Tag: Ancient warfare

175.  Ab Urbe Condita (A History of Rome). Books XXXI to XLV (Rome and the Mediterranean) by Livy (c.14 BC)

175. Ab Urbe Condita (A History of Rome). Books XXXI to XLV (Rome and the Mediterranean) by Livy (c.14 BC)

Plot:   Battles with Philip of Macedonia, Antiochus of Syria, Nabis of Sparta, and finally Philip’s son Perseus between 200 and 167 BC, which lead initially to what may have been thought of as the emancipation of Greek states from Macedonia, and eventually the widespread influence of Rome over the entire Eastern Mediterranean, laying the foundation for what would become an Empire.

My copy was the Penguin Black Classic Rome and the Mediterranean, translated by Henry Bettenson (ISBN 0140443185)

My thoughts:  Unlike the Second Punic War against Hannibal which still captures the imagination, this stretch of thirty years seem like mere skirmishes in comparison. Yet this series of battles and confrontations (later known as the Second and Third Macedonian Wars, and the Seleucid war against Antiochus of Syria) eventually led to Roman domination of Greece and the eastern Mediterranean, and the diminution of Macedonian power.

Halfway through I bailed on these books, largely for the reason above. There was just nothing memorable or inspiring about this period to keep my attention. Livy is certainly a thorough recorder of history, but I think I had wearied of the year by year reports without the personalities of Hannibal or Scipio to keep me intrigued.

One interesting point. As reported in previous books, Roman commanders would sometimes hurl legion standards into the ranks of the enemy to urge their troops to attack and recover them and hence maintain their honour; or deliberately place their armies between the enemy and a geographic barrier, giving the men no choice but to fight on in hopes of victory, knowing that they could not panic and retreat. You would have to be confident that these tactics would work and your men were strong enough to win, or disaster would follow.

I couldn’t help comparing the role of Rome in these conflicts with modern day expectations of the United States as a political mediator and/or military power.

And what happened to Horace’s Epistles as promised? I did read most of them, honest; but just before my brain shut down, I was overwhelmed with the realisation that life is too short to reread them looking for something worthwhile to say about them to you. The longer ones just seemed to ramble, producing no joy in me. While no doubt it is me at fault, I feel no guilt in moving on. Dymo me heathen. That’s two retreats in a row – the Romans have defeated me too.

Personal rating:   Not a reflection on the quality of writing but the events they depict and my own exhaustion with reading about more years of warfare. 3/10

Other reading:

rp1Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  Teen sci-fi novel recently made into a very entertaining film by Spielberg. Dystopian near future has everyone escaping reality into wholly immersive online computer worlds, with the multibillion dollar ownership of the system up for grabs to whoever can solve the riddles and beat the games. A love song to 80s videogames, movies and pop culture which people seem to either love or hate, but also a sweet coming of age story, a romance and an adventure story. I fell for all of it. 5/5

Prairie Fires  by Caroline Fraser. Detailed biography of the life and times of Laura Iprairie firesngalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie stories which have been a guilty pleasure of mine for many years, not least for editions with the sweet line drawings by Garth Williams. Sets the trials of the Ingalls against a wider context, and much about the relationship between Laura and her own daughter Rose as they collaborate on writing the Little House books. Interesting especially for Wilder fans. 4/5

Next :  Amores (Erotic poems) by Ovid. Woo hoo!

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174. Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), Books XXI-XXX (The War with Hannibal), by Livy (c.19 BC)

174. Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), Books XXI-XXX (The War with Hannibal), by Livy (c.19 BC)

Ten of the surviving books from Livy’s multivolume history of Rome, these deal with the Second Punic War, pitting Carthage against Rome and initiated by Hannibal’s famous crossing of the Alps into Italy.

