Sketches of Ancient Egypt: The Privileged One.

Ancient Egyptian history is much more than just Pharaoh’s. Tomb discoveries have revealed the professional lives of many of officials, soldiers and nobles, some born into positions, some who worked their way up the ladder, most of whom are not known outside of Egyptological circles. I hope this will turn out to be a semi regular series, which I will add to as I research and discover more.

The Privileged One.

Ruins of Merenre's pyramid at Saqqara. Wikipedia.

Ruins of Merenra’s pyramid at Saqqara. Wikipedia.

Overseers and construction chiefs charged with nurturing the growth of Pharaoh Merenra’s pyramid at Saqqara were assembled and waiting with their labourers at the dockside as the flotilla of boats, rafts and lighters came into view. It was an important delivery. The sarcophagus, it’s carved lid, its attendant substructure and numerous other granite objects vital to the creation of Pharaoh’s last resting place, including the basements of the upper chamber were about to be unloaded.
Tendered by the lighters, and escorted by the boats the rafts were tied up and the hard work began. The reason for so many bosses to be present for the unloading was the man disembarking onto the dock from the principle boat.
Weni, Prince Governor of Upper Egypt was a man who knew how to get things done. He was the first commoner to hold the governorship and he had overseen the entire operation of collecting and shipping the cargo in one great expedition from Ibhat and Elephantine, an unprecedented feat until then unseen during the reign of any King.
This most trusted administrator had earned his lofty title. He had served under 3 Pharaoh’s. Starting as a young storehouse custodian under Teti, he had risen to Overseer of the robing room under Pepi I, who noticed the young Weni as a Natural organiser, with a sharp mind and good judgement. More impressive appointments had followed to the rank of Nekhen Judge, and he was soon indispensable to Pharaoh, who now had him consulting on the matters of the self contained universe of the royal Harem and the six courts of justice. This stood him in good stead when he uncovered a plot in the intrigue ridden harem. Pharoah instantly closed the lid on the investigation and Weni was ordered to investigate the matter quietly. When the Great Royal Wife Amtsi was interviewed Weni was the sole judge in the room to hear the case.
Qualifications for rank in the Old Kingdom Pharaonic system was that a man be sufficiently educated in calligraphy and mathematics. Merit, connections and loyalty was often the passport to high office. In the case of Weni, a commoner by birth, Pharaoh appointed his newest “Sole Companion” to the post of a commander in a punitive expedition against what scholars either call Bedouin, but who were known by the Egyptians as the “Sand Dwellers”. Here he put his skills as an organiser to the test, the army was a conglomeration of Egyptians, conscripts and Nubian mercenaries headed by a confusing array of princes, nobles and scribes. Weni proved a capable commander, he organised the army so that the arguments and rivalries inherent to such a force were negated, and plundering was kept to a minimum. His fleet sailed up the Red Sea while his army fixed the enemy in place, resulting in a crushing vicotry. However glamorous the dust and gore of the battlefield victories, he was unable to ensure a stable peace. Pharaoh sent him five more times, defeating the enemy each time, which raised his name to such a degree that a song was composed about his ability to defeat foes in multitudes of ways and return armies in safety.
There was no better man in Egypt to organise the transport of royal funerary goods, and this would prove the pinnacle of his career. When he came ashore everyone would have felt his searching gaze as he observed their reports. Fortunately for them he was off like the wind to Hetnub to fetch an offering table, which he duly returned with in a purpose built acacia lighter in 17 days, before hitting the road once more to oversee the construction of canals in Upper Egypt.
Soon after his appointment as Judge and Sole Companion to Pepi I, Pharaoh had bestowed on his faithful Weni a white stone tomb from Tura. Upon his death he was interred with honours and goods as befitted such a brilliant administrator. His epitaph reads true “I then, I was beloved of his [Pharaoh] father the object of the great praise of his mother, the charm of his brothers. [I] the Prince, active director of upper Egypt, the privileged one (imakhu) of Osiris, Weni”

See you again for another Adventure in Historyland, Josh.

Sources: The Splendour that was Egypt: Margaret Murray. Funerary inscriptions respective to subject found at reshafim.org . The Nile and Egyptian civilisation: A. Moret. Ancient Records of Egypt: James Breasted. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: Toby Wilkinson. Soldier of the Pharaoh: Nic Fields.

Book Review: Byzantine Naval Forces 1261 – 1461 by Raffaele D’Amato.

