Sunday, February 18, 2018

Review: Betrayal Book 1 of the Centurions trilogy by Anthony Riches

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

After reading nine books in Riches' "Empire" series, I had to do an about face when I began to read Betrayal, Book 1 of his "Centurions" trilogy. Not only was I transported back almost 100 years earlier but it's the Year of the Four Emperors and suddenly both sides poised for mortal combat are all members of the Roman army.  Quite honestly, I didn't know who to root for. On the one hand, I came to admire Kivilaz, known as Julius Civilis to the Romans, prince of the Batavi and a courageous warrior who demonstrates his bravery and intrinsic leadership in the opening pages of the introduction at the battle of the Medway River. But on the other hand I soon found Centurion Marius, first spear of the Fifth Legion, a man who has come up through the ranks and maintains a fierce sense of loyalty to the empire and to the men who serve with him, equally inspiring.

When we first meet Civilis, he has been unjustly imprisoned for, what the Roman's suspect, support of Gaius Julius Vindex and his Gallic revolt against the emperor Nero.

Vindex attempted to clear the way to the throne for the then governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, Servius Sulpicius Galba. According to the historian Cassius Dio, Vindex "was powerful in body and of shrewd intelligence, was skilled in warfare and full of daring for any great enterprise; and he had a passionate love of freedom and a vast ambition." However, in the novel Civilis has a much different opinion of Vindex that appears to be warranted when Vindex is defeated by the legions of Germania Superior lead by Lucius Verginius Rufus and commits suicide.

Nero has, in the meantime, committed suicide and Galba has taken the throne. Even though Galba's accession was the goal of the Vindex revolt, Galba is of the old school of Roman justice that dictates Roman rebels must be severely dealt with, regardless of who they were attempting to elevate. So Civilis' fate hangs by a thread.

Galba dismisses his Batavian bodyguard, who have served as loyal bodyguards of emperors  since the days of Augustus, and replaces them with local Praetorians. He spares Civilis, though, unwilling to put to death what he views as a loyal supporter. But Galba sends Civilis and the Batavi back to their homeland in disgrace, even though Civilis and the eight Batavi cohorts had played an important role in the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 CE and the subsequent subjugation of that country from 43 - 66 CE.

Batavian cavalry mask
To make matters worse between Rome and the Batavi, the new commander of Germania Inferior, Aulus Vitellius, is convinced by the centurions of the "old camp" who originally charged Civilis with treason, to rearrest him upon his return.

The Rhine legions have not forgotten Nero's betrayal and the part Galba played in it. So, at the beginning of the new year they refuse to take the sacramentum, the oath of loyalty, to Galba. Instead they proclaim Vitellius as the new emperor and all available troops, including the Batavi are swept up to march south to meet the "usurper's" legions.

As the novel progressed, I came to admire Alcaeus, the Batavi's wolf-priest of Hercules, for not only his martial prowess but his deeply seated sense of honor and dedication to his Batavi brothers. I became fond of a new Batavi recruit named Eglehart, too. Although newly inducted into the Batavi auxiliary, he had spent years in training with his father and uncle, veterans who served the legions loyally for over 25 years. So, it's no surprise when he is eventually dubbed Achilles for his courage and skill on the battlefield.

Once again I found Riches' characters vibrant and their friendship with each other compelling. I found myself going about my daily chores chanting "Batavi swim the seas..," the Batavi's battle cry.

Of course Riches' gritty, heart-pounding combat sequences always keep me on the edge of my seat. The novel ends with the climactic battle of Cremona (also known as the First Battle of Bedriacum) where the Batavi face off against a corps of marines and a unit of gladiators fighting for Otho. I found the battle sequence particularly interesting because the battle was also the climax of Doug Jackson's novel, "Sword of Rome", only his hero Gaius Valerius Verrens is fighting with the gladiators and marines. So, I have now had the chance to view this battle from both sides!

Betrayal is another outstanding example of Anthony Riches' craftsmanship and meticulous research and I highly recommend it! I'm really looking forward to Onslaught, Book2, where the Batavian Revolt gets underway in earnest!

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Illustrated historical timelines can now be developed online with eStory!

History resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

Years ago I participated in a workshop about the development of effective data graphics. The instructor used Charles Joseph Minard's classic timeline of events that occurred during Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 as his primary example. This historic data graphic not only relayed dates and events but, through the thickness of the line, represented the catastrophic losses in Napoleon's army  suffered in that brutal winter campaign.

