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Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Legions of Rome: novelizations - "Soldier of Rome 1/2" by James Mace and "Marius Mules" by SJ Turney (Overview/Review by Liviu Suciu)

Official James Mace Website
Official SJA Turney Website
Find Books, Games, DVD's about the Ancient World in famous novelist Steven Saylor extraordinary online resource "Steven' Shops" (HERE/US) and (HERE/UK)

INTRODUCTION: I am a big fan of historical fiction set in Roman times - and to a lesser extent set in ancient times - but I have one crucial requirement, namely the books should be reasonably accurate historically and reflect the period. That will excuse a lot for me including flattish prose or typos, while conversely a book that grossly distorts history or is just a "mystery/adventure in togas" that essentially could be set in modern times since it reflects our attitudes and mores rather than the period ones could be a masterpiece of literary writing and still would go on my "not for me" pile.

The modern references for Roman historical fiction are Colleen McCullough's masterpiece series in seven volumes Masters of Rome with Steven Saylor' Gordianus series coming a close second.
As linked above Mr. Saylor has tons of related material on his website and I check it occasionally as well as let him know when I find out about something of interest for listing there.

This is how I found about the superb James Mace Legionary series currently at 3 volumes, the last one "Heir to Rebellion" being just published and will constitute the subject of a full review here in a week or two.

The other novel I will discuss today "Marius' Mules" from SJA Turney, author of the superb historical fantasy "Interregnum" (FBC Review) has been brought to my attention by a review inquiry here and I enjoyed it a lot too.

OVERVIEW: "Soldier of Rome" started as
a self-published novel full of typos and written in a pedestrian style which captured perfectly the soldier life in the Roman legions under Augustus and Tiberius as far as we know it from historical records. As such, it resonated a lot with its audience - including myself - so that a new improved and corrected edition has been reissued by the author, while volumes two "The Sacrovir Revolt" and the current installment "Heir to Rebellion" show a massive improvement both in the quality of writing and of the presentation.

The series follows Artorius a young Roman who as a boy growing up in Augustus' Rome of AD 9 worships his older brother Metellus, a very promising young legionary on the German frontier. But as it is well known, Arminius and the Teutoburg Forest awaits the Rhine Legions and their inept commander Varus and Metellus dies heroically saving some comrades who are among the very few survivors of the famous disaster.

The loss of Metellus devastates Artorius' family but later when he becomes of age to enlist he immediately does so and goes to the Rhine too. The Roman legions there are now under the able leadership of Rome's greatest general of the time, Augustus' stepson, son in law, later adopted son and heir Tiberius, while upon Tiberius' ascension, his nephew Germanicus, the younger rising Roman general takes command and prepares an expedition to defeat Arminius once and for all.

After the Teutoburg interlude, the first novel takes place from Artorius' coming of age in 15AD through the famous campaign of Germanicus in 16-17 AD that while stopping short of permanent conquest, asserted Roman power there for a long, long time; the second installment takes place in AD 20 in Gaul where an ambitious nobleman, a disgruntled magnate and a revenge seeking Spartan attract the younger Gaulish nobility into rebellion. Artorius and his comrades are on the scene and the legions will have something to say about that.

We follow the growth and maturation of Artorius as well as of several friends, most notably Magnus who is of Scandinavian origins, his grandfather becoming citizen of completion of military service, while in the "high politics" interludes, we follow Tiberius in Rome who is portrayed much more nuanced and most likely closer to truth than in the classical historians.

There is an interesting segue of the first two novels - namely Soldier of Rome ends on a superb arena fight between a legionary - not Artorius, his mentor though - and a well known and unbeaten gladiator owned by a bragging Gaulish noble whose boasts about the prowess of his fighter and verbal disparaging of the legionaries were called on and massive sums of money will depend on the result. The second and third installment are even more direct sequels as their titles imply.


Marius' Mules is a bit different than Soldier of Rome in so far the focus of the action is partly on senior officers and partly on enlisted men and junior officers; it is also an indie debut and suffers from lots of typos, anachronisms and some careless editing, but it makes up for that in superb action with enough historical detail to satisfy me, but it is more of an adventure novel in many ways.

This novel follows a Roman career officer who attaches himself to the star of Julius Caesar in Spain cca 62/1 BC and later in Gaul from 58 BC on; despite some misgivings, Caius Valeirus Fronto becomes Caesar's main fighting legate against the Helvetians and later Ariovistus. Dealing more with political and military machinations, the novel has also a lot of "blood and guts" action and it offers a very uncompromising but not unrealistic portrait of Julius Caesar as an opportunistic but talented manipulator with an ability for the organization of conquest and war.

