The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

I noticed earlier today that I have gone through a lot of books about the Romans lately. Sadly, though, not much sticks in my head these days. Ask me the difference between a denarius and a solidus, or what Seneca said about the state of the economy, and I run for the hills.

Still, there's some stuff around, both fictional and non-fiction. So here goes.

The historical works of Ross Leckie, entitled Hannibal and Scipio, are excellent examples of the genre. They are based for the most part in detailed research, but they have been written with a verve and dramatic flair that one rarely encounters in popular fiction. I dare say that the story of Hannibal is well-known. A Carthaginian general of peerless prowess, he took the war against Rome deep into Italy, defeating everything the Romans threw at him and nearly brought the nascent Republic to its knees. After the savage battle of Cannae where he routed his foes, he had the opportunity to strike at the city of Rome itself. He hesitated and that proved his undoing. Rome recovered, reached deep into itself, and finally conquered him in Zama, where young Scipio Africanus, who had studied his strategies over the years, used them against him with brilliant effect. The end of both heroes was lowly: Hannibal, old and still feared by the Romans, took poison; Scipio, hated and feared by the Senate for his great popularity among the people, died in his country seat either of a fever or suicide.

Leckie's books display a mastery of the warcraft of these generals. His descriptions of the cultural mores of the Carthaginians are hair-raising. There is considerable detail covered about the politics of the time - as the two major powers of the Mediterranean, it was inevitable that Rome and Carthage would go to war. One wonders how history might have turned out had Hannibal taken his cavalry commander's advice after Cannae to march to Rome at once. As Hannibal hesitated, Maharbal is said to have uttered: "You know how to win a battle, Hannibal, but not how to use your victory."

The fantastic quality of the Romans was their implacable refusal to accept defeat. Time after time, they proved their resilience by raising army after army, and eventually grinding their enemies into the dust. As described in P. Matyszak'sThe Enemies of Rome: From Hannibal to Attila the Hun, the Romans recovered from disastrous setbacks and lived to tell the tale of their eventual glorious successes. The likes of Jugurtha, Mithridates, and Boudicca may have tasted initial victories, but were in the end crushed and wiped out by the ruthless Imperium.

The usual image of Rome is one of civilisation holding back the rampaging barbarians. Naturally, it suited the victorious Romans to portray themselves thus. Matyszak's interesting book tries to show the times and the wars from the perspective of the other side, and in this he succeeds to a large extent. The Celts, he demonstrates, were not long-haired savages. Among other things, their metal working was superior to that of the Romans; In some ways, their social setup was more egalitarian than the patriarchal Roman 'democracy'. The Persians were not an effete race ruled by poncy and overwrought kings (see the movie 300 to see what I mean). The Seleucid kings of Asia Minor ruled over sophisticated cultures, with manifold achievements in the arts and literature. In many cases, revolts and wars against the Imperium were caused by the venality and inhumanity of the Roman governors and military in the occupied territories. The enemies of Rome were not always honourable. But neither are they the villains that history has portrayed them to be.

Where historical fiction goes, crime cannot be far behind. Lindsey Davis's series about M. Didius Falco is a popular one. Intrigued by the blurb ('hilarious'), I picked up One Virgin Too Many during our recent trip to Maldives. Falco, a shrewd investigator who scoffs at the middle-classes and yet is married to a decidedly patrician woman, is suddenly upwardly mobile (though not in the way his in-laws might consider all that). He has been appointed Keeper of the Emperor's Sacred Geese. Meanwhile, there are murders involving Vestal Virgins and his irritatingly supercilious brother-in-law, a missing six-year old who talks and behaves like an adult, long descriptions of religious Roman life, and non-stop irony by Falco. Other reviewers have acclaimed the intricate plotting and the humour, but I was not impressed. I will not be reading any more about Falco.

