at Oxford, meaning that he can be expected to know his topic. This, however, is neither a prerequisite for writting a good historical book of fiction (Bernard Cornwell is not a historian, unless I am mistaken), neither is it always an asset (see, for instance, Victor David Hanson's painfully embarrassing The End of Sparta, which I started to read almost three months ago and still have not had the courage to pick up again and finish).

Essentially, I found Fire in the East excellent because it ticks all of my boxes for what a great historical novel should be, while mostly, if not entirely, avoiding the main pitfalls.

To start with the latter, one of the main pitfalls to which historians writting novels may be subject to is a tendancy to display their knowledge. This is often felt as pedantic, at best, or even pretentious, even by those who share a level of knowledge similar to the author's. As some of you will see if you scroll down all of the numerous reviews that this book has attracted, Sidebottom has not been able to entirely avoid this problem. However, such accusations are often quite unfair or even rather pointless. There can be many reasons for an author to display knowledge, apart from showing off. One of the most common reasons among historians is that he may have a passion for his subject and a wish to share what he knows about it with others, including the non-specialized readers. The problem, however, is that these, when confronted with such displays, may feel somewhat patronized (as another reviewer put it), especially when the display of knowledge is accessory rather than essential to the story being told. This has always been a bit of a problem with Mr Sidebottom's books. It is, for me at least, largely cancelled by all of this book's other favorable aspects.

One huge advantage this book had when first published in 2008 was the originality of the historical context and this is also very much a consequence of the author's knowledge. This book, the first volume of the Warrior of Rome series, is set during the second half of the third century AD, unlike most of its other competitors, and more precisely during the joint reigns of Valerian (253-260) and his son Gallienus (253-268). This was the most crucial part of what is sometimes called the "crisis of the third century", a period of 40-50 years of disruption and civil wars during which there was over 60 contenders for the imperial throne, and sometimes up to four or five at the same time (roughly from 235 and the murder of Alexander Severus to 284 and the seizing of power and murder of his predecessor by Diocletian). It was also during the joint reigns of Valerianus and Gallienus that the Empire seemed to disintegrate, with separatist states being set up in Gaul and in the East around Palmyra. Other novellists have tended to stear clear of this period, with the exception of stories on Zenobia and Palmyra perhaps, largely because of the complexity of the period and the paucity of its sources.

Another originality is it hero, Ballista, a Roman commander based on a historical character but about which very little is known. Sidebottom chose to make him into a (half) romanized Angle, son of an Angle warlord who had been brought up at Rome as a hostage for his father's good behavior, married the daughter of a Roman senator and served in the Roman army, including in Africa and in the Balkans against the Goths where he has developed a speciality in siege warfare. By the time the story begins, he is in his mid-thirties and a "Duke of the Frontier" (my lose translation from latin) and he is posted of to the East to fortify and hold the rich caravan town of Arete against the probable attack of the Persian (Sassanid) King and his army.

The third originality of this book is that it is essentially the story of a siege, that of Arete. This fictitious town and its siege are, as the author mentions, proxies for the real fortified town and siege of Doura Europos that rtook place in AD 256 and which Sidebottom has extensively researched. The real Doura has been excavated, showing traces of the siege. The author uses almost all of them to build a very detailed reconstruction of this siege and the techniques used by both besiegers and defenders.

The fourth original piece is the picture of the population of a caravan town on the border and of this town's Christian community. This is also based on historical records to a large extent. Although we do not know what the attitudes of Christians were in Doura or even whether there were any, the general attitude of early Chritians, and of some of their leaders in particular towards the Empire and Emperors were ambiguoüs, to put it nicely. As for the description of the town's most powerful men, this could also probably apply to a caravan city like Palmyra to a large extent.

Then there is the story of the preliminaries of the siege and of the siege itself, both of which are remarkably told. You get a rather good glimpse at the breakdown of Roman peace throughout the Empire with the naval encounter that Ballista has when sailing to Syria. The state of readiness and morale of Roman frontier troops and of their officers in Arete as Ballista reviews them is particularly well presented. The story telling and the assaults themselves are gripping and extremely realistic. At times, you really get the impression to be standing there, somewhere on the town's walls.

So, regardless of whether the author may seem (or even be) pedantic and pretentious at times, this is a "must read" for all those who like historical fiction in general, and the ones on Rome in particular. It is well worth it.

A superb read, which, unfortunatly, has not quite been matched by his three next volumes in the series.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Scholar and a Poet, 11 Jan. 2012
By 
Arch Stanton (Nottingham, UK) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Warrior of Rome I: Fire in the East (Paperback)
The author is a Classical Historian at Oxford so I began this book with some trepidation. Now I have nothing wrong with Historians writing fiction, but I find that their works tend to be a mixed bag. Generally they are pedantic about getting all the facts straight since that is after all their job. This can lead to some dreadfully stilted and uninvolving books (See for example Victor David Hanson's The End of Sparta. He's an excellent Historian but a crummy novelist). At the other extreme is Valerio Massimo Manfredi whose books (like The Last Legion) tend to be overly simplistic and follow a basic adventure story pattern. They never really feel representative of the world they take place in, and certainly don't reflect the contemporary mindset.

