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Strongbow: The Norman Invasion of Ireland
Strongbow: The Norman Invasion of Ireland
by Conor Kostick
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.94

4.0 out of 5 stars The last Norman Warlord and the Norman Invasion of Ireland, 15 Feb. 2016
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This is probably one way of seeing Richard Fitz Gilbert de Clare, better known as Richard Strongbow, and the role he played in the Norman invasion of Ireland. This is an interesting, very good, and often exciting and excellent biography of the Norman warlord, his companions, his times and his deeds.

Of the main qualities of this book is that the author has well described the context in which the invasion took place and the motivations of the invaders, who had little to lose and were seeking land and riches, and of Dermott MacMurrough, the exiled King of Leinster who recruited them to exact his vengeance and reconquer his kingdom. The description of the complex political situation in fragmented Ireland is particularly good. So is the presentation of the Anglo-Normans (and their Flemish and Welsh mercenaries) that would become the “Marcher Lords” and their Welsh enemies in Wales.

The presentation of “Normanitas” – the book’s first chapter summarising the history of the Normans – is also relatively good, although less so because there are a number of inaccuracies on minor points, even if the main points are made. For instance, the statement according to which Norman elite used Norse in Normandy for several generations is questionable. Rolf, the Viking warlord and first Count of Rouen, send his son and heir to the Western part of Normandy which was not under his control at the time to learn the language of his ancestors, presumably because it was already falling out of use in and around Rouen. Also questionable is the statement that the Norman aristocracy, by the end of the first millennium could trace their origins back to Viking ancestors. This was true for some, but not all, of the Norman families. Others, particularly those on the borders of the Duchy, were of Frankish origins, such as the Bellêmes, or even Bretons. There are a few other similar little glitches.

The core of the story is well told and exciting, to the extent that I sometimes wondered if I was reading a historical novel or a historical biography. The author does manage to show how the Anglo-Normans, despite their small numbers, managed to prevail through military skills combining a few heavy cavalry – the miles -, Welsh archers and Flemish crossbowmen, and more heavily equipped infantry that what any of the Irish kings could field. Also well showed is the strategic use of castles that the Normans once again build to control the countryside, just as they had done in Normandy, England, Southern Italy and Wales. Even the descendants of the Norse and Dane settlers that made up the populations of the main trading towns (Wexford, Waterford, Dublin, Cork and Limerick) could not match them since they lacked archery and heavy cavalry.

Another interesting and well-made point is about Henry II’s ambivalence regarding the invasion. After having initially accepted the exiled Irish King’s request to recruit volunteers, he tried – and failed - to prevent what started out as a private initiative of some of his warlords, constables and castellans in Wales. He then came in person to Ireland, imposed his suzerainty over the Irish kings, took control of the major towns, starting with Dublin, and nominated his own governors instead of the initial conquerors. The reasons for this are well explained in the book. In a nutshell, there was no way Henry II was going to allow for a Norman warlord, and one of his vassals, to conquer a kingdom for himself and become sufficiently powerful to either challenge him or become independent. Nevertheless, and as the author shows well, the Norman warlords that initially took part all did extremely well for themselves.

Here again, however, a few glitches creep up sometimes. Henry II was for a time the most powerful monarch of the XIIth century at the head of his Angevine Empire which ranged from the borders of Scotland to the Pyrenees. However, contrary to the author’s claim, Henry II never had “at his disposal the service of tens of thousands of knights”. There were probably less than ten thousand knights throughout his far-flung Empire anyway. Not only was it impossible to raise all of them at the same time but it was also impossible to keep them all in the field for more than the feudal forty days unless they were paid. Medieval finances, even those of Henry II, simply did not make this possible. In fact, Henry II relied for his military expeditions on his own household knights, just like each of his main barons, and complemented these buy using professional soldiers, i.e. mercenaries, most of which were Flemish or from Gascony. Numbers never seem to have exceeded ten to fifteen thousand at most.

A similar comment can be made with regards to the armies gathered by the High King at the time. It is very unlikely than any High King, not even Brian Boru at Clontarf, was able to field the tens of thousands that the author mentions as lined up against the Normans, if only because of logistics there were no roads in Ireland, for instance). Again, the largest army than a High King may have raised did probably not exceed ten to fifteen thousand, a very considerable force at the time.

Another great point is the author’s discussion of the sources. Of particular interest is the analysis showing that the Norman source was not above using forgeries, or even forging a papal document himself to make his point more convincing. He was however far from unique in this respect. I found particularly interested by the author’s convincing demonstration showing the document to be a forgery.

Finally, the author also has a very useful and well-balanced assessment of the Norman conquest of Ireland. It was certainly very brutal and violent at times, but there does not seem to have been anything as terrible as William the Conqueror’s “Harrowing of the North” or Robert Guiscard’s deliberate use of famine to subdue Calabria. Also of interest is that by discussing what the Normans destroyed but also what they brought with them, the author also puts to bed the caricature according to which the Norman invasion was the beginning of eight hundred years of oppression of the Irish at English hands. Four strong stars.

Roman Britain: A New History
Roman Britain: A New History
by Guy de la Bédoyère
Edition: Paperback
Price: £16.51

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent illustrated introduction and overview, 15 Feb. 2016
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This book is an excellent introduction and starting point for whoever is interested in Roman Britain. It offers a good and comprehensive overview with lavish and numerous illustrations, photos and maps. Its eleven chapters cover the topic both chronologically and thematically.

The first chapter addresses Britain before the Roman invasion. The two following ones cover the conquest and Late Roman Britain from the mid-second century AD to the end of the fourth century while the book’s last chapter (titled “the aftermath”) addresses the end of Roman Britain and the decades post AD 410.

The rest of the book – the seven chapters that make the core of it – is divided into themes. The titles of the thematic chapters clearly describe the topics addressed. These are: Governing Britain, Military installations, Towns in Roman Britain, Industry, Commerce and Production, The Countryside and Villas, People and places and Religion. Within each chapter, the author mentions or alludes to the various theories that have been presented. He also makes heavy use of archaeological findings and treasure hordes. Particularly interesting are the multiple boxes and vignettes included, with these making the book particularly entertaining to read, especially when combined with illustrations and reconstitutions.