Charles Joseph Minard's classic timeline of Napoleon's invasion of and retreat from Russia in 1812.
"From the most ancient images to the contemporary, the line has served as the central figure in the representation of time. The linear metaphor is ubiquitous in everyday visual representations of time—in almanacs, calendars, charts, and graphs of all sorts. Even our everyday speech is filled with talk of time having a "before" and an "after" or being "long" and "short." The timeline is such a familiar part of our mental furniture that it is sometimes hard to remember that we invented it in the first place." - Anthony Grafton and Daniel Rosenberg, Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline

I have always found timelines to be excellent tools for providing structure for historical events and the ability to compare both events and technological developments of different cultures over a similar time period. So when Jonathan Pinet contacted me last month and described the new timeline tool he and Jean Benoit Malzac were developing, I became quite interested in their efforts. Jonathan had read some of my posts on "Roman Times" and wondered if I would develop several timelines focused on Roman History for their new timeline website Estory. So I spent several days compiling a list of dates and events for the Gallic Wars then finding images on the web I could use for illustration.

As my timeline was quite detailed, Jean Benoit asked me to break it into three parts to limit each timeline to 15 - 20 events so I did so and the following three timelines are the result. (click on the linked captions to view the timeline)

Gallic Wars Timeline Pt 1: The Helvetii

Gallic Wars Timeline Pt 2: Pirates and Britons
Gallic Wars Timeline Pt 3: Roman victory at Alesia

The eStory tool allows you to use either still images, animated GIFs, or video clips to illustrate each information slide. At present there is no intermediate save function, though,  so I recommend you compile your list of dates, events and the URLs for illustrations using a spreadsheet first then login to eStory and enter your data.  Once you save your timeline you will no longer be able to edit it (at the moment). However, if you wish to make changes or additions after you have published it, Estory has an online chat feature where you can provide information to Jean Benoit and he will make the changes for you.  Hopefully, online editing of an existing timeline will be added soon.

The timeline tool also has features to provide links to recommended movies, books, and related articles to enrich your timeline.  If you provide the titles to the movies and books, Jean Benoit will look them up on Amazon and enter the appropriate links after you publish your timeline. Articles can be linked by providing their URLs.

I have asked Jonathan and Jean Benoit to consider adding the ability to display two timelines, one above the other, so cultures and political developments can be easily compared across the same time period. Hopefully, this feature will make it into the development schedule.

I would also like to see the development of a collaborative environment so group members could work on timelines together. I really enjoyed the history of sailboats timeline developed by Aurélien Ferré but wished I could have added some slides about ship development in the Greco-Roman period between his slides of 5000 BCE and the 9th century CE.

I encourage you to visit eStory and check out some of the interesting timelines that have been created there. Then set up a free account of your own and develop a timeline about a subject that interests you!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Did Financial Exigency Drive the Roman Empire to Embrace Christianity?

Detail of a Tapestry depicting Constantine's Victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge designed by Peter Paul Rubens  1623-1625 CE. Photographed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Mary Harrsch © 2011
A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

Writing sometime between AD 307 and AD 310, an anonymous Gallic panegyrist recorded that Constantine witnessed a pagan theophany of Apollo accompanied by Victory, offering him laurel wreaths. This vision took place just two years prior to Constantine’s more famous reputed vision of a "trophy of the cross arising from the light of the sun, carrying the message, In Hoc Signo Vinces or 'with this sign, you shall conquer', on the sixth of the kalends of November [i.e. the 27th of October], 312 CE.

The Roman emperor Constantine I photographed
at the Capitoline Museum by Mary Harrsch © 2009
Scholars have argued about the veracity of Constantine's famous Christian theophany for hundreds of years. Believers ask why would Constantine embrace a religion whose followers represented only about 10 percent of the total population of the Roman Empire if some miraculous experience had not occurred?

Well, as a pragmatist, I think we need to examine the socioeconomic context of the period to determine if Constantine's actions were those of true devotion or, in reality, political desperation. I will explore the state of Rome's precious metal supplies during the period prior to Constantine's "conversion", sharp decreases in revenue from loss of manpower and productivity from recurring violence and plague, trade disruptions, and large payments made to threatening forces. I will also discuss the attributes of Christianity that appealed to the powerful and made it a candidate for political exploitation.

The time period I will be discussing will, for the most part, cover the period from the middle of the second century CE to the early 4th century CE. This is the period when Christianity started gaining momentum with the production of written scriptures and development of a patriarchal bishopric. Before this time, Christian spiritual experiences were merely shared orally in private homes and egalitarianism was emphasized instead.

So, let us begin.

