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Appleby at Allington by MIchael Innes

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Edited by Keith Currie, Friday, 14 Oct 2022, 19:48

'Wilfred Osborne shook his head sombrely, 'Fugit hora. Tempus edax rerum. All that. Wonderful way these old fellows had of putting things.'

'Yes, indeed. Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis.' Appleby paused - by way of agreeing that proper tribute should be paid to Ovid, Virgil and others.'

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Women of Troy by Pat Barker

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War’s end

 Pat Barker’s second Trojan War novel begins inside the Wooden Horse as the Greeks wait to see if Odysseus’ trick will work and The Trojans will transport the Horse within their walls. This is an effective scene with the stink of the soldiers’ sweat, their fear that the plan is just too preposterous, their attempts to appear brave and unconcerned. The scene centres on the youthful son of Achilles, the lately arrived Pyrrhus, who has much to prove to the other warriors and to himself. The fall of Troy and Pyrrhus’ brutal murder of King Priam are rendered with apocalyptic violence, Pyrrhus realising he has fallen lamentably short of his father’s ability, insulted by the dying Priam in front of the watching women of Troy. Pyrrhus orders the body of the dead king to be unburied.

 This impiety of the victorious Greeks leads to punishment from the gods, the fleet unable to depart from the Trojan coast, tormented by an endless wind whose moans echoes the spirits of the dead Trojans. In this desert-like landscape wander the Trojan women, now slaves of their Greek conquerors and the soldiers, anxious to depart for home. Among the women is Briseis, once the ‘prize’ of Achilles, now married to his lieutenant, and carrying Achilles’ child. As a free Trojan, respected for her marriage, she visits the captive women offering them what help she can.

 Barker’s novel is not what I imagined it might be: I had thought it a sort of retelling of Euripides’ play, The Trojan Women. Yes, the characters from that play all appear: Queen Hekabe, Priam’s widow, now the slave of Odysseus, but formidable still; Spartan Helen, reconciled to her husband Menelaus, hated by all; Cassandra, wed to Agamemnon, grimly satisfied with the future she alone foresees; Andromache, Hector’s widow, bereft of her child, now concubine of the brutal Pyrrhus. But the part played by these women is minor. The author places the unburied corpse of Priam at the centre, ropes in the plot of another ancient work, the Antigone of Sophocles, and makes Greek departure from the land of Troy contingent on the observation of moral decencies demanded of victors.

 For me what made this a marvellous novel was the brilliant portrayal of Pyrrhus. He is Achilles’ son, so he is strong and powerful. But he is Achilles’ son, so he is insecure and feels inadequate in comparison to his father. He is a violent killer, but he can be surprisingly thoughtful and sensitive. His relationship with Briseis who carries Achilles’ unborn child is interesting and, if there is another novel to succeed this one, it will be fascinating to see how that relationship develops.

 The novel is demonstrably of the same world as its predecessor, but its atmosphere of doom, of the dissatisfaction of victory, of the maltreatment of the conquered, of the perceived inadequacies of the men, especially Pyrrhus, of the longsuffering patience of the women, their desire for revenge, but also for peace, all these integrate into an immensely moving whole. Some may not like it as much as the first. But the first had Achilles. This one has his son. And the story is not over. There may be more to come.


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Promised Land by Roger Booth

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Edited by Keith Currie, Thursday, 20 May 2021, 20:35

‘We offered you silver, you chose steel.’

 I knew on reading the first sentence of this novel, that it was going to be good. In fact, I think it is one of the best historical novels I have ever read. I have enjoyed some excellent fiction set in the twilight period of the Roman Empire, Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem, The Death of Attila by Cecelia Holland, Three Six Seven by Peter Vansittart, but Promised Land stands equal with any of them.

 The focus is on the Visigoth nation in the years following Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410 AD. Refugees from their homeland, given grudging hospitality by the Roman Empire, used and abused by their Roman hosts, who are too weak to remove them and too strong to be defeated by them, they wander the length and breadth of the Empire seeking land in which they can settle and call home.

