sâmbătă, 30 mai 2015

Inglorious Singularii (Dirty Contubernia)

S.J.A. Turney - Marius' Mules VI: Caesar's Vow, Victrix Books, 2014

I have finished this book a while ago but I hesitated writing about it because... well because I was under the impression there's not much left to say. I have talked in my previous reviews about how brilliant Simon's books are and how much I enjoy them, and this is always the bottom line. I can only imagine how hard must be for Simon to be keeping writing on the series, and I am always surprised by the energy with which he does it. Because with long series like this you always run into a conundrum: your audience will always want to more about the heroes. They get bored by always being fed more of the same, but at the same time you cannot afford to innovate to much without risking to either making the story too unbelievable or changing the characters so much that they become unrecognizable when compared to their previous selves. That's why a lot of TV series have a dip in quality after two or three seasons.

Having said all that, with this sixth book of the series Simon proves to be a masterful innovator, in that the action develops in a surprising way, while the characters stay true to themselves. At the same time, the historical reality of Caesar's diaries is respected as well, as Simon is very intelligently exploiting a gap in the historical timeline, namely what happened to the rebel king Ambiorix of the Eburones. It is clear that Ambiorix's deed of destroying an entire legion and killing two high ranking officers (Sabinus and Cotta) is the biggest failure of Caesar's Gallic campaigns, with probably heavier losses than even the Battle of Alesia. 

After a bit of a rocky and only partial reconciliation with the general, our hero, Fronto, is given a commando and a mission. This is a turn of events as clever as it is surprising, as it frees Simon to take Fronto and his 20-odd men wherever he pleases. Fans of the series should not be worried, as there is plenty of blood and gore, of hacking and stabbing, though sometimes the numbers are smaller. There are two cult movies this book reminded me of, and they're both referenced in the title. Which makes me rather curious if Simon took any of his inspiration from Tarantino's movie in the same manner in which Inglorious Basterds is inspired by the Lee Marvin classic.

There are a few really great moments in the book, of which one got stuck in my mind due to the depth of the psychological drama: when Fabius has to kill the villagers to whom he promised freedom only moments before, thus going against all his ethical convictions. The army does that to you a lot of the time, and it is captured here surprisingly well.

I need to note a slight disappointment when I think about how fascinated I was about the mythological animals Caesar describes as being part of Northern Gaul's regular fauna and about the longest anthropological inquiry the great man makes into the life of this part of the world in his sixth book of De Bello Gallico. I was eagerly waiting to see what Simon has to say about the weird animal with a horn in the middle of its forehead out of which two pairs of antlers grow. Instead, he dismisses all of it under the label of 'fabulations attempting to mask a military failure'. Which, come to think about it, might very well be true.

So rather than being a mere setup for next year's world-shattering events, this sixth book is actually a great standalone, that can very well be read by itself as well as a natural follow-up to the fifth and the adventures of the previous year. Highly recommended.

Having already read The Great Revolt, I can only say I'm looking forward to reading it again. But before that, Prelude to War, a 'gap-filler'. Very curious.

luni, 25 mai 2015

St. Paul's

Paul McCartney, Out There Tour, 2015-05-24, O2 Arena, London

Unul dintre avantajele unui concert in Londra, spune Paul McCartney, este ca iti poti aduce familia sa te vada. Si mai spune Paul McCartney ca se intreaba ce trebuie sa fie in mintea celor 8 nepoti ai lui, prezenti cu totii la concertul de ieri de la O2, cand stau in sala: "Asta nu e batranelul ala care sta tot timpul intins pe canapea, facand pe bunicul? Wow, e un rock star!"

M-am uitat si eu in seara asta la Paul McCartney si nu mi-a venit sa cred ca batranelul asta e una din cele mai proeminente figuri ale istoriei muzicii, omul care a definit probabil mai mult ca oricine altcineva muzica de azi. Si nu mi-a venit sa cred nu numai ca vad un concert Paul McCartney, dar si ca - vazandu-l pentru a doua oara, dupa Royal Albert Hall in 2012 - stiu la ce sa ma astept.

