Book Review: Republican Roman Warships 509 – 27 BC by Raffaele D’Amato.

Paperback: 48 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (UK) (20 Sept. 2015)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472808274
ISBN-13: 978-1472808271

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Fans of John Stack’s Ship of Rome series and students and readers of ancient history will certainly want to add Osprey’s newest nautical “New Vanguard” title to their shelves.
Famed as a mostly land based power, the might of Rome has never been represented by her navy, yet it was control of the sea that set the foundations of her dominance on land.
When people think of the Roman military they see a legionary in segmented armour carrying a rectangular shield and wearing an imperial Gallic helmet on his head, this represents a soldier of the empire. The Republic is usually sidelined, Let alone the vital contribution the fleets of pre Imperial Italy.
Without the decisive victory won in the first Punic War, a victory in which the decisive factor was the defeat of Carthaginian sea power, the defeat of the Pirates and Gauls by Pompey and Caesar (respectively) and the history changing struggle at Actium, Rome would have been unable to dominate the Mediterranean Coast from Gibraltar to Constantinople and Alexandria to Tangier.
This slim volume is highly illustrated with excellent archeological photographs and diagrams accompanying the slew of full colour plates by Giuseppe Rava. The main artwork is very colourful and action packed, though the ship diagrams are interesting and bright they could have used some cutaway artwork or a point by point diagram for clarity. Nevertheless they are of a high, if somewhat heavy standard, the best being the dramatic illustrations of the Siege of Syracuse and the Battle of the Aegates Islands.
Content wise there’s allot of useful information here. Starting with an interesting background to Roman Seapower the author then outlines types and classes of ships, various equipment and tactics at sea. There is a certain predictability in the kit and strategy sections, dominated as such by the usual stock tactics that ancient commanders tended to use on the waves and the mighty Corvus that brought Rome victory in the 1st Punic War. I’d have loved it if the illustration of the battle of Armorica showed us the halyard cutting device Brutus used to overcome the Gallic Veneti, a description of this type of improvisational apparatus might have spiced up the equipment section a little more, however this is mere quibbling for a chap starved of ancient Roman navy books.
After the discussion of the why’s and how’s the author turns to key campaigns fought by the Republican fleets, this part is dominated by overviews of the First Punic War and the Naval Campaigns that followed the death of Caesar. As is the case with Osprey overviews they tantalise as much as they inform, but for those who want more they have an excellent Campaign book out about the Battle of Actium.
All in all this is a very worthwhile addition to the series and one I will certainly be utilising in the future.

Josh.

Book Review: Catalaunian Fields AD 451 By Simon Macdowall.

 

Paperback: 96 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (UK) (22 Sept. 2015)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 147280743X
ISBN-13: 978-1472807434

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At first glance one might be forgiven for thinking this battle took place in Spain, the name Catalaunian doesn’t lend itself to imagining the plains of central France after all.
But then the battle of what is more popularly known as Chalôns defies simplicity. If there is one thing Osprey does well it is campaign books about ancient battles, and author Simon Macdowall, who has written several other late Roman titles for Osprey including Adrianople AD 378, is well placed to give us the rundown on what Sir Edward Creasy considered one of the 15 most decisive battles ever fought, in which as Gibbon said “All the nations from the Volga to the Atlantic took part”.
Because only 3 main things are known about the course of this battle, and the the account of this first “Battle of Nations” is necessarily partly conjectural, underpinned by solid facts and convincing logic, although in some places was no more persuasive than the premise it was tackling.
Everyone knows that in the twilight of the Roman Empire a terrifying barbarian warlord named Attila the Hun, by most accounts a Christian killing, city burning, empire wrecking baby roasting incarnation of the devil and all around bad guy who once proclaimed himself the scourge of God, decided to beat up some Romans during the Dark Ages. But like most legends the nuts and bolts of the story is often forgotten.
Aided by numerous informative images, the vivid and action packed artwork of Peter Dennis (who must account for almost a quarter of all Osprey illustrations nowadays) and detailed maps, Macdowall sheds light on the story behind part of the legend. For all the accompanying images one gets with the mention of Attila’s name, there is a real military campaign to examine which highlights the weakened state of the once mighty empire. Unable to secure her borders the Romans were forced to depend on barbarian nations to do their fighting. One of the most dependable had been the Huns and their various allies, but their new king Attila was thirsty for land and invaded Gaul, forcing the Roman supreme commander Aetius to cobble together a hasty alliance with a number of satellite states and bury the hatchet with his former foes the Visigoths to defeat him.
This book pieces together a convincing series of events from various ancient sources to create a highly plausible scenario for what is a very complex campaign and a very poorly understood battle. He takes great care in outlining the motives of the commanders and the capability of their troops, before investigating where the battle was fought, placing it at Montgueux in Champagne between Chalôns and Troyes.
There is much to find interesting in this book for the causal and the academic reader, those unfamiliar with the true story of Attila’s campaigns will be enlightened, and those enthusiasts and students of the late Roman military will be glad to get their hands on such a thought provoking and erudite book.