 One of the central themes of the novel is that of identity. The Romans hope the invaders will eventually become Romanised; the Goths are determined to preserve their own sense of nationhood. Some see value in a union of the two nations, a Rome rejuvenated by Gothic blood. Among these are the Goth king, Athaulf, and his captive, the Roman princess, Galla Placidia, who marry in the hope that their union will create a new dawn for both nations. And this might have happened but for unfortunate circumstances.

 The focus of the tale is on the Visigoths and especially on their chieftains. Each is carefully drawn and their degrees of respect for, or hatred of the Romans and their empire are skilfully explored. Apart from Athaulf, there are Herfrig, Latin speaking and Romanophile, the treacherous Sergeric, displaying all the worst characteristics of the Roman enemy, the young Theoderic, prepared to work with the Romans while preserving his people, and above all the pragmatic warrior, Wallia, who accepts the crown with reluctance and eventually makes the deal with Rome which offers his people their promised land. Then, too, there is the daughter of Alaric, the intelligent and resourceful Rohilde, friend of Galla Placidia, but enemy of Rome.

 The Romans play a less central role in the story, but they are important too: the cunning general Constantius, the brave soldier Lucellus who wins the respect of the Goths, the shrewd spy Euplotius and others.

 This novel is a modest length but is epic in scope: violent battles, Homeric duels, the wanderings of the Visigoth nation from Gaul to Spain, attempted crossing into Africa and back to Gaul; storms at sea, famine, siege, betrayal within and treachery from the enemy – all feature in a series of powerful scenes and vignettes. But this is a reflective, humane novel, sympathetic to the plight of the Goths, and of the Romans, aware too of their many failings. The exploration of prejudice and misunderstanding between nations has timeless application. Promised Land – what a great title, in both its Biblical connotations, and what was promised to the Goths by Rome, but delayed for so long.


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Imperial Caesar by Rex Warner

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Edited by Keith Currie, Thursday, 20 May 2021, 20:36

I, Caesar

 If Rex Warner is read at all nowadays, it is his translations from Greek, in particular Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. His novels languish. Few remain in print and of his historical novels, only the two focusing on Caesar’s life. I read The Young Caesar more years ago than I would like to admit, but only read its sequel, Imperial Caesar, many, many years later. Both novels taken together comprise the ‘autobiography’ of Julius Caesar’s life, written in a similar style to Robert Graves’ I Claudius and Claudius the God. No third person objective and ironically detached version of events for a general audience here; this is an attempt to reveal Caesar’s inmost thoughts and motivation.

 ‘I cannot tolerate disorder and I know that without order there can be no liberty at all.’

 Where The Young Caesar featured a charming and talented young man on the make, this second volume is a much more sombre and serious affair. It amounts to a self-defence of the narrator’s life and career, his violence in politics, his ruthless and brutal conquest of the Gallic nations, a constant litany of why he was compelled to act as he did, in every case forced by his enemies to ignore the laws and promote himself, the only saviour of Rome.

 The reader might well feel disquiet at this apology for political self-promotion and authoritarianism, not to say the amoral imperialism in Gaul. And this despite Caesar’s own eloquent and persuasive rationale for his behaviour. Perhaps the reader is meant to feel so. Warner, after all, wrote a number of novels set in his own times which attacked both authoritarian behaviour and imperialism.

 There are many incidental delights in the novel. Caesar presents brief and incisive character appraisals of many of those involved in the fall of the Roman Republic, not just the famous, like Pompey, Crassus and Cicero, but the more minor players, such as Clodius and Vatinius. Sometimes he is not as astute as he thinks, failing to see the threat from men such as Brutus and Cassius. Only one character attracts his consistent enmity, the turncoat general Labienus, who fought so well under him in Gaul, only to fight equally hard against him in the civil war.

 I have only two quibbles with the novel. It is, I think, implausible for Caesar to produce such a lengthy volume on a single night, in fact the night before his assassination. Secondly, the conceit of his expectation of assassination seems rather laboured. These are minor criticisms. The book is still in print. Only Thornton Wilder’s The Ides of March rivals it for a fictional portrait of the great dictator, the most famous Roman of all.


