Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review: Eagle's Vengeance: Empire VI by Anthony Riches

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

In the sixth installment of Anthony Riches' Empire Series, we find the protagonist, Centurion Marcus Tribulus Corvus (in reality Marcus Valerius Aquila), along with the first and second Tungrian cohorts back in Britannia once more.  They are quickly relieved of three chests of Dacian gold they escorted to the island by a rather sinister officer of the imperial treasury and learn that they are being sent north above the abandoned Antonine Wall to recapture the eagle of the Sixth Legion lost in a battle with revolting tribesmen back in Book 1.  The eagle has been reported in the possession of the fierce Venicone tribe and locked in their seemingly impenetrable fortress known as "The Fang."

From all appearances, the Tungrians' orders outline a suicide mission. Tribune Scaurus is to lure the main body of Venicone warriors away from the fortress then a stealthy raiding party is to find a way into the compound at night, guided by a mentally fragile legionary who has recently escaped from "The Fang" after weeks of torture. Of course, Marcus and his friends Dubnes and Arminius are selected for the raiding party along with a scout Marcus befriended back in Germania. A mysterious officer with a cadre of nefarious "specialists" that includes a thief and two Sarmatae warriors also offers the services of his group. Having recently fought the Sarmatae in Dacia, Marcus feels uneasy about the two warriors who seem to eye him like malevolent predators. But he reluctantly accepts them.

Marcus also learns from the recently captured legionary that the fortress is not only protected by a nearly impenetrable swamp but a band of cunning huntresses with their vicious, man-eating hounds as well.

The huge hounds found in 2nd century CE Scotland were similar in size
to this Irish Wolfhound depicted in a 1919 issue of National Geographic.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


The Celts used such animals against the Greeks as far back as 279 BCE when the Tectosages and Tolistobogii Celts sacked Delphi. Survivors left accounts of the fierce Celts and the huge dogs who fought at their side. Julius Caesar recorded observing animals like these in his "Commentarii De Bello Gallico," too.

Beginning with the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the Romans themselves began training large Molossian dogs for combat, coating them in protective spiked metal collars and mail armor. These armored canines then fought in formations with the legions.

But the size and ferocity of the hounds from Scotland were particularly legendary. In 391 CE, the Roman consul Quintus Aurelius Symmachus received seven such hounds that he called "canes Scotici" as a gift to be used for fighting lions and bears.  He claimed, "all Rome viewed (them) with wonder."

Obviously, Marcus and his fellow Tungrians would need every ounce of their skill, strength, and courage to avoid particularly gruesome deaths.

Once again, Riches' fast-paced narrative and taut action sequences totally immerse the reader in the brutal world of late 2nd century Roman Britain.

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Saturday, June 10, 2017

Review: Wolf's Gold by Anthony Riches


A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

In Book 5 of Anthony Riches' excellent Empire Series, we find the 1st and 2nd Tungrian cohorts along with our hero Centurion Marcus Valerius Aquila, aka Marcus Tribulus Corvus, ordered to the borders of Dacia to defend one of the Roman Empire's most productive gold mines from marauding Sarmatae (also known as Sarmatians).

The Sarmatians emerged in the 7th century BC in a region of the steppe to the east of the Don River and south of the Ural Mountains in Eastern Europe. For centuries they lived in relatively peaceful co-existence with their western neighbors the Scythians. Then, in the 3rd century BC, they fought with the Scythians on the Pontic steppe to the north of the Black Sea. The Sarmatians were to dominate these territories over the next five centuries. Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD) wrote that they ranged from the Vistula River (in present-day Poland) to the Danube.

Sarmatian warriors
Image courtesy of the
Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine
"In the early first century, Sarmatians are mentioned as allies of King Mithridates VI of Pontus, the ruler of several countries near the Black Sea and one of the most dangerous enemies of the Roman empire. In 66, he was defeated by Pompey the Great and expelled from Asia Minor. Mithridates continued his war from the Crimea, still supported by the Sarmatians, but was ultimately forced to commit suicide. The Sarmatians continued the anti-Roman alliance with his son Pharnaces, who was defeated in 47 by Julius Caesar at Zela." - Livius.org

By the mid-first century CE, the Sarmatians resumed migration westward. Finding the Dacian kingdom in crisis, one of the Sarmatian's affiliated tribes, the Iazyges settled first near the mouth of the Danube in modern-day Rumania then continued into modern-day Hungary. Another affiliated tribe, the Roxolani settled in the lower reaches of the Danube. There any further advancement was checked by Legio III Gallica during the Year of the Four Emperors, 68/69 CE.