“War was coming, and it would have to be fought in Italy, in defence of the walls of Rome, and against the world in arms.”   (page 39)

My copy was again the Penguin Black classic translated by Aubrey De Selincourt and edited by Betty Radice (ISBN 014044145X)

My thoughts: I had already read about the First and Second Punic wars in Polybius’ history, but Livy goes into much more detail, and is less flattering to Hannibal, describing him as not only “reckless in courting danger … superb tactical ability … unequalled as a fighting man, always the first to attack, the last to leave the field” but also displaying “inhuman cruelty, a more than Punic [Carthaginian] perfidy, a total disregard for truth, honour and religion, of the sanctity of an oath and of all that other men hold sacred” (page 26)

Livy as rendered here by De Selincourt and Radice is very readable and also dramatic, and while I did not retain all the detail, it was exciting to read and not as diary-like as the previous Livy books – perhaps because there are more events to describe in a shorter space of time (17 years in 676 pages) and they are by their nature more dramatic.

The greatest mystery is why Hannibal and his men, having survived the Alpine crossing, harsh winters, disease and famine, and causing the almost complete destruction of three separate Roman armies, did not immediately march on Rome but spent years in minor battles around Italy.

“Assuredly, no one man has been blessed with all God’s gifts. You know, Hannibal, how to win a fight; you do not know how to use your victory”     (Maharbal, Carthaginian commander of cavalry, to Hannibal, page 151)

Indeed towards the end Hannibal is quoted as berating himself over this very same failure to press his advantage home upon the very target he set out to capture. Certainly in the early years of his campaign he seems to lose more men to weather and terrain than in battles.

“It was the horses, more than anything else, which created havoc … they were soon out of control … In the confusion many non-combatants, and not a few soldiers were flung over the sheer cliffs which bounded each side of the pass, and fell to their deaths thousands of feet below”   (page 58, Crossing the Alps attacked by mountain tribes)

“Heavy rain and a violent wind right in their faces made progress impossible; they could not hold their weapons, and if they tried to struggle on, the wind spun them around and flung them off their feet … all they could do was turn their backs to it, crouching on the ground … blinded and deafened and benumbed with terror … So intense was the cold that followed that of all that miserable heap of prostrate men and beasts not one … was able for a long time to raise himself from where he lay.”   (page 85)

The Romans were very superstitious, and Livy reports on evil portents each year – raining stones and milk, children born with animal faces, animals born with extra limbs or talking, rivers and lakes filling with blood, etc.) and the need to make appropriate sacrifices to appease the gods, including ‘the strewing of the couches’ (a banquet laid out for images of the gods reclining on couches).

After the Carthaginians led by Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal defeat two more Roman armies in Spain (led by brothers Publius Scipio and Gnaeus Scipio); Publius’ son Publius Cornelius Scipio (later nicknamed Scipio Africanus) convinces the Romans to allow him to command the new army to be sent to Spain. After capturing New Carthage where the Carthaginians were holding all their Spanish hostages, equipment, supplies, weapons and money, Scipio goes on to defeat the three Carthaginian armies, then pushes on to land on the African coast and eventually force Hannibal to retreat from Italy in order to protect Carthage. The last chance of a peace is shattered and Scipio defeats Hannibal’s forces at the battle of Zama.

There is so much more detail – I haven’t mentioned the Numidian kings Masinissa and Syphax, and their competition for both the throne and the Carthaginian noblewoman Sophonisba;  or the vicious and brutal treatment of the citizens of Locri by the Roman garrison and their commander Pleminius.

Favourite lines/passages:

Has to be the Campanian civilian’s reckless taunt of the Roman commander who has captured his city :

“Order my execution too, so that you may boast of killing a much braver man than yourself”  (page 375)

Personal rating:   Very readable. 7/10

Kimmy’s rating: Still not keen on those elephants.

Other reading: Two books coincidentally having the same title initials

The Inimitable Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse. Several short stories linked together. Jeeves’ stories all sound similar but are still excellent entertainment.  4/5

The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford. Two dogs and a cat travel hundreds of miles to be reunited with their owners. A great job of telling an animal story without OTT anthropomorphism, and providing beautiful descriptions of the Canadian wilderness.  5/5

Next :  The Epistles of Horace, including the Ars Poetica

 

171. Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), Books VI-X, by Livy (c. 24 BC)

171. Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), Books VI-X, by Livy (c. 24 BC)

Plot:   The second set of five books of Livy’s History of Rome, stretching from its recovery from the Gauls’ attack in 390 BC to pretty much the end of the Third Samnite War and Rome’s domination of central Italy by 292 BC.