While the author’s grasp of his subject is obvious, this is never displayed. One of the qualities of this book is in fact that the author freely admits how little we really know. He does not pretend to have found “the” answers to controversial debates that have excited and divided historians and archaeologists for decades. He is also excellent at showing to what extent the “fashionable” views of Britain and its treatment as part of the Roman Empire have varied over time from the benevolent and civilising version during Victorian and British colonial times to the cruel and oppressive version that emerged during the 1970s and 1980s.

One of the most interesting pieces here is the author’s own and relatively balanced view, and his ability to question received ideas. Clearly, Rome could and at times clearly was oppressive, especially during the conquest phase but, as the author shows, it could not be only that and would not have lasted as long as it did if it had not managed to “Romanise” and integrate most of the pre-existing population of Britain, starting with its elites.

He also notes and shows to what extent Britain became populated and prosperous, especially its Southern part, and underlines that such levels would not be reached again before the end of the Middle Ages or even the early 18th century, depending on areas. Another interesting discussion, which the bibliography also allows the reader to pursue should there be an interest, is whether and to what extent Roman Britain was in any way “exceptional” when compared to other Roman provinces of Western Europe. In all of these cases, and many others, the author’s responses are well-articulated and nuanced, making this book into a particularly valuable item for anyone interested in “things Roman”.

Five well-deserved stars, without any hesitation, for a book that I can recommend to just about anyone, from the general reader who might know next to nothing on Roman Britain, to the “fan” or undergraduate who has chosen this topic and has a specific and strong interest in it

Terror Gallicus (Brennus ~ Conqueror of Rome Book 1)
Terror Gallicus (Brennus ~ Conqueror of Rome Book 1)
Price: £2.49

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Prequel to the first Roman disaster, 10 Feb. 2016
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This is the first book I have read from this author, and I am rather impressed in many respects. The story line is – at least to me – a rather original one since the focus is on the Gallic migration and invasion of Italy that would to the first of Rome’s catastrophic defeats and to the first sacking of the city. This is the first novel that I have read that centres on these momentous events which would remain part of the Romans’ psyche for centuries.

Another reason for finding this book both interesting and original is that the time is set at the very beginning of the fourth century BC. At that time, Rome was no longer a small city, although it was not yet either the largest or the more powerful in the Mediterranean and it had not yet conquered and federated Italy around it. It had, however, managed to do so with the various Latin tribes and was beginning to gain ascendancy on the Etruscans, as reflected in the book where the destruction of the Etruscan city of Veii which was very close to Rome is alluded to and mentioned a couple of times.

A further reason for reading this book is that, as the author shows very well through his book and in his historical note, the Celts were not exactly (meaning not at all) the “Barbarians” that the Greeks and then the Romans portrayed them to be. In fact, most of their armament was borrowed and/or improved upon by the Romans after their defeat, whether the shields, the helmets, the daggers, the swords, the helmets and, last but not least, chain mail armour which the Celts seem to have introduced to both Italy and Greece. They also dominated much of central Europe and moved West and South to invade and settle Gaul, modern Lombardy, Spain and, of course, both Britain and Ireland.

By the time this novel begins, with the turn of the century – the prologue is in Britain in 401 BC but the story begins a decade latter – most of the large and powerful tribe of the Senons which had settled in modern Burgundy (around Sens which still bears a name related to them) decides to migrate to Italy. This could have been one of the only weak points of the book. This is because the author never really gets to explain what drove a large part (but not all) of the tribe to migrate, and to go so far. There may be at least two reasons, with one being population pressure - with too little land to feed a growing population - and another being the pressure exercised by the Germanic tribes, and the various Belgae ones in particular. The emergence of a charismatic leader – Brennus – who would be bent on conquest and seeking glory could be a third one and, of course, all of these reasons may have played a role. In fact, the author alludes at various points of the book to all three reasons. He does indicate that part of the tribe remained in Gaul and that alliances with neighbours were strengthened and renewed before the trek began. He also has his characters mention that they were seeking land in Italy to settle upon, suggesting that overpopulation in Gaul could underpin the migration. However, he also shows that the migration may have had something to do with Brennus’ ambitions and his need to cement his recent leadership through war and distribution of plunder to his warriors. He however also hints at less than peaceful relations with at least some of the Belgae tribes further north.

A further feature which I found valuable was the power plays among the Senon tribe and the various clans that make it up. These include some rather exciting and cut-throat (almost literally) intrigues which I will refrain from mentioning to avoid spoilers. This factionalism also illustrates the lack of clear succession rules, something that was perhaps one of the main weaknesses of Celtic tribes (and German ones) and which goes some way to explain Rome’s future victories and conquests once it started to play “divide and rule” both between and within tribes.

While this migration is taking place, the reader is also treated to the parallel life of a female apprentice and future druidess in Britain. The druids of the Senons also make an appearance and the developments on druidic religion (or perhaps druidic religions?) were also of great interest to me. Readers that are familiar with and enjoyed Manda Scott’s Boudicca trilogy may come across some similar themes, such as the importance of dreams, although they are treated somewhat differently. Since we know very little on druids, and what little we know mostly comes from the Romans, and largely from Caesar who tended to paint a rather negative picture of his adversaries, the author’s descriptions and choices may be no more than interpretations based on analogies. Whether the case or not, I could not help finding them quite plausible and convincing – more convincing anyway that the rather biased portraits given by the Romans.

Another great set of features are those related to the early Romans. One is to show – through the Fabii – the arrogance of the Roman Patricians but also their own internal conflicts, with the rivalries between them and Camillus being clearly displayed. Another is to show that this arrogance was also coupled with ignorance, and a strong tendency to underestimate the martial qualities of the Celtic force, and the quality of its cavalry or the ferocity of its warriors and their ability for executing a rather complex battle plan when commanded by charismatic leaders.