However, in the last decade of the first century, Dacia regained its strength and formed an alliance with the Sarmatians that had settled in its territory.

"One Roman legion, XXI Rapax, was destroyed in 92. To defend their empire, the Romans were forced to conquer territories on the north bank of the Danube. This happened between 102 and 106 CE when Roman emperor Trajan subdued the Iazyges, Dacians, and Roxolani. " - Livius.org

Roman sarcophagus with a relief representing the submission of the Sarmatians late 2nd century CE.
Photographed at the
Museo Pio-Clementino of the Vatican Museums by
Jean-Pol GRANDMONT, Wikimedia Commons.
Hadrian, Trajan's successor, though keeping control of the Dacians, subsequently granted independence to the Iazyges and Roxlolani in return for their allegiance to Rome. But peace did not last. During the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the Sarmatians joined with the Marcomanni in revolt. Ultimately, the Romans were successful in putting down the revolt but the security of Roman settlements along the Danube frontier remained precarious for the next half century.  This is the timeframe and environment where our story takes place.

"The Wolf's Gold" is one of the most action-packed novels in the Empire series so far. It begins with an ambush before the Tungrians even reach the gold mines. Then when the cohorts finally reach the gold mines they must hurriedly build defenses before confrontation with an almost overwhelming force of Sarmatae warriors. Then an auxiliary cohort of Quadi makes a surprise appearance.

The Quadi were a Germanic tribe that was part of the Suevi confederation. Marcus' friend Arminius, was a prince of the Quadi before his defeat and capture in battle. Arminius warmly greets the new cohort's prefect known as "The Wolf" as they were apparently friends in childhood. But not all is as it seems when an orphaned Roman child claims his family was massacred by "The Wolf".

But before things can be sorted out the Tungrians are called to another Roman fort to prevent the remaining Sarmatian warriors from crossing into Dacia and wreaking havoc, leaving "The Wolf" to protect the gold mines.

More ambushes and heart-stopping battles take place, one a suspenseful struggle on a frozen lake reminiscent of a scene from 2004's "King Arthur." (Note: Arthur's knights in that tale were supposedly Sarmatians, although the events take place about three centuries after this novel.)




Will all of our continuing characters survive the onslaught?  Is the emperor's gold really safe? Will Arminius remain loyal?

Anthony Riches once more kept me on the edge of my seat since I have become so attached to many of the characters peopling his tales. The realism of the combat scenes demonstrates once more how much research has gone into Riches' narrative. There's not one dull moment in this book and it definitely leaves you eager to launch yourself into Book 6!

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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Review: The Leopard Sword by Anthony Riches

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

In Book 4 of Anthony Riches' Empire series, "The Leopard Sword", we find our protagonist, Marcus Tribulus Corvus, aka Marcus Valerius Aquila, and the first and second Tungrian cohorts transferred to Germania Inferior to sort out bandits operating around the town of Tungrorum (modern Tongeren in the Belgian province of Limburg). This area was the homeland for some of the original members of the Tungrian cohorts but there have been so many battle losses that only one centurion, Julius, appears to be the only one described in the novel as having once been a local in the town.

We learn from the prolog that the bandits are lead by a mysterious figure named Obduro who wears an ornate cavalry mask to obscure his face. When the bandit leader removes his mask, his victims immediately recognize him so we can assume he is either a rogue Roman officer or well-known magistrate in the area.  Obduro also carries a lethal sword with an unusual mottling on the blade. The sword cleaves the gladius of one of Obduro's victims right in two. Immediately, I thought the blade was probably made of Damascus steel but as the story unfolds in the late 2nd century CE, I thought it was probably a bit early for that innovation.

Closeup of the watered pattern of a blade made of Damascus steel.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
I double checked the history of Damascus steel and learned that such blades were manufactured from ingots of wootz steel produced using the crucible method developed in southern India in the 6th century BCE. Wootz steel was exported to India's surrounding neighbors but was not recorded as exported to the Middle East until the 3rd century CE, although examples of weapons made of the steel could have been circulated somewhat earlier. Thinking about implications of this to the plot, I worried about our hero Marcus, heretofore the ultimate swordsman, since he does not possess any weapons that could withstand a blow from such a blade.

