Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Cannibalism in Roman Egypt

Historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

Funerary complex of the 5th Dynasty pharaoh Unas at Saqqara
Image courtesy of Wiimedia Commons.
King Unis is one who eats men and lives on gods,
Lord of messengers, who dispatches his messages;
It is ‘Grasper-of-Forelocks’ living in Kehew
Who binds them for King Unis. It is the serpent ‘Splendid-Head’
Who watches them for him and repels them for him.
It is ‘He-who-is-upon-the-Willows’
Who lassoes them for him.
It is ‘Punisher-of-all-Evil-doers’
Who stabs them for King Unis.
He takes out for him their entrails,
He is a messenger whom he (King Unis) sends to punish.

Shesmu cuts them up for King Unis
And cooks for him a portion of them
In his evening kettles (or ‘as his evening kettles = meal’).
King Unis is he who eats their charms,
And devours their glorious ones (souls).
Their great ones are for his morning portion,
Their middle(-sized) ones are for his evening portion,
Their little ones are for his night portion.
Their old men and their old women are for his incense-burning.
It is the ‘Great-Ones-North-of-the-Sky’
Who set for him the fire to the kettles containing them,
With the legs of their oldest ones (as fuel).
The ‘Dwellers-in-the-Sky’ revolve for King Unis (in his service).
The kettles are replenished for him with the legs of their women.
He has encircled all the Two Skies (corresponding to the Two Lands),
He has revolved about the two regions.
King Unis is the ‘Great Mighty-One’
Who overpowers the ‘Mighty Ones’


So, who is this bloodthirsty King Unas (Spelled Unis in the above translation)? As it turns out, he was the last of the fifth dynasty of Egyptian pharaohs. The above passage is part of the Cannibal Hymn included in the first copy of the Pyramid Texts ever found in his tomb in Saqqara.

I had never associated cannibalism with ancient Egypt before until I read about the sacrifice and consumption of a 2nd century CE Roman legionary serving in Egypt during the Boukoloi uprising of 171-172 CE. Our ancient source for this rather gruesome event is Cassius Dio.

"The people called the Bucoli [also spelled Boukoloi] began a disturbance in Egypt and under the leadership of one Isidorus, a priest, caused the rest of the Egyptians to revolt. At first, arrayed in women's garments, they had deceived the Roman centurion, causing him to believe that they were women of the Bucoli and were going to give him gold as ransom for their  husbands, and was then struck down when he approached them. They also sacrificed his companion, and after swearing an oath over his entrails, they devoured them." - Cassius Dio, Roman History LXXII.4

2nd century CE Roman Centurion in Egypt
Image courtesy of weaponsandwarfare.com
I first read about this act of cannibalism in Adrian Goldsworthy's excellent book Pax Romana. I was quite literally astounded by his description of it and immediately began to wonder about the history of human sacrifice in ancient Egypt. The Cannibalism Hymn, quoted above, was among the first references to human sacrifice I encountered in my research. Like the spells in the Book of the Dead, though, I realized this hymn was probably mostly symbolic.

But as I researched further, I discovered that a cult grew up around King Unas, who was venerated as a local god of the Saqqara necropolis, that extended through the centuries all the way down to as late as the Late Period (664–332 BCE). This is attested to by the discovery of numerous scarabs bearing Unas' name found in Saqqara and dated from the New Kingdom (c.1550–c.1077 BCE) until the Late Period. Since King Unas lived and ruled during the mid-24th century BCE, there must have been something unique about his worship to endure over 2000 years after his death.

In his paper Sacred Violence: When Ancient Egyptian Punishment was Dressed in Ritual Trappings, Dr. Kerry Muhlestein, director of Brigham Young University's Egypt Excavation Project, points out, based on epigraphic evidence, institutionally sanctioned ritual violence in ancient Egypt centered around interference with a religious cult or rebellion.  Muhlestein considered an event to have ritual trappings if it mirrored that which was regularly experienced in Egyptian cultic activities.

"In other words, if the language used to describe an action matches the language used to describe cultic activity, or if an action took place in the same way it would in a cultic setting, we will consider that text or action to have ritual trappings...While the lack of ritually charged terminology does not mean that ritual trappings were not present and thus we must be careful in assuming that there was no ritual aspect, if terminology or actions are employed that were routinely part of a ritual, we can be sure that a ritual aspect was intended," Muhlestein explains.

Muhlstein says evidence for ritual killings is well documented in the Early Dynastic Period. Muhlestein points to an ivory label of King Aha that appears to depict a ritual slaying of a human being. Such labels were found in retainer burials associated with Early Dynastic kings including Aha and Djer.