Arena imensa de la O2, cu acustica ei ciudata si scaunele urcate pana la inaltimi ametitoare face tot posibilul sa diminueze din caldura emanata de muzica de pe scena, dar Paul McCartney a pastrat intacte spiritul, atitudinea, naivitatea si placerea de a canta a anilor '60, cei in care Beatles au schimbat muzica si in buna masura au schimbat lumea. De-asta suna poate altfel astazi Blackbird - melodie compusa din solidaritate cu minoritatea neagra din Statele Unite, si de-asta mi-au dat lacrimile pe Here Today, conversatia cu John Lennon care nu s-a intamplat niciodata. Arata altfel, foarte diferit, lumea de azi fata de cea in care Beatles si-au compus muzica, dar Paul McCartney pare sa fi ramas acelasi.

Melodiile sunt in buna masura reorchestrate, dar asta nu inseamna ca nu sunt la fel de recogniscibile instantaneu. Iar motivul pentru care recunoastem muzica Beatlesilor imediat nu este pentru ca au fost hituri la aparitie - buna parte din audienta din seara asta nu era nascuta cand s-a compus muzica, ci pentru ca muzica Beatlesilor a patruns atat de adanc in fibra societatii incat muzica lor este parte din noi, fie ca o stim sau nu. Mi-e greu sa spun, in contextul asta, cat de privilegiat ma simt ca am avut ocazia sa-l vad si sa-l ascult astazi pe Paul McCartney.

La fel, e greu sa adaugi superlative peste muzica lui Paul McCartney, oricat de uluitor ar fi ca isi pastreaza intacta si atat de evidenta placerea de a fi pe scena si de a canta la mai mult de 50 de ani de cand a devenit superstar.

Majoritatea celor cu sau despre care canta nu mai sunt cu noi. Dus e Mr Marks, cel care a inspirat Temporary Secretary, un synth-pop avangardist si prea putin cunoscut, dusa e Lovely Rita, cea de la care Paul cumpara pui. Demult sunt dusi Eleanor Rigby si Father MacKenzie cu rugaciunea lui, dusi John Lennon si George care a compus Something la ukulele. Dus Frank Sinatra care a spus ca Something e melodia lui preferata de la Lennon/McCartney spre frustrarea amandurora, demult dus Jimmy Hendrix care a invatat Sgt. Pepper's in 36 de ore si il canta la Marquee pe o chitara dezacordata pe care il ruga pe Eric Clapton sa i-o acordeze. Dus si clubul Marquee, inlocuit de Montagu Pyke, un domn cu burta si costum, si dus si posterul din casa lui John Lennon care a inspirat cantecul in beneficiul D-lui Kite. Spectacolul in beneficiul d-lui Kite se va juca insa pentru totdeauna, iar cel pe care l-am vazut in seara asta a fost extraordinar atat prin muzica, cu incarcatura ei emotionala si istorica, dar si imbunatatit incredibil de mult de tehnologie:

Intrarea, cu decorul viu colorat si plin de puncte tipatoare peste care s-a cantat o versiune fidela a lui Eight Days a Week, si-a meritat singura biletul si a reusit sa aduca publicul in atmosfera dupa ceva mai putin de 3 minute, fara nici un fel de trupa de deschidere. Iar urmatoarele vreo 40 de cantece desfasurate pe parcursul a 150 de minute si 3 encore-uri l-au tinut acolo, indiferent ca a fost vorba de clasice ca Yesterday sau Hey Jude, melodii Wings ca celebra Live and Let Die sau compozitii solo ca Maybe I'm Amazed, My Valentine sau cele cateva melodii de pe albumul Art of McCARTney lansat anul trecut.

Se declara uimit ca el, un pusti din Liverpool, a avut ocazia sa cunoasca membri ai guvernului rus si alti asemenea. Ei bine, uimit suntem si eu ca noi, niste murtori de rand, am avut norocul sa-l vedem pe Paul McCartney cantand. Si l-as tot revedea. Macar de opt ori pe saptamana.

vineri, 15 mai 2015

The Roman Shield

A few notes on the design and use of the shield in the Roman Imperial Army following a visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London

Simon James Atkinson Turney has lately put his name rather high in the list of my favourite writers. Which led to a strange feeling and an even stranger relationship as Simon, unlike my other favourite writers, is very accessible and very engaging. I think of him, therefore, first and foremost as a social individual and only afterwards an author (I did not say friend as I have only gained this title on facebook, which counts for little).