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48 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (22 Sept. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472807286

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Byzantine-Naval-Forces-1261-1461-Men-at-Arms/dp/1472807286

One of Osprey’s newest and most prolific authors, Raffaele D’Amato, focuses this study on the three “Regiments” of Byzantine marine infantry who manned the fleets of the Eastern Roman Empire for the last 300 years of its existence.

He qualifies two things, one that the name Byzantine does not reflect the fact the legacy of this state as the last vestige of Roman power in the world and two, that the reconstruction of the appearance of the troops under discussion are based principally on iconography and pictorial sources. It’s an odd and confusing paradox that the Greek Byzantines associated themselves actively as Romans, yet ironically shunned what they termed “Latins” of the west, (even those who lived in the city of Rome) who of course were not “Romans” yet were associated with the old imperial language p.

This isn’t a book about fighting prowess so much as an overview of the makeup, fighting roles and organisation of the reorganised Imperial fleet. Which in shorthand was split into heavy infantry, light infantry and rowers. These troops formed the front line in the fight against the “Latin” maritime kingdoms of Italy and the encroaching menace of the Ottoman Turks, not least serving against fellow Romans in the civil wars of the 14th century.

As one would expect in a Men at Arms title (though it can vary) we get a concise and thorough overview of operational highlights, appearance, equipment and status in society. Accompanying images detailing weapons and armour are joined with illustrations by Ukrainian painter Igor Dzis, whose highly artistic and superbly detailed work makes its Osprey debut alongside old hand Peter Dennis, who has done an excellent job portraying the richness of costume and colour.

Personally I’m very pleased to see Dzis bring this level of illustration to MAA, and although some of the paintings are a few years old, he is principally a military artist focusing on ancient and medieval subjects, (though he has illustrated books in the past), I hope more of his work appears in the future.

Josh.

Book Review: Early Iron Age Greek Warrior by Raffaele D’Amato and Andrea Salimbeti.

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Paperback: 64 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (25 Aug. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472815599

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Early-Iron-Greek-Warrior-1100-700/dp/1472815599

Warrior titles are juicier than Men at Arms ones because instead of being principally formed around the history, dress and equipment of a soldier in a given war they focus on training, day to day life and combat as well. This one suffers from the continual usage of the word Greek dark age to describe the time period, the authors have little written contemporary sources to assist them, which means that the majority of the arms, equipment and dress is necessarily a catalogue of archeological discoveries, and theories as to how they all fit together. That’s when there is archeology to discuss, where the physical evidence is lacking the authors turn to art. The paintings on Greek pottery and the carvings from buildings have always been a rich source of ancient life. And it is from these sources that the discussion on chariotry centres. Unlike in Egypt where chariots from earlier periods have been beautifully preserved, no such fortune has attended Greek archeology. Nevertheless it is a useful part of the book as it illustrates effectively the transition out of the heroic age. Chariots in Greece were less of a war machine as a vehicle from which a noble hero could get around. This seems almost typical of small states, and is in contrast to how larger near eastern empires used massed chariots. This book covers a period of transition, from the Homeric age of hero’s to the age of Lycergus and the polis hoplite, from the individual to the body and from bronze to iron. The development of the palace to the polis and the hero to the phalanx is an event lost to time, but an event covered here. The scope is quite vast for so small a book, but osprey has been getting more ambitious with its titles recently, and this will fit in well beside their other early Greek titles, being as it is the successor to their Bronze Age series which includes coverage of the Mycenaeans, Greeks and Sea People’s.
Alongside pictures of artefacts and sketches of archeological finds, Giuseppe Rava has created the colourful plate art that has been commissioned here. There is a nice nod to old osprey in the “men standing discussing weapons” scene and the storytelling in the wounded warrior returning home. Skin burnished by the Mediterranean sun seems almost real in the plate showing a Cretan warlord and his men, and the armour and equipment will doubtless give an interesting point of discussion to figure painters and writers alike.
All in all this work strives to put a little flesh on a very bony subject, there’s no denying that summaries of archeological finds are fairly dry, but the examination of the Warriors themselves (at least for me) provides interesting reading.

Josh

Sardinia: The Ancient Wild West.

Nuraghi of Barumini. Timeless in a timeless landscape.

Nuraghi of Barumini. Timeless in a timeless landscape. Wikipedia.

Part 1 : Land of the Nuraghe.

