Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Britannia: Why Bother?

In The Silver Pigs, Falco has very little positive to say about the most northerly province in the Empire. He describes it as unrelentingly grey, damp, cold, dark and boring. Having spent my formative years in Northwest England and then twenty years on the low-lying Aberdeenshire plain, I can certainly understand why a man born in Rome would see it that way. Being so much further north, Britain is naturally colder than the areas around the Mediterranean and has much shorter days in the winter. It’s position in the North Atlantic places it directly in the path of the Gulf Stream and most of the low fronts that sweep across the ocean, so it is undoubtedly a very wet country, with a great deal of that rain falling as a dismal and persistent drizzle. This adds to the feeling of cold, as damp air sucks the heat out of you, and creates the grey skies for which it is famous. Even in mid-summer the light is never as bright or vibrant as it is in Rome. You do get used to it, but it is certainly not conducive to a positive outlook on life, which is one of the reasons that I like living in Maine, although Rome would be better!

So, if it is such a dismal place, why did the Romans bother to conquer it?

As we can see from this map, which dates from 120 CE, even when the Empire was at its greatest, Britannia is rather out of the way and disconnected from the rest. The English Channel, which is only about twenty miles wide at the narrowest point, is not renowned for being difficult to traverse, but it presented a significant barrier to invasion and the Roman army was essentially a land-based force. However, it offered very little barrier to trade, and that is what drew the Romans to these seemingly uninspiring shores.

Originally, trade was conducted via through Gaul and Britannia exported mostly precious metals such as silver, gold, lead, iron, tin and copper. Strabo, writing in his Geography, also adds grain, cattle, hides, slaves and hunting dogs as significant exports in the first century CE, while salt, wool and seafood were probably also important. Rome was always eager to control the supply of important commodities and so it was inevitable that it would want to secure the metal mining activities in Britannia. It also had advanced technology at its disposal that increased the productivity of the existing mines and the exploitation of reserves that were more difficult to reach.

In The Silver Pigs, Falco works in a mine that excavates lead ore and then processes it to extract the silver hidden within it. Although the ultimate goal was to provide the silver needed to produce coinage, we forget how valuable lead was to the Roman Empire. It was primarily used for piping and lining watercourses, such as those in the many aqueducts that carried water to the towns and cities of the empire. Although we now avoid lead piping because of its inherent toxicity, it was vital for all water capture and movement within the Empire, from the gutters on villas to the linings of water storage cisterns. It was also used to produce a wide variety of decorative and kitchen ware in the form of pewter, an alloy of lead with tin. By the end of the first century CE, Britannia was the leading producer of lead within the Empire.

Iron ore was a relatively widespread deposit in the Empire, but Britannia offered the added bonus of abundant trees in close proximity to its mines. This provided the charcoal necessary to allow the ore to be smelted nearby and then shipped as iron ingots after processing. Copper and Tin were still greatly in demand for the production of the alloy bronze, which still had many uses, even though iron was replacing it in the production of weapons and tools.  

Finally, we can see how important the Province was in the political life of Rome because of the effect it had on various men and their careers. Finally bringing it into the Empire, when even the great Julius Caesar had failed in his attempts, was a huge triumph for the Emperor Claudius and helped to counteract his image as a man incapable of being a soldier. The future Emperor Vespasian spent roughly eight years conquering various parts of the Province as part of the initial invasion force and then during the expansion north and west. He was highly effective and distinguished himself enough to earn a triumphal regalia when he returned to Rome and saw him raised to the position of Consul in 51 CE. The importance and isolation of the Province meant that only trusted, senior men were chosen to serve as governors of legionary commanders, two more of who would go on to be Emperor, though only briefly.

However, I think that the wealth generated by all that lovely metallic loot was not the most important reason for the Romans to invade . . . I pretty sure it was the cute greyhounds! :)

Would this make YOU invade?

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis

My Rating: 5.0 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.40 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.97 / 5.00

Life is never easy for Marcus Didius Falco. His father abandoned the family whilst Falco was still small, but old enough to realize that the man was a creep. He was a member of the glorious Second Legion during the most inglorious period of its long history, which took place in the dreadful province of Britannia, just to add insult to injury. His wonderful elder brother, Festus, made himself a hero by getting killed in Judea whilst leaving behind a daughter that he never even knew existed. His mother and five sisters split their time between scolding him, chasing off interesting women that he finds in wine shops and dumping various children on him for unspecified lengths of time. Since leaving the army, he has made a paltry living as an informer, chasing cheating spouses and finding lost cats. He has the worst apartment in the Aventine and is months behind in his rent, which leads to occasional, spontaneous beatings from his landlord’s hired gladiators. In his spare time he writes terrible poetry.