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A Man at Arms by Steven Pressfield

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Edited by Keith Currie, Thursday, 20 May 2021, 20:36

‘Arms and a man, I sing’

 ‘Charity never faileth.’ The words of St Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians; in this novel, Pressfield’s first in twelve years, charity fails again and again. Set in Roman Palestine during the reign of Nero, the plot revolves around a mercenary soldier and his attempts to convey the famous Letter of Paul from Jerusalem to the Church in Corinth. The ‘man at arms’ is the consummate warrior skilled in every type of martial skill. A former legionary, turned cynical soldier of fortune, he is first employed by the Roman authorities to track down and intercept the letter and its carrier, but then changes sides, working to get the letter to its planned recipients.

 This is a brutal and violent story, the Roman soldiers and their allies more akin to Mel Gibson’s legionaries in ‘The Passion of the Christ’ than in other recent fiction. The narrative is filled with cruel, sickening torture, crucifixion scenes, cynical betrayals and genocide. Yet the literary style is odd. The tale reads as though it were a Nineteenth Century translation of an ancient text, Josephus say, or other Hellenised writer of the time. I expected a reveal of the supposed origin of the text to appear at the end, but this did not happen, leaving me to wonder somewhat why the author chose this particular style and conceit.

 The plot is almost entirely implausible, is filled with magic and lacks much historical accuracy. Yet the setting is a recognisable Palestine of the Roman era, and the story replete with non-stop action carries the reader headlong despite many misgivings. The hero initially appears to be a Roman era Outlaw Josie Wales, a sort of superman gathering a posse of vulnerable followers, but the miracle at the close of the book, while clever, seems greatly at odds with the plot up to that point, a literal ‘Deus ex machina’ in fact. Recommended, but with reservations.


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Frontier Wolf by Rosemary Sutcliff

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Edited by Keith Currie, Sunday, 23 May 2021, 19:32

This is one of my favourite novels by Rosemary Sutcliff, (along with Blood Feud and Sword at Sunset). Interestingly it is not as well known as the three Eagle novels, even though it does belong to the sequence as the hero, the young Roman officer Alexios, belongs to the Aquila family.

Like many of Sutcliff's novels this is an account of error and the opportunity of redemption and as usual it is very well done. Alexios, in disgrace, is given command of a motley crew of the dregs of the Roman army, the Frontier Scouts, whose base lies well beyond Hadrian's Wall. He must win the respect of his men as well as attempt to keep the peace with the neighbouring Caledonian tribes. The heart of the novel is the thrilling account of the retreat back to the Wall when wholesale rebellion breaks out.

Sutcliff dedicates the book to Wallace Breem among others and there is an undeniable influence from Breem's fiction evident: Eagle in the Snow for setting and time period, but even more from The Leopard and the Cliff, Breem's Afghan novel, for the theme of desperate retreat and the maintenance of loyalty under the extremes of revolt and personal danger. There also is a real feeling for the difficulties of knowing the right thing to do and doing it.

Unjustly neglected, I recommend this exciting and thoughtful novel.

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By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia by Barry W. Cunliffe

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Edited by Keith Currie, Sunday, 23 May 2021, 19:33

This is a remarkable book. In its ambition, its scope and its production values Barry Cunliffe’s study is extremely impressive.

Some years ago I very much enjoyed reading his ‘Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek’ which now reads as a minor foothill to the mountain range of this volume. Make no mistake, despite its chronological range of over 10,000 years, this is no light skim through the centuries. It is a detailed, highly readable account of the geography, archaeology and history of Eurasia from China in the East to the fringes of Europe in the west.

Not the least of the pleasures of this book are the many maps, all in full colour, all with their orientation putting the ‘European peninsula’ at an unusual angle for the Eurocentric reader. This alone creates a sense of perspective which provokes thought. These maps wonderfully trace movements and settlements of peoples, topographical aspects, the rise and fall of political empires, the spread of plague and disease, beautifully capturing the inter-connectedness of Asia with Europe – Eurasia.