Introduction.
From about 2,000 BC onwards buildings called Nuraghe’s dotted the Sardinian landscape, their robust archaic forms arose from hilltops and bluffs, dominating fertile plains and guarding river crossings, trade routes, ports and sacred sites across the island. Wherever there was importance connected to the land these structures castled the ancient countryside. They stood as single towers or as groups connected by ramparts, standing like mounds of perfectly manicured rubble from which protruded anything from 3 to 5 towers up to 3 stories high surrounding a larger central one. Around the Nuraghe grew hut villages with thatched conical roofs, expanding outwards in bewildering wheels of irregularly placed roundhouses, cramped together, connected by winding lanes that snaked between the labyrinth of homes. These were sometimes protected by a town wall, but even then they tended to spill past boundaries.
Their appearance of a Nuraghe, rising out of the rugged landscape, gives the impression of deep antiquity, of the strange and foreign, the unknown, in ancient times Sardinia was the beginning of the Mediterranean Wild West. Continue reading

Book Review: Alamein by Simon Ball.

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Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: OUP Oxford (25 Aug. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0199682038

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Alamein-Great-Battles-Simon-Ball/dp/0199682038

Not being one of the world’s great ww2 buffs, I was unsure about whether I’d enjoy the newest of Oxford University Press’ Great Battles Series. But it has proved to be a gem to read, a chatty and totally different take on, not just Alamein, but history as a weapon and the legacy of war.
In look and feel it is like the other two I’ve read, slim and black and white, with images inserted into the text. Readers wishing to get an overview of the Battle should pay close attention to the introduction. Oxford’s great Battles are not actually so much about the study of warfare but the legacy of it, how it impacted people, and how the story is remembered.

In both other titles of this series I noted that the authors had attempted to both tell the story of the battle in question, and then discuss the legacy. Simon Ball has blended the action and the analysis superbly so that you don’t really have to change gears. The author has identified the real purpose of this series and threads the course of the battle into the discussion about how El Alamein has been remembered.

This is easier that with other battles because actually before the first shots of the battle were fired, the British government were crafting the language and recording the history for use in the overall war effort.

On the 23rd of October 1942 something happened in the Egyptian desert near a railway halt called El Alamein. But as the author explains, figuring out what that “something” was is no easy feat. Not least it’s legacy. That it was a battle goes without saying, but actually two engagements preceded it, which muddy the waters as to its significance.

It propelled the British 8th Army and its commander Field Marshal Montgomery to legendary status, and recovered allied morale, starting what Churchill called the end of the beginning. But was El Alamein truly the moment when the tide turned? Or was the victory inevitable by the time Monty’s offensive went in? Was the successful outcome down to brilliant leadership, or just overwhelming superiority in force and equipment?
Was it El Alamein that really steadied the allied war effort? Or was it in fact blown far out of proportion to seem that it had?

Such are the questions we encounter as Simon Ball, takes us along the track of written and filmed sources that have crafted the popular image of perhaps the most famous obscure battle in history. From the first official histories produced by special committees formed to keep control of the narrative for propaganda, to the first films dealing with the battle to he last desert war flicks of the 20th century, right through, to the accounts of POW’s, war correspondents and Generals, soldiers and planners, all the way down to military theorists and wargamers. This is book examines the main arteries of information that crafted the idea of Alamein.

I don’t doubt that someone more informed on the subject than myself would have found more piercing insights, yet it is certainly not necessary to know much about the battle to follow the train. However this is probably not so much an introduction to the battle, and new readers should keep this in mind, but those interested in historiography and how history, not yet even cold, was seized by the various sides to help the war effort will find it an enlightening read.

It is possible that not all the questions raised are answered. The author presents the controversy in some places without offering a solution, the issue of guilt within the British Imperial forces is not quite specified though it remains a central issue. Also though the British and German dialogue is throughly examined, hinging on the idea of a faintly distasteful victory, based on crushing force than artful strategy and the gallant genius of Rommel, the Italian side doesn’t quite get a look in, (we don’t even learn the name of their senior commander), except for a survey of some of their war films (from which is gleaned their finest hour at Alamein) and the unresolved, or unexplained claims of POW’s that the Italians were crueler than the Germans and poorer soldiers. The Commonwealth narrative polarises around the Australians and New Zealanders.

Maybe some questions will go unanswered, but what is more important is that it presents us with the tools to answer them oursleves, and an undeniable picture emerges of one of the greatest and least understood battles in modern history. Seen through the paper trail its participants left behind, no other allied victory except DDay and Stalingrad attained the fame of Alamein, yet the fame was undone and constantly apologised for almost immediately. No one wanted to tarnish the legend of Rommel, there was also a humility that the unworthy 8th army with its large supply trains and heavy air support had battered the plucky Afrika Korps into defeat. The first accounts were largley informed by German POW’s and those British who had been captured, which instantly shaped the narrative against the victors.