Despite the depredations of the bandits, the Tungrians are not particularly welcomed when they arrive to reinforce the existing legion led by an arrogant young and totally inexperienced aristocrat of the senatorial class who resents taking orders from Tribune Scaurus, a mere equestrian. Tribune Scaurus has to pry information out of the local officers and magistrates to even begin to plan for operations against the bandits, made even more difficult by the presence of a thick forest (the Ardennes) used as a haven for the outlaws. The forest is also the lair of the fierce Gallo-Roman goddess known as Arduinna represented (in the novel) as a huntress riding a boar.

Historical Note: There appears to be disagreement among scholars as to the form of Arduinna. A famous sculpture of a female goddess astride a boar found in the Jura Mountains was dubbed Arduinna in spite of the fact that it was not found in the Ardennes and was not accompanied by an inscription identifying it as the goddess. The fact that the boar is known to be a sacred animal to the Celts and the figure riding it is female with the weapons of a huntress led some scholars to identify it with Arduinna because Arduinna was recognized in Celtic mythology as the goddess of woodlands, wildlife, the hunt, and the moon. The only support for belief in this incarnation of the goddess was recorded by Gregory of Tours who described the destruction of a large stone statue of the Roman goddess Diana in the village of Villers-Devant-Orval in the Ardennes in the 6th century CE. It was thought to have replaced an original of Arduinna after Romanization of the area.

Sculpture of a headless huntress astride a boar found in the Jura Mountains
now conserved in the Musée des antiquités nationalesSt-Germain-en-Laye
We learn that Marcus has followed the example of his tribune and embraced Mithras as the object of his worship.

Historical note: The Mithraic mysteries were thought by the Romans to have been adopted from Persian or Zoroastrian sources. Worshippers of Mithras had a complex system of seven grades of initiation and communal ritual meals. These attributes in some ways paralleled early Christianity and generated a rivalry between the two cults.

A relief of Mithras slaying the bull (Tauroctony) found in
a Mithraeum in Rome, Italy.  Photographed by Mary Harrsch
at the Baths of Diocletian venue of the National Museum of Rome
in Rome, Italy © 2005

Initiates called themselves syndexioi, those “united by the handshake”. They met in underground temples, called Mithraea, which survive in large numbers. Numerous archaeological finds, including meeting places, monuments, and artifacts, have contributed to modern knowledge about Mithraism throughout the Roman Empire. The iconic scenes of Mithras show him being born from a rock, slaughtering a bull, and sharing a banquet with the god Sol (the Sun). About 420 sites have yielded materials related to the cult. Among the items found are about 1000 inscriptions, 700 examples of the bull-killing scene (tauroctony), and about 400 other monuments. It has been estimated that there would have been at least 680 Mithraea in Rome. However, no written narratives or theology from the religion survive.

So, we end up with two groups of combatants, both religiously devoted but to starkly different deities, one founded in the east and the other, the west.

Tribune Scaurus and Centurion Julius also discover the city is in the stranglehold of street gangs who extort protection money from the local taverns and brothels. This becomes a particular problem for Julius who discovers his long-lost first love running a brothel trapped in the gangsters' web. They also uncover a scam involving the grain shipments to the legions along the Rhenus (Rhine) River.

Historical note: Street gangs were a problem in larger settlements throughout the Roman Empire. We have examples of their violent nature described by none other than Marcus Tullius Cicero. Unfortunately for Cicero, in the course of his political career, he became the target of street gangs manipulated by Publius Clodius Pulcher from a Roman aristocratic family. In a letter to his friend Titus Pomponius Atticus, Cicero describes the escalating violence that engulfed him:

"On 3 November an armed gang drove the workmen from my site, threw down Catalus' portico which was in the process of restoration by consular contract under a senatorial decree and had nearly reached the roof stage, smashed up my brother's house by throwing stones from my site, and then set it on fire. This was by Clodius' orders, with all Rome looking on as the firebrands were thrown...Accordingly, on 11 November as I was going down the Via Sacra, he came after me with his men. Uproar! Stones flying, cudgels and swords in evidence. And all like a bolt from the blue.”

Of course, Cicero simply hired another gang headed by Titus Annius Milo to deal with Clodius.

Although our protagonist Marcus is not as central to the story initially as he normally is, Centurion "Two Knives", has his hands full, too, in the climactic conclusion trying to withstand Obduro's swordsmanship, that is quite formidable even under normal circumstances, and find a way to defeat Obduro's nearly invincible weapon.