“Who would begrudge the length of time spent on writing or reading of wars which did not wear down the men who fought them?”   (p. 333)

My copy is the Penguin Black classic translated by Betty Radice (ISBN 0140443886)

My thoughts:  Livy set out to make the writing of Rome’s history his life’s work, intending to write 120 books in sets of 5, with every 15 marking a stage. The first fifteen covered the rise of Rome to become masters of Italy, the next fifteen the Wars with Carthage, and so on, from the mythical establishment of Rome in 757 BC to his own time (c.24 BC). He started to add a further 30 books which were not finished by his death in 17 AD. Of the 142 he did write, only four sets survive.  I have already read books I-V covering Rome’s beginnings and move from kingship to Senatorial government, and now face books VI-X which consists almost solely of continuous warfare with neighbouring tribes until they are on the verge of being the dominant peoples in central Italy.

Livy writes about each year in succession, starting with the names of the newly elected consuls, and which wars they were assigned for the year (yes, it was that regular). Little mention is made of any other aspect of Roman life but politics and warfare. He has more sources to rely on compared with the earlier years, and cites them and any doubts he has about their timelines or accuracy. He also interrupts his own narrative in book IX to give his opinions on Alexander the Great’s likelihood of defeating a Roman army had such an opportunity arisen, and like a good Roman, he comes down on the side of his own nation.

Despite annual wars with their neighbours, and the making and breaking of treaties and peace accords, I can see the beginnings of empire in Roman offers of citizenship (with or without voting rights) to defeated tribes, and the sending of colonists to take up land conquered. Each year the numbers of killed enemies was in the thousands and tens of thousands, so empty farmland couldn’t have been in short supply. And yet the same tribes somehow have thousands more young men to send to their deaths the next year.

Politically the plebeian party gains more power over the hundred years covered by these books, significantly reducing the interest rates on debts, removing the enslavement of debt defaulters, and markedly gaining the prestige of being included to stand in elections for consulship.

Favourite lines/passages:

Many of the years and battles have a predictable sameness of events, so the ones that stand out have interesting stories

  • A young Roman soldier Marcus Valerius takes up the one-on-one challenge from the champion of the Gauls. As they began to fight, a raven suddenly landed on Valerius’ helmet and stays, pecking and clawing at the Gaul’s face until he was half-blind, and Valerius can kill him with a sword thrust. (p. 131)
  • The Roman army is trapped in a valley with no way out except to surrender. They are stripped naked and forced to walk one by one “under the yoke” and promise peace (p. 223) This humiliation is redressed by later battles as the enemy in their excitement did not use the correct form of words in extracting the promise, binding only the general himself, who after reporting his failure to the Roman people, insisted on being stripped and bound and handed back to the enemy.
  • The devotio (intentional suicide by a general by throwing himself into the enemy single handed to lift the Gods’ displeasure with his army) by Publius Decius Mus, repeating the same act his father committed in battle years before.
  • And the Romans being a superstitious lot, always consulted the auguries before entering battle. The ever present Keepers of the Sacred Chickens would check how the birds were eating their corn to decide if an attack would be propitious. The general Lucius Papirius fighting the Samnites in 293 BC was told the chickens were eating well (the corn was ‘dancing’, which was untrue) and planned his attack. Some cavalry officers heard the chicken-keepers arguing about their false report, and told Papirius, who continued with his plans, but moved the chicken-keepers into the front line to face the brunt of the enemy’s assault. (p. 346)

Personal rating:   5/10

167. Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), Books I-V, by Livy

167. Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), Books I-V, by Livy

Plot:   The first five books of Livy’s History of Rome, stretching from its establishment (dated around 757 BC) up to the Gaulish invasion of 390 BC.

My copy is the Penguin Black classic translated by Aubrey De Selincourt (ISBN 9780140448092)

My thoughts:  Livy is writing here on events 400-700 years before his time, so much is based on previous historians and legends. As he himself admits several times:

“one cannot hope for accuracy when dealing with a past so remote and with authorities so antiquated”  (Book II.21, page 132)

Or more poetically

“the mists of antiquity cannot always be pierced”  (Book IV.24 page 315)

The history of Rome traditionally starts with the arrival of Aeneas and his followers escaping the fall of Troy, and depending on the version, being either welcomed or victorious in securing a foothold in Laurentum in Italy. A string of kings from Aeneas’ lineage followed, until twin boys were conceived upon a Vestal Virgin by the god Mars. Cast adrift on the Tiber to drown, the twins Romulus and Remus were succoured by a she-wolf until found by the king’s herdsman. They grow to manhood, quarrel over who is rightfully King, and Romulus strikes Remus down.