He considers the strongest piece of evidence that ritual violence was employed in the Middle Kingdom is an inscription attributed to Senusret I.

"Senusret claims to have found the temple of Töd in a state of disrepair and desecration. The "guilty" parties were killed in a variety of ways, including flaying, beheading, and burning. The language of the inscription draws an intentional parallel with animal sacrifices. It states that these punishments were inflicted as sacrifices." Muhlestein observes.

Muhlestein says Harco Willems points to numerous inscriptions from the First Intermediate and New Kingdom Periods that make it clear interference with funerary cults could be met with ritual slaying with references to having one's neck severed like a sacrificial bird's.

But, even though sacrificed animals were usually consumed by temple priests, did this apply to human sacrifices as well? Amenhotep III decreed burning for any who interfered with the funerary cult of one of his favorite courtiers. Muhlestein thinks this refers to just burning the corpse thereby totally destroying a person eliminating the possibility of an afterlife but admits there are inscriptions that point to more than mere destruction of the body.

"For instance, First Intermediate Period (ca. 2130-2010 BCE) Assiut Tombs III and IV have inscriptions that say a desecrator will be burned, or cooked..."

He goes on to describe two ritual killings described in the Petition of Petiese (a petition for redress from the early fifth century BCE).

"Petiese felt that while others had been involved, the death of these two would suffice for the sake of justice, and that others did not need to be burned in a brazier. Burning in a brazier carries strong ritual connotations,and in this case it was clear that the crime which demanded such action was murder," Muhlestein observes.

He also mentions a literary tale from the 4th century BCE in which a murderer is burned on a brazier at the door of the palace.

"While the tale is fictive, it surely drew from situations with which its intended audience would be familiar, strongly suggesting that it was known that murderers were burned in a manner similar to other sacrifices, but perhaps at the palace rather than at the temple. These two sources make it clear that at least during later time periods, murder was punishable by burning, likely with ritual trappings."

Ritualized sacrifices related to rebellion are also epigraphically documented.

"Amenhotep II reportedly slew seven princes at his coronation festival. Ramesses III records slaying captured Libyans using language that mirrored the descriptions of sacrificial birds...it seems extremely likely that there were a number of ritual slayings of rebellious enemies by the kings of Egypt," Muhlestein states.

I noticed in his discussion of prisoner executions by Prince Osorkon after a rebelliion in Thebes that once again braziers were lit. You don't normally incinerate entire human bodies on a brazier. Braziers were used for heat and cooking.

So, it appears human sacrifice and in some cases possibly cannibalism were indeed practiced in ancient Egypt. Dio's description of the fate of that 2nd century legionary could have definitely been based in fact.

Teresa Bałuk-Ulewiczowa and Tomasz Polański of Jagiellonian University in their paper The Boukoloi Uprising, or How the Greek Intellectuals Falsified Oriental History, disagree, however.

They point to descriptions of the Boukoloi in the 3rd century Greek romances of Achilles Tatius and Heliodorus of Emesa saying "The novelists’ evidence mirrors ethnical prejudice, historical resentments, the Greeks’ cultural and linguistic alienation in the Orient. Here and there it also resounds with the slogans and images coined for the needs of war propaganda."

Achilles Tatius describes a horrific scene of human sacrifice while the Boukoloi priest sings a ritual hymn in Egyptian. In it the Boukoloi want to kill the innocent and beautiful Leukippe, rip her stomach open, roast and eat her entrails, with every detail of the macabre ritual performed under the supervision of the Egyptian priest singing hymns to their barbaric gods.

Polański and Bałuk-Ulewiczowa point to how Dio's account of the sacrifice of the legionary in the uprising of 171 CE compares to that of the novelists. With no other corroborating ancient sources, they then examine what can be gleaned from a wider historical and cultural context.

"...we are dealing with the problem of peripheral communities and cultures, tribal groups living at a remote distance from the centre of power, with their own local histories, not very well known to the outside world, and developing ‘outside the Roman establishment’...The Boukoloi belonged to all those freedom-loving peoples, nomadic tribes or highlanders, who lived on the peripheries of the Graeco-Roman world or within the borders of the Roman Empire, but were never subdued and never controlled."

"...The image of the Boukoloi is strongly blended with the Hellenic literary lore populated with the wicked aliens, monsters and ogres like Busiris, Antaios or Cyclops.  It is clear, for example, that the opening scene of Heliodorus’ Aethiopica with the Boukoloi, was modelled on Euripides’ Iphigenia Taurica. In the above-discussed context we should not forget about the standard view of Egypt and the Egyptians in the Graeco-Roman letters, which is a blend of literary convention on the one hand and of cultural and ethnic prejudice on the other."