Another great feature is the contrast drawn between the relatively rigid hoplite and phalanx style of warfare and battle line and the more flexible and open order of the Celts. The two victories of the later are attributed by the author to their tactical superiority, higher morale and better general ship, with a couple of rather interesting and plausible ploys. Here again, the author’s choices are both interesting and help in making the story more realistic instead of attributing the Celts’ victories to sheer superiority in numbers, as the Romans tended to do at times when trying to explain away their lack of success. The Senon tribe – or at least those that migrated - is mentioned as being eighty thousand strong. The number is quite plausible, especially when compared to that of the Vandals and Alans that crossed from Spain into Roman Africa centuries later towards the very end of the Roman Empire.

Then there is the storyline itself and the characterisation. Both are good, and I will be briefer here if only because these have already been covered by other reviewers (on the UK site at least). The story itself is fast-paced and exciting. The planning of the expedition, the accumulation of food reserves and the alliances struck to this effect with the Allobroges, in particular, may be fiction introduced by the author. Here again, however, they are eminently plausible and both Hannibal and Caesar would also attempt the same with various degrees of success (in particular the alliances).
Since the Celtic Senons are clearly not shown as a disorganised rabble and their leaders were neither incompetent nor careless, there is no reason to believe that they would not have contemplated and taken similar steps because these were crucial to the success of the expedition. The crossing of the Alps, and all the hardships involved, are dealt with briefly but clearly. The crossing of the Po Valley by the Senons could perhaps have been developed a bit more. In particular, the reasons for the Senons not to settle in the very fertile Po Valley but continue on south to Picenum (modern region of the Marches) are not explained.

The three main Gallic characters mature during the novel, in particular the druidess from the Trinobantes and the young Senon warlord. All three are well drawn, although the young warlord’s friend, a Celtic warrior from Britain, is perhaps a bit weaker than the two others. The duels between champions and the ritualistic offers for such duels to take place before pitched battles, and sometimes to avoid such battles from decimating both sides, were not specifically Celtic. Similar “heroic” behaviour could be found in most warrior societies both before (the Greeks and Romans of the Early Iron Age) and after down to the end of the Roman Empire and the Early Byzantines (you find some such duels in Procopius just before the battle of Dara in AD 530). Perhaps one of the best characters (or at least my personal favourite) is the ruthless, charismatic, unscrupulous, cynical strong and cunning Brennus. The author has included a little touch of mystery to him because, in the novel at least, his origins are largely unknown although he seems to have fought in the East before joining the Senons.

Finally, for those who may “want more” and/or are looking for “companion books” to look a few things up or learn more about the early Roman period and the associated events, I can recommend three books. One is the Osprey title “Early Roman Warrior 753-321 BC”, with one of the plates being specifically on the battle of the Allia (one of the key parts of the follow-up book from CR May). Another is a piece of scholarship and reference by T.J. Cornell on “The Beginnings of Rome” (and chapter 12 in particular). For those specifically interested in the early developments of the Roman army, LGF Keppie’s “The Making of the Roman Army” is still very useful. Five stars, and I am somewhat( impatiently waiting for volume 2 which I have, of course, already ordered.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 14, 2016 9:18 PM GMT

Britannia: Part III: The Warlords
Britannia: Part III: The Warlords
by Richard Denham
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The end of Britannia, 9 Feb. 2016
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This is the third book in the Britannia Series, with the first being centred on the so-called “Barbarian Conspiracy” of AD 367 and the second on the revolt and usurpation of Magnus Maximus (AD 383-388). This one is about the end of Roman Britain and takes the story down to what should be AD 410, when Emperor Honorius informed his former subjects that they would have to seek to their own defence and needs going forwards.

I have two comments to make before going through the various pros and cons of this book. First, and to echo another reviewer, it is preferable to read these books sequentially because at least some of the characters are common and the storyline is essentially continuous. It is not, however, absolutely necessary. Second, the whole story is built around the “Four Heroes of the Wall” who were in their late teens or early twenties in AD 367. Since several of them are still part of this third book right to the end and are veterans that seem to be in their forties, the authors have in fact
implicitly compressed the timeframe. There have also omitted the rebellion and usurpation of Arbogast and his puppet Emperor in the West. Despite a number of historical quibbles where the authors have (deliberately) muddled and twisted some of the events to fit the plot, this book has a number of features that I found simply outstanding and/or original.

The first of these is the characterisation of Stilicho, which is superb with its combination of ruthlessness, cynicism and utter loyalty to the Empire and the Thedosian dynasty. He does not, however, seem to have arrived in Britannia before the death of Emperor Theodosius, but only a few years later and there is no historical record of him having to put down a military rebellion and have the usurping officer executed.

Another great (and semi-legendary) character introduced in this book is Niall Noígíallach, High King of Tara, the Irish piratical warlord better known as Niall of the Nine Hostages, but at a time where he only had accumulated four or five of them. The date of his death is quite uncertain, with various Irish Chronicles recording it between AD 379 and AD 411. However, the most important here is the vivid picture that the authors draw of the larger than life, brave, cunning and ruthless warlord boldly raiding and plundering the western and south-western coasts of Britannia with a handful of sea-borne warriors. There must have been quite a few Irish chieftains increasingly carrying out such raids at the time and some would even attempt to settle in North-West Wales while others would probably succeed in doing so in parts of Western Scotland.

A third interesting character, which this time seems to be fiction, is that of the unscrupulous, corrupt but competent Vicarius of Britannia. His motivations and plots are interestingly focused upon maintaining and increasing his power, and, of course, ensuring his own survival at any cost. While invented, the character’s behaviours are quite believable.

A fourth interesting character is that of the historical Pelagius and the “heresy” (in the eyes of those who opposed it and condemned it, of course) that bears his name. His form of Christianism was both more tolerant towards the various polytheist traditional cults than what became the “catholic” position. Its theology, by emphasising human free will as opposed to Saint Augustine (Pelagius’ fiercest critic and bitter enemy) dogmatic divine predestination, also had undertones and features that would be rediscovered by Protestants more than a thousand years later. The authors, in depicting Pelagius as a rather sympathetic and human character as opposed to his fanatical and cowardly rival the bishop of London, are, of course and quite obviously taking sides. What is true, however, is that from the 380s onwards, the Christian Church did start persecuting its rivals and requesting that civil and military authorities destroy both the temples and the worshippers of the pagan cults.

