It’s a sign of George Lucas’ complete incompetence as a storyteller that he found the third greatest story ever told and left it an abomination. It is a sign of McCullough’s greatness as a storyteller that she took the third greatest story ever told and lifted it far enough to almost glimpse the second greatest story ever told. When I see the fall of the Roman Republic, I see it through McCullough’s eyes.
One aspect of history that McCullough’s novelizations allow her to highlight how interconnected these characters were, especially by blood ties. Genealogy helped and hindered the lives of prominent Romans in ways history books sometimes fail to capture. Servilia Caepionis, for example, was Caepio’s daughter, Drusus’ niece, Cato’s half-sister, Brutus’ mother, and Cassius and Lepidus‘ mother-in-law as well as Caesar’s long-time mistress.
McCullough uses fictional but plausible plot devices, arrived at through meticulous research, to plug gaps in the historical record. She marries Sulla to an invented short lived younger sister of Julia Caeseris, making Sulla Marius’ brother-in-law and providing a rationale for why Sulla was on Marius’ staff in Numidia. She explains Caesar Octavianus’ chronic absence from the field of battle by making him asthmatic.
Vivid scenes I recall:
Marius, deep in Asia Minor, unarmed and alone, giving Mithridates and his army the stare down and forcing Mithridates to retreat (“O King, either strive to be stronger than Rome, or do her bidding without a word.”, according to Plutarch).
The pompous young Pompeius, looking forward to meeting the great general Sulla on his return from the east, is shocked when the formerly handsome Sulla, disfigured by a disease (of McCullough’s invention), having lost his hair and teeth, wearing a ridiculous Raggedy Andy wig, drunkenly greets him like an sentimental old fool.
Sulla, wandering in this ridiculous over the top getup through the streets of Rome later, then he promptly proscribes the enemies he has been sniffing out as an innocuous circus act.
McCullough’s star though out is clearly Caesar, growing from a young boy learning at the knee of Uncle Marius, to the devoted husband of the daughter of one of Sulla’s archenemies who refuses to divorce her despite Sulla going into full beast mode to the rising politician to conquering general to assassinated dictator.
Sulla, however, is her most unforgettable character. A Cornelii, one of the great patrician families of Rome, but born into a branch fallen on hard times, Sulla hangs out with the low life hipsters of Rome, uses his good looks and charm to first win the love of two rich women (who he promptly murders), and then climbs his way to the leadership of Rome’s conservative aristocratic oligarchy. He is first friends and then deadly enemies of Marius. He ruthlessly culls Rome of his enemies only to give up power and go back to his partying ways. Her Sulla makes Caesar and Octavianus look like helpless babes.
Come for Caesar, Pompeius, Cleopatra, Octavianus, or Antonius. Stay for Sulla and Marius, men overshadowed by the prima donnas they made possible. McCullough can rest in peace knowing she brought one of the primal stories of Western civilization alive for anyone who reads her books.
He should be trained to shoot rapidly on foot, either in the Roman or the Persian manner. Speed is important in shaking the arrow loose and discharging it with force. This is essential and should also be practiced when mounted. In fact, even when the arrow is well aimed, firing slowly is useless. He should practice shooting rapidly on foot a certain distance from a spear, or some other target. He should also shoot rapidly mounted on his horse at a run, to the front, the rear, the right, the left. He should practice leaping onto the horse. On horseback at a run he should fire one or two arrows rapidly and put the strung bow in its case, if it is wide enough, or in a half-case designed for this purpose, and then he should grab the spear which he has been carrying on his back. With the strung bow in its case, he should hold the spear in his hand, then quickly replace it on his back, and grab the bow. It is a good idea for the soldiers to practice all this while mounted, on the march in their own country. For such exercises do not interfere with marching and do not wear out the horses.
Dane Lars Andersen may have gotten in touch with his inner Mauricius with his contemporary elaboration of ancient archery techniques (props Isegoria):
As the Strategikon explains, and Robo-voice-over emphasizes, archery proficiency required years of drill. For tribesmen native to the Eurasian steppe stretching from Hungary to the Pacific, constant archery practice was a logical extension of daily life: bow work was essential to routine tasks like hunting or raiding the neighbors. For a hybrid settled/nomadic state like Parthia and its Sassanid successor, balancing the interests of your nomads out east with your farmers out west produced sharp tensions but often found a way to field archers without breaking the farmers or the treasury. For an wholly agricultural state like Rome in the sixth century, raising and training archers was an expensive strain.
Rome’s traditional strategy, crushing enemies under the weight of infantry mass, was hampered by population decline in the empire, bruising face-offs with new horse riding archers like the Huns, and an inability or disinclination to raise many soldiers from its own peasants. Rome turned toward smaller armies composed of horsemen, some drawn from native Romans, some mercenaries drawn from nomadic tribes like the Heruli. These armies were, man for man, better trained than prior Roman armies. They could check and even defeat opposing cavalry armies like the Persians.