Finding themselves short of enough women to ensure the survival of their settlement, the Romans approach their neighbouring cities, but no one is willing to allow their daughters to intermarry.  The Romans instead host a festival and then abduct the young women. After some years the Sabine tribe believe themselves strong enough to rescue the women, and the fierce battle is interrupted by the women forcing themselves between the warring armies to insist on peace.

Eventually the succession of kings is replaced with a Senate of aristocrats (patricians) and two elected consuls to act as magistrates and generals.

Books II, III and IV are a constant series of battles over a hundred years between the Romans and the various surrounding tribes. The clockwork predictability of these conflicts is only interrupted by equally regular internal political squabbles between the aristocratic class and the commoners (plebians) and their elected representatives the Tribunes;  who use their ability to muster and form armies from the common people to try and score political changes to do with agricultural land reform and party representation. This internal bickering is seen as weakness by their neighbouring cities, leading them to attack again, and so on and so on. This repetitive pattern soon becomes tedious to the non-scholar, and I started to wish for the excitement of the years of the end of the Republic.

Book V is remarkably more interesting, as it breaks the pattern – firstly by the Romans laying siege to the current enemy Falerii, and the episode where a Faleriian schoolteacher abducts the children of the city’s noble families and delivers them to the Romans as hostages, and the Roman general Camillus returns them to Falerii,  with the schoolteacher stripped, bound and being thwacked by the kids with sticks Camillus provides.

“Neither my people nor I, who command their army, happen to share your tastes. You are a scoundrel and your offer is worthy of you. As political entities, there is no bond of union between Rome and Falerii, but we are bound together nonetheless and always shall be, by the bonds of a common humanity. War has its laws as peace has, and we have learned to wage war with decency no less than with courage. We have drawn the sword not against children … but against men armed like ourselves …. These men, your countrymen, you have done your best to humble by this vile and unprecedented act … I shall bring them low … by the Roman arts of courage, persistence and arms.”

(Book V.27 , page 401)

The Faleriians were so impressed by Camillus that they immediately sued for peace and willingly put themselves under the dominion of Rome.

Of course, politics later interferes and Camillus is banished from Rome.

But then the local squabbles are superceded by the invasion of Italy by Gaulish tribes from beyond the Alps. For once, the Roman generals are overwhelmed and respond very ineffectively, and the Gauls literally walk into Rome through undefended open gates. The civilians and Senate are trapped inside the Captiol and are close to bribing the Gauls to leave them alone, when Camillus returns from exile and scares the Gauls away.

Digressions/diversions:
When a victorious Roman general returns to Rome, he may be granted a Triumph by the Senate (in which he enters the streets of the city with his troops) or the lesser honour of an Ovation (entering without his troops) – damned by faint praise!

Personal rating: The repetitive content of books II-IV made for monotonous reading, but book V saved the day and lifts it to a 5/10.

The reads in between: 

Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King.

Stephen King’s latest horror/fantasy is a father-and-son joint work : an apocolyptic saga similar to The Stand and Desperation, but the characters are not as clear-cut good and evil.

“All around the world, something is happening to women when they fall asleep; they become shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. if awakened, if the gauze wrapping their bodies is disturbed, the women become feral and spectacularly violent….”

Only one woman seems immune to the sleeping sickness and some men will do anything to get control of her. A huge cast leads to a three-way battle and civilization-changing decisions. Not his best work but still eminently readable.

Next :  Chaereas and Callirhoe, by Chariton

162. The Conspiracy of Catiline by Sallust c.40 BC

162. The Conspiracy of Catiline by Sallust c.40 BC

Plot:   Catiline, frustrated over his failure to be elected consul, and driven by his hatred of Cicero, plans a rebellion to overthrow the Roman Senate, raising an army of the disaffected, and simultaneously planning a series of assassinations, massacres and arson attacks to sweep Rome. Forewarned by Gaulish conspirators, Cicero announces the plot in the Senate and the ringleaders remaining in Rome are captured and executed. Catiline and his remaining men are forced to turn and fight to the death against the pursuing Roman army.

