Warrior of Rome – Fire in the East

Thomo Notes: Doug Melville sent this as a comment to Curse You Harry Sidebottom but because it was so detailed (and a good review) I posted it here as an article.

I wrote the review of the Sidebottom book for the Canberra Times:

Warrior of Rome – Fire in the East

Ballista is an odd name. Technically it’s a torsion powered artillery piece. Imagine two giant bars, held in place by tightly wound ropes, (or in emergencies, human hair), that are wound back against the resistance of the ropes, then finally released to hurl a giant arrow at the enemy. Think Heath Robinson meets ‘Scrapheap Challenge’. The Roman army used them in the same way as today an army might use artillery, to defend a position or attack other ‘machines’. It’s also our hero, who has some of the same characteristics, tightly wound and liable to cause great destruction when discharged.

Ballista; or to give him his full name, Marcus Clodius Ballista, knight of Rome, and Dux Ripae, (Duke of the Riverbanks) has a mission to fulfill. He must defend the city of Arete from the invader.

Originally a barbarian hostage from Britain, enobled for his role in the death of Emperor Maximus the Thracian, he is accompanied by faithful servants from Hibernia (Ireland) and Caledonia (Scotland). Both are somewhat caricatured, but at various points provide comic relief as well as the Deus ex machina that sustains the plot. His Greek secretary and a Persian captive create an interesting contrast, and allow the author to present different cultural perspectives.

The author Harry Sidebottom, is in fact Dr. Harry Sidebottom, who teaches Classical History at Oxford, and this is one of the great strengths of this novel, as well as being a source of weakness, of which more later. To further the historical accuracy, the city of Arete is based on Dura Europus, formerly a Palmyran outpost, captured once by the Parthians, recaptured by Rome. It’s final fate is recorded faithfully, and Sidebottom tells the story well.

In the third century AD, (or now, being politically correct, ‘CE’ – Common Era), the Roman Empire faced it’s greatest challenge since Hannibal. Caesar had been a mere amateur, facing tribal confederations and small towns and villages. The emperors of the third century, when not actively tearing lumps off each other, faced the other superpower of the day, the Persians. These are not the Persians of ‘300′ – no war rhinoceroses, but a later dynasty – the Sasanians, sometimes known as the Sassanids. Their empire covered what is now Iraq, Iran, extended into Northern India, Afghanistan, and Armenia and supported a disiplined army and a civilisation as advanced as the Romans themselves, building huge fortified walls, vast irrigation schemes, fortresses and cities, some even populated by their Roman prisoners. Ultimately they would kill or capture three separate Roman Emperors.

The main concern of our hero however, is that on the fluid borders between the two states lie numerous fortified towns; Dura, Amida, Edessa, and many others. It is 255CE, Shapur I, Shahanshah (King of Kings) is moving to attack Roman territory, and Arete is his objective.

Haunted by the dead Emperor, Ballista is also distrusted by Rome, and so is spied upon and expected to fail. He is given few resources – and the defence is something of a suicide mission in the face of the Persian army. Regardless, he motivates his men, (in the same vein as countless movies where tough officers win over recalcitrant troopers), and mounts a sturdy defence. Here is where the real meat of the book benefits from the author’s knowledge of the period. The various means of attacking a fortified city and the counter-measures are almost text book, the artillery, the siege towers, the mine and counter-mine.

Incidents recorded by classical authors such as Ammianus and Procopius in other sieges are woven into the story, adding authenticity. One such is when the common prostitutes of Arete insult the Persians by exposing themselves upon the walls. The original, in Ammianus has it: “Besides this some courtesans shamelessly drew up their clothing and displayed to Cabades (Kawad the Persian King), who was standing close by, those parts of a woman’s body which it is not proper that men should see uncovered.”

The incidents of combat are well told and pacy, and suspense is maintained with sub-plots and potential betrayals. The only weakness is the author’s erudition. On any one page you may encounter italicised terms like spatha, kyrios or contubernium flocking together. To the casual reader this can be confusing; and while most terms are explained initially, by the time the action heats up, it can be frustrating to have to flick back and discover that a spatha is a long slashing sword, a contubernium the group of legionaries who mess together.

The book itself is subtitled ‘Part One’ so we must assume that Ballista will re-appear in further volumes. I look forward to them.

The reviewer has an ongoing interest in Sasanian Persian History.

Warrior of Rome – Fire in the East
Publisher: Penguin/Michael Joseph
Release date: 4 August 2008
RRP: $32.95

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