Once again Riches provides us with plenty of gritty, realistic action and finely wrought characters. There is not as much interplay between Marcus' centurion brotherhood as in previous novels, which I missed, but the recurring characters of Scaurus and Julius are explored in more depth. My only reservation about the plot was a strategic blunder committed by Tribune Scaurus that I don't think, with his military acumen (as characterized in past novels), he would have made. The blunder included leaving Julius' sweetheart in a dangerous position as well, requiring Julius to risk his life in an attempt to rescue her. This situation also should have been obviously apparent to Julius from the beginning and easily avoided. Still, the pacing kept you immersed in the narrative and the climax was both thrilling and satisfying.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review: Fortress of Spears by Anthony Riches

A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

As Anthony Riches' third novel in his "Empire" series begins, we find our protagonist Marcus, now known as Marcus Tribulus Corvus, preparing to attack the fortified encampment of the (fictional) rebel Selgovae chieftain, Calgus, and his warriors and allies, the fiercesome Venicones.  The Romans succeed in devastating the Selgovae at the encampment but with terrible losses including one of Marcus' own brother centurions. To make matters worse, Calgus is spirited away by the Venicones, although now he is their captive, no longer their war leader.  However, before his loss of power, Calgus dispatched a contingent of Selgovae to take over the Votadini capital, the daunting "Fortress of Spears" of this installment's title, and the Romans must now plan an even more dangerous assault to finally rid themselves of the last of the rebellious Selgovae and return the Votadini to their previous status as Roman allies.

Fortunately, the Votadini Prince, Martos, captured by the Romans in book 2, now shares their cause and harbors nothing but hatred for Calgus and the Selgovae who so ruthlessly betrayed him. Martos will prove invaluable in the ultimate attack on the "Fortress of Spears". But capturing the fortress is not the only obstacle to Roman victory. The Venicones king discovers the Romans have his treasured torc, found when the original encampment was seized, and vows to take it back or die gloriously in the attempt.


Celt Neck-Ring known as the Snettisham Great Torc Iron Age 150 BCE - 50 BCE Electrum photographed at the
British Museum by Mary Harrsch © 2008

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Marcus, the corrupt Praetorian Prefect in Rome, Sextus Tigidius Perennis, has dispatched a Praetorian assassin and a "corn" officer to hunt down Marcus, the last surviving son of a proscribed senatorial family.  Perennis' son, the villain of book 1, betrayed Marcus' biological father's Sixth Legion to engineer a promotion and accolades from the vile emperor Commodus. The younger Perennis' treachery was, as is often the case with wealthy, powerful men, covered up by the military.  So, the elder Perennis mistakenly believes Marcus killed his son and is being protected by an auxiliary unit of Tungrians serving on Hadrian's Wall.

In the novel, the Praetorian assassin holds a rank equivalent to a centurion but I was confused about the presence of a "corn" officer. However, if you read up on the importance of those charged with supervision of the Roman grain supply, it becomes quickly apparent that such officers carried quite a bit of clout.

"In classical antiquity, the grain supply to the city of Rome could not be met entirely from the surrounding countryside, which was taken up by the villas and parks of the aristocracy and which produced mainly fruit, vegetables, and other perishable goods. The city, therefore, became increasingly reliant on grain supplies from other parts of Italy, notably Campania, and from elsewhere in the empire, particularly the provinces of Sicily, North Africa, and Egypt. These regions were capable of shipping adequate grain for the population of the capital amounting to 60 million modii (540 million litres / 540,000 cubic metres or 135 million gallons / 16.8 million bushels) annually, according to some sources. These provinces and the shipping lanes that connected them with Ostia and other important ports thus gained great strategic importance. Whoever controlled the grain supply had an important measure of control over the city of Rome." - Wikipedia, Cura Annonae

Neronian coin with the reverse depicting the goddesses Annona, the personification of the grain supply, and Ceres, whose temple was the site of the dole
Throughout most of the Republican era, the care of the grain supply (cura annonae) was part of the aedile's duties. The Annona was personified as a goddess, and the grain dole was distributed from the Temple of Ceres. As early as 440 BC, however, according to Livy, the Roman Senate appointed a special officer called the praefectus annonae with greatly extended powers. His staff apparently carried a paramilitary rank and could have theoretically been suborned for "special" duties.

Perennis' assassins harbor no qualms about slaughtering anyone who gets in their way and they leave a bloody trail in their pursuit of Marcus.

Once again, Riches develops intriguing characters and empathetically portrays the comradery that develops between men struggling to survive north of Hadrian's Wall.  The action scenes are superb and draw the reader right into the beating heart of Roman military life.  Riches artfully transitions between scenes in the multithreaded plot and successfully maintains a high level of suspense until the novel's climactic conclusion. I highly recommend this series and have already plunged ahead into subsequent installments.