"Early Christianity was tiny and scattered. No precise figures survive, but best estimates suggest that there were considerably fewer than ten thousand Christians in 100 CE, and only about two hundred thousand Christians in 200 CE, dispersed among several hundred towns. The late-second-century figure equals only 0.3 percent of the total population of the Roman Empire (which was about 60 million)... The very small size of Christianity helps explain why the Roman state paid so little attention to suppressing it effectively. And the tiny size of early Christianity, relative to the empire's population, helps explain why the central Roman government for so long ignored the potential dangers which Christianity eventually posed to pagan civic religions and to the political system which they supported." - Keith Hopkins, A World Full of Gods

So what changed so dramatically?

The Roman Empire was built upon military conquest which fueled the Roman economy with plunder, slaves and the acquisition of sources of key materials including precious metals.

"Under the Principate the Iberian peninsula [modern day Spain and Portugal] constituted the most productive mining area of the Roman Empire. The full range of minerals was available, and exploited: gold, silver, copper, lead, tin, iron, mercury, cinnabar, sulphur and zinc...The north-west of the Iberian peninsula (Gallaecia and Asturia) was one of the richest gold fields known to the Romans, and its exploitation commenced soon after the final conquest of the area under Augustus. Gold was obtained in three different ways: from low-lying placer deposits of gold found in the silt or gravels of rivers, from high-level alluvial terraces (where the gold-bearing gravels had been forced up from the bottom of the river valley into terraces by erosion) and from hard-rock mineral deposits of gold. Pliny talks of 20,000 lb. of gold accruing to the Roman state per year from Asturia, Gallaecia and Lusitania from alluvial terraces alone. To this must be added gold obtained from hard-rock deposits and from placer-mining. According to a recent estimate one valley alone (the Duerna) produced 3,000 kg of gold per annum for 130 years; in total it is estimated that the north-west provided approximately seven percent of state revenue under the Flavians." - J. C. Edmondson, Mining in the Later Roman Empire

Diagram of early mining courtesy of Ancient Trenches
Edmondson tells us the mining in this region was so complex it had to be managed by a special equestrian procurator who was assisted by imperial freedmen known as procuratores metallorum and a sizeable military contingent. But, how long were these activities productive?

"In general the period of greatest production was from the mid-first century A.D. to the start of the third century, as recent excavations and field survey in the Duerna valley and at El Caurel suggest. Similarly, gold mines in northern Portugal (for example, Trêsminas and Jales) came into operation in the Augustan period, but the earliest pottery forms found in any abundance date to the third quarter of the first century A.D.; evidence is lacking for any exploitation after the start of the third century. The phasing out of the procuratorship of Asturia and Gallaecia at the start of the third century is seen as further confirmation of a decline in mining productivity. Thus, the consensus of scholarly opinion is that mining had effectively ceased [in this region] by the mid-third century." - J. C. Edmondson

Edmondson points out, however, that archaeological evidence for early fourth century resettlement in mining zones such as Corona de la Quintanilla, and isolated finds of late Roman coins minted by Constantine in Poço dos Romanos, Valongo, and northern Portugal is often overlooked. But, could this resurgence of limited activity be an indicator of a dearth of precious metals and soaring values in the early fourth century that prompted attempts to extract what would have been deemed economically unfeasible earlier in the Empire?

Similar evidence has been found in the silver and copper mining sites in the Andalusian Mountains.

"A decline sets in after A.D. 160-70. This has been plausibly attributed to the Moorish invasions of the 170s, which caused the temporary loss of Roman administrative control over southern parts of Baetica and Lusitania...The conclusion to be drawn from the archaeological evidence is traditional, but seems consistent: namely that the apogee of large-scale mining of gold, silver and tin in the Iberian peninsula occurred during the first and second centuries A.D." - J. C. Edmondson, Mining in the Later Roman Empire

But the Iberian peninsula was not the only source of precious metal in the far flung Empire. What was happening elsewhere?

Some of the workforce in Roman mines were convicted criminals but not all. Epigraphic evidence reveals both free and freedmen worked the mines as well. Public domain image.
Dacia, the next most important source of gold after northwest Spain, was lost to Rome in 270.
In Britain the Dolaucothi gold mines were worked intensively from soon after the conquest under Claudius until the Antonine period, but numismatic evidence suggests only spasmodic exploitation took place thereafter. In the silver mining zone of Laurium in Attica, late Roman mining lamps datable to the fifth and sixth centuries have been found as well as evidence of the resmelting of slag, but large scale mining ended during the reign of Augustus.