Fortunately Sidebottom is an exception to this rule as he is able to skirt between these extremes. His characters are well-written with actual personalities and the world is detailed and gritty enough that it feels real. He lists the master of Historical Fiction today as being Bernard Cornwell and the influence is obvious. His Ballista is a pretty nice guy but he's always a nice Roman, not a nice modern intrusion. His ethics are routed firmly in the times. Like Cornwell he does not feel the need to make the world conform to our modern conceptions.

The style of the writing is important in a book like this. The prose is never too lighthearted nor is it too overbearingly dreary. Frankly, it's as good as any of his fellow Historical Fiction writers. His characters are detailed and have more than right/wrong beliefs. The barbarian thinks in a different manner than the Roman who thinks differently from the Greek. His experience as a scholar is undoubtedly helping him there, but I've rarely seen such cultural differences expressed so naturally and so well. The treatment of the historical figures is generally the standard one. It was great fun to read the dialogue put in the mouth of the ferociously violent Maximinus whose personality seems to come right out of Herodian. His view of Gallienus seems to follow that of the Greek writers rather than the Latin ones (probably with good reason) and his take on Zenobia seems likely to be more harsh than the generally favorable reputation she has had throughout history. His only real problem is an occasional (and not unexpected) tendency to go into too much detail about irrelevant factors and quote long segments from Classical authors. These quotes get fewer and fewer as the action picks up.

When he listed the names of the authors of the Historia Augusta as the conspirators plotting to kill the emperor Maximinus Thrax I knew that I was going to like this book. The HA is a pseudo-historical work of fiction which Sidebottom holds in as little esteem as I do. The author of the book lied and created several fake writers which he published his Lives under, so having them listed as conspirators is hilarious. Or at least it is to me. I appreciate that I'm probably a niche audience. Regardless of whether that cracks you up or not, it's nice to be reading an author who clearly knows his stuff.

The context for this book is the Romano-Persian Wars of the 250s AD. Persia had just popped up on the map a couple of decades before and they were still in an aggressive, expansive stage. This period witnesses a string of Roman defeats which are only ameliorated by the minor successes of two men: the protagonist and Odenathus. Odenathus and Zenobia seem to be set up as the long-term villains of the piece which isn't surprising given their position with regards to Ballista. What's known about this period is all included in this novel, although picking out the truth from the speculation is tricky unless you know it already. This period is atrociously poorly documented so after reading a great deal of books which focus greatly on a few small nuggets of information it's nice to read one where the author can flesh out the facts with details, albeit fictitious ones.

The choice of the main character for this book is a surprising one. Ballista (probably actually Callistus) was a major player in the East during the 260s. He was basically the power behind the throne. While I won't spoil anything for anyone who wants to enjoy the surprise of finding out as the books continue, it is sufficient to say that he does not come to a pleasant end. The choice of a real figure (even one who we know almost nothing about) comes with some problems and benefits. It does of course limit the freedom the author has to create a story but it also gives him limits which helps keep him honest. Well, honest to a degree of course. Since nothing is known of Ballista's backstory he has decided to make him an English (well, Saxon) barbarian. He admits the unlikeliness of this, but he feels it makes for a more interesting story and I suspect he's right. It's always easier to explain the workings of a culture from an outsider's perspective.

So that's this book. It should be accessible to anybody with an interest in the period or a desire for a good, realistic swords-and-sandal novel. It doesn't follow many of the adventure cliches since the main character serves in an official position in the Roman army and doesn't spend his time adventuring like many a fictional hero. The writing is excellent and doesn't suffer with comparison to the works of Bernard Cornwell. In fact he does some things better. Cornwell is never too good with the passage of time tending to connect meticulously detailed days together using the most basic of summaries. This book covers an interesting and little known period with great skill and makes for interesting reading. While I'd recommend this book for anyone interested I would like to especially recommend it to anyone with some scholarly background in this area. The Historia Augusta reference that I mentioned earlier is hardly the only one and knowing that these references are there adds a great deal to the book. While I certainly wouldn't suggest basing an essay off of it, the book serves very well as a look at life in the Roman army in Syria during the third century.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fast paced, exciting, well written, historical fiction, 26 Jan. 2011
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This review is from: Warrior of Rome I: Fire in the East (Paperback)
The Warrior of Rome trilogy looks from the cover and title to be just typical rubbish - but in fact it's extremely well written, fast paced and exciting historical fiction.

It's written by a history professor with a funny name (Harry Sidebottom) but don't let that put you off - it never goes into long historical descriptions - always keeps to the story.

Because he's a historian he chose a period in the middle of the Roman empire about which not much is known - so he can make up all kinds of stuff that's consistent with what is known about the period.