By the way, those who happen to be interested in Roman London will also find a few historical features related to it in this novel. There was a Mithraeum in Roman London. There also probably was a temple of Isis and it might have been targeted first, rather than the Mithraeum, for the reasons mentioned in the book. There also was a Roman fort in the North-Western part of the city and a garrison made of troops drawn from the legions and auxiliary units. Finally, there was the Governor’s Palace which was near the Thames, and all the other Roman buildings (basilica etc…) that could be expected for the capital of a Roman province.

A further interesting feature and plot strand is what happens in the North, beyond Hadrian’s Walls and its increasingly depleted Roman garrison. This is the story of the Votadini and how they seem to have resisted for decades the combined pressure and attacks from the Picts, the Scots and the Irish and Saxons from overseas. Whether they were helped or not and whether such help took the form and came from those shown in the book is somewhat irrelevant because we simply do not know. The scenario chosen by the authors is at least plausible, including the existence of internal rivalries, and it is also rather exciting.

A more mixed feature is about what happened in Roman Britannia during the last few years. There were indeed two usurpers which had themselves proclaimed Emperor in about AD 406. None of the two lasted more than a few months, as well shown in the book and both were quickly murdered by the troops that had raised them, even if the details of their demise are the authors’ invention. Their names are also more or less accurate although the second one seems to have been part of the Imperial administration of Britannia, as opposed to the chief gangster of Roman London.

The third, Constantine III, was indeed a soldier and an officer, although he may not have been as senior as the authors have chosen to make him be. He did, together with Gerontius – another officer of the Roman Army in Britain and a historical character – lead probably most of what was left of this army to Gaul although here again the reasons for both rebelling and for crossing to the Continent could have been further developed. Apart from perhaps wanting to shore up the defences on the Rhine which had just been comprised, other reasons may have included the fact that the troops had not been paid for a while, with the last Roman coins found in Britain and coming from the Continent dating to AD 402, some four years before Constantine rebelled. A related point is that the increasing lack of coinage would have quite quickly had some rather catastrophic effects on the economy of Roman Britain and with what was left of its trade with the Rhine region, Gaul and Spain.

An exciting and quite remarkable read which I much enjoyed, will rate four strong stars and warmly recommend.

Republican Roman Warships 509-27 BC (New Vanguard)
Republican Roman Warships 509-27 BC (New Vanguard)
by Raffaele D'Amato
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good overview and primer despite some glitches, 6 Feb. 2016
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This title provides a good and relatively comprehensive overview of Rome’s navies during the Republic, from its very beginning (allegedly in 509 BC) until the time when Augustus reorganised the navy and created the Imperial fleets and squadrons in 27 BC. As usual, and given the amount of ground to cover, one should not expect too much detail from a 48 pages booklet because there simply is not enough space to be comprehensive. The book’s structure and the various sections that make it up contain – for me at least - just about the right level of detail and information that I was expecting to find in such a title. There are however a few glitches across the book

The first section (“Historical Background”) is in fact a short summary of what is known of the Roman navy up to the eve of the First Punic War, in other words, not a great deal. The author has chosen to blend the traditional opinion with regards to the Romans and their Navy – that the Roman Navy was initially small and mostly used for costal defence and piracy – with another thesis that sees it growing and expanding, mainly by interpreting what is known of the treaties between Rome and Carthage before 264 BC. Regardless of whether one agrees or not, the point is rather well made. One allegation I found a bit surprising and sweeping, however, was the statement that (Italian) Greeks “were rather mediocre fighters on land” during the fourth century BC.

The second section presents “Roman ships and fleets”, with descriptions for each of the main types of warships, from the smallest to the largest. Also included are useful little pieces on construction and on transport ships. Here again, there are few minor glitches. For instance, the text accompanying the plates of a Roman quinquereme and a Roman trireme state that they could, respectively, embark 200 and 120 legionaries each.
Given the size of these ships where space as very much at a premium, the numbers seem inflated. Besides, the later number is generally attributed to Roman quinqueremes whereas triremes do not seem to have embarked more than fifty or sixty marines. The author does however make an interesting point when drawing from Morisson and Gardiner (The Age of the Galley) and assuming that Roman “threes” and “fives” were larger than their Hellenistic and Carthaginian equivalents. This is possible and even probable, although I am not quite sure this has been verified through naval archaeology. This would indeed have allowed them to have a larger complement of marines on board, although not as large as suggested.

The other sections of the book are more or less those that can be expected, including something on tactics and armament, with a piece of the Roman “corvus” for instance, and a few pages of the rowing system. There was one exception however. I did not find anything on ships’ performances, whether speed, limited seaworthiness or the need they had to replenish their water supply every day or, at most, every other day.

Another interesting part that takes up a third of the book is the section dealing with a selection of campaigns. This is where the illustrator has come up with some of his most vivid and impressive plates (this does not mean, by the way, that the others are not good!). The selection of campaigns is an interesting one. It includes Pompey’s campaign against the Cilician pirates, with a rather gorgeous plate of legionaries landing and forming up in testudo formation against largely helpless unarmoured pirates. Also included is Caesar’s naval campaign against the Venetes in Gaul (and not the Venetians of Venise). Here again, there are a few glitches. For instance, Rome did not require Carthage to abandon Sardinia as part of the terms of the treaty ending the First Punic War, although it took advantage of the Carthaginians’ war against their mercenaries to occupy the island a few years later. Also a bit surprising (simply because I had not seen this before or read anything about it) was the depiction of Roman marines during the first Punic War (the plate on the battle of the Aegate Islands) and the Second Punic War (the plates on the siege of Syracuse) wearing some form of quilted armour instead of mail or leather. The main point of this section, however, is that author and illustrator have made the effort to select “original” campaigns and battle scenes rather than, for instance, the more “usual” scenes of Actium.