Large scale mining operations required a military contingent
for security. Public domain image.
"...Pliny talks of discoveries of gold in Dalmatia during the reign of Nero, while archaeological evidence exists for gold mining (both hard-rock and alluvial workings) in central Bosnia, but unfortunately does not provide any precise dating criteria. However, in western Bosnia numismatic evidence suggests that iron, lead and copper were exploited in the third and fourth centuries, while in eastern Bosnia the argentiferous lead mines of the Drina valley have provided epigraphic evidence for their continued operation in the later third century. Thus Dalmatia is one area where mining (possibly including gold mining) continued into the later Roman Empire." - J. C. Edmondson

But, although large scale exploitation of fluvial gold took place in Serbia in Roman Dalmatia from the reign of Hadrian, mining seems to have ceased during the political upheavals and Gothic invasions of the mid-third century.

So, did all of these ore deposits simply become exhausted? In some instances, that was the case. Edmonson points out that the gold mines of Mt. Timolus in Asia Minor became totally exhausted during the reign of Augustus. But at other sites it was often a matter of higher quality, ores existing closer to the surface becoming exhausted. Deeper veins of ore that required much more labor and higher expenses for adequate ventilation and drainage were simply not profitable enough to exploit. Activities to support large-scale mining also faced shortages.

"Enormous quantities of charcoal were required to smelt raw ore into usable metal," Edmonson observes. "Over the years this will have caused substantial deforestation around the mines and, as local sources became exhausted, increasing problems of supply from outside the mining zone."

These supply problems were further exacerbated by warfare and aggressive banditry, both activities that increased dramatically during the third century.

"If production was concentrated in just one place, this would have made it an obvious target during barbarian invasions, " Edmondson observes.

Mining is also labor intensive. A decrease in available workers was another problem that plagued large-scale mining operations in the later Roman Empire.

"...Principate peoples were transported some distance to work in mines," Edmonson points out, "That there was a shortage of mining labour in the later Roman Empire is suggested by those legal measures taken by Roman emperors at the end of the fourth century not only to stem the flow of runaway miners, but also to tie the sons of miners to the profession of their fathers."

In addition to human losses from the aforementioned warfare and brigandage, widespread, repeated waves of extremely virulent pestilence swept over the Empire in the late second and third centuries as well. One of the most devastating episodes has been dubbed the Antonine Plague because it first occurred during the reign of Marcus Aurelius and co-emperor Lucius Verus.

Death of Meleager. Image courtesy of Barton's World History.
In their paper "Galen and the Antonine Plague", R. and M. Littman theorize that the pestilence involved was probably hemorrhagic smallpox based on the symptomology described, albeit incompletely, by Galen. Cassius Dio reported up to 2,000 people perished each day in just the city of Rome itself in a later flareup in 189 CE.

"The mortality rate in a particular city would be affected by such factors as crowding, sanitary conditions, season of the year, severity of secondary infections which accompany the plague in a particular place, the methods with which the city may deal with the plague and also pure chance." - R. and M. Littman

To try to estimate the plague's impact on remote mining districts would be even more difficult. I do think the mining districts would be particularly vulnerable to an outbreak of pestilence, though, due to the transient nature of their workforce that regularly included imported convict labor. Living conditions for them would have been cramped and probably unsanitary, too. We also know little about the level of medical care, if any, that may have been provided. Although the Littmans estimate an average mortality rate across the entire Empire at approximately 13 - 15 percent, they point out that an individual outbreak of smallpox could have a mortality rate of nearly 80 percent if the more virulent forms of the disease predominated.

The Antonine plague has been compared in severity to the plague of the Athens in 430 BCE. Public domain image.
What the precise mortality rate was may never be known for certain, but the Antonine plague resulted in a catastrophic destabilization of the Roman military, widespread famine, disruption of trade routes and trading activities, and a dramatic loss of tax revenue. Military recruitment records from Egypt reveal sons of soldiers were heavily drawn upon to augment their shrinking ranks and army discharge certificates from the Balkan region suggest that there was a significant decrease in the number of soldiers there who were allowed to retire from military service during this period. Egyptian tax documents from Oxyrhynchus and the Faiyum clearly reflect significant population decreases in Egyptian cities. Archaeology has confirmed this.

"At Augstodunum the inhabited area before its destruction by Tetricus had amounted to two-hundred hectares; as rebuilt by Constantius, it was only ten. That of Bordeaux had been reduced from about seventy hectares to twenty-three, and the reduction in other cases as well over half. Such changes could only have been the result of a vast diminution in population, even if proper allowance is made for possible congestion within the fortified areas."