Published by Penguin in a single volume with The Jugurthine War, edited by S.A. Handford (ISBN 0140441328)

My thoughts:  A lot of moralising about the rise and fall of the Roman character leads us to believe Catiline is the worst sort of debaucher and killer imaginable, so it is a surprise when Sallust’s depiction of the battle which marked the end of the Catiline conspiracy shows the valour of the rebels in facing their defeat. It ends with very visual evidence of the horrors of civil war.

Also interesting was the Senate’s difficulty in deciding on the punishment of the captured conspirators, with Caesar suggesting the then-novel idea of long term imprisonment rather than exile or death; and the moral question of exacting punishment before the criminal deed could be committed.

Favourite lines/passages:

Before even starting the text, this sentence in the introduction by the editor caught my eye

“Up to the year 64, Catiline seems to have been merely an ambitious careerist who in spite of a taste for dissipation and homicide had something likable about him”   (page 163)

And Catiline’s supposed parting shot at the Senate after Cicero’s denouncement:

“Since I am encompassed by foes, and hounded to desperation, I will check the fire that threatens to consume me by pulling everything down about your ears!”   (page 199)

Personal rating:  5

Next : The Eclogues of Virgil

161. The Jugurthine War, by Sallust.  c .40 BC

161. The Jugurthine War, by Sallust. c .40 BC

Plot:   Historical account of the North African Jugurthine War (112-105 BC), where the adopted Prince Jugurtha slew his step brothers and attempted to make himself King of the Roman Province of ‘Africa’ (modern day Tunisia), opposed by the Roman forces led unsuccessfully by a series of Roman generals until the leadership of Marius.

Published by Penguin in a single volume with Sallust’s other surviving work, The Conspiracy of Catiline. Translated by S. A. Handford (ISBN 0140441328)

My thoughts:  Unlike Caesar’s reports of honourable battles and pardons, Sallust paints a picture of treachery, bribery, slaughter, incompetence and cowardice, both on the battlefront and in the halls of power on both sides of the conflict, which is probably closer to the truth. Seven years of to-ing and fro-ing is only resolved by the Romans bribing a neighbouring King enough to lure Jugurtha into a trap.

I hadn’t heard of this period of Roman history at all before picking up Sallust, but it does introduce important players Marius and Sulla early in their careers before they orchestrated massacres of Roman citizens in the First Civil War that so horrified Cicero 40 years later, and demonstrates that the North African province was still valuable to the Roman Republic even after the fall of Carthage.

Favourite lines/passages:

Jugurtha travels to Rome to petition (ie bribe) his way to the throne of the Kingdom of Africa, but is only partly successful. As he leaves, he reputedly turns back to look again at the city, and exclaims

“Yonder is a city put up for sale, and its days are numbered if it finds a buyer”   (page 73)

Marius, deputy to Metellus on the African campaign, grows increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in both the war and this political career, returns to Rome and is elected Consul by the support of the common people. Included in one of his speeches are the lines

“I cannot, to justify your confidence in me, point to the portraits, triumphs, or consulships of my ancestors. But if need be I can show spears, a banner, medals, and other military honours, to say nothing of the scars on my body – all of them in front. These are my family portraits, these my title of nobility, one not bequeathed to me, as theirs were to them, but won at the cost of countless toils and perils.”                        (pages 119-120)

Personal rating:  4

The reads in between: 

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb : yet another first in a fantasy trilogy by an author that I really should have read before now (I was reading the 20th anniversary edition!!) A young bastard responsible for the scandal leading to his father’s abdication is raised first as a stable boy and later an assassin in the royal court. Kept me interested throughout and keen enough to seek out more.

James Herriot’s Favourite Dog Stories. Heart warming short stories lifted from the All Creatures Great and Small books, capturing not only the spirit and loyalty of the working and family dogs Herriot encounters as a vet in 1930s Yorkshire, but also the beautiful land and earthy people, faithfully captured on the page.