There is much to learn here and a marvellous amount of scholarship on display, but the book is straight-forward to read and always tells a fascinating story. For me the most interesting parts were those dealing with classical to medieval times, but I enjoyed all parts, including the prehistoric. East-west movements and less commonly, west-east movements of people and peoples are explained through the geography of the continents. Thus historical events which loom large in European history, such as the crusades, can be seen for what they were – a side-show, even if they had a lasting effect for future generations.

The book contains a wide choice of gorgeous illustrations and photographs, more to be expected in a coffee-table book than a scholarly volume. These pictures enhance the text wonderfully. It is really evocative to look upon a series of photographs of Palmyra, read about the city’s importance to east-west communication and trade and think about what has happened there in the past few months of 2015. One wonders too about the current state of other sites such as the Greco-Macedonian foundation of Ai Khanum in Afghanistan.

Cunliffe’s book shows the cross fertilisation of ideas, discoveries and knowledge over the centuries, the mixing of race, religion and culture, the importance of understanding this, and how all these could have positive effects in the future. I looked for and found a reference to Menander (not Meander, p.256!), the Greco-Macedonian king of Bactria, a man of European descent who embraced Buddhism, in a land which is now almost wholly Muslim.

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The Lost Ten by Harry Sidebottom

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Edited by Keith Currie, Sunday, 23 May 2021, 19:33

Saving Prince Sasan

 So, Harry Sidebottom now turns his authorial skills to a standard thriller plot: the small group of crack soldiers sent behind enemy lines to free and bring back a prisoner in an impregnable fortress. Add  a traitor in their midst, an attempt to scupper the operation from the start, a rooky commander, a motley, diverse team of skilled but flawed men and you have many of the tropes, or should I say typikoi, of the genre. In addition there are teasing references to the author’s other hero, Ballista, and the question of what has happened to him. The story is implausible, yes, but exciting and enjoyable. I think it most unlikely that any such hit squad nowadays, would take time off from their mission to rescue a random lady they have never seen, let alone met, from her dastardly captors. But it all adds to the fun.

 A good reason to read Sidebottom’s Roman novels is to enjoy the scholarly learning he demonstrates throughout: Roman senators who use quotations from Virgil to disguise their treasonous plots, the elongated skulls of the Heruli warriors of the Caspian Sea, the offended dignity of the Persian king of kings. But be careful: Harry knows, even if one of his characters does not, that when Odysseus visits the Underworld, it is the ghost of his mother, not his father, that he meets there.


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Pericles the Athenian by Rex Warner

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Edited by Keith Currie, Sunday, 23 May 2021, 19:34

The lost book of Athens

Herodotus finishes his History with Greek victory over the Persians in 478 BC; Thucydides begins his with the outbreak of war between Athens and Sparta in 431 BC. In between lies the rise of the Athenian democracy to power and dominion, the strategies of Themistocles, the campaigns of Cimon, and the leadership of Pericles. It was the great ancient historian Sir Moses Finley who remarked that no surviving literature from the time actually extolled the triumph of the Athenian democracy. Rex Warner attempts to fill the gap and complete the task with this very clever novel.

The narrative is written as the biography of Pericles as presented by his close friend and ally, the philosopher and scientist Anaxagoras, shortly after Pericles’ death in the early stages of the Peloponnesian War. Anaxagoras who was known for his idea that the world is governed by Intelligence gives a keenly argued and rational account of why Pericles and the Athenian democracy were the most important developments in Greek history. He presents arguments for and against the actions and policies of Pericles throughout his career and shows how Pericles fashioned and framed the great age of Athens by word and personal example. This is an encomium, but one which depends on logical and rational discussion, and consequently, for anyone interested in the period, it is a highly seductive text.