Simon also does reenactment and sometimes talks about it on his blog. After his most recent Roman adventure I noticed and took particular interest in a picture of his shield. This picture:

I was greatly surprised by the flat wooden grip, as I have always thought the grip of the shield would be the typical two leather straps, one of which goes over the forearm and the second is grabbed by the palm of the left hand. While there is some uncertainty over this, the majority of the researchers and reenacters seem to be convinced this is the grip that was used on the Roman shields. I wasn't. So I went to the closest, most accessible source: Trajan's Column V&A cast. And bam! - here's my proof: 

The two guys in the center of the picture are most certainly Romans (easy to identify by their helmets - with the transverse metal straps reinforcements and the ring at the top - the specially adapted design for the Dacian campaigns). They are also most certainly holding the shield the way I thought they would. It took a while to find them and there are many more instances of the inside of Dacian shields, as the Dacians are on the defensive a lot more. The Dacian shield's grip is identical, but this does not necessarily say anything about the Roman army, unless you count the many occurrences of the two point grip, but even that is circumstantial:

Upon leaving, I noticed something else that would further advance my case: John Deare's Caesar invading Britain (1796):

Pretty obvious, no?

However, Deare's sculpture is useless in this conversation, for a number of reasons: first, it cannot possibly be considered historically accurate, and not only because of the intervening 18 centuries between the events and their depiction. It is highly unlikely Caesar ever looked like Deare depicts him here, or wore clothes that were even remotely similar. Then, remember when I was talking about the innovations of the helmets during the Dacian campaigns? Well, these two helmets are already innovated, almost 2 centuries before. Then we have to consider the influence that medieval weaponry could have had on Deare's conception and questions are hanging around the artist's level of documentation. Furthermore, there is a detail in Deare's pictures that almost blows my case out of the water. Here:

Caesar's grip is also questionable, but how is that guy in the middle holding his shield? And why is his shield square, not round? Or why is he wearing a lorica segmentata, not chain mail like the previous guys? It becomes obvious, no? He is a legionary (heavy infantry), whereas the round shield, chain mail wearing guys are auxiliary (light infantry). Therefore, we have to differentiate between the various bodies of the Roman Army. On the column, we can distinguish three types of Roman shields:

1. The round shield - Celtic in origin and specific to auxiliaries (probably none of them Latin). This has most certainly leather straps for holding in a fight.

2. The square shield - adopted from the Greek hoplites, this is the shield used to create the famous phalanx and the Roman testudos. It is the weapon of the Roman legionaries and the most representative of the Roman shields.

3. The hexagonal shield - as far as I know, this is a typical Roman design, and was used by the Praetorian guard, the elite troops of the army with much less active duty and mostly ceremonial roles.

Far as I could muster, there is no instance of the inside of either a square or a hexagonal shield on Trajan's column. The legions are always in a tidy formation:

This picture reveals little, if anything, about the grip of the shield. Most likely, they are using the wooden handle to hold the shield, but whether there is a leather strap safety or not is hard to say. Straps were apparently used to carry the shield on the march, and it is possible they doubled as a safety hold in the fight.

These guys here seem to have their left hands bent at the elbow, but whether that is accurate depiction or their arms are just badly proportioned is open to debate. The two-dimensional representation is not a big help either.

So this is that. I will keep looking for more details when I get to Bucharest, as the cast of the column there is taken apart and all panels are exhibited at eye level. The conclusion of my visit to the V&A is that while the round, auxiliary shields were held with the arm bent and tied by two leather straps, the likelihood is that legionaries and the praetorian guard held their shields by the wooden handle behind the umbo (the shield boss), arm being kept straight. To me, it seems like this grip is putting a bigger strain on the hand muscles, it offers no insurance in the case of the palm dropping the shield (as opposed to the safety leather strap of the round shield) and takes away entirely the use of the left palm (this is also extremely reduced with the straps, but it is possible to hold another object - be it a pugio or a pilum - while also holding the shield strap). Some of this can be detailed by the reenactors that have actually used one or more types of shields and I am hoping some of them will bring their input.