Speaking of investigators, Quintus Propertius Mala is, if anything, even more irritating than Falco. I have sometimes railed against the high barrier to entry into publishing by new authors, but in the case of Roy R. Johnson who appears to have self-published The Adventures of Quintus Propertius, I should say that it's entirely justified. Johnson should have inflicted his overwrought, pseudo-anachronistic and completely inane book only on his unsuspecting relatives. The blurb says, "Quintus Propertius Mala is a Roman investigator; or is he? His habit of coming out with obscure (to the narrator) quotations, sometimes in exotic languages, makes one wonder; so does his Zorro-like swordsmanship; so do his little 'inventions', so does… a great deal." In a nutshell, Mala is a time-travelling superman who uses his technological superiority (and skills at fencing) to attempt to change Roman history, and thereby bring on advancement and peace on Earth millennia ahead of time. In the midst of all this, he solves various crimes in a most deus-ex-machina fashion. Puerile stuff, and, now that he has found himself a beautiful woman also mysteriously transported to first century Rome from modern day Britain, no doubt Johnson is leading to a sequel.

When there are so many better books, both fiction and non-fiction, why did I waste a day going over this Mala crap?

[A problem with writing historical fiction is: will story work if transplanted to another time or culture? If it can, then it can hardly be rated as good fiction. Merely making the protagonist a gladiator, or procurator of the imperial poultry is insufficient. The connection between the story and the milieu should be coherent and natural. If the reader catches onto the artifice, the book might as well be pulped.

Various authors have set their works in the Classical era. As Allan Massie (himself an author of six novels set in Ancient Rome) explains in this article, there is a ready-made plot to be plundered; one can 'translate' the Latin dialogues one invents into contemporary neutral English without concern for the authentic sound; readers like to be intellectually challenged by strong narrative and exciting characters, and Rome provides any number of these.]

Moving on to alternative history. Romanitas (Romanitas Trilogy 1) by Sophia MacDougall is set in a modern world where the Roman Empire never fell. A reviewer of this book had begged readers to consider Robert Silverberg's Roma Eterna; more fool I that didn't pay attention. I read the former with a slack jaw and ennui filling my mind; then I rushed to read the latter to wash the bad taste out of my head. And what a difference in imagination and elegance of expression between the two! MacDougall is a poet filled with a chick-lit desire to ruminate on every thought and desire that occurs in her characters' simple minds. And what colourless characters: a mind-reader, her sap of a brother, and a royal lover on the run after his family was purged by some corrupt nobles. There's no depth to the protagonists; worse, there's no coherent narrative about the milieu in which they live. MacDougall shows a serious lack of understanding of basic economics or politics, which is quite a serious detriment if she wants to write alternative history. There's endless jawing, the plot is propelled with limp and scarcely believable situations, and at the end of 300-odd pages, one is staggered by the realisation that this is merely the first in a trilogy.

A sad fact of life is that while Silverberg's book languishes in the sci-fi sections of your favourite bookstore, MacDougall's deceptively presented book is out there in front attracting the unsuspecting buyer. Do you think that the publisher's favourite demographic - women over the age of thirty - will be seen dead near science fiction? Oh no. So they will miss out on a much better book.

Not I, however: I am heterodox in my reading so I fell upon Roma Eterna with a moan of hope, and in search of catharsis after having swallowed MacDougall's piffle. Not that this is one of Silverberg's best - after all, to cover 2000 years of history in convincing fashion, especially when one is furiously inventing an alternative reality, is not the easiest thing in the world. Silverberg's achievement is to pick out ten pivotal moments in history and show how, by actions tiny in the scheme of things, the future is altered. An example: a Roman nobleman exiled to Arabia finds himself drawn to a local merchant, who is charismatic, deeply spiritual and filled with the desire to spread the truth revealed to him by God. The Roman understands the appeal of a pure faith, especially one as rigidly prescriptive as that of his friend; he also has a sense of destiny and realises that this faith, if allowed to spread, could become a threat to the empire. So he arranges for Mohammed to be killed.