The written style is wholly in role – that is that of a Fifth Century philosopher, not unlike the apparently objective and measured style of Thucydides, replete with quotation and aphorism. This is both strength and weakness of the novel – it is often difficult to remember that it is a novel, and not an authentic document rediscovered from the time. It lacks sensation, much dialogue, a plot which goes beyond the strictly historical. It has little good to say about Sparta, Athens’ great enemy, nor is that to be expected; but Anaxagoras does underplay, I think, Spartan cunning and shrewdness, even if his central argument about the negativity of Spartan society must be accepted. There is some amusing criticism of the philosophical ideas of others, especially Pythagoras. The novel presents an appeal ultimately to the good in mankind, the avoidance of extremism and intolerance, the primacy of liberty and freedom, the triumph of the mind.

Rex Warner’s great translation of Thucydides remains one of my favourite books; this is an excellent (fictional) companion volume.

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Lavinia by Ursula K LeGuin

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Edited by Keith Currie, Sunday, 23 May 2021, 19:34

‘Just then Aeneas, still far out from the land, saw a mighty forest, through which the Tiber flowed pleasantly, with rapid eddies and yellow from the quantities of sand, to burst forth into the sea.’
Virgil, Aeneid Book 7

‘Out beyond that, on the dim sea I saw ships – a line of great, black ships, coming up from the south and wheeling and heading in to the river mouth. On each side of each ship a long rank of oars lifted and beat like the beat of wings in the twilight.’
Ursula K LeGuin, Lavinia

This remarkable novel opens evocatively with a mirror image of the opening lines of Virgil’s Aeneid, Book 7 – Lavinia observes Aeneas as he observes his promised land for the first time.

For those who do not know, the final six books of the Aeneid describe the war between the Trojan refugees and some of the native Italian peoples as the Trojans attempt to establish a new home in Italy. Lavinia is a key pawn in that war. The only child of the Italian king Latinus, she had been promised to the prince Turnus of Ardea, but the arrival of Aeneas changes matters.

This is the story of that war from the point of view of Lavinia, in the Aeneid a beautiful young princess, yes, but one to whom Virgil does not give a single line of dialogue and whose only action is to blush in the presence of Turnus.

It might be thought that LeGuin’s novel would be a feminist reimagining of an out-of-date tale and there is no doubt that Lavinia is given her say and her own thoughts throughout the novel. But the author repeatedly subverts our expectations: Lavinia’s scope for participation is still circumscribed by her society and her times; Leguin takes the tale beyond the ambiguous end of the Aeneid, beyond the death of Aeneas and introduces the character of the Poet, a ghostly figure with whom Lavinia communes in dreams and who is clearly a representation of Virgil himself.

What is it about Virgil which attracts the literary greats in the twilight years of their lives? Is it because this great poet writes so movingly and convincingly about death? Is it because he so successfully laments the loss of youth? Just as Seamus Heaney’s final work was a masterful translation of Aeneid Book 6, so LeGuin has written an inspirational novel in homage to Virgil. Themes of exile, loss of innocence, untimely deaths, brutal violence, new beginnings, reconciliation, self-discovery all abound both in Virgil and in LeGuin’s version.

To some extent, like Virgil, the novels of Ursula LeGuin have been a constant in my life. I began reading both authors while at school and have been reading them ever since, for pleasure, as a teacher, as a parent. Of all LeGuin’s books I have read this has been the most remarkable, evocative and personally satisfying.

Post script: Lavinia’s blush: For over thirty years I have believed when (in Aeneid Book 12) she blushes in the presence of Turnus it shows her secret love for him and not for Aeneas. This novel has persuaded me that I was wrong!

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Circe by Madeline Miller

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Edited by Keith Currie, Sunday, 23 May 2021, 19:34

Pearls and swine

How do you write a convincing novel based on events from Classical Greek mythology? How do you treat gods and magic? Do you play up the comic aspects and ignore any sense of realism? Or do you omit them completely and strive for the real story behind the myth? Both methods have been employed by other authors, the second more generally successful than the first.

Madeline Miller has chosen to centre her novel on a goddess, Circe, a goddess who is also a witch. There is no attempt to divorce the story from its magical or Classically divine content. This is the Circe who is the isolated temptress of the Odyssey, who transforms Odysseus’ men into swine and who subsequently has a love affair with the cunning Greek.