Polański and Bałuk-Ulewiczowa do not totally dismiss the possibility that ritual violence including cannibalism could have occurred but point out that wars involving a native minority population and a prevailing military force of a powerful state often result in cruel, if not bestial, behavior with intensifying brutality.

As for my opinion, I think the events related by Cassius Dio could have happened as described. Considering the numerous examples provided by Muhlestein, we have a long history of ritual killings in Egypt, especially in the context of interference with cultic practices. The Boukoloi, living on the fringe of Greco-Roman Egypt on boats moored along the banks of the Nile in the Western Delta, were an isolated group who spoke Egyptian despite their relative proximity to Alexandria where Greek had been spoken since the Ptolemaic dynasty was founded in 305 BCE.  Likewise, there was a strong likelihood they may have practiced Egyptian religion based in more archaic traditions as well. We know the Boukoloi were at least perceived as a group that conducted human sacrifice as evidenced by the novels of  2nd century CE authors Achilles Tatius and Heliodorus of Emesa.

We also know that the Romans despised any cult practices that included human sacrifice.

"... the killing of humans offerings to the gods as a regular, required part of worship was sacrifice and it was generally unacceptable. It was foreign to Roman practice or, if we accept what the Roman themselves claimed, foreign to Roman practice in the historical period. The Romans did not tolerate human sacrifice among the peoples they conquered, forbidding the Bletonesii [a Celtic tribe living in the central part of the Iberian peninsula] from performing it and seriously curtailing (if not actually eliminating it) among the Carthaginians and among the Celts. Even so, the Romans were willing on at least three occasions to offer human victims to the gods. This type of ritual was permissable but only just barely, within the Roman religious tradition because it was enacted only as an extraordinary, or ad hoc, response to an exceptional circumstance. It was not part of regular worship, but was ordered, as Plutarch points out, by the Sibylline books." - Celia E. Schultz, The Romans and Ritual Murder

It is not much of a stretch to imagine a scenario in which the Romans could have observed a religious ritual of the Boukoloi and intervened. To a Boukoloi priest, like Isidorus, the appropriate response would be to ritually sacrifice the offending soldier or even use one soldier as a representative of the offending body of soldiers.

Additional resources: The Pyramid Texts Online

References:

Sirry, M. (n.d.). The Pyramid Texts - Cannibal Hymn. Retrieved August 02, 2017, from http://www.experience-ancient-egypt.com/egyptian-religion-mythology/ancient-egyptian-mythology/pyramid-texts-cannibal-hymn
Translation by James Henry Breasted

Kerry Muhlestein. (2015). Sacred Violence: When Ancient Egyptian Punishment was Dressed in Ritual Trappings. Near Eastern Archaeology, 78(4), 244-251. doi:10.5615/neareastarch.78.4.0244

Bałuk-Ulewiczowa , T., & Polański, T. (n.d.). The Boukoloi Uprising, Or How the Greek Intellectuals Falsified Oriental History [Scholarly project]. In Academia.edu. Retrieved July 31, 2017, from https://www.academia.edu/4434569/Tomasz_Pola%C5%84ski_Bukoloi

Schultz, C. (2010). The Romans and Ritual Murder. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 78(2), 516-541. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40666530

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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Review: A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Healing Arts of Greece and Rome by J.C. McKeown

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

Galen, one of the ancient world's most revered physicians, once said, "The only difference between doctors in Rome and highwaymen is that the doctors do their work in the city, not in the mountains."

What a cynical viewpoint from one of the best of his profession! Obviously, attitudes toward health care were as controversial in the ancient world as they are now, judging from all of the anguish expressed lately by members of the U.S. Congress. It is with these controversies in mind that J.C. McKeown, Professor of Classics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison collected quotes from the ancient sources to produce A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Healing Arts of Greece and Rome.

McKeown groups his quotes by category, including medicine, religion and magic, the doctor in society, attitudes towards doctors (that included the quote above), anatomy, sex matters, women and children, preventative medicine, treatment and diagnosis, and cures (many dubious if not outrageous.)
Much of the "wisdom" of the ancients he includes in his text leaves you scratching your head or, in some cases, outright appalled. Individuals whose teachings have been the foundation of medical ethics for centuries have expressed sentiments towards the healing arts that I certainly did not expect.