It's about a German noble who was raised as a hostage leading warriors from a tribe which had submitted to Rome (as "allies") in a Roman emperor's campaigns. The book begins with him murdering that emperor (when he's sending him and his warriors into yet another suicidal assault on a city, after having the officers of previous failed assault attempts executed for failure) and becoming a favourite of the new co-Emperors as a result.

I've only read the first and second books so far but they have a lot of imperial political intrigue including the main character being sent as a general to hold a city against the Sassanid Persians and as a governor to a province in what's new Turkey.

The book is never predictable (especially as e.g the Sassanids were more than a match for the Romans - beating them on many occasions - and the main character often doesn't get given nearly enough troops for political reasons and due to Imperial overstretch) and always interesting and fast paced.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars For me a thoroughly absorbing and enjoyable read., 6 Mar. 2015
By 
IP - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Warrior of Rome I: Fire in the East (Paperback)
The perfect companion to this excellent work is: THE ROMA VICTRIX WINE BEAKERCalix Imperium, Roma Victrix Pewter wine beaker

Fire in the East is rather intriguingly set during the decline of the Roman Empire and its lead is the German barbarian, now Roman citizen and diplomatic hostage, Ballista. It is an intriguing look at the internal machinations of an empire during a time when it finds itself involved in a religious war: a war without just cause, with no hope of compromise, or indeed end.
The narrative feature the use of contemporary speech, particularly when using expletives, and this is a method that will always divide opinions: for some it works, others find it inappropriate. The story itself is divided into three parts: the journey to Arete, the preparation for the siege, and the siege itself. One thing that is always evident is that Dr Harry Sidebottom knows his history and more importantly he possesses the necessary skill to present his scholarly knowledge in an accessible and realistic way while maintaining historical accuracy. A great deal of effort and attention to detail has gone into Fire in the East and this pays off as the reader will find it easy to immerse themselves in the author's ancient world.

Previous reviewers have intimated that the narrative is too slow or that the heavy indulgence in historical fact spoils the plot. I beg to differ for me this only enhances the narrative and gives one a unique insight to a world long gone.

The biggest and most important question that surfaces after reading the first book in a series is whether you would read the second. The answer would be a definite yes as Fire in the East is a well-researched and absorbing account of warfare during the decline of the Roman Empire.
Recommended to readers who enjoy historical fiction and existing fans of Simon Scarrow and Conn Iggulden.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very much a mixed bag, 18 Jan. 2013
By 
Nick Brett (Wiltshire, England) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Warrior of Rome I: Fire in the East (Paperback)
This is the first in academic Harry Sidebottom's "Ballista" Roman series.

Ballista is sent to the far eastern edge of the Roman empire to prepare and defend the Citadel of Arete from the onslaught of Persian forces. So, in a nutshell this is the tale of the journey to Arete, and then the defence of the city where the `barbarian' Ballista has to prove both his credibility and leadership.

This is not a fast moving story, those who suggest it is ponderous at times are not far from the truth, perhaps the academic inclinations of the author occasionally slow the pace of the novel.

So the good points are that the author knows his stuff and the period of history (Rome over-stretched and under pressure) and the siege itself is entertaining once we finally get there. On the down side as previously mentioned, there is a little too much historical `education' and some annoying repetition. For instance soldiers keep repeating "we will do what is ordered and at every command we will be ready " - authentic but tiring when you have read it ten times. Also Ballista has a very chummy relationship with his slaves which felt wrong even given his `barbarian' background and (to me) at odds with the historical accuracy the author seems so keen on. Finally, it has an odd structure, a slow beginning, an interesting middle and then a finish so quick you can blink and miss it.

So, slotting in against the many Roman historical actioners out there this was not an easy read and I certainly was not blown away by it. Three stars (just).
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44 of 51 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Did you hear the one about....?, 15 Jun. 2009
By 
J.K. Currie (Northern Ireland) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Warrior of Rome I: Fire in the East (Paperback)
Did you hear the one about the Englishman, the Scotsman and the Irishman who went off to fight for a declining superpower against religious fanatics in the East where they were under-resourced and written off as expendible, yet achieved wonders against incredible odds? Well then, meet Ballista the 'Angle', Calgacus the 'Caledonian' and Maximus the 'Hibernian'. I was initially put off reading this book because of the title which conjured up another cash-in series of violent and inaccurate novels set in antiquity and also because the author appeared to have recruited friends and colleagues at Oxford to write glowing sound-bites for the hardback cover. After beginning to read it I was also irritated by the classical knowledge displayed rather too heavily, the Greek and Latin terms in italics followed by English translation. Yet the novel is not bad at all, especially when we finally get to the siege. There are loose ends (who killed Scribonius? why did Acilius Glabrio perfume Ballista's bath?) and the denouement is rather unconvincing, but the test of a novel for me is whether I would read another book by the same author. In this case, yes, I would.
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