In the author’s hands Circe and the many other gods and titans of the story are portrayed with the frightening power and personal selfishness of Homer or Hesiod or in the plays of Euripides. The story is perforce episodic, as gods are immortal and the lives of mankind are finite. Thus we are treated to a parade of figures from myth, Daedalus, the Minotaur, Medea (Circe’s niece), Jason and then, at last, Odysseus. With the advent of Odysseus, the tale moves towards the familial tragedies of Greek drama; Circe’s curse is that she is immortal and those she loves are not.

The best narratives of Greek myth are those which respect the origins, the contexts and the dramatic power of the original stories, but which also give us something new and fresh – exactly what Madeline Miller has done in this remarkable novel.

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The end of Sparta by Victor Davis Hanson

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Edited by Keith Currie, Sunday, 23 May 2021, 19:35

'No man a slave'

Very many years ago – I might still have been at school – when I first read about the exploits of the Theban statesman and general, Epaminondas and his masterly defeat of the Spartans at the battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, I thought this would make a tremendous plot for a novel. I even thought, vainly, that I might write it myself.

No need now, as Hanson has written the perfect novel of the events around the Boeotian victory at Leuctra, truly one of history’s turning points, as it led to the immediate decline in Spartan fortunes and the end of the Spartan reputation for invincibility. I enjoyed this immensely.

The first third focuses on the night before the battle and the battle itself. Epaminondas and his supporters have the task of persuading thousands of part time farmer soldiers to change the martial habits of many lifetimes and adopt a new, potentially suicidal, strategy in the next day’s battle. It is Hanson’s genius to make his tactician an historical figure, the mercenary Aineias, who later wrote a partly surviving handbook on war strategy. The second third follows the victory and the death of the Spartan king, and the attempts of Epaminondas and other liberating democrats to persuade the Thebans to do something else never attempted before – an invasion of the Peloponnese and a direct attack on Sparta itself. The third part follows the invasion. Among these is the philosopher, Alcidamas, the author of the quotation at the head of this review.

Woven through the narrative and in fact at the centre of things is the story of a frontier family from the higher slopes of Mt Helikon and the part they play in these momentous events. Their story is moving, at times gruesome, but also inspiring, as they help mould the liberation of the Greek city states from the malign control of Sparta. At the same time, a minor character, a young hostage prince of Macedon, observes and learns and later returns to deny the Greeks once again their freedom.

Post script: It did occur to me that genuine Classicist though Hanson is, he may also have had another story to tell in this novel: frontier family, liberating democrats inspired by philosophical ideas, constant reference to the Spartans as Red Cloaks, the Spartan defence of their imperialistic behaviour as protection from other external forces – is this 371 BC, or is it in fact AD 1775 and another war of national independence?

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The uncertain hour by Jesse Browner

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Edited by Keith Currie, Sunday, 23 May 2021, 19:35

One night in Cumae - una nox vigilanda

In a short chapter in his Annals of Roman History, Tacitus gives a brief summary of the end of the life of one Petronius, the emperor Nero’s ‘arbiter elegantiae’ or style councillor. This man had been sentenced to death following a conspiracy against Nero’s life, in which he had probably not been involved. As a concession to past friendship the emperor permitted Petronius one night to settle his affairs and end his own life. There is a general agreement that this Petronius is also the author of the Satyricon, an intensely scatological Latin novel, which may possibly be a satire of Nero’s own way of life.

Browner’s novel fleshes out that final night, taking Petronius, his house guests and the reader through those hours leading up to the condemned man’s death. The novel is an intensely moving experience, as Petronius strives to fathom some purpose to his life, revisiting in his mind his past experiences and the mistakes which have brought him to this end. The author keeps close to scholarly theory about who Petronius was and also to Tacitus’ account, showing how Petronius opened his veins and then bandaged them up more than once so that his death would not come sudden; how he held a banquet where his imminent death was the only subject not permitted for discussion; how he penned a frank letter to Nero expressing his opinion honestly and without flattery.