Peril at End House by Agatha Christie. An easy introduction to books set in Cornwall before my walk there in April. A young woman blithely ignores her multiple brushes with death until Poirot becomes involved.  Had the murderer pegged around the 2/3 mark. Ah Agatha, I have your measure now.

Next : The Conspiracy of Catiline.

160. The Civil War, by Gaius Julius Caesar (c.47-45 BC)

160. The Civil War, by Gaius Julius Caesar (c.47-45 BC)

Plot:   Pompey and Caesar duke it out for control of Rome.  Penguin edition translated by Jane Gardner (0140441875)

My thoughts: 

Like his Commentaries on the Gallic War, Caesar’s version of events goes down in history, painting himself as the peace-seeking general forced for his own life and honour to protect himself from his enemies and their control of the Senate by taking his armies to Rome. Unlike the treacherous subordinates of Pompey, Caesar releases defeated forces and prisoners unharmed, even discharging and paying the beaten soldiers as if they were his own forces. If true, it shows his sensitivity to the particular nature of the horrors of civil war

Eventually Caesar’s and Pompey’s forces meet – fortunes of war swing each way until Pompey relies too heavily on his cavalry, who are routed by Caesar’s infantry. Pompey escapes to Egypt where he is quickly put to death by the henchmen of King Ptomley XIII the boy king, who is fighting his own battle for the Egyptian throne against his sister Cleopatra. As consul of Rome, Caesar offers to mediate between the two sides, but is besieged by Ptomley’s forces in one quarter of the city, starting off the Alexandrian War.

Also in this volume are descriptions of the subsequent Alexandrian War, and the mopping up of the remaining Pompeian forces (the African War and the Spanish War), continuing the thread of events; at first believed to be also written by Caesar but soon attributed to other, anonymous authors.  No mention of Caesar dallying with Cleopatra though.

Six months after defeating the Pompeians in Spain, Caesar is assassinated on the Ides of March 44BC.

Favourite lines/passages:

Caesar’s speech to his armies

“I have been your commander for nine years; under my leadership, your efforts on Rome’s behalf have been crowned with good fortune; you have won countless battles and pacified the whole of Gaul and Germany. Now, I ask you to defend my reputation and standing against the assaults of my enemies”     (page 39)

And to the Senate

“Therefore I earnestly ask you to join with me now in taking over the government of Rome; if timidity makes you shrink from the task I shall not trouble you – I shall govern by myself.

Envoys must be sent to Pompey to discuss terms. I am not frightened by his recent statement in this assembly that the sending of deputations merely enhances the prestige of those to whom they are sent and reveals the fears of the senders. These are the reflections of a weak and petty spirit. My aim is to outdo others in justice and equity, as I have previously striven to outdo them in achievement”    (pages 52-53)

Digressions and diversions

Triremes, Quadriremes and Quinqueremes ; the difference

Various types of warships employed by the Romans and others. A trireme has three banks of oars on each side, each oar rowed by a single man. Used by the Phonecians, Greeks and Romans, they were superceded by the heavier quadriremes and quinqueremes.

A quadrireme had, as the name suggests, four rows of oars, possibly with two men per oar; while the quinquereme had  three banks of oars with the top two manned by two oarsmen per oar, and the lower bank with one man per oar, a total of 300 oarsmen and also capable of carrying up to 120 marines.

                    

Just so you don’t hop on the wrong one to take you across Sydney Harbour or the Firth of Forth.

Personal rating:  Not as exciting as the Gallic Wars, until the final confrontation and the subsequent events in Egypt. It was also difficult to keep track of who was on who’s side. Lets call it a 4.

The reads in between: 

Black cats and Butlers, by Janine Beacham: Plucky young heroine Rose and her overly dramatic proto-Goth friend Emily discover a world of graverobbers, magicians, duelling butlers, secret societies and mystical cats in an alternate version of York. First in a series for readers 10-12, this was a cracking good read but how I wish it had been written for an older audience, fleshed out with more detail – it was all over far too quickly.

Next :  Sallust’s two surviving works, The Jugurthine War and The Conspiracy of Catiline. Will he support Cicero’s versions of events regarding Catiline?