While having a clear ending, Marius' Mules deals only with the first several years of the Gallic conquest and I would love to read the implied sequel(s) and see it becoming a series.


Gabriele Campbell said...

Well, your lenience for pedestrian prose and bad editing is greater than mine. I read excerpts from both Marius' Mules and the first Artorius book and I'm sorry to say the writing isn't up to par. Stilted dialogue ('cease and desist' as military command?), infodump, and telling where showing would work better - not to mention the amount of typos.

And in case of the Artorius book I don't trust the research of an author who didn't even bother to understand Roman naming conventions. Metellus Artorius Maximus is not a Roman name, it's three cognomen strung together. If the guy's cognomen is Metellus, he should belong to the gens Caecilia and that should show in his name: Quintus (or Marcus, or Lucius) Caecilius Metellus. Artorius wasn't even in use in the 1st century AD.

Presenting Germanicus as having more or less conquered Germania (...the famous campaign of Germanicus in 16-17 AD that while stopping short of permanent conquest, asserted Roman power there for a long, long time) - well, I'd have a few things to say about that, but this blog is not the place. Oh, and the campaign took place 14-16 AD, not 16-17.

It's a pity, because I like historical fiction set in Roman times, but those books don't work for me.

Liviu said...

You are right about the campaign, it ended in 16 AD, the novel takes place in 16-17 AD since it follows the return to Rome too, sorry for not making it clear.

Regarding "asserted Roman power there for a long, long time", well the Germans did not threaten seriously the Empire until Marcus Aurelius - and after Teutoburg there was true panic both in Rome and in Gaul which never repeated for a long time. There was no large scale fighting on the Rhine frontier from 16 AD till 160's - ok Domitian advanced the Rhine frontier a little bit but he was interested in the Danube frontier so the advance was more of a consolidation kind

Germanicus' army of 16 AD killed, burned, slashed, massacred everyone within some radius of the frontier, defeated any direct attack and used the scorched earth tactic to show the German tribes, Rome meant business but not annex - so that was the meaning of "assert" not in the sense of conquer

Regarding naming - Artorius is a lower class plebeian so his brother (Mettelus) may be named after a past patron of the family, while he is named Titus which is a regular Roman first name, one of the several regular ones;

The naming conventions generally applied to the nobility whether plebeian or patrician, while lower class Romans did not conform;

New citizen or freedmen/women took a famous name from their patron, keeping first names so we have Magnus Flavianus who sounds perfectly fine.

I have no idea why you are sure Artorius is not a first century (family) name since I am pretty sure we do not have a census of all roman citizens to consult...
Not a famous one, yes sure but I doubt the novels will see Titus Artorius become famous beyond a primus pillius...

Regarding typos - the first edition of Soldier is bad indeed, but the second is much, much better - the success of that enabled the author to hire copyediting help...

Marius Mules indeed is a rookie novel but I liked it nonetheless though I agree it fits the "historical adventure" label more than "historical fiction" per se

Liviu said...

Oh and one more little comment about Soldier of Rome - there is no whitewashing of the massacres - Artorius and his pals kill women and children in cold blood, burn villages with people inside and all; James Mace (imho) is very well versed in the military side of Rome while the rest - eg politics, customs - does not jar

Gabriele Campbell said...

OK, I can agree about the different interpretation of 'assert power'. Germanicus' campaign was a punitive expedition for sure, and an attempt to restore the lost honour of Rome by regaining the eagles (he got back two of them). But in the end Tiberius called the thing off because it cost too much in men and money (he probably was jealous of Germanicus, too) and left the Germans east of the Rhine to themselves. Of course, it was called a victory in Rome and Germanicus got his triumphal parade. :) But Tacitus also says about Arminius: "undefeated in the field, he was without doubt the liberator of Germania," (and contradicts his own description of Idistaviso as Roman victory; I think it was probably more a stalemate).

The Romans in the time to come - starting under Domition in 83 AD - pushed into southern Germania and erected the Limes Germanicus that cuts from Frankfurt down to Regensburg at the Danube, adding the fertile plain of the Wetterau and the woods of the Taunus and part of the Odenwald to the agri decumantes. That frontier held until the massive Allamanni attacks in 260 when the Romans withdrew to the Rhine. But as late as 235 there seems to have been an attempt to do something about those border crossing Germans when Maximinus Thrax led a punitive campaign far further north-east than for a long time had been thought possible. They're digging up a battlefield more or less at my backdoor, and I live east of the Weser. :)

If Artorius and his late brother were clients, they should have added the nomen Caecilius to their name: Titus Caecilius Artorius (ok, maybe that one was around in Rome though I've only encountered it in British names), not Titus Metellus Artorius.