Browner writes rich and limpid prose, the narrative flowing and subtle. There is a strong sexual element, especially in the flashback scenes, reflective of the nature of the times, but also, like the dishes served at the banquet, suggestive of the Satyricon itself. 

For me two aspects really stand out.

The idea of making Petronius the patron of the scarcely Romanised poet Martial was a masterstroke. The portrayal of the emotionally prodigal poet is a brilliant counterpoint to the Romans who deliberately repress all emotional display. The final scene with Petronius and Martial conversing as they walk through the land and village around the villa in ‘the uncertain hour’ just before dawn is simply wonderful. The scenes with Martial are often not just moving but also very funny - the anti-climactic visit to the Sibyl of Cumae a good example.

The second element I enjoyed especially is how Browner integrates the suicides of Seneca and Lucan, two others of Nero’s circle caught up in the same plot. Lucan had botched his attempt, as had Seneca. Petronius is determined not to do the same. His dinner guest Lucilius complains about how Seneca has ruined his life by making him the respondent for his letters from a stoic, letters which still survive and profess to advise on how best to live one’s life – an attempt at gaining an immortal memory.
Finally, the history and course of Petronius’ relationship with Melissa, a soldier’s wife who becomes his lover, is haunting and sensual, containing strong elements of the Biblical relationship of David and Bathsheba.

A terrific novel – one I will certainly revisit.

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The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason

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Edited by Keith Currie, Sunday, 23 May 2021, 19:36

Shards

Zachary Mason presents 44 short pieces inspired by Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and centring for the most part on Odysseus' part in those mythical events. They are not so much fragments as variations on themes arising from episodes in each of Homer's works and, from time to time, entirely unrelated to Homer. Myths are stories and stories are what the author tells.

Mason clearly knows his Homer and plays seductively with what might have been. His tales are very successful for the most part and I found myself unexpectedly moved by some of the stories. I think in particular of Epiphany where an uncharacteristically shy Athene offers herself to Odysseus and what then ensues. I laughed aloud at The Myrmidon Golem where Achilles is presented as a manufactured killing machine who cannot distinguish Greek from Trojan and who cooks and cleans up for Patroclus, thus leading to the unfounded idea that they are lovers. I found No Man's Wife, where Odysseus meets a dead Penelope in the Underworld and discovers why she has killed herself, almost unbearably poignant. I loved The Iliad of Odysseus in which Odysseus abandons the war, becomes a bard and exaggerates the exploits of Odysseus in the war, while never coming up `with a fully satisfactory reason why the Trojans would blithely drag a suspicious fifty-foot-tall wooden statue into their city'. Here is an Odysseus who constantly convinces, clever and shrewd, who struggles with all the problems his cleverness brings.

Inventive at all times, this is a book to recommend to anyone with more than a passing interest and knowledge of Greek mythology.

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Ransom by David Malouf

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Edited by Keith Currie, Wednesday, 26 May 2021, 17:17

The Price Paid

There are those who love this short novel, and there are those who say ‘Might as well read the Iliad’. Does Malouf add anything to Homer in his ‘re-imagining’ of Iliad Book 24?

For anyone who knows the Iliad the opening and theme of Ransom present no problems: Achilles has killed Hector in revenge for his killing Patroclus, Achilles’ closest companion; Achilles causes daily abuse to the corpse of Hector, but each night the gods restore the body. Achilles has had his revenge but he has gained no satisfaction.

Meanwhile in Troy King Priam, the father of Hector, decides to go into the Greek camp to Achilles’ hut and ask his son’s killer to return the body for decent burial. In return he will give him a huge ransom.