A clear understanding of the battle itself will undoubtedly keep a reader’s head straight when delving into the muddy waters of Alamein’s afterlife. But this is a snappy, and thoughtful provoking book, that comes at the subject from an interesting and less travelled

Josh.

 

Book Review: The Second Anglo Sikh War by Amarpal Singh.

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Hardcover: 560 pages
Publisher: Amberley Publishing (15 Jun. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1445650231

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Second-Anglo-Sikh-War-Amarpal-Singh/dp/1445650231

The Anglo Sikh Wars mark the finishing acts of what could be termed the conquest of India. The work of domination started by Clive and expanded by Mornington was essentially ended by the Sikh Wars and Dalhousie’s laps scheme, which saw to it that by then end of the 1857 rising there was little need for further wars of conquest, only those of maintenance.

Amarpal Singh picks up from his previous book to finish the tale of the fall of the last great independent state in India. It an instructive phase in the story of British expansionism as it is a dramatic moment in the history of India. What had begun as an admired and useful northern neighbour became a flight risk after the death of the Great Ranjit Singh. The first Sikh war was an attempt by the British to retain a stable northern frontier by a direct presence, and for the Sikhs a fight for the retention of independence.

The imposition of a British resident in Lahor, the disbandment of the majority of the formidable Sikh army and the eclipse of the Khalsa government to a gaggle of pandering yesmen, were the results of the First Sikh War. On top of that came the inevitable demand for a cash forfeit and the promotion of a young boy, Duleep Singh, to rule the Punjab as a protectorate of the British Empire.

So far so good for the British. Of course as was typical of many colonial conflicts everything soon went down the plug-hole because of what should have been avoidable accidents. Because the British continually insisted in sending difficult, often uniformed men with no sensitivity or interest in the country they were posted in (though many residents could quote pre British Indian history like they would European classical antiquity), to deal with local matters, the new Lahor resident soon found himself facing open rebellion on two fronts, which united the dissatisfied people of the Punjab in a fight to overthrow the British and rescue the young prince.

A peaceful solution was out of the question because of the insult offered to the British flag, etc etc, and all of a sudden a second Sikh War was in the offing as the British fumbled to respond to the insurrection which quickly turned into all out war. As the author shows us, they did this with typical bull headed victorian pomposity, which almost had them falling flat on their faces more than once. And had the Sikhs a general of just a little more imagination and audacity, there might well have been another disaster to add to the annals of British military history.

This was a war of reluctant freedom fighters, pulled into a hasty war by the will of their people and soldiers. But once brought to the field they felt duty bound to see the thing through. Starting with the occupation of the Punjab by the British and the treaties that dismantles the Khalsa state, Amarpal Singh follows this train to Multan where the insurrection properly began, then to the hill country where it progressed. The course then splits in two because the war was fought in two theatres, and follows them both and indeed their peripheries in detail right to the end.

Between 1815 and 1854 the British army’s only experience of General actions was in India. What should have been a proving ground for change and new thought became testaments to the resolution of the British soldier and his Sepoy colleague. As with the ewrlier war in Nepal, this conflict would see Sikh troops brought into the East India Company army which would form a redoubtable corps in the future. The reader will also be able to see how different war in India was to war in Europe, commanders in the subcontinent had often very different priorities and much more correspondence with the enemy than in the west. Something the author demonstrates excellently without drawing a comparison.

This is a superb military history. Authoritative, poignant at times and textured. Replete with first hand accounts and sharp analysis alongside overview maps that compliment the accounts of the action. The images are well chosen and reflect the authors travels to the battlefields, the fields today being a facet which takes up some space at the back of the book, plus some very rare early photographic portraits. This is a work that will surely become one of the foundation stones of any bibliography or library of the Sikh Wars worth the name, not just for its importance in continuing study but because of its robust and well crafted narrative. Only an author steeped in his subject could hope to produce such a sweeping and definitive account of so little studied a conflict with such clear vision and verve. This is a full and unbiased picture of an important chapter in the history of British India, well worth the attention of student and enthusiast alike.

Josh.