Josh.

Book Review: Bolivar by Marie Arana.

Bolivar by Marie Arana.

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Paperback: 512 pages
Publisher: W&N (12 Jun. 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1780226179
ISBN-13: 978-1780226170
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bolivar-Epic-Liberated-South-America/dp/0297870262

The life of Simon Bolivar was like a comet or a shooting star, a brilliant flash of light that suddenly whipped across the vastness of the sky and had no sooner shone than disappeared. Had I grown up being told tales of this man, I have no doubts he would have become one of my heroes, and indeed thanks to Marie Arana, he may well yet become one.
To be honest I bought this book on a whim. Apart from knowing that some out of work British soldiers travelled to South America to fight against Spain, I knew nothing very detailed about the Wars of Latin American Independence. It was in truth for this reason that I decided to learn more about Simon Bolívar. As I inspected the shelves of the bookstore for South American History, my eye fell on the emerald and gold spine with the bold red and gold words reading Bolivar on it. There is no doubt that the book in itself is a fine production, a sleepy eyed liberator stares out confidently from the glorious riot of colour, which approximates the yellow, blue and red Columbian Flag with emerald, red and gold and at once I felt that I wished to read it.
It is fairly chunky at over 460 reading pages not including notes, bibliography, index and acknowledgements, with a block of full colour images inside with roughly 2-3 per page, however some of the images themselves are of a surprisingly poor quality and are fairly pixelated. In the front there are some very good maps, which while not showing any military movements are useful for those who are not familiar with South American Geography.
Though the author now and again seems to imply that Napoleon was personally present in Spain during the later stages of the Peninsular War, and indeed at one point seems to confuse the retreat from Moscow with the French withdrawal from Spain, I found the book completely addictive, as compelling as a novel but better as a work of history. I almost had to keep reminding myself that the man I was reading about actually breathed air. It occur’s to me that had this been invented as a work of fiction, it would either have become one of the most ingenious stories ever conjured by the human mind, or decried as the most unbelievable fantasy ever dreamed up.
In this book Bolivar is in the hands of a master storyteller, and in Bolivar it seems that Marie Arana has found her perfect subject, though undoubtedly lesser authors would have chosen a lesser subject to cut their historical teeth on, Mrs. Arana (more properly Yardley) has risen to the challenge no less admirably than Bolivar himslef when he contemplated crossing the Andes. The language is rich, and well suited to the subject at hand, heroic and soaring, with a sublime level of pacing and real scholarly dedication to setting a scene and building a picture without slowing things down.
This is without doubt an unapologetically positive biography, one which focuses primarily on his attributes, painting him as the idealist and the genius, and this will affect a reader’s enjoyment depending on whether they have any preconceptions of the Liberator of South America. I had none when I started and though I confess to some cynicism regarding his later years, I wholeheartedly prefer a positive biography to an overtly critical one. This is not to say that Bolivar’s detractors are not included, nor his frailties and mistakes overlooked but they are not so much dwelled upon as his successes, and whenever they appear they are always outshone by his greatness. Bolivar here was a man who had a goal and dedicated his life to it, and was single minded about achieving it, in doing so he was quite willing to trample those who refused to get out of the way. The book tells a story to the reader rather than explaining to them. Successes and failures are shown and the reader is left to determine for themselves how to interpret their affect on the subject’s life. To that end this cannot be said to be the last word on Bolivar but perhaps more a celebration of a legend, albeit on close inspection a very human one.
Bolivar’s forceful, sometimes mercurial and semi mythical personality comes across very well. His exuberance and passion for his cause, his love of women, his seeming addiction to surmounting challenges and danger through sheer force of will and daring, each of which brought out the best in him. The scale of the challenges he faced are well reconstructed, and when one is appraised of them it becomes all the more clear that though with each the toppling of each obstacle his star seemingly shone brighter, in fact it’s vibrant glow was actually the consumption of another piece of precious energy glowing from deep within like a star, long burnt out but shining on. The mysterious force that drove him, a naturally slight, perhaps even frail and indeed increasingly ill man, to become first a dynamic thinker, then a youthful revolutionary, then an intuitively victorious general and ultimately a flawed dictator, drew even men who disagreed and indeed hated him, to his side.
It is a sweeping story told on a heroic scale of one man’s quest to fulfil a dream, set in dramatic and beautiful landscapes which the author recreates with great skill. It is fast paced and engaging, well researched and authoritative, told effortlessly. There hasn’t been a biography I’ve enjoyed as much since reading Elizabeth Longford’s Wellington and I cannot tell you quite how much I enjoyed Bolivar. I feel certain that people wishing to get a picture in their mind of this man will do no better than to turn first to this book.