After a doubtful beginning this novel, for me, just got better and better. Malouf does not slavishly follow Homer except in the story’s outline, but always respecting the original he subtly and brilliantly subverts the reader’s expectation of what is to come. The replacement of Priam’s herald Idaeus with a common carter Somax, allows Priam to experience life and loss from a different point of view. Suffering is not the monopoly of the rich elite. The portrayal of the louche and arrogant Hermes emphasises the otherness and caprice of the powerful gods. Best of all is the scene in Achilles’ hut where the author changes the course of the conversation of Priam with Achilles without changing the outcome. In Ransom it is Achilles through a misunderstanding who kneels to Priam rather than vice versa; in Ransom Priam makes his appeal to Achilles as a father not as a son. In the Iliad Achilles pushes Priam away ‘gently’, while in Ransom he does it ‘roughly’, but for different reasons and with the same positive conclusion in both works. This appeals to me greatly. In addition the focus on Achilles’ son Neoptolemus in the final pages subverts the similar scene in Virgil’s Aeneid when he murders Priam, but experiences a very different emotional reaction to the killing.

A short novel, then, very clever, very entertaining, very good.Ransom by David Malouf


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Silence among the weapons by John Arden

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Edited by Keith Currie, Saturday, 29 May 2021, 21:34

It is twenty years or so since I read this book, but I could not leave a novel of this quality without a review. If you get a chance to buy this book, snap it up. Arden, better known as playwright or political agitator, has produced a gem of a novel.

The setting is the Roman Republic in the years 90-80 BC or thereabouts and the fatal conflict between the factions of Marius and Sulla, culminating in the legalised murders known as the Proscriptions. The story is told by a crippled actor turned stage director, called Ivory, who becomes swept up in the mayhem of civil war. The narrative is wonderfully picaresque, the dialogue as inventive as you might expect from such an accomplished dramatist, the action often extremely funny, the ultimate lesson sobering. Participants are presented by their nicknames (Sulla is the Stain after his blemished face, Marius, the Muledriver, presumably from his army reforms, Mithridates of Pontus, Old Strychnine, a good joke). The approach is resolutely anti-imperialist, as might be expected from this author, the characterisation more than convincing. There is a huge cast: actors, informers, spies, soldiers, politicians, rogues, dancers and prostitutes - many combining a number of roles. Most of the characters are from the subject races, Cuttlefish, a Nubian slave girl, Ivory himself, the Hellenised Paphlagonian son of an Arab tax collector, and most interestingly, HorseFury, a Cimbrian warrior first enslaved by Marius, then the instrument of Marius' vengeance on his enemies in the senate. Then there are the men who tear the world apart, the angry and crazed old soldier, Marius the Mule-Driver, and the cold, cruel Sulla, his stained face, sophisticated and aloof, with his love of theatre and an icy passion for retribution.

The title? Here are the opening words of the novel: "His exact words...the blood fouled old general, seven times consul, Gaius Marius the Mule-driver, staggering in the last malodorous days of his last term of office...'Inter arma leges silent': 'Once the weapons are out, the laws fall silent'. And, by god so they do."

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Aeneid VI translated by Seamus Heaney

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Edited by Keith Currie, Tuesday, 1 Jun 2021, 22:50

The Gate of Horn


An illustration of a bough rendered in gold adorns the cover of this slim volume and just like the bough the content shines with a brilliance, as of gold.

I have read Aeneid Book VI dozens of times, both in Latin and in various English translations; I am familiar with the entire Latin text, aware of the difficulties at specific points in rendering Virgil’s language into felicitous English and in carrying across the Roman poet’s emotional intensity into another language – an impossible task – or so I might have said before encountering this, the best translation of the Book I have ever read. What a wonderful irony that Heaney’s last gift to the public is a book about the afterlife published after his death.

I recall some years ago remarking to Heaney about his apparent empathy with Virgil – his response simply a smile. The cause of empathy is obvious: both from farming stock, both from a Celtic background (Virgil’s homeland Cisalpine Gaul). A Heaney version of the Georgics? Now, there’s a thought. We may actually have it, lying as a foundation beneath so many of his own poems.

Some have commented on the brevity of this volume and its cost per page. I found I wanted to read it slowly, savouring how Heaney had worked this phrase, rendered that idea. Even the few misspellings, Parathous for Pirithous, Carthiginian for Carthaginian added to the charm; after all Virgil himself died with the Aeneid lacking its final polish, studded with incomplete lines and occasional inconsistency of narrative.

Heaney’s Aeneid VI is itself a masterpiece, as well as homage to a masterpiece.

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