Book Review: The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

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Hardcover: 784 pages

Publisher: W&N (28 Jan. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0297852663
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Romanovs-1613-1918-Simon-Sebag-Montefiore/dp/0297852663

This is quite easily one of the most spectacular looking books to be produced this year. Emerald dust jacket, shining gilt embellishments and two headed eagle, combined with white pseudo cyrillic writing evokes the winter palace in St Petersburg and the grandeur of the story you are about to read. It’s a hefty dynasty, 304 years of continuous autocracy means your wrist will be getting a workout. At just over 650 reading pages of fairly closely written text this is an outlay of at least two weeks normal paced reading, which somehow I managed to fit into about ten days. With three centuries of story comes a huge cast of characters, all of whom require a face to put with the description. Multiple image sections act as nice benchmarks full of rich paintings depicting Romanovs in all their glitz and in some cases malevolence. It’s funny I should refer to a cast, because Montefiore has organised his book into acts and scenes, rather than parts and chapters.

This is nothing if not a theatrical narrative, in many ways it is pure theatre, with plots that would not be out of place in an Italian opera, and already it has been described by more renowned pens as operatic. Yet it is the subject that brings the house down.
A more labyrinthine plot you’d never have invented, yet treated with a simplistic but rich narrative formula, with more anti heroes than Hemingway could nuance into being. Some unrepentant, some blinded by destiny, others solemnly bound, all the Romanovs, wether great or indifferent rulers carried that heady blend of monkish mysticism wrapped in tradition and spectacle, the swaggering assurance of military dictators down the ages, and the supreme faith of their own authority and stolidity within the unmoving structure of society.

Every monarchical nation in some way has to have created the environment for that institution to flourish. Every hereditary ruling house throughout history has been able to rule because the cultural and social climate required them. Out of chaos often comes the beacon of a strong, divinely appointed ruler, that is supported politically by the nobility and church. Before the ascension of the reluctant Michael I, the first Romanov Tsar, Russia was a barbaric, boorish backwater set beyond the fringes of a Europe that was increasingly leaving the dark ages and medieval era behind. As with any royal saga the story of a nation’s royal family is the story of the nation itself and the course it took. By the time of Alexander I, Russia was a power player and the most powerful country in mainland Europe, and would stay that way until the Crimean war when this glorious, gory and dazzling sunburst of autocratic might slid slowly into the catastrophe that would end in a basement room in the Urals.

Montefiore presents the 3 Romanov centuries with a narrative that is rich in storytelling verve, relentless in pace, sharp in observation and exhaustive and determined in its conclusions. Although many of the Tsars and Tsarina’s were unfamiliar to me, I had some preconceptions and “spoiler alert” knowledge, that helped me when approaching this book, to gauge those parts I knew nothing about.
The bones of a work on the Romanovs will essentially be tentpoled on Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander I and Nicholas II. This is inescapable, but in between I found myself transfixed by some of the lesser known Tsars, though I had hoped to find one of the other ruling Tsarinas more fascinating than the great Catherine, there is a reason why she carries that epithet. It is impossible not to admire Alexander II’s attempt at reform, which unfortunately sparked the real downward spiral into destruction which the dynasty never really recovered from. It is startling to think how different the Napoleonic wars might have turned out if Tsar Paul III had not been murdered. And to my surprise I truly found it impossible to be able to look upon Peter the Great, the great patriarch, who took Russia into the 18th century and paved the way for Catherine’s golden age, in the same light after reading of his despotic side.

This is not by any means a poster for autocracy. No gilded or rose coloured spectacles have been worn while writing this. Nowhere else in Europe could have supported such a monarchy but the long suffering and deeply orthodox Russians. Almost every single member of the dynasty until Catherine the Great displayed a glamorous appealing side and a tyrannical despotism and paranoia. Truly the two headed eagle was apt, for not only did the empire look east and west but it reflected the two faced statesmanship displayed by most of the Romanovs. This trend of paternal (or maternal) ruler and vicious despot, where a father would murder his son, and slaughter thousands in conquest, began to slow with Catherine, though it would never quite disappear.

The Romanov Tsars are seen as ruling at a distance, this distance being necessary to preserve the aura of Demi God like power that was associated with them. They issued orders and decrees often without he slightest care about what it could actually mean. Allowing them to claim victory and dismiss defeat, revel in glories and shrug off atrocities, while indulging themselves in a kind of extravagance that rivalled if not exceeded what went on at Versailles. They literally were Caesars, and as such their story is one of Roman splendour and excess, which is not really a surprise they thought themselves the successors to Byzantium. Their word was law until the sorry attempts to give their country a constitution highlighted how out of touch the dynasty had become.