Another point, already noted by another reviewer, is the interesting set of photos of ship rams presented in this book. My final remark will be about the bibliography which, while perhaps not comprehensive, does contain more than enough for anyone wanting to go further. Four stars for a good title, despite the few glitches.

Imperial Roman Warships 27 BC-193 AD (New Vanguard)
Imperial Roman Warships 27 BC-193 AD (New Vanguard)
by Raffaele D'Amato
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.68

4.0 out of 5 stars Ships and fleets during the Pax Romana, 31 Jan. 2016
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This is the second Osprey title on the Roman navy, with this one focusing on the Imperial army from after Actium to the end of the Second Century and more specifically AD 193 – the beginning of the reign of Septimius Severus. The end date should perhaps not be taken too strictly because the book includes a section on this later Emperor’s campaign against the Parthians in AD 197 and his use of boats on the Euphrates.

Also included are the roles played by the Roman Navy in the campaigns in Germany, Dacia, along the Danube and during the civil war of AD 68-69. While necessarily short, the respective sections do show that ships still had a significant role to play. Even if the author may have exaggerated a bit in presenting it as “crucial”, this role went well beyond patrolling the rivers, escorting grain fleets and transporting officials across the Mediterranean. The supporting and troop transport roles played during the Rhine campaigns of Drusus the Elder and Germanicus, for instance, are rather well shown.

Another section of this little book presents the organisation of the Imperial navy, with the two praetorian fleets at Ravenna and Misenum, and the regional fleets across the Empire. The next section, by far the longest, describes the main types of ships and their evolutions. Some points, for instance that the Roman triremes were built larger than Greek ones (and the classical Athenian ones in particular) are particularly interesting in that they show the differences in naval emphasis and tactics. One point which may have deserved more development was about the larger ships – quadriremes and quinqueremes in particular. While the Roman Navy started off with many of these after Actium and even after burning many hulls as mentioned in the book, the proportion of larger ships would have dwindled over time to just a handful, possibly only flagships, since there were no enemies of similar size to confront. For instance, the hexeris shown in one of the (great) plates probably never saw any action at all, contrary to triremes, liburnians and the various types of riverboats.

Also adding value is a rather superb collection of plates with a nice mix between those presenting the various ship types and those illustrating the ships in action. The three events chosen for the latter include an interesting battle scene taking place at the Iron Gates during the Marcomannic Wars of the mid 170s while the Danube has frozen and immobilised the Roman ships. Another impressive plate displays triremes under the overall command of Corbulo ramming and crushing Germanic raiding boats probably somewhere near the estuary of the Rhine. Four strong stars.

Defying Rome: The Rebels of Roman Britain (Revealing History)
Defying Rome: The Rebels of Roman Britain (Revealing History)
by Guy De la Bedoyere
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars All sorts of rebels at the edge of the world, 31 Jan. 2016
This book is a collection of vignettes on what the author calls “the rebels of Roman Britain” and it covers, as indicated in the title of this review, all sorts of rebels that defied Rome from the moment that the first legionaries landed on its coasts until almost the end of the Empire itself.

There seems to be several main points made throughout the book. One is that the author has listed and summarised in separate chapters all sorts of rebels, and not only Briton leaders and their followers (Caratacus, Boudica and Venutius) who refused Roman domination. Also included are the Roman governors and generals who rebelled and sought to conquer the Empire, withdrawing a large part of the Roman Army in Britain to do so, and leaving Britannia exposed to barbarian incursions as a result. This is illustrated by Clodius Albinus and even more so by the rebellions of Magnentius, Magnus Maximus and Constantine III. Another variant were those who sought to create their own breakaway “Roman Empires”, rejecting the distant and somewhat negligent authority of Rome and focusing on better defending Britannia (or Gaul and Britannia). The two main illustrations here are those of Postumus, who was however defending Gaul and the Rhine frontier more than Britannia itself, and Carausius and Allectus, who do seem to have focused mostly on Britain.

Interestingly, the author also includes other rebellions which he distinguishes from those above. One is the role played by Legion XIV Gemina Martia Victrix, in particular in the Civil War of AD 68-69. Another is the northern tribes in what is now Scotland that Rome was never able to subdue, despite at least three massive invasions. A third type of rebellion are those related to Christianity, with a vignette of the martyred Saint Alban, and another, perhaps one of the best of the book, on Pelagius, his “heresy”, and the increasingly dogmatic Christian church who struggled to suppress it.

A second point is that the author has, through this collection of vignettes spanning the whole of Roman Britain’s history, managed to present an overview of the island’s history and main events as a (or a collection of) Roman province(s). This is where the author introduces his thesis. Roman Britain, in world centred on the Mediterranean, was very much seen as being “at the edge of the world.” It was also perceived as backward, an undesirable place to be, a kind of “Wild West” frontier and even a non-essential part of the Empire that had been conquered essentially because an Emperor (Claudius) desperately needed a military success to shore him his legitimacy. A related point made by the author (and by others) is that while the southern part of the island was finally integrated within the Empire by the second century AD, the northern part (Yorkshire, Lancashire and further north) never really was. It was essentially a military zone.

One of the author’s key contention is that Roman Britain, unlike Spain, Africa or (Southern) Gaul was somewhat excluded from the Empire – there were never any Senators coming from Britain in Rome - and a repository of resources for rebellions because of the large garrison that was necessary to enforce “Roman Peace.” These points are particularly interesting. They may however be disputed and they would have been worth further developments. They seem to point to Roman Britain being “exceptional” but do not really demonstrate in what ways it may have differed from the Rhine regions or Belgica, two other heavily militarised frontiers regions who do not seem to have had many Roman Senators coming from them either.