Joining the ranks of Allan Massie and his cohorts, is Steven Saylor and his tales of Gordianus the Finder. Unlike Lindsey Davis, whose wisecracking detective is generic enough to fit into any century, Saylor's writing is a fictional wrapper around factoids extracted from ancient Roman writers. I have only read his collection of short stories A Gladiator Dies Only Once, which - as detective fiction goes - is quite lame. There is not much plotting, and the puzzles seem to be rather trivial, but there is a wealth of information on Rome for the interested reader in Saylor's works, so I must give him some credit for assiduous research.

Saylor recommends Dr Stefan Cramme's website for all things fictional and set in Rome. This seems to be entirely in German, which is a bummer.

On a somewhat different note: Richard P. Cohen has written a magisterial survey of swords and their ilk. By the Sword: Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai Warriors, Swashbucklers and Olympians is clearly not entirely set in Rome, but bears some relation to this current topic owing to the gladiator. Check out a review of this book here.

And I am still not done! I've put Conn Iggulden's Emperor series on the to-do list, as well as Robert Harris's Pompeii and Imperium. The latter, at least, is a writer at the very top of the artistic heap; by all accounts, Imperium is a superlative novel. Soon, soon...


Anonymous said...

YOU COMPLETE IDIOT!!! There is nothing wrong with "The Adventures of Quintus Propertius". Where, on the blurb, it says "a Roman investigator; or is he? His habit of coming out with obscure quotations, sometimes in exotic languages etc" he means from the point of view of an ordinary roman citizen. You have no idea whether he is attempting to change roman history or just to live life in a way he wants, it could be anyhting; and even if he was trying to change history it would create an interesting alternative from what we know - which is the whole point! There may be better books in the world but there are a lot worse ones than this and, speaking from the point of view of a person who reads a lot, I should know this.
I hope you pay attention to my comments as I hope they will improve your take on things.

P.S. I am one of those "unsuspecting relatives" as you so crudely put it.

Anonymous said...

Before you say anything I am not just sticking up for my relative. I am reviewing my thoughts on what I think is a perfectly decent book which you have no need to abuse. I read a lot and I know what a good book is and isn't and I would not make an exception for a relative, I think that he has done a very good job considering he has never written a book before.

Sarah Johnson
P.S. The sequal is still in question.

Anonymous said...

ok you may think that roy r. johnson's book is completely rubbish and that involves a guy trying to change history. IT IS FICTION!! Of course he didn't really exist but that doesn't mean a guy can't write a good story about it. Ok now i haven't read the book but my sister has and from what she's told me it sounds good. Incidently have you even read the book? So what if the guy is a time traveller it's not like other people haven't come up with crazier ideas. Besides I know for a fact that Roy is a doctor who fan and also he used to do loads of fencing when he was younger so there is nothing wrong with bringing some of those things into his story. Also he did not self-publish the book he got it published by a proper company.

So before you start critising someone's book that they put a lot of time and effort into. I very much doubt that you could do a better job so you have no right to critise him.

OK i'm guessing you'll want to know why I am so annoyed at you. I just happen to be a relative of his(sarah johnson who has also commented is my sister) I don't appreciate people making assumptions about my family member without knowing anything about him.

So in future do not comment and actually take time to think before you make critisisms!!

Ellie Johnson

Fëanor said...

Sarah, Ellie: thank you for stopping by and your comments. I do not grudge you the right to appreciate your relative's book or pour invective against me, and I trust you will also recognise that I have an equal right to say whatever I want. (It's my blog, what?) If you had read my review carefully, you'll have noted that I have indeed read the Quintus book, which is why I felt able to dismiss it. Please take a look at Robert Silverberg's Roma Eterna for a brilliant example of imaginative fiction, including alternative timelines.

(Ellie, I like the way you jumped into the discussion without even having read the book! :-)

But please feel free to stop by any time and let me know what you think about this, or anything else I have written about in this blog.

Post a Comment