More on Allan Massie

3 September, 2016

I’ve now finished the Robert Harris trilogy on Cicero. It was very good, but it pales in comparison to Allan Massie’s books. I read his Augustus next, and loved it. Augustus is the narrator, and it is in two halves. The first he narrates to his grandsons Gaius and Lucius. It is optimistic; the second is narrated towards the end of his life and is much more gloomy. Massie paints a picture of somebody who is keen to present his legacy as a service to Rome; he has Augustus’ Res Gestae for this. He presents somebody who is perhaps not so self-aware as he thinks, as comes out when his dynastic plans go awry. Comments from Maecenas and Livia are particularly revealing.

I’d have to read Robert Graves’ I Claudius again (I read it as a teenager), but I think Massie’s portrayal of Livia is probably more believable. She’s a proud Claudian, not shy of reminding Augustus that she deigned to marry down to him!

One of the strengths of Massie’s books is that you very much get the perspective of the narrator, and it is biased. The scene he describes of the forging of the second triumvirate is similar in Augustus to in Mark Antony, which I’m reading now, but the differences are revealing. Augustus justifies himself, while Antony won’t talk of it, and it’s described by his secretary, Critias. I’ve not put the two scenes alongside each other, but the description of discussion of the proscription is modified.

Massie describes Mark Antony very favourably. His biggest failing is his sense of honour (something Ronald Syme suggests too). He would have been best to have crushed Octavian while he had the upper hand, but is described as having given his word, and therefore was not willing to do this. Massie’s description of Antony’s relationship with Marcus Brutus is fascinating; he gives a context for why Antony described Brutus as the noblest Roman at his funeral.

The varied takes on Brutus in the three books I’ve read by Massie so far are a nice illustration of how well he gets into the persona of his narrators. Mark Antony’s sympathy for Brutus contrasts with the antipathy, for different reasons, of Augustus and Decimus Brutus in the two earlier books.

Meanwhile, I have all the figures for the Thapsus BBDBA army. They are all primed and waiting to be painted. The Numidians are close to being done, and the Xyston Gauls and Spanish will mix nicely with the CB ones. It helps that I’m using CB shields. Plans to go to Conquest are also advancing. I had a couple of games of DBA with Nick a couple of weeks ago. We had a Marian Roman civil war, where his Romans with an elephant were undone by my use of Armenian cataphracts (and some good dice). My Seleucids against his Ptolemaics was the reverse, where my PIP dice were cripplingly low; the elephant and the scythed chariot are not forgiving of such dice. It was only that Nick had average combat dice that allowed me to hang around for as long as I did.

What got me thinking of fielding a Marian Roman army for BBDBA was reading Allan Massie’s novel Caesar. It’s narrated by Decimus Brutus, one of Caesar’s lieutenants and one of the conspirators. It examines the motives of the aristocracy in that period sensitively and intelligently. I particularly liked the way Massie described Decimus Brutus’ changing opinion of the choices Labienus made. Initially he’s derided as an overprincipalled clown, but later as the necessity for assassination grows in Brutus’ mind he is sympathetic to Labienus; there is also a fictional letter to Brutus from Labienus explaining why he supported Pompey, recognising him as the lesser of two evils and one that he thought he might be able to control better.

I’d like to read the rest of Massie’s novels on the figures of this period — Mark Antony, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero’s Heirs, but I can’t get the books from Google Play to my Nook; until I can I won’t buy more. Instead I’ve been finishing Robert Harris’ series narrated by Cicero’s slave then freedman, Tiro. I’ve finished the first two books, Imperium and Lustrum (or Conspirata) and am just starting on the last Dictator. The portrayal of Cicero is believable, and his take on Caesar is one that I agree with.

Anyway, it was while reading Massie that I thought that I could happily field an army led by either the Republican resistance to Caesar, or the Liberators who delivered extrajudicial justice to the tyrant. The Thapsus army has the advantage of allowing a Numidian ally and lots of elephants to bolster the Roman blade against opponents with knights. I’ve had the Numidians waiting to be painted for a while, and I had a Freikorps Carthaginian elephant that has a Numidian mahout; I’ll get two more for the maximum pachydermal goodness. I was pleased to read in the continuation of Caesar’s Civil War commentaries that Labienus had Gallic cavalry with him at Thapsus, so that’s an incentive to get more of my Gallic cavalry painted to enable Labienus to restore the Republic to its former virtue, guided by the moral vision of Cato the Younger.

More Maurice Walsh

4 December, 2014

I raced through these two books this week and enjoyed them both hugely. They read better than The Sons of the Swordmaker; the first person narrative read more naturally than the book set earlier. Without wanting to give too much away, I’ll write a pair of short reviews of them.

This book tells the story of a David Gordon, born of an Irish mother and a Scottish father. It starts with him setting sail from Bristol for Ireland in the early days of the Nine Years’ War, soon after the Battle of Clontibret in 1595. The story takes David up to Ulster, where he meets family, gets involved in battles and raids as well as romance. The characters in the story are memorable and there’s a good measure of humour to the story.

As mentioned in my last post, this was published as The Dark Rose in the US. Similar to Blackcock’s Feather this is a first person narrative of a character of middling significance in a period of war. The narrator, Martin Somers is the Adjutant of Women in O’Cahan’s Irish regiment that fought with James Graham, the Marquis of Montrose for the King in what is now called the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Like Blackcock’s Feather it has memorable characters and a plot of romance that takes place during battles and involves raids and other adventures.

