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Just as good but a bit different
on 31 October 2012
I found that this book - volume 5 of the adventures of Marcus Aquila - was just as good as the previous episode. It very much shared the same qualities. There are however a few little twists that make it into something a bit different.
The first quality is that this book can be read on its own, just like The Leopard Sword, because it contains enough elements to inform the reader about most of the important developments that happened in the previous episodes. This is probably worth mentioning because it is not that frequent in series. It is, however, preferable to read the volumes one after the other.
Another "usual" ingredient found in Anthony Riches is the "barrack-speech" style and bantering that he uses (and sometimes perhaps over-uses) for his various Roman auxiliary heroes. In this respect, he is a bit of an "anti-Sidebottom". The latter will "treat" you to your lesson in Latin and Greek culture, with quotations of the classics liberally spread across the book. The former will treat you with the swearing, crude jokes and multiple biological and sexual references (all in modern English) that you can probably find among troopers in army around the world, both now and then. Regardless of your personal preferences, both devices are intended to engage the reader and make the story "feel" real. Both styles work rather well, as far as I am concerned, although, for both authors, there is always the risk of over-doing it and this can sometimes happen.
A related point is that whole story is largely built around dialogues, descriptions of places and battles and fights. The dialogues are frequently used to tell the reader what has happened in a more lively way, with the added benefit of making the story more "faced-paced" and also giving the reader the impression that the book is "action-packed". Another of Riches' devices that he typically uses to make the story feel and sound "real" is the interesting mixture he introduces with plots and intrigues, "workplace" rivalries between two senior officers coming from different backgrounds, arrogance and incompetence and the whole spectrum of feelings and behaviours that a reader somewhat expects to find in any human organization.
Then you have the historical research that backs up each of his books, including this one. While this might be less obvious than in Sidebottom's books, where it is very much on display (at the risk of annoying some readers), it is very much present. There were, for instance, very rich and productive gold mines in Dacia, as this was probably one of the main reasons for the Romans to attack and conquer the Dacian Kingdom in the first place, although this could make the border strategically more difficult to defend. There were also rivalries and tensions between Roman officers, especially between the professional centurions, prefects and equestrian tribunes on the one hand, and the amateur large stripe Tribunes and Legates who still came from the senatorial order at the time. At least initially, and despite holding the highest ranks, the amateurs from the senatorial class were at an obvious disadvantage. If they were intelligent and wanted to become competent, then they had to listen to, gain the respect of and become accepted by the professional officers and the men. One of the quickest ways to start doing so was to be seen as sharing the same fate and sufferings as them. For instance, that could mean marching with them on foot (at least part of the time) instead of riding on horseback as they were entitled to. This - the need for any officer to be accepted and respected by the men he commands - is also something that has not changed very much with modern armies.
Another of Riches' little twists in a similar vein is the song that the Auxiliary Tungrian cohorts are made to sing about the cavalry and what they do to their horses. Superficially, a reader may find it amusingly coarse, although this might be somehow missing the main point and purpose of "the exercise". The real reason is to keep the men from thinking about their sufferings and exhaustion so that they can cover the last few miles without giving up, therefore saving the men's lives and keeping the unit together. This kind of technique is still used nowadays, as the author seems to know very well.
The reign of Commodus (180-192) was also a reign of terror, as depicted in the book, and in which any senatorial family and any rich family more generally, could become the Emperor's target and/or the target of his henchmen. This was not new. It happened a number of times before under the reigns of Tiberius, with Sejanus in particular, and under Caligula and Nero. The practice went way back, with the proscriptions of Sylla under the Republic being an example. One of the motivations was to get hold of their wealth. Another one was to physically eliminate anyone who potentially could become the focus of an opposition. A third was to confiscate the assets of the wealthiest, possibly on trumped up charges of treason, and to redistribute them to your own henchmen and supporters. The three motivations were closely linked.
Another interesting feature in this volume is Riches' use of a technique we already saw hikm using in "the Leopard Sword" (and in previous volumes). While Marcus Aquila is still very much the hero of the story, he gets to share the "main role" in this episode with Scaurus. We learn quite a bit about the past of the latter character, his connection with a rather powerful general who we will certainly come across again and his ability at playing the politico-military game. In the previous episode, the "co-hero" was rather Frontius.
Finally, there are the "barbarians". Here again, there is more to it than meets the eye. What looks and feels like a bit of caricature at times ("good Romans versus bad Barbarians") is quite a bit more subtle once you scratch below the surface. Riches is in fact showing us the perspective and the biases of the Roman side. There are some notional "good Barbarians" (for instance the Tungrians and the cohorts of Britons) and these are the ones that fight alongside the Romans as allies or auxiliaries, essentially do as they are told and are likely, within time, to become entirely assimilated by the Empire. The others are, of course, the "bad barbarians", because they essentially refuse the Roman order and raid the Empire. The book also shows that, in practice, things tended to be rather more complicated and people could change sides, although I will stop there to avoid spoilers. One last comment is about the Sarmatians. Once again, Anthony Riches historical note is rather excellent and he is perfectly correct in alluding to the fact that the Sarmatians gave the Romans a very good run for their money. Their combination of heavy lance cavalry and horse archers was particularly dreaded by the Roman army and they would represent a major threat for the Romans for at least another two centuries after the events taking place in this book.