Josh.

Book Review: The Countess, Napoleon & St Helena

Format: Kindle Edition
File Size: 1219 KB
Print Length: 289 pages
Publisher: Lally Brown; 2 edition (6 Sept. 2014)
Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
Language: English
ASIN: B00NDVBWXC

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Countess-Napoleon-St-Helena-ebook/dp/B00NDVBWXC

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About 15 years ago tourism to St Helena was going through a spate of popularity. Despite an average of only 1,500 visitors a year several travel books resulted in some of the trips. They are mostly similar in theme. A person, whose interest in Napoleon is a principle motive, (which indeed probably accounts for the majority of St Helena tourism) travels to St Helena and discovers the uniqueness of the place, finds that there is more to the Emperor than they had ever imagined and are torn between sadness for his fate and the beauty they themselves find there. My favourite is Kauffman’s “The dark room at Longwood”, probably because of its originality and because he is French, but it requires a foreknowledge of history and indeed St Helena to be appreciated. Therefore was I ever to head out to this immortal lump of rock I would in addition to it take two companion volumes. One is “Napoleon’s Briton’s” which is a straight history rather than a historical travelogue and the other is “The Countess, Napoleon and St Helena” by Lally Brown.
In this book the author has crafted a dual narrative that acts as a mirror to itself, in which we read of Countess “Fanny” Bertrand’s trials and tribulations while attending on Napoleon’s “Court” at Longwood House, and then we are given a parallel view to Brown’s own time living in the house built for Fanny and her husband on the island.
Here those used to reading the up close and personal accounts of Napoleon’s last years, can see more of how those around Napoleon, specifically his French companions dealt with the isolation, the British jailers and the Emperor. Much of the book is dedicated to a sort of diary or journal, which while admittedly is not the Countess’ own, is compiled from rare archival sources such as her letters, and which I found to be a very origional way of presenting the story. In this “journal” the Countess takes you through the events and gossip of everyday life. It is interspersed with Lally’s own experiences every few chapters. Interesting snippets from Fanny, include dangerous rats, numerous “abominations” that make her despair of ever getting off the island, constant watching for American Ships and the Emperor’s beloved garden which he defended from local chickens, domestic goats etc with a fowling piece.
Amidst this lively stream of interesting anecdote and poignancy, Lally intersperses her own reminiscences that are pertinent to the story. They are quieter and more reflective, semi nostalgic scenes and vignettes of island life, which if I am honest were my favourite parts. The author I’m sure would do well to write a full account of her time there. All in all, if you are going to travel to St Helena, or if you want to broaden the picture of Napoleon’s last years, buy this book.