Then, one day, his luck seems to change. A beautiful young woman bumps into him in the Forum and he is duty bound to rescue her from the ugly brutes intent upon capturing her. She is not impressed by his apartment, or his poetry, but she does ask for his help and he is unwilling to say “No!” to such a pretty pair of eyes. Unfortunately, this leads him to a group of ruthless men bent upon treason and the replacement of jolly old Emperor Vespasian with a younger, more biddable, candidate. As the danger grows, he is forced to return to the one place in the Empire that he vowed to never visit again: Britannia. There he goes undercover in a silver mine to gather evidence and encounters the most annoying woman in the world: Helena Justina, daughter of a senator and the possessor of eyes the color of caramel.

When the girl came rushing up the steps, I decided she was wearing far too many clothes. 
It was late summer. Rome frizzled like a pancake on a griddleplate. People unlaced their shoes but had to keep them on; not even an elephant could cross the streets unshod. People flopped on stools in shadowed doorways, bare knees apart, naked to the waist – and in the backstreets of the Aventine Sector where I lived, that was just the women.

This is the very first book in a series that now runs to twenty volumes and sports its very own Official Companion. It has also spawned a spin off series featuring Falco’s adopted daughter, Flavia Alba: the second title in this series is published later this year.

Apart from the obvious attraction of a series set in Ancient Rome, the Falco books have a great voice, as you can see above. The character of Falco draws very heavily on those down-at-heel, sarcastic and nihilistic Private Investigators that we all saw in black and white movies back in the day. He owes a great deal to the likes of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, but does deviate from them in significant ways. He shares the typical PI background of military service and has a friend in local law enforcement, Petronius Longus, the Captain of the local Watch patrol. He also gets beaten on a regular basis and can usually handle himself in a dirty fight, using his witty repartee to really annoy his opponents. He is even susceptible to dangerous women, although he usually has to make do with cheap Libyan dancers.

However, he is not suave or poised, mostly due to the above-mentioned beatings and his persistent poverty. He is also plagued by an over-abundance of family members, rather than being a lonely and isolated figure. However, his family is a huge part of what makes Falco who he is, and they are endlessly entertaining. Finally, although he is rather cunning, and certainly intelligent, Falco makes progress mostly by blind luck and accident. He is regularly plagued by bad timing and terrible luck, and we can always assume that if something can go wrong then it undoubtedly will. Unsurprisingly, Falco’s running commentary is delivered with a world-weary tone that is both funny and endearing at the same time, making the titles in this series very easy and enjoyable to read. 

Falco does not claim to be a hero, and yet he shows great courage and the type of persistence that would impress even the most determined terrier. He is also doggedly determined to fulfill his role as the head of his rather large, and almost unanimously ungrateful, family. We are as likely to find him babysitting his niece Marcia as mooching about on business. He is a man who has been dealt a rather dubious hand of cards by life and yet he doggedly attempts to do the best that he can. All of this, along with his witty banter, makes him a wonderful character to read.

Of course, no PI is complete without his femme fatale. Although she does not really fulfill this role in its entirety, Helena Justina is also an extraordinarily entertaining character. I do not want to spoil the events of this title, but she appears in a rather unexpected role in the later books of the series. Here we see their initial impressions of one another and their developing relationship, which is both touching and very realistic. She is just as snarky as Falco, and is more than capable of beating him in a round of banter. She is very intelligent and determined, which creates a massive headache for her long-suffering father. Headstrong and opinionated, she does what she wants, when she wants, but somehow always does it with marvelous style. As the daughter of a senator, she is totally out of Falco’s league: something of which he is painfully aware.

Of the supporting cast, perhaps the most entertaining in this title is Falco’s Mother. She is almost always disappointed by his behavior and life choices, and spends a great deal of time cleaning up after his messes. However, she cares deeply for her family and her son, even though she does tend to show this love through criticism and knowing sarcasm. This is a mother-son relationship that shows a great deal of affection without any cloying hugging and endless “I love you” sentiments. As with the Falco-Helena relationship, this feels very real and makes any moments of emotional display even more poignant.

The same could be said of Falco’s relationship with Petronius. These are two men who have shared a lot of hardships together in the army. They know each other so well that they often do not need to actually speak. There are several moments in the book when Petronius simply allows Falco the time that he needs to gather himself: no speech can truly reflect the depth of understanding that is communicated by just standing beside someone who is suffering. But Petronius is given a nicely rounded character of his own, even if he does seem to fit into a certain type. He is big and tough in his work, but a total pussycat at home with his three little girls.

Of course, a good cast does not guarantee a good read. The plot clips along at a good pace with plenty of surprising turns and red herrings thrown in along the way. However, there is little revealed to be significant at the end that is not mentioned earlier in the book. Most of the evidence is there, if you look for it, although it may not carry much significance until it is pointed out. I have to say that I prefer this type of mystery to those that are impossible to guess until the vital pieces of obscure evidence are revealed in the great dénouement when the murderer is exposed. It is not that I guessed who did what in this title when I first read it, but I can see all the evidence now when I reread it, which me feel as if I could have solved it if I had been paying slightly more attention. I like to feel as if it is possible, assuming that you are not as hopeless as me at guessing these things.