There are a host of other topics that the author touches upon and discusses, with a strong emphasis on numismatics. One of the most interesting is to show that it is a mistake to view the resistance of Caratacus, Boudica and Venutius through modern lenses as being some kind of fight for freedom against Roman oppression. The author rather contends that it was a fight by the fraction of the elites backed by the Druids who refused to see the end of their own supremacy and power to which they believed to be entitled. The contrast drawn between those who resisted the Roman invasion and the eleven chiefs who accepted to become Roman clients and peace on Roman terms is rather well drawn. Also well showed is that the usual Roman delegation of power and working through the local elites worked to a large extent despite the absence of cities, just as it had worked in Gaul a century earlier. Perhaps as much as Rome’s military prowess, it was this ability to divide and rule, to take advantage of their enemies divisions, and to rally part if not most of them to their cause which was one of the main reasons for their success – a success that was almost jeopardised by the Boudica insurrection which took the Romans entirely by surprise.

Four strong stars for an interesting collection of vignettes. These illustrate and present clearly a host of historical topics and theses but perhaps without always having enough space left for discussing them.

The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine (Cambridge Companions to the Ancient World)
The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine (Cambridge Companions to the Ancient World)
by Noel Lenski
Edition: Paperback
Price: £23.62

5.0 out of 5 stars Constantine’s good and comprehensive companion, 31 Jan. 2016
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This book is a remarkable collection of sixteen studies by a wide range of authors on various aspects of the “Age of Constantine”. The studies are grouped in five sections of three studies, with each section on a specific theme. These are Politics and Personalities, Religion and Spiritual Life, Law and Society, Art and Culture, Empire and Beyond. The book’s first study stands apart and it is a review and analysis of the sources that cover the period.

The period, however, is not limited to Constantine’s reign (AD 306 – AD 337). This is because to put Constantine and his achievements into perspective, the authors under the direction of Noël Lenski, who edited the book and contributed the piece on this Emperor’s reign, a wider period has been chosen. Essentially, it covers more or less some eighty years or so from the rise to power of Diocletian (AD 284) to the death of Julian (AD 363) in what turned out to be his disastrous Persian expedition. The advantage offered by such an approach is that it allows assessing to what extent Constantine introduced changes or walked in the footsteps of his predecessors. It also allows for examining to what extent his successors, and Constantius II in particular, followed his own lead or deviating from it.

This is particularly well illustrated by the book’s first section on Politics and Personalities. The first study is essentially an over view of the Tetrarchy up to Constantine’s seizure of power. The second study focuses on the main events of Constantine’s reign and how he unified the Empire by eliminating the competition before dividing it again among his three surviving sons. The third study is about the troubled reigns of these sons, and of Julian, the last Emperor of the dynasty.

Unsurprisingly, there is also a full section on religion, but not only on Christianity. As one of the authors’ states, while many have disputed whether and to what extent one Constantine was a Christian, perhaps a more interesting point is to determine what kind of Christian he was or intended to be. Also shown through these studies are the ways in which “the old” was blended with “the new” and the real role played by the Emperor Constantine in this, as opposed to the semi-legendary role that the later Church’s recasting of events would make him play. An additional feature of particular interest is the study on “traditional religions”, their evolution, and the growing tendency towards one supreme God (Sol Invictus) that Constantine and a number of his predecessors seemed to have worshiped

The third section on law and society covers changes in government, with a growing bureaucracy and centralisation. Also included is an article entitled “Civil Law and Social Life” which is an illuminating analysis of Constantine’s contribution to the legal corpus and how he saw social relationships. There is very little that is revolutionary here – if anything at all. In fact, the Emperor seems to have been as conservative as Diocletian and to have confirmed most of his reforms. One reason for this and for the increasingly intrusive and bureaucratic government was the need to harness all resources. This is what the article of the Empire’s economy tends to show. While it is difficult to talk of decline, if only because this would have affected different regions at different times and in different ways, the author’s conclusion seems to be that the Empire’s economy was probably stagnating and that some areas were indeed recovering slowly from the disruptions of the Third Century. Another major point made is the changes in the cities, with these shrinking to a fraction of their previous size and seeking protection against raids that could no longer be prevented behind their hastily built walls.

The fourth section on Art and Culture also contains a handful of gems. One is a study analysing how the image and deeds of Constantine have been recast in “Legendary Literature”. The two others are on architecture, and on the range and mix of monuments built by Constantine, churches, but also triumphal arches and on “perspectives in art”, with an interesting study on mosaics.

The last section (Empire and beyond) focuses on the Empire’s relations with its neighbours. There is one article on Constantine’s relations with the “Northern Barbarians”, those lining the northern and eastern sides of the Danube and the Rhine. This study follows an excellent piece from Hugh Elton - “Warfare and the Military” – showing how the Roman Army evolved and included a growing proportion of troops but also officers of Germanic origin but Roman trained and subject to Roman discipline, with both features giving them an edge on just about any other opponents.

Also described are the army’s reorganisation between frontier troops and mobile field armies and a short summary of the main historical debates, including those on numbers and on the Empire’s strategy. A final article is centred on the Eastern frontier. It focuses on the relations and tensions with the other great Empire of the Sassanids, but also on those with other people, the Arabs and the Armenians in particular, who were caught between the two rival Empires.

The end of each study also includes a little bibliography for “further reading” which includes references up to 2011 included, in addition to notes.
Also included are a number of maps, some forty two figures (which are superb, even if only in black and white), a dozen plans of buildings built during Constantin’s (mostly churches, unsurprisingly) and several plates of coins of the period.

In a nutshell, this Companion book provides good value for money, although it is not exactly cheap, even in paperback. It provides the interested reader with a comprehensive overview of the Age of Constantine, and an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to explore any of its aspects in more detail. Five stars.

Battle For Rome (Twilight of Empire)
Battle For Rome (Twilight of Empire)
by Ian Ross
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.48

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not a stroll in the park, 23 Jan. 2016
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This is the third book in Ian Ross’ Twilight of Empire Series which takes place during the beginning of the fourth century AD and is focused on Constantine’s rise to power and conquest of the Roman Empire. This book is about his invasion and conquest of Italy, with the climax being the battle of the Milvian Bridge in October 312 AD, at the end of a long and hard campaign that saw Constantine and his army cross the Alps and overwhelm the forces of his rival Emperor Maxentius. This is certainly one of the best pieces of historical fiction that I have read over the past year or so. It is as good as the two previous volumes in the Series although reading these two is not necessarily a prerequisite to reading this one. I can think of at least four reasons to praise this book and strongly recommend it. These are the attention and care taken in setting the historical context, the plot, the pace of this action-filled book and the characterisation.