I might give Marius Mules a try if the book were cheaper and easier to get, but I don't like ordering via another Amazon (other than .de) that charges for shipping - say, a traditional mass market paperback for 6 bucks from Tor or some other publisher I can get without hassle.

Liviu said...

I agree about the comments about Arminus - ultimately the jealousy of his fellow nobles took him down and he was murdered possibly with Roman connivance - his brother was a Roman ally; the interpretation in the Legionary books is pro-Roman no question about it but Teutoburg put paid to Roman attempts to conquer Germany for a long while also.

Artorius is Titus Artorius Justus and his brother is Metelus Artorius Maximus so while Metellus may have been an unfortunate choice, I would say that naming is done reasonably well

Regarding getting the books - I bought all 3 Legionary books so far as pdf's, 2 and 3 on release, while the debut when I found about from Steven Saylor' site 2-3 years ago, while Marius Mules I got recently from the author as a pdf too though I asked only for Interregnum which is much better written, edited and all

Though released closely in time, Marius Mules is an older novel and had only a little editing done some time ago, while Interregnum is proofed professionally from what the author told me - on the other hand the novel is fun and I liked it better than expected

Gabriele Campbell said...

Tiberius was right when he hoped the German tribes would be back at each other's throats when the common enemy was removed. Arminius still led his alliance against his old rival Marbod of the Marcomanni and kicked him out of his kingdom, but after that the alliance crumbled. Arminius' father-in-law being behind the assassination is my personal candiadate - the two never got along.

I'm fascinated by all things Roman, esp. the military, but I'm German and thus my view takes both sides into account.

Yeah, Teutoburg and the indecisive end of Germanicus' campaigns put a damper on Roman aspirations to turn Germania into a province for sure. I'm not sure if we can define Maximinus Thrax' war as an attempt to create a province Germania Magna at a time the Germanic tribes became increasingly difficult and aggressive, or just a punitive expedition that led him really far north. Whatever his goal was, he didn't achieve it because he was killed in 237 and the mess of the Soldier Emperors began.

Metellus is an unhappy choice of name then, because not only is a cognomen used as praenomen, but it's also one of those cognomen closely associated with one powerful family. Ever read Colleen McCullough's First Man of Rome? - there's a whole bunch of historical Caecilii Metelli around, making life difficult for Gaius Marius (the one who 'invented' Marius' Mules). :)

Liviu said...

I grew up with Titus Livius, Polybius and then Tacitus, Suetonius, while from modern literature I, Claudius and various other Rome classic novels - though translated, my Latin is rudimentary, took some classes in school but not that much, however Romanian is very close in many ways -

Masters of Rome *is* the modern novelistic reference for the Late Republic though after a while the Caesar worship grates a little bit - own and read all 7 quite a few times, 1 and 2 are my favorites with 3 also; liked Lucius Cornelius character a lot :)

I also keep up with the latest historical theories - quite a few recent books about the end of the Empire in the West - Goldsworthy and 2 or 3 more as well as a book on what came next re-assessed "The Inheritance of Rome" - Wickham, though this one browsed only so far, my copy has not arrived yet, but looks great.

And of course for Byzantium, Norwich (the 3 volume full) *is* the modern reference and there is a bunch of fiction too, but less than for Rome

Will have a review/overview of the superb alt-hist (high) fantasy series Oath of Empire by Th. Harlan in 2 weeks in which Augustus' change of oath propagates through soldiers and their descendants into a very powerful magical construct that preserves the Western Empire - there is still the split though -, and now we get to 621 and well Persia, Arabs, the whole saga of Heraclius but in this context with an allied Western Empire and magic...

Alexander and Gaius Julius are raised from the dead by a powerful Roman necromancer and Alexander gets to lead an army of the Gothic federated state on the Danube, while Gaius Julius gets to conspire in Rome again, among other goodies, but Mohamed (that one also) steals the show from the historical personages...

Gabriele Campbell said...

That one sounds fun. And the moment it's called Alternate Historical Fantasy or whatnot, I don't care about those pesky facts. :)

With the 2000 year anniversary of the battle in the Teutoburg Forest this year, you can imagine there's a ton of new German non fiction. I'm still reading up on it.


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