As a person who has spent a great deal of time studying the Ancient Roman period, I have no quibbles with the way in which Ms Davis builds her world. The atmosphere seems suitably grungy: something that the HBO series Rome captured equally well. I have yet to detect an error in her world building, even though I am famous for my nit picking when reading books, so I do not have to worry about being thrown out of her world by a glaring error. It is so nice to know that I can relax into her titles without feeling compelled to keep running to my textbooks because I do not trust what she says. I am sure that some people are a little surprised by some of the details that she includes, such as Falco’s appalling apartment, but I appreciate her attention to historical research.

I highly recommend this title to anyone who likes a good mystery novel that comes with a healthy dose of realism and cynical wit. The characterizations are realistic and excellently entertaining, with well-drawn relationships and delightfully dysfunctional personas. The setting is well researched and accurately portrayed, with no attempt to over-glamorize the era or its people.

Monday, January 6, 2014

What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us? The Calendar

If you haven’t actually watched the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian, then you will not have seen their interpretation of Roman life in ancient Judea. Of course, I would recommend that you go out and view this film as soon as possible, not only because it is very funny, but also because it offers some interesting insights into Roman culture. For those of you who want to discover their answer to the above question, then you can check out this scene on YouTube, but I strongly recommend watching the whole film. The Romans were marvelously inventive and practical people and their advances still influence our culture a great deal, influencing so much of our lives that the real answer to the question is much, much longer. Today, I will start by looking at the calendar, which seems appropriate at the beginning of the year.

Let us start at the very beginning. Even the word calendar is derived from Latin: the first day of each month was named the Kalends. This probably derives from the verb kalare, meaning to ‘announce solemnly’, because the pontiffs on the Capitoline Hill in Rome would make an announcement on each Kalends defining the fixed points of each month: the Kalends, Nones and Ides. These days were used to calculate all other dates within the month. That’s right, the usually logical and sensible Romans had the most bizarre way of giving dates: each day would either be a Kalends, Nones or Ides or ‘x days before’ one of these fixed dates. So, a Roman diary would be headed: Kalends; 4 days before Nones; 3 days before Nones; etc. . . . oh, and they counted inclusively so it then went 2 days before Nones; Nones . . . it seems unnecessarily complicated to me, but it worked for them!

As if this was not difficult enough, there were other problems. The original Roman Calendar was based upon the lunar cycle, with the Kalends falling on the day of the new moon, the Nones on the half-moon and the Ides on the full moon. However, a lunar cycle does not last for a whole number of days, so pretty early in their history they realized that they had to stuff extra days into some months so that the Kalends would continue to fall on the new moon.

Romulus, the founder of Rome, is credited with formulating a ten-month calendar, with months of 30 or 31 days each, sometime around 753 BCE. Three of the first four months were named for the deities Mars, Maia and Iuno, whilst one was probably derived from the verb aperire, meaning ‘to open’, because the new year fell at the spring equinox. The other months were simply named by number, so the list of months was: Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Iunius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, December.

Unfortunately, the lunar cycle is roughly 29.5 days, so Romulus’ calendar went wrong very quickly and King Numa corrected it in around 713 BCE by creating two extra months at the beginning of the year and reducing the number of days in most of the months, which now ranged from 28 to 31 days in length. Ianuarius was named after the god Ianus, who has two faces and watches over transitions and doorways, probably chosen because this month fell close to the winter solstice. Februarius was a time for ritual purification at the end of the old year and its name comes from Februa festival of purification that was traditionally held in this rainy time of year and is possibly the equivalent of our modern spring-cleaning. Unfortunately, even this calendar did not really work, mainly because it was ten days shorter than a solar year, so every few years an extra month was added to keep the traditional festivals in the correct seasons.

Oversight of the calendar was the responsibility of the Pontifex Maximus, the high priest of the College of Pontiffs. In 46 BC, a certain Julius Caesar used his position as Pontifex Maximus to overhaul the calendar, which had become hopelessly out of step with seasons. The Julian calendar contained 365 days, with twelve months of either 30 or 31 days, except for Februarius, which had 28, or 29 in leap years. The month of Quiltilis was renamed Iulius in his honor, and his heir and successor, Augustus, was commemorated by the change from Sextilis to Augustus. Interestingly, these months were chosen because they were the respective birth months of the two men. It was basically the very same calendar that we use today:

The Julian calendar was remarkably consistent with the mechanics of the solar system and remained in use until the sixteenth century, when Pope Gregory XIII made a slight adjustment to the way in which leap years were calculated in order to keep Easter in line with the March equinox. However, even as the new Gregorian calendar was adopted by Catholic countries, many Protestant and non-Christian countries retained the Julian Calendar until much later, with Russia not converting until 1918, whilst many Orthodox Churches still to use it today to derive the dates of the major festivals.

The two-faced god, Ianus

BCE = Before the Common Era, which is a non-denominational alternative to BC (Before Christ), is now the usual term used in academic publications although the dates remain numerically the same.

The Latin alphabet does not include letter ‘j’. Instead ‘i’ can be used as either a consonant or a vowel. Thus, the man we know as Julius Caesar would actually have written his name Iulius.