The first thing that I appreciated was, once again, the trouble that the author has taken with “getting the historical context right”, including details of Roman military equipment, clothing (both military and civilian) and Roman monuments. The description of the newly completed (at the time) Baths of Diocletian in Rome is one example among many others. Among these others are the building efforts of Maxentius in Rome, but also what seems to have been his popularity with its inhabitants. Also interesting is the picture that Ian Ross draws of the Roman Senators, or at least of some of their ultra-rich leaders. While they has been increasingly side lined from military commands and higher civil service positions since Emperor Gallienus, their wealth and networks still allowed them to wield sufficient influence so that no candidate to supreme power and no incumbent Emperor could afford to ignore them. Their centres of interest – preserving their huge wealth and influence – and the extent to which they were ready to go in order to achieve this, is also particularly well shown and regardless of whether the individual Senators that you come across in the book are all historical characters (some may be fictional).

For those interested in the Roman Army, this book, though a novel, will also give you a feel of some of its evolutions and changes at the time. I will mention just two examples, although there a more than that scattered across the book. One is the description of the “Second Britannica”, the new model field army legion that Aurelius Castus (the Hero) is given command of. This thousand-strong legion is made up of detachments from two old style legions stationed in Britain, including VI Victrix (the hero’s former legion) which was stationed in Eboracum (modern York). While initially made up of troops recruited and serving in Britain, its ethnic composition would change over time, with losses made up by new recruits coming from wherever it was stationed, and it would become a separate, permanent and self-standing unit of its own. Another feature, also illustrated through “Second Britannica”, is that equipment may not have been completely uniform and troops would do with whatever was available on the spot. The point is illustrated by having some of the legion’s men equipped with old-fashioned but still very serviceable armour because this was the most readily available and there may not have been enough mail shirts or scale armour for all.

As for the events themselves, a number of features are outstanding and need to be emphasised. One (hence the title of this review) is that, despite all the post-war propaganda on the inevitability of Constantine’s victory, this was far from assured and achieving it was no stroll in the park. Constantine’s army had to fight all the way and paid a high price, something that is very well shown in the book. Many of Maxentius’ troops were just as though, well-equipped, well-trained and good than those of Constantine. In particular, the battle of Verona seems to have been very hard fought with heavy casualties on both sides. It did see the death of Maxentius’ best general and the destruction of most of his battle-hardened army. Maxentius’ decision to march out from behind the recently strengthened walls of Rome and offer battle despite two previous defeats, lower morale and an army of uneven quality that contained recently levied troops, have puzzled historians. Among the most likely are those used by Ian Ross, showing once again how carefully he seems to have researched his subject matter.

The fact that this was in effect a civil war between two sons of Augustii who had both seized power after their respective fathers’ demise is well-described. It is also well introduced by the author who has his hero – a Pannonian tribune – come across in two instances other fellow Pannonians serving Maxentius either as Praetorians or as part of his own old crack unit. I found the second event quite moving in that it takes place on the battlefield, after the battle. In both cases, it seems that the author’s purpose was to illustrate the particular horrors that even battle-hardened soldiers could experience in a civil war when forced to fight one another because of the ambitions of their respective warlords.

Another in teresting feature is the way Ian Ross has chosen to treat what later Christian sources, eager to show Constantine's support, presented as his almost overnight conversion to Christianity. The author has preferred to show this as an ongoing process and has significantly toned down the role of Christians in these events and the influence that was mostly yet to build over the Emperor. While this may be just one interpretation among others, I could not help finding it more credible than others.

Then there is the plot itself, which I also found rather excellent. While the mix of political intrigue, spying and battlefield action is not in itself original, with numerous authors writing “swords and sandals” novels using it, the way this is delivered is particularly entertaining and well crafted. In particular, readers are thrown into context straight away in the prologue with a rather desperate race to reach the Danube and deliver a crucial alliance proposal to Emperor Licinius. The alliance is historical although the conditions under which the first contact was initiated may not be. The episode is however quite gripping and it sets the tone for the rest of the novel, with the hero’s action tightly woven between the facts as reported by the sources. Another interesting streak in the plot relates to Christians, and to how Aurelius Castus, his fellow officers and Constantine’s army may have considered them with suspicion and considered the growing favour that they seemed to benefit from with dismay. There does not seem to be any direct historical evidence of this. However, the reactions and attitudes are very plausible and even probable especially since the Roman army was staunchly in favour of the “old gods” and had been purged of Christians. Most of these were located in cities and, as a percentage of the Empire’s total population, they do seem to have still been a relatively small minority in around AD 300, as the author mentions in his historical note (and contrary to what I used to believe).

One possible weakness in the plot is the involvement of Sabina, wife of the up-and-coming Aurelius Castus, and the destitute daughter of an executed Senator whose property had been long confiscated who seems ready to do just about anything to retrieve her lost prominent position. I do not mean this as a criticism. It is only that I did not find her behaviour to be entirely convincing. However I will stop here to avoid spoilers and because this was a relatively minor point. Much more convincing, however, was the ambiguous Empress Fausta, the wife of Constantine, but also the daughter of Maximius Augustus whom her husband at least helped to destroy, and the younger sister of Maxentius, Constantine’s rival and enemy. Here again, there is no clear indication of whether she really played a role and, if she did, what that role could have been. However, her family links and the fact that she did come to a rather unpleasant end years later and very possibly thanks to her husband make her involvement both possible and credible.

Then there is the pace of the book – which I found rather fast and breath-taking - and “the action”, which is simply superb. The battles, in particular that of Verona and Milvian Bridge are well-rendered, given you vivid images of what it meant to fight in a shield wall and the horrors it involved, but without the “over-the-top” gore of having heads and limbs flying all over the battlefield that some authors feel obliged to indulge in. The battle of Verona was quite griping. The terror of having to wait for this, the charge of hundreds of fully armoured Clibanarii at Taurinum is also particularly well rendered, just like a similar feature had been portrayed in the first volume of the Series against the Sassanid Persians. I was not quite sure about the latter battle because the author has concentrated exclusively upon the clash between the super-heavy cavalry and the legions of Constantine, as if only the former were present on the battlefield, but in thousands and making up the whole of Maxentian forces. This, however, is a bit of knit picking, especially since the result of such a focus is superb. The smaller actions, while perhaps more fictional, are just as realistic. A particularly superb example is the storming of the well-defended fortress of Segusio.