"Egypt had been relatively safe from invasion and civil war; but as early as A.D. 260 Alexandria seems to have lost about sixty percent of her earlier population..." C.E. Van Sickle, Diocletian and the Decline of the Roman Municipalities

"Epigraphic and architectural evidence in Rome indicate that civic building projects — a significant feature of second-century Rome's robust economy —came to an effective halt between 166 and 180. A similar pause in civic building projects shows up in London during the same period." - Sarah K. Yeomans, The Antonine Plague and the Spread of Christianity

The Antonine plague was followed in the mid-Third Century by the Cyprian plague, so-called because it was the topic of De mortalitate, a work penned by a bishop from Carthage named Cyprian. Thought now to be an outbreak of hemorrhagic fever or even a filovirus such as Ebola, ancient sources that include Zosimus claim at its peak it laid waste to 5,000 people per day in the city of Rome and claimed the life of two Roman emperors, Hostilian in 251 CE and Claudius II Gothicus in 270 CE.

"The period in between the emperors witnessed political instability as rivals struggled to claim and hold the throne. The lack of leadership and the depletion of soldiers from the ranks of the Roman legions contributed to the deteriorating condition of the empire by weakening Rome's ability to fend off external attacks. The widespread onset of illness also caused populations in the countryside to flee to the cities. The abandonment of the fields along with the deaths of farmers who remained caused the collapse of agriculture production. In some areas, swamps re-emerged rendering those fields useless." - John Horgan, Plague of Cyprian, 250 - 270 CE

So, due to a multitude of factors, it would appear the supply of precious metals decreased to a trickle by the third century. Furthermore, many of the causes that resulted in the decrease of precious metal production also resulted in a precipitous drop in production of all goods including foodstuffs and their related taxes, the Roman administration's main source of income.

"For the Roman Empire, it has been estimated that up to three-quarters of the population was working in the agricultural sector: the possession of agricultural land was therefore the most important source of wealth; and this makes it perfectly logical that the fiscal burden principally fell on the on agricultural land fulfilled to a large extent the needs of the Roman government...This money was mainly spent by the Roman government in the purchase of military equipment, the provisioning of the army (if stationed in a province with poor agricultural resources), donativa for the army and the people of Rome, the construction of public buildings for the capital (public buildings in the provincial towns were often paid for by euergetists) and the periodic furnishing of material aid to communities in times of crisis...Nearly constant civil warfare (with separatist states emerging in Gaul and Palmyra) and the permanent threat of invading Germans, Goths and Persians on the northern and eastern frontiers of the empire caused an economic crisis with a tremendous inflation and a collapsing currency." - J.A. Sander Boek, Taxation in the later Roman Empire

The Roman emperor Diocletian photographed
at the Art Institute of Chicago (on loan from the
J. Paul Getty Museum) by Mary Harrsch © 2016
By the time Diocletian ascended to the throne in 284 CE, there had been a half century with about 35 emperors who had spent most of their reigns fighting just as many or more usurpers.

"Diocletian tried to create order out of chaos by administrative, military and fiscal reforms; The huge army he built up [400,000 to 600,000 strong] effectively defended the frontiers and suppressed internal disorders. His enlarged bureaucracy administered justice more promptly and vigorously, saw to the execution of much-needed public works, and collected the necessary revenue with ruthless efficiency..."

"During the Principate the fiscal burden was distributed according to financial capability; the richest members of a community took responsibility for paying a substantial part of the tax burden. In this way, the rich could also act as benefactors by, e.g., paying for a certain tax on behalf of the whole community. However, this display of wealth became increasingly difficult as a result of the economic crisis in the third century and the collapsing currency." - J.A. Sander Boek

Instead, Diocletian had his bureaucrats, including the Praetorian Prefect, calculate the needs of the army and the state and just apportioned these needs relatively equally to all of the provinces. Although the new fiscal system did take into account, to some degree, differences in the quality of the land, citizens who had been declared exempt from taxes because of age or infirmity lost their immunity. Women and even children were made liable for the munera patrimonii and young men of curial rank were forbidden to enter the army so they could fulfill their administrative responsibilities. Tradesmen were compelled to join state-run guilds and essentially locked into their professions in perpetuity. It also assessed Roman citizens living in Italy who had always been exempt from taxes. Then, when it became obvious that many non-landowning city dwellers were taxed lightly, the Edict of Aristius Optatus was issued in 297 CE to correct this inequity.