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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Review: Arrows of Fury by Anthony Riches Empire Series Book 2

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

In Book 2 of Anthony Riches' Empire series, we find our hero, Centurion Marcus Valerius Aquila, now known as Marcus Tribulus Corvus to deceive agents of the vengeful Roman emperor Commodus, heading to the coast to pick up a century of replacements from Gaul to fill in the ranks of the 2nd Tungrian cohort.  The cohort suffered horrendous casualties in the climactic "Battle of the Lost Eagle" at the end of Book 1 and the rebellious Selgovae chieftain, Calgus, is still at large and forging new alliances to drive the Romans back to Hadrian's Wall and eventually off the island of Britain altogether.

Unbeknownst to Marcus, though, the newly appointed prefect of the 1st Tungrian cohort, a nasty piece of work transferred in from the continent, arrives at the resupply depot first, bribes the replacements officer, and makes off with the sturdy, well-trained Gauls.  When Marcus arrives, the only replacements left are two centuries of Hamian archers originally from Roman Syria.

Hamian archers depicted in the video game "Rome Total War" courtesy of Creative Assembly
Historical note: "Cohors Prima Hamiorum Sagittaria", a unit of bowmen recruited from the city of Hama in the Orontes valley in northern Syria were one of only two whole regiments of archers known to have been stationed in Britain.  Although the original contingent arrived in approximately 120 CE, subsequent units served in Britain until the end of the Roman occupation.

Although these men are some of the finest archers in the world, Marcus quickly sees they do not possess the solidly muscled bodies and brute strength needed to man a shield wall against the ferocious indigenous warriors his unit will face in the next confrontation.  To make matters worse, the Hamians' armor is too light to withstand a spear thrust.  So, Marcus sets out to get them properly equipped and begins to train them in the use of sword and shield once they return to their auxiliary headquarters in the fortress known in the book as Noisy Valley.

But Marcus needs months of physical training to bring his new men to the same level of strength of the other Tungrian infantrymen. The Hamians struggle under the weight of infantry mail shirts and kit and can barely complete a standard day's march let alone be ready to fight if attacked.

Just a few days later, though, word is received that Calgus has attacked and overrun one of the nearby forts known as White Strength with the help of the previously friendly Votadini tribe.



Historical note: The Votadini occupied what is now southeast Scotland and northeast England, extending south of the Firth of Forth and from the Stirling area down to the English River Tyne, including at its peak what are now the Falkirk, Lothian, and Borders regions of eastern Scotland, and Northumberland in northeast England. Between 138–162 CE the Votadini came under direct Roman military rule as occupants of the region between the Hadrian and Antonine Walls. Then when the Romans drew back to Hadrian's Wall the Votadini became a friendly buffer state, getting the rewards of alliance with Rome without being directly under its rule, until about 400 CE.

Calgus' raid is successful but his relationship with the Votadini is contentious so Calgus conspires with his cunning seer to rid himself of the troublesome tribe's war band.

Meanwhile, although ill-prepared, Marcus and his Hamians are dispatched to hunt down the Votadini and Marcus finds his unit's archery skills indispensable when he is ordered to assault an old but well-positioned hill fort.

But the ultimate test comes in the novel's climax when Marcus' troops must fight for their lives against the ferocious Venicones, another of Calgus' allies, who have trapped Marcus' century on the wrong side of a strong flowing river.

Closeup of a second century CE Roman sarcophagus depicting a battle between the Romans and Celts.  Photographed
at the Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas, Texas by Mary Harrsch © 2006
Historical note: The Venicones, a small but fiercesome people, inhabited the area between the Firth of Tay and the Firth of Forth near the Roman fort of Horrea Classis on the eastern coast of modern-day Scotland. It is believed by modern scholars that their name meant "hunting hounds" or "kindred hounds." The Venicones were one of the few groups in northern Britain at the time that buried their dead in stone-lined graves and made ritual offerings of decorated metal objects, including massive bronze armlets, in local bogs and lakes.  These armlets could weigh over 1.5 kg each and were worn one on each arm. Tacitus in his Agricola, chapter XI (c. 98 AD) described the Caledonian warriors as red-haired and large limbed, which Tacitus considered features of Germanic origin.



Once again Anthony Riches has brilliantly recreated the precarious existence of the Roman auxiliaries stationed between the Hadrian and Antonine Walls in the late second century.  He has populated the novel with vibrant characters and made this reader feel part of the brotherhood that bonds courageous men together in times of crisis.  The battle scenes are visceral and not for the squeamish but I highly recommend this series and look forward to the next installments with great anticipation.