This book also includes some remarkable characterisation. While some characters may be more convincing than others, some are simply outstanding. The best of the lot is the hero Aurelius Castus himself. As I may have mentioned in another review of a previous book in the same story, the author has wanted to describe a though, rough battle-hardened Pannonian veteran, who is neither handsome nor unscarred, speaks Latin with a heavy Pannonian accent and barely knows how to read and write. He is also extraordinarily brave, prone to extreme violence, especially when overcome with battle rage, and an inspiring leader. He is also totally loyal to Constantine, bluntly honest to the point of putting his life in danger by insulting the Emperor and possessed with an overwhelming sense of duty and honour. He has a keen grasp of tactics and strategy and some remarkable fighting skills but he is no superman and gets battered about and wounded in battle yet another time. He also has some very human vulnerabilities that make him all the more credible and human, starting with a certain clumsiness when not on the battlefield or among soldiers. By combining all the features, Ian Ross has certainly helped me to imagine what one of these though Illyrian, Pannonian or Moesian soldiers that formed the backbone of the legions at the time could look like. Interestingly, the resulting character is both impressive, or even terrifying at times, and quite likeable.

Some of the other characters are also fascinating. This is in particular the case of Constantine himself with his carefully studied aloofness and self-control hiding, sometimes barely, his doubts and fears. Other characters, while good, are perhaps more conventional, such as that of the malevolent Julius Nigrinus whose cynical and unscrupulous behaviour makes him more of a spy master than his official title of Notary seems to indicate. Then there is the character of Macer, the hard but ageing drill-master for whom the army is all his life and who dreads the time when he will have to retire and feels threatened by Aurelius Castus when he takes-over the command of the Second Britannica legion, and then there are many, many others that I will let you discover as you read through this remarkable novel. Five stars.

Finally, there are dozens of books on Constantine and I do not pretend to have read all of them. However, for those interesting in this period and these events, and in addition to the references mentioned by the author in his historical note, I can recommend “the Age of Constantine” edited by Noel Lenski and Paul Stephenson's “Constantine: Unconquered Emperor. Christian Victor.”

Furies of Rome: Vespasian VII
Furies of Rome: Vespasian VII
by Robert Fabbri
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.48

6 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A bit of a miss?, 22 Jan. 2016
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This is the seventh volume in Robert Fabbri’s Series on Vespasian and it covers the period between 58 AD and 62 AD. Included in this book are both Nero’s rise to absolute power, with the murder of his mother Agrippina, and the revolt of Boadicea. There are therefore two clear parts in this book. The first one takes place in Rome and Italy, and it is full of plots and intrigues. The second takes place in war-torn Britannia and it is essentially about the military events, that is the revolt, the initial successes and the ultimate failure of Boadicea’s insurrection.

As usual, the author has taken great care to research his subject and some of this characters, in particular the very venal and corrupt Seneca who really does seem to have been one of the main moneylenders (at extortionate rates) in Britain, are well casted. In fact, the author does correspond reading “Dying every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero” by James Romm, to get a sense of the atmosphere of terror and horror that Robert Fabbri has replicated, especially in the first part of his book. Needless to say, I very much liked and enjoyed this part. With regards to some of the other historical characters, I found that Nero was rather good and even excellent at times and suitably horrid. However, I simply did not “buy” the characterisation of the Domitian (the future Emperor) as some kind of young and budding monster and found a bit “facile”, crude or even somewhat of a caricature at times.

Another interesting point is the author’s depiction and assertion that Nero was considering to pull out of Britain altogether when Boadicea’s insurrection flared up and caught the Romans by surprise. The main reason for this plausible but somewhat debated theory would have been financial. Nero might have wanted to “cut his losses” or, more accurately, reduce the drain on his financial resources after a decade and a half of warfare immobilising four full legions and their auxiliary forces with not very much to show in return. The way the Roman Empire might have envisaged the future of Britain is rather well described in the book. However, once the insurrection flared up, there was no longer any question of leaving and it is very doubtful that Britain would have been abandoned even if Boadicea had been victorious. Both imperial ideology of eternal victory and the need for Nero to restore his dented credibility and legitimacy would have forced Rome to stage a come-back.

I had much more mixed feelings with the second part of the part, which, contrary to the author’s assertions, is simply implausible. Apart from the fact that Vespasian’s presence in Britain at the time is pure invention, it is hardly believable to have a senator (Vespasian) in his mistress (Caenis), both in their early fifties, and the senator’s elder brother (Sabinus, who was also a Senator, but in his mid-fifties) sent on such an errand. It is even less plausible to see them galloping around the countryside from one hotspot to another during Boadicea’s insurrection, always being at the right place and, in some cases, escaping somewhat miraculously where others get slaughtered.

I also had another problem with this book and with its second part in particular: it is largely unoriginal. The siege and storming of the colony of veterans at Camulodonum seems to be inspired by the first volume of Douglas Jackson’s Hero of Rome’s Series, where the tale reaches epic proportions and where the hero also survives the siege and slaughter, but not exactly unscarred, contrary to this book. The ferocious dogs that tag along with Vespasian reminded me of those found in SJA Turney’s Praetorian Series, and in the first book in particular. Then, of course, there are the events of Boadicea’s insurrection itself. There have been numerous novels based on it already (including those of Manda Scott, for instance) so that the chances of coming up with something original were somewhat limited.

Because of these mixed feelings, I will rate this book three stars, mainly because of its first part. While I did enjoy reading it and will certainly read the next instalment, it was not the best of the Series. I did feel that it was a bit of a miss and I could not help finding it somewhat unoriginal and implausible.
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