But, the top-heavy bureaucracy could not be sustained. Lactantius, a late third to early fourth century writer and later advisor to Constantine complained that between the enlarged army and Diocletian's swollen bureaucracy, there were more tax recipients than taxpayers.

Inflation was rampant. Diocletian attempted to control prices with his Edict of Prices but the currency was so debased many price caps were ignored. A papyrus dated to 307 CE reveals that by then it took 8,328 denarii to purchase a pound of gold, 86 times the second-century price of 96 denarii to the pound. By the time Egypt fell to Constantine, the value of a pound of gold had reached over 300,000 denarii.

People began hoarding their gold and paying their taxes with nearly worthless debased denarii. So emperors began demanding tax payment in gold bullion. And, when gold coins were accepted as payment, the coins were melted down into bullion bars so the weight and purity could be checked before transportation to the imperial treasury.

"Constantine not only levied, like his predecessors, the aurum coronarium at intervals of five years, and continued to impose the gold and silver tax on land like Maximian; he also exacted the rent of imperial estates in gold, and instituted a new tax on traders, payable in gold and silver...But his principal stroke was the confiscation, late in his reign, of the temple treasures." - A.H.M Jones, Inflation under the Roman Empire

 This fourth-century confiscation of centuries of donations to pagan temples, was justified at the time by Constantine's apparent conversion to Christianity. But, of all the gods worshiped across the Roman Empire, why was Christianity chosen by the most powerful ruler in the western world?

Christianity was a monotheistic religion and one whose followers were passionately intolerant of other beliefs. This exclusivity would ensure that no charge of impiety would follow the plunder of all other religious organizations. It also provided the opportunity for rulers and subjects to share a common philosophy and inspire a sense of unification as a people.

"Theology in the later Roman Empire provided a loose ideological cohesion between rulers and subjects which had previously been lacking in a state which had started as an empire of conquest, divided between conquerors and the conquered. Theology created a complex and abstract discourse in which it was possible to find a significant variety of arguable positions."

"...Religious politics were the politics of fluid alliances, not fixed parties. From the state's point of view, adoption of Christianity achieved an empire-wide symbolic harmony at the relatively low price of religious conformism (oppression) and a tiny number of excommunicated clerics." - Keith Hopkins, A World Full of Gods

Head of a King possibly Shapur III Sassanian Period
4th century CE Iran Silver with mercury gilding.
Photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in
New York City by Mary Harrsch © 2015
It should also be noted that one of Rome's primary antagonists, Sassanid Persia, also adopted a single unifying religion during this time, as well, the Zurvanite form of Zoroastrianism. The Sassanids subsequently built fire temples in captured territories to promote the religion and, later, even fought their own subjects in Armenia at the Battle of Avarayr in 451 CE to make them officially break with the Roman Church. Some scholars think the success of the Sassanid religious strategy could have influenced Constantine's decision as well.

There were other developments as the Christian church evolved as well. Although Christianity had begun as a network of believers who met informally in homes to exchange their ideas and experiences, by the third century Christianity had adopted  an apostolic hierarchy of authoritative (and increasingly elite and wealthy) bishops to control and direct the activities of their respective Christian communities.

"In the early stages of Christianity, at any one time, perhaps only a few dozen Christians could read or write fluently...even by the end of the second century, although there may have been over a thousand fluently literate Christians, that still works out, on average, as only about two literates per community. The vast majority of Christians could not read or probably even understand the texts, which we now consider fundamental  to reconstructing their history." - Keith Hopkins

But, as this tiny group of socially marginal men increased in number and influence, Roman politicians recognized the potential to use this patriarchal authority for widespread social control. These men could  threaten eternal damnation for failure to adhere to the community's behavioral code of conduct - a far more effective means to exact compliance than political edicts enforced by increasingly reluctant civil magistrates. It also provided the means to inflict religious-based proscriptions, through charges of heresy, against one's opponents and further enrich imperial coffers.

Detail of Tapestry Showing Constantine Burning the Memorials to give
Tax Concessions to the Christian Church by Pietro da Cartona 1634 CE
Photographed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Mary Harrsch © 2011
Hopkins points out that after Christianity was adopted by the state, bishops borrowed the oppressive powers of the state to bully, exclude and even execute doctrinal rivals. Furthermore, they began to exploit the sin and guilt of their fellow believers.