But they were expensive. Roman finances groaned under the costs of supporting its armies. Their cost made it hard to maintain enough forces to cover all of the Roman’s territory. The Balkans were frequently abandoned to non-stop nomad raids because most forces were needed against the Persians in Armenia and Syria. Roman armies of the sixth century were politically fickle, prone to rebel if payment didn’t show up on time and sometimes prone to rebel even when pay arrived on time.
And they were brittle: like World War I-era dreadnoughts, they were too expensive to use. They couldn’t be replaced overnight like Rome replaced armies during the Second Punic War. Equivalent forces required time and capital to raise and train to proficiency. Native Romans had to be taught how to fight like steppe nomads at state expense. Nomadic mercenaries who had the needed skills from childhood were often unreliable. This made sixth-century Roman leaders as unwilling to risk battle as earlier Romans were eager to force battle.
Caution was justified. Destruction of just one of these armies, capital intensive transplants from their natural habitat on the steppes to the more foreign but pricey fleshpots of Thrace, Anatolia, Syria, Carthage, or Egypt, were not only catastrophic but world-changing. The military bench was left so thin that there was little left to resist a victor who succeeded in annihilating a sixth century Roman army.
Defeats by the Persians and civil war after the fussy Balkan army mutinied and overthrew Mauricius over discontent with their employment benefits and uncomfortable winter accommodations reduced Rome to precisely one army. If the Persians destroyed that one army, led in person by the Emperor Flavius Heraclius, that was the end of Rome. Heraclius came back from far behind, skillfully using that one army to defeat the Persians, though it meant leaving his capital reliant on only the Theodosian Walls and the remnants of the Roman navy to fight off an Avar-Persian siege. Turns out those were good odds against the Avars and Persians, though it left the Balkans open to permanent Slavic occupation.
But Heraclius only had that one army. When he sent it against a surprisingly persistent army of desert raiders six years after his victory over the Persians, he ended up with the equally surprising loss of that entire gold-plated army to those raiders. Destruction of that one Roman army was world changing. It’s why today’s Middle East and North Africa are Moslem instead of Christian.
Armies come and armies go but Yarmook is forever. The Romans had little in reserve. What little Rome had, Heraclius retreated with behind the Taurus Mountains. Tenuously holding that line, Rome served as an annual punching bag for Saracen raids for the next three hundred years. The Balkans, occupied successively by Slavs, Bulgars, and Magyars, also remained an open bleeding wound. Given chronic suffering from two-front-itis, Roman resurgence after 941, lasting to the death of the Bulgar-slayer, was the greatest comeback since Lazarus. It came to naught with another world-changing beating, this time permanent, as another gold-plated Roman army leading with its glass jaw was destroyed in one blow.
“Even when the arrow is well aimed, firing slowly is useless”. Mass has quality all its own.
one of the experts at the conference in describing the unique characteristics of the North Korean propaganda barrage pointed out that the country’s threats always concluded with the phrase: “if the Americans attack.” But the speaker added that these four final words are not reported in the media or government statements we see in the West.
What is it with these people, that they keep on uttering phrases that can safely be ignored at the beginnings and endings of statements?
I mean, would anyone in Carthage have bothered to translate into Punic — the language the Carthaginians spoke — an utterance like the Elder Cato‘s repetitive and obviously phatic Carthago delenda est ?
T. Greer gave me a rousing recommendation that I read the following post on the death ofJulius Caesar by Burt Likko of The League of Ordinary Gentlemen blog. Greer was correct, it was outstanding. You should read the post in it’s entirety:
….One of my big observations about Julius Caesar is that he took great care in his career to do nothing that he could not credibly claim that a political or military leader had not done before him. Scipio Africanus used his huge prestige from winning a massive war for Rome to monopolize all political power within his own family. The Gracchi disregarded informal controls in the cursus honorum in favor of pursuing needed reform. Pompey used extraordinary and open-ended military powers to wage a war of conquest for Rome and got personally rich doing it. Catalina had been a blue-blooded populist who thumbed his nose at the consuls in power. Both Marius and Sulla had marched on Rome; Marius was consul six times in a row and Sulla was a dictator for longer than the traditional six months and used attainders to purge the ranks of the elites of his enemies.
So all along, when people protested to Caesar that he was making himself into a king, he could point to precedent and say he was doing nothing new, and nothing that the republic hadn’t been through before without losing its republican character. This seemed a transparent fiction to his critics. But for a legal culture steeped in and heavily reliant on precedent, it mattered a lot. Not for nothing did Caesar spend the first chapter of both his books chronicling his own military conquests on offering political justifications for what he had done.