For example, Hippocrates himself once said "I shall begin with a definition of what I consider medicine to be, it consists of freeing patients from their disease, dulling the intensity of diseases, and not taking on hopeless cases, since medicine can do nothing for them."

He goes on to explain, "Some people criticize the medical art because of doctors who refuse to take on hopeless cases. They claim that those they do take on would recover by themselves, while they do not touch those who do need help. If medicine really is an art, they assert, it should cure all alike...But, whenever someone suffers from a disease that is too strong for the resources available to medicine, there should be no expectation that such an affliction can be overcome through medicine."

Hippocrates, the so-called "father of medicine" sounds like an ancient insurance company executive!

Two icons of health in the ancient world, Asclepius god
of medicine and healing and his daughter Hygeia
personification of health depicted as household gods. Roman
100-150 CE Bronze.Photographed at The Getty Villa,
Pacific Palisades, CA 
by Mary Harrsch © 2006
Other quotes, though, elicited a smile.  Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia opines, "It is better to have sexual intercourse infrequently, though it revitalizes sluggish athletes, restores a husky voice, and cures back pain, dull vision, mental problems, and depression."

Some even cloaked a hint of truth within their admonitions. In his On Medicine, Aulus Cornelius Celsus warns, "People with weak constitutions  —most city dwellers and practically everyone who is keen on literature belong in this category — need to monitor their health more carefully than other people, so that by taking precautions they may compensate for the deficiencies in their physical well-being or in their environment or in their activities."

Apparently, Celsus believed anyone who read much must obviously be the Roman version of a couch potato!

One reviewer pointed out that McKeown's little book is best consumed in small bites and I would tend to agree. It is not written as a page turner and McKeown has not made any effort to interpret the remarks or even provide some degree of context to them. But, it certainly raised my awareness of such issues as eugenics in the classical world (see my resulting blog post, Ancient Eugenics: Much More Than Just Selective Infanticide), the ancient practice of talk therapy (I thought it was a modern construct), and that the ancients, though famous for their culinary binges, even dealt with anorexia.  In other words, it made me think! 

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Saturday, July 29, 2017

Review: The Emperor's Knives, Empire VII by Anthony Riches

A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

In Book 7 of Anthony Riches' Empire series of novels, the hero, Marcus Tribulus Corvus, formerly Marcus Valerius Aquila, finally gets the opportunity to return to Rome and take revenge on Praetorian Prefect Tigidius Perennis and his cadre of assassins who slaughtered Marcus' family to confiscate their wealth. But, the four men, referred to as "The Emperor's Knives," present quite a challenge to Marcus and his officer comrades, who have sworn to help him. One is a serving Praetorian officer.  Another is the leader of one of Rome's most vicious street gangs. The third is a powerful senator with a taste for salacious entertainment and the last is none other than Rome's reigning gladiatorial champion.




Closeup of the left side of Myrmillo-style bronze gladiator
helmet with bas-relief depicting scenes from the Trojan War
 found in Herculaneum 1st Century CE. Photographed by
Mary Harrsch © 2015
A senator whose son served with Marcus in Dacia has hired an informant to assist Marcus and his friends. But, the duplicitous informant, a ruthless former imperial grain officer Marcus encountered in Britannia,  has several employers with different agendas.  Although he seems to be providing accurate information, Marcus is certain he will ultimately lead them to a disastrous outcome. So Marcus recruits some of the Tungrians to become street-savvy spies themselves to ensure Marcus, Tribune Scaurus and Marcus' assorted barbarian companions  won't end up at the wrong end of Emperor Commodus' sword before their mission is completed.

The emperor Commodus, dressed as Hercules, admired
gladiators and even competed in "arranged" matches himself.
Photographed by Mary Harrsch at the Capitoline Museum in
Rome, Italy. © 2005
In the other six novels, we have seen Marcus use his formidable swordsmanship to get out of almost impossible situations. Now we have a chance to see Marcus pit his skills against some of the best gladiators in the Flavian amphitheater in his final act of revenge.

Riches' vibrant descriptions of combat that even include details of which foot is used to pivot or launch an attack result in the reader feeling totally involved in the action. His descriptions of ancient Rome's back alleys and less than savory street life are also quite evocative.  As is the case in his other books, Riches maintains suspense with a well organized and fast-paced narrative while reserving a few surprises for the revealing conclusion.

I was surprised, though, that one loose thread was not addressed. Marcus had learned in a previous novel that his younger brother had been sold into slavery. However, he apparently makes no effort to locate his brother or ascertain if he still lives. Maybe this issue will be addressed in a future book.

Once again I highly recommend this entire series!

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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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