"Since sin could not be eradicated, it might as well be exploited. The careful stratification of different degrees of apostasy (voluntary/forced; thought about/done; sacrifice/incense only; official/martyrs' certificates) was an initial stage in the flotation of a new moral economy of sin and penance. Over time, the Church gradually elaborated an effective list of sin prices. To put it crudely, the Church marketed sin, and expanded into guilt. Sin was not just a matter of behavior; it could occur in the desires of thought and in the unconscious fantasy of dreams. Christian clerics were determined to make the faithful pay for their dreams, as though they could salve their conscience by generosity to the poor and to the church."

"...Christians stood out in their heroization of self-sacrifice and in their private generosity to the unfortunate. Even pagans were deeply impressed, and eventually also attempted to imitate Christian charity. But it is also worth noting that as the church grew, it grew richer. From the fourth century, church buildings (like pagan temples) were increasingly decorated with silver and gold, and bishops rose up the social scale, with incomes to match. Guilt, sin, laxity, repentance, penance, and the readmission of the fallen, to say nothing of alms and legacies, used in combination, were all important forces in the church's drive for worldly success." - Keith Hopkins

Tapestry by Peter Paul Rubens depicting Constantine worshipping the
true cross. Photographed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art by
Mary Harrsch © 2011
So, Christianity offered Constantine not only the pretext to seize the immense wealth stored in pagan churches but a framework that could be used to extract future wealth from its own believers. In one stroke Constantine not only relieved  Rome's financial exigency but had enough wealth left over to build a new capital city dubbed Constantinople and live in luxury for the remainder of his life.

But what about Constantine's inspirational vision in 312 CE? Hopkins points out that early Christians developed a new genre of literature lionizing Christian heroes and martyrs "to extort their followers to greater virtue."

"...Christians fought bitterly against, and at the same time compromised with, the Roman state, and meanwhile created their own frontier heroes and villains: martyrs, ascetic saints, bishops, and heretics..." - Keith Hopkins

Although there are a number of 4th century panegyrists that testify to the emperor's sincerity, I suspect Constantine simply became one of these embellished legends.

"Out of commitment or political self-interest, or both, they [Constantine and his successors] favored the Christian church with donations and with privileges for the clergy. They gave state support for synods of bishops to decide matters of doctrine; they also used the church as a supplementary instrument of imperial ideology and social control. It is difficult to decide whether this radical transformation of the role of Christianity, which had so much influence on the future of western culture, should be called the triumph of the Christian church or the triumph of the Roman state." - Keith Hopkins, A World Full of Gods

Additional reading on mining in the ancient world: The Mines That Built Empires by Barry Yeoman.


Anonymous, In Praise of Later Roman Emperors: The Panegyrici Latini, page 248. Retrieved from

Belzoni, P. A. (2017, October 27). Constantine's Vision of the Cross ~ Early Accounts and Backstory. Retrieved from

Hopkins, K. (2001). A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity. New York: Plume.

Littman, R., & Littman, M. (1973). Galen and the Antonine Plague. The American Journal of Philology, 94(3), 243-255. doi:10.2307/293979

Van Sickle, C. (1938). Diocletian and the Decline of the Roman Municipalities. The Journal of Roman Studies, 28, 9-18. doi:10.2307/296900

Yeomans, S. K. (2017, August 22). Classical Corner: The Antonine Plague and the Spread of Christianity. Retrieved November 23, 2017, from

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Sunday, October 8, 2017

Review: Altar of Blood Empire IX by Anthony Riches

A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

In the ninth and final installment (at least for now) of Anthony Riches' Empire series dubbed "Altar of Blood", we find the young centurion Marcus Valerius Aquila accompanying Tribune Rutilius Scaurus and about three dozen hand-picked men from the Tungrian cohorts back to Germania where they have been charged with kidnapping the seer of the fiercesome Bructeri tribe. The sinister imperial chamberlain, Marcus Aurelius Cleander, has not revealed the reason for this clandestine action across the Renus (Rhine) into such dangerous territory but Scaurus and his men are not given any choice in the matter.

The Bructeri are one of the six tribes who attacked Publius Quintilius Varus and massacred the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth legions at the battle of the Teutoburg Forest at the beginning of the first century. Six years after the famous disaster, Lucius Stertinius, a general serving under Germanicus, swept through the Bructeri territory between the Amisia and Luppia rivers, destroying everything in their path and recovering the eagle of Legio XIX.

The Bructeri next appear in history during the Batavi revolt of 69-70 CE. Their tribal seer during that period was named Veleda. It is said she foretold the Batavi success in that uprising and was considered the tribe's spiritual leader.

Germanic Warrior courtesy of military artist Johnny Shumate
Of course, that was all more than a century before our novel's time period but it made the existence of a revered tribal seer quite believable and certainly explained the bad blood between the Romans and the Bructeri.