I needed to get a Scots Dictionary to read the dialogue of this book in many places. Maurice Walsh lived in Scotland for a time and seems to use Scots authentically. It adds a lot to the dialogue and characterization of the protagonists.

In both these books, although it’s clear where the narrator’s, and the writer’s, sympathies lie, there are noble and honourable opponents, as well as villains. In And No Quarter, Walsh argues that the women that followed Montrose’s army were not fallen women as the Covenanters painted them (and then took savage pleasure in slaughtering them when they had the chance), but ‘the mothers, wives, sisters, sweethearts that always followed the male of Gaeldom to war’ (p. 259).

It’s a long time, over thirty years now, since I read Nigel Tranter’s books on Montrose. With my memory so hazy I can’t really compare them to And No Quarter, but the focus is quite different; for Tranter Montrose is the focus, whereas Walsh gives an interpretation of life during those events for more ordinary individuals (though his characters are somewhat extraordinary). Anyway, I enjoyed this excursus into historical fiction, though I’ll probably go back to reading fantasy fiction now!

Maurice Walsh

30 November, 2014

In the last while I’ve read a fair bit. I read the Black Company series by Glenn Cook, and a couple of the series of Raymond Feist (I’m on the Serpentwar Saga, but stopped as I couldn’t put it down!). I’ve then reread Fritz Leiber’s stories on Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, which are easier to put down as they are short stories. I read these all on an ebook reader, a B&N Nook. However, there are a few books that I’ve wanted to read for a while that I’ve not been able to find digital versions of. I got them out of the public library yesterday and as I’ve not found very detailed descriptions of them online; besides what I read on TMP here, which made me want to find them, I’ve found nothing of substance. Therefore I’ll add some now:

This is set in Ireland around the time of Augustus. It is based on the story Togail Bruidne Dá Derga (The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel) . The sons of the swordmaker are from the continent, but one ends up in Ireland. Some elements would not be in a book written today (winged helmets, though fetching on Asterix, are not considered normal, nor are scythed chariots). However, there are details that reflect the experience of someone who’d grown up before electricity became common, such as details of daily life. These details and the characters made it a book I enjoyed.

Years back, when I was studying Old Irish at university, we read some of Togail Bruidne Dá Derga. I can’t say I enjoyed it. The first paragraph describes a woman and the vocabulary was very varied and complex; we didn’t read much in the end, either.

Set in Ireland during the Elizabethan period; I’ve not read it yet.

This describes events during the campaigns of the Marquis of Montrose, It was published in the US as The Dark Rose. I’ve not read it yet.

More DBA

26 January, 2014

Last Thursday I caught up with Joel for some more DBA 3.0. I wanted to see Sp v. Bd, so we went for my Polybian Romans against Joel’s Carthaginians. In the first game Joel’s combat dice were so dreadful that I won effortlessly. We had another game, but Joel was hindered by terrain and I won easily again. In particular his spear were mostly hopeless. However, I did see a little Sp-Bd interaction. It was interesting.


I’m still painting the camps; my progress has been limited by reading The Rich are Different by Susan Howatch. It’s the story of a New York banker in the 20s that mirrors the life of Julius Caesar. I’m now starting on the sequel on his nephew, an Augustus. Very cleverly done.

Recent Reading

12 April, 2010

In the last few weeks I’ve not managed to do any painting, but I have had quite a lot of opportunity for reading. The books I’ve read or am reading are:

  • Caesar’s Gallic Wars.

This was background for my recently completed Gallic and Ancient British armies. It’s left me with an increased respect for how tough the Roman army was in that period. I’m also interested in trying to get at how the Gallic nobility viewed Caesar. Clearly many wanted him out, yet they were required to serve him as cavalry. Rebels would come to a bad end, yet for all that many tried. And some of these had initially served Caesar, such as the Atrebatan king Commius, who went to Britain ahead of Caesar, but later was a leader in the Vercingetorix revolt. After avoiding attempts to bump him off Commius made peace with the Romans on condition he never have to come into the presence of one again! He didn’t trust them. His peers were making their adjustment to Roman rule, and many served in the Roman army as cavalry during the Civil Wars and were well rewarded for it. I’m interested to see if anyone’s attempted to study their reaction in any detail. Ambiorix’s speech in Book 5 during the attack on Cotta and Sabinus is fascinating. He claims to be grateful to Caesar, yet forced to lead the rebellion by his subjects. Caesar gives the impression that he’s thoroughly insincere and this is all a trick, yet it rings true (Sabinus seemed to believe it!). I wonder how many other leaders found themselves in his situation. The incident also leaves one to wonder at the sentiments of the less powerful Gauls that formed the bulk of their armies.

I followed up reading Caesar’s Gallic Wars with Goldsworthy’s book on the Roman army. Caesar was good preparation as he was one of the main sources Goldsworthy used (along with Josephus). The book was a very interesting read, particularly in the stress Goldsworthy put on the importance of morale in deciding encounters. It was interesting too that he noted the frequency of desertion, not just in Civil Wars. He suggested that one possible reason for making the camp each night was as much to keep the soldiers in!

I read this book as background for the Carthaginian army that is still being painted. It was written by my old Latin lecturer from Sydney university who has now retired, a really charming chap. It’s a short introductory work that was very readable. Hoyos is keen to try to get a Carthaginian perspective on the wars between the Romans and Carthaginian, and made the point that in terms of resources and manpower the two empires were fairly evenly matched at the start of the Hannibalic War.

This is a longer treatment of the development of Carthaginian power under the Barcid dynasty. I’m still reading it, and am also rereading Polybius and Livy as some of the most important sources. In particular I want to get a better handle on the chronology of the First Punic War.