After all nearly two centuries of history that preceded Caesar’s rise to power demonstrated that in order for the government of Rome to be effective, it took a blue-blooded strongman brushing aside the niceties of the anti-autocratic but ossified constitution to actually do something. And that same history demonstrated to him that the public admired success much more than it did formal adherence to the law – which had grown too complex, too much a creation of the elite, and too distant from the realities of daily life and popular culture, to matter all that much to the average Roman on the street. The formalities of government were for the elites to worry about, not the common man functionally unaffected by them; justice was obtained through informal means and not through the courts.
By the end of the civil war against Pompey and the remnants of the Scipio Africanus family’s control group, every tribune, every judge, every junior official, and every decision-maker of consequence was a client of Gaius Julius Caesar. Caesar himself held a consulship, a censorship, and a dictatorship and was quite clear that he would never let those things go – he clearly intended to hold on to all of that prestige and power and immunity from criticism until his death, and he would brook no serious opposition. [….]
First, I think Likko understood the limitations, frustrated ambitions and political immaturity of the anti-Caesarian and Optimate conspirators very well. Tyrannicide in classical antiquity was not mere political assassination, but a noble act, usually accompanied by martyrdom, which further sanctified it. This was true of the Athenians who had put up statutes of Harmodius and Aristogeiton who slew the tryrant Hipparchus and Lucius Junius Brutus, the ancestor of the assassin Brutus, was revered for his leadership in the overthrow of the Roman monarchy of the Tarquins.
That the conspirators expected that the participation of Brutus in the murder of his patron Caesar would resonate symbolically as an intended gesture of patriotism with the Roman people was reasonable; the romantic hope the assassination itself would prove politically transformative was not. Likko was correct, Rome had changed since the second century BC – and not just from the abusive political intrigues of the Patrician elite but by the Social Wars that brought the bulk of Rome’s Italian allies into their political community as Roman citizens. The “People of Rome” had changed and the mob of landless poor – whom Populares like Caesar wished to aid with reforms over optimate objections – had grown much larger and dangerous.
This goes to Likko’s larger point that, as revered as the Republican traditional virtues and outward forms may have been in terms of lip service, in substantive practice as the first century AD progressed, they were increasingly ignored when convenient to powerbrokers, the wealthier classes or the mob. Sulla’s attempt to “re-set” the Roman political system along traditionalist lines by blood purge and Cincinnatus-like personal example failed within a generation. Other than the terrifying example of the proscriptions to inculcate political restraint, which lasted only so long as Sulla lived, nothing else was introduced to tamp down the subversive dynamic of unrestrained and aggressive aristocratic political competition for imperium and glory by the ambitious among Rome’s elite.
Where Likko errs, somewhat, in my opinion, is here:
The liberators did not think about institutions. They did not think about culture. They did not think about logistics. They did not think about government. They did not think about the contradiction inherent in a lawless act done in the name of preserving the law. They did not think about the immediate political aftermath.
Some of this is right – the conspirators did not think clearly about politics, given the large numbers of patricians and rich “new men” alike who had fallen under Caesar’s spell or grudgingly accomodated themselves to his personal rule after the failure of Pompey andCato. That they expected the sort of popular sympathy Cato received -really more public respect for his incorruptibility and intrangisent virtue than any widespread desire to emulate Cato’s antiquated Roman mores or reactionary politics – is itself evidence f how out of touch they were. That said, thinking in terms of institutions would have been nigh impossible for them. As an aristocratic Republic, Rome’s institutions that composed what we might call “the state” were very few in number and skeletal in form. This was because the expectation was that patrician leadership, informally exercised through their extensive clientelas, their public benefactions and donations, expressions of charismatic auctoritas even when not in power, would always provide the muscle to make things happen. These in turn would be regulated by age-old custom, tribunican vetoes, the signs of the augurs, the weight of Senatorial opinion and what formal laws existed.
When custom began to be lightly disregarded in pursuit of political vendettas and even the legions did not possess an “institutional” existence yet, there was little to stop aristocracy from transmogrifying into oligarchy and autocracy. Conceiving of institutions in the modern sense of an independent, self-regulating, corporate body in the late 1st century BC would have been a radical innovation to say the least. Even Octavian’s assumption of imperial power was done under the mantle of amalgamating republican offices in his own person that took many lifetimes to crystallize “princeps” into an institutionalized, tyrannical, office of “emperor” as understood later in the time of the Dominate. Brutus, the wayward follower of Cato, could no more have conceived of institutionally-based constitutional reform to renovate Roman government than he could have invented an airplane
This however, is a mere quibble about a minor point in an excellent post.
Zenpundit is a blog dedicated to exploring the intersections of foreign policy, history, military theory, national security,strategic thinking, futurism, cognition and a number of other esoteric pursuits.