To make an almost impossible situation worse, Germania Inferior is now governed by Tribune Scaurus' arch nemesis, Clodius Albinus. Albinus is actually a historical figure who served the emperor Commodus in both Gallia Belgica and, later, Britain.  But when a false rumor claimed Commodus was dead (before he actually was), Albinus denounced Commodus before his soldiers in Britain, calling Commodus a tyrant, and maintained that it would be useful to the Roman Empire to restore to the Senate its ancient dignity and power. Although this declaration pleased the Senate it understandably riled Commodus who sent Junius Severus to relieve Albinus of his command. But, the relief order was not received until Commodus and even his successor, Pertinax, were murdered in 193 CE, a year that was to become known as the Year of the Five Emperors.

In our story, though, Albinus is still just a duplicitous schemer who is trying to thwart Tribune Scaurus in his mission or at least claim the captive seer and credit for the mission's success. Tribune Scaurus is going to have to use every bit of cunning he possesses to escape a determined Bructeri war band and prevent his men from being sacrificed on an "Altar of Blood" - that of either the Bructeri's bloodthirsty war god Wodanaz or an unscrupulous Roman's ambition.

One of my favorite characters was captured by the Bructeri in this novel and I spent a good deal of time worrying about his ultimate fate. I certainly didn't want to visualize him spread-eagled on a bloody altar with a wild-eyed shaman hovering over him with a wickedly-sharpened knife! As you can tell, over the course of nine novels I have closely identified with such finely crafted characters and felt a member of their select group.  I will definitely miss them although I suspect Riches is not yet done with them all as the seer claims Rutilius Scaurus will play a key role in the Year of the Five Emperors!

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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Review: Thunder of the Gods - Empire VIII by Anthony Riches

Historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

When we left Marcus Valerius Aquila and the Tungrian auxiliaries in Book 7, they had returned to Rome to expose the corruption of Praetorian Prefect Sextus Tigidius Perennis. While there, Marcus also ferreted out the names of the Prefect's assassins responsible for the deaths of his family members and taken brutal revenge on all of them except the despicable emperor Commodus, himself.

Although glad to be rid of the "Emperor's Knives", the emperor's chamberlain Cleander considers Marcus to be a valuable but dangerous asset who might attempt to take ultimate revenge on the emperor as well. So, as Book 8 opens, Cleander has decreed that heretofore Tribune Rutilius Scaurus is promoted to Legatus and Marcus  is appointed his equestrian-level tribune. Together with any Tungrians who wished to accompany them, they have been ordered to Syria. There, Legatus Scaurus is ordered to take command of Legio III Gallica, root out the corruption that has flourished under the current governor, and relieve a Parthian siege of the important Roman stronghold of Nisibis (modern Nusaybin, Turkey).

One of my favorite historical novels, "Fire in the East", by Harry Sidebottom, takes place in Roman Syria so I was already familiar with many of the obstacles Marcus and his Legatus would face there including the lethal armored cataphracts and the deadly archers with their perfected "Parthian shot".

The action is driven by the historical events of an uprising of Parthian client kings against both Rome and their own ruler, Vologases IV. Although I could not find a particular reference to a siege of the contested stronghold of Nisibis during this time period, it could have very well occurred during attempts by Osroes II, King of Media, to overthrow his father, the King of Kings, Vologases IV, and prevent the succession of his brother Vologases V. Osroes II, as well as his ally, Narsai of Adiabene were both historical figures that appear in this installment.  The author does an outstanding job of bringing this struggle to life since the ancient sources are rather sketchy on the details of events that transpired during this period.

File:Coin of Vologases IV of Parthia.jpg
Silver coin of Vologases IV

The first major battle that occurs while the troops make their way to Nisibis, is nothing less than thrilling as Legatus Scaurus uses every tactic he has read about to thwart destruction of his forces - specially laminated shields, improved body armor, portable bolt throwers, lengthened thrusting spears and, of course, deadly caltrops. Scaurus has left nothing to chance, drilling his men for weeks before they finally set out on the march. As it turns out, the Tungrians must use every ounce of that training to drive back the Parthians and keep them at bay until they can finally reach the relative safety of the stolid Roman outpost.

But, how will Scaurus and Marcus lift the siege and return this part of the Roman frontier to a respectful stalemate? It will take another valiant defense against almost impossible odds as well as the blessings of Fortuna on a clandestine attempt by Marcus to negotiate a settlement with the King of Kings himself!

Highly recommended!

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