It soon becomes apparent that Russia retained its supreme autocrats because it was slower that other places to adapt to change, and as much as this is a story of an emerging state, rising to its peak and then descending back to anarchy, this is also a story of autocracy. That Russia remained mired at least 50 years behind the rest of Europe, sprinting to catch up in times of crises. The country needed it’s all powerful Tsars to survive, Yet whenever a ruling house becomes so removed that it fails to recognise that it’s subjects no longer view them as parents but oppressors, Revolution is never far away. The lessons of the French Revolution were both ignored and learned from. The successions of Tsarist secret service bureaus testifies to their growing paranoia with an ingrown fear of assassination and an outward looking terror of coup and revolution.
Plot, denouncement and purge were not inventions of the communist era. They were alive an well from the earliest Romanovs to the last. The idea of packing off threats, enemies, troublemakers and anyone you didn’t like to Siberia wasn’t Stalin’s idea. There is indeed a surprising modernity to the constant reaction and instability, of coup and counter coup that can still be seen around the world today, most recently in Turkey. Yet Montefiore is quick to reassure us that the Tsarist purges were actually quite benign compared to their communist successors. It is morbidly ironic, or perhaps fitting, that the Romanovs themselves would be exterminated by a purge.

This is how Russia got from the 17th century to the 20th, how it changed from the most powerful autocracy in the western world to the communism most people associate it with. Narrative history is probably the only way you can fit this story into one volume, and with that must come the dreaded generalisations, and unbending judgments that are the bane of the academic world. In those parts I was most familiar with I found these to be happily lacking, indeed there is especial merit in the treatment of Alexander I. Though some of the modern labels that are tagged to some carachters had my eyebrow arching a tad. Yes, I did note some curiosities, though muskets remained in use until the late 19th century, the author repeatedly uses the word rife. This is pedantic, my apologies. Then there is an about face as the Crimean Army is described as using flintlock muskets, which is and is not on the ball as most of the muskets were converted to percussion systems by 1854, yet remained smoothbore. Again pedantic, I can’t seem to turn this part of my brain off.

The skill of the writer cannot be faulted. Probably a more adept use of words to describe people cannot be found. The pug faced Emperor Paul dressed up like a tea cozy is right on the money. The cadaverous Pobedonostsev is a frightening description of a joyless vampire from a gothic nightmare. These ancillaries, beef out the “cast” with a slew of brilliant generals, wily politicians and over amorous courtesans. Each Tsar bar a handful, seemingly expected to ostentatiously poach good looking ladies as mistresses, like they might Balkan buffer States. These court nymphs often becoming as powerful as any of the ruling elite. Fascinating indeed was how open the upper echelons could become if you caught the right time. Anyone from former slave boys from Africa to the children of itinerate workers, or humble soldiers might be able to achieve a title, estate and serfs if fate decreed it. This dependency on fate is summed up by a story of Catherine the Great’s succession, when Potemkin’s horse refused to leave her side. Many unusual people would end up populating this glittering Galaxy by as I know like to put it, “Riding Potemkin’s Horse”.

Montefiore’s character sketches are superb. Little vignettes like these make this book highly engrossing, each paragraph revealing something new and curious. The ascension of Nicholas I during the Decembrist Revolt is made for motion picture, so well crafted was it that I felt I could see it happening as I read. Quotes from numerous sources are used as conversational blocks, to make it as if the protagonists are really talking.
A Russian view of things will win you few friends today, try explaining the Russian side of the Crimean war and you can expect a few frowns and yeah right’s around the table. And while it is unlikely that you will emerge with a favourable impression of this dynasty as a whole, some do come out of it with a patina of admiration, and it will be impossible not to sympathise. I’m not just talking about Nicholas II, because one soon realises after reading of the other Tsars that got bumped off, that his disastrous reign was bound to pull him down either to exile or execution. From Bloody Sunday to the Russo Japanese War to the infatuation with Rasputin, (someone really should have taught him that royal favourites have been the downfall of many a king.) this was one damaging fiasco after another, and the damage already done to the dynasty meant that it was no longer strong enough (for a Tsar like Nicholas) to survive it. Yet this does not lessen the tragedy or infamy of his end, which was without doubt an unforgivable crime, brought horribly to life by the final act.

Russia was never small scale, and this book reflects that. The Romanovs is a sensational & unrelenting book. A glorious, gory set piece full of Byzantine intrigue, Total war, unrestrained passion, and the fragile invincibility absolute power.