Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Classic Quotes

 Emperor Honorius - the chicken of Rome
"And yet it has just eaten from my hands!" he said, in response to being told Rome had fallen. He had a chicken named Rome, and was greatly relieved to hear it was the city rather than the fowl that had fallen.

"Molon Labe" (Come and take them) said in response to the Persian demand that he lay down his arms at Thermopylae.

"So would I, if I were Parmenio" said when his general Parmenio said, if he were Alexander, he would accept Darius' offer of an alliance and half his empire.

Julius Caesar
"Veni, vidi, vici." (I came, I saw, I conquered). This was not said in Britain, but in reference to his rapid defeat of Pharnaces in Asia Minor.

Lycurgus on democracy
"Begin with your own family" in response to a proposal to make Sparta a democracy.

Sparta's ephors
"If" was their concise response to Philip II's threat to destroy their farms, slay their people and raze Sparta if it did not submit and he defeated them. Subsequently Philip II and Alexander avoided Sparta.

"O tempora, o mores!" (O, the times, O, the customs!) Cicero bewails the decline in morality of the youth of today (in 63BC).

"To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace" is a bleak yet telling description of Rome's endless appetite for conquest, attributed to a chieftain.

"He will have true glory who despises it" from Book XXII. A shame modern politicians seem unfamiliar with it.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Top Generals of the Ancient World 1-5

Number Five: Philip II

Philip was King of Macedon but has been understandably overshadowed by his son (more on him later). However, Philip himself was tremendously skilful, swift-witted and intelligent. When he came to the throne Macedon was in a weak position, and when he left it the kingdom had the strongest soldiers and most brilliant cavalry in the world.

He subdued the neighbours of Macedon and obtained hegemony over the Greeks. Had he not died it is entirely possible he would have had success as great as or at least comparable to his son.

Number Four: Scipio Africanus

Scipio became a general for Rome at a perilous time. A certain Carthaginian had slaughtered a significant percentage of Rome's citizens in battle, and in Iberia his father and uncle had been killed by other Carthaginian forces. Rome's best result so far in the Second Punic War was basically a draw against Hannibal.

Scipio was sent to retrieve the situation in Iberia, and did so masterfully. Through sound military strategy and diplomatic good sense he managed to destroy the Carthaginians in Iberia (admittedly Hasdrubal Barca was able to copy his brother's Alpine route from the peninsula). After this he went to Sicily and trained his army for a prolonged period, before being sent to fight Hannibal at Zama. Scipio had the advantage of more experienced soldiers but Hannibal remained a daunting foe for any Roman, having never before been defeated, and had more troops (although not very experienced ones).

Scipio won the battle, and with it ended the Second Punic War in Rome's favour.

Number Three: Aurelian

Not the best-known emperor, but he should be. Aurelian succeeded (after a brief contest) the Gothic Claudius as emperor in the 3rd century. This was a dark time for Rome. Her troops, once notable for their pathological patriotism, were now addicted to regicide and donatives (essentially a bonus given to soldiers when a new emperor arose, prompting many armies to force unwilling generals to declare themselves emperor) and the empire was in crisis. The Palmyrene Empire in the east had broken away, and the Gallic Empire in the west had done likewise. Furthermore, barbarians were invading what remained of the empire on a regular basis.

Fortunately for Rome it was led by probably the most militarily talented emperor in its history. Aurelian slaughtered not just one barbarian army, but many of them. He conquered the Palmyrene and Gallic Empires and returned Syria, Gaul and Iberia to the imperial fold. Without him the Roman Empire could easily have collapsed centuries earlier than it did. The Dark Ages would've lasted centuries longer and without the Byzantine Empire (founded by Constantine a century or so later) the Turks could well have overrun much or all of Europe.

Sadly he reigned for only five years, having been (rather predictably) assassinated. Had he been on the throne for longer he could have strengthened Rome even more.

Number Two: Hannibal

Hannibal Barca was blessed with tremendous skill and cursed with terrible luck. He set out to defeat Rome and enjoyed numerous successes, but ultimately failed. The Romans were staggered to learn he had crossed the Alps, in winter, in the teeth of barbarian opposition and were rather caught on the hop.

Shortly thereafter he defeated Scipio Africanus' father (whose life was allegedly saved by his son) at the Battle of Ticinus and defeated a second Roman force at the Battle of Trebia.

He also succeeded in arguably the most devastating ambush in Roman history (the Teutoberg Forest is the other contender) when he angered Flaminius into pursuing him and then launched a perfectly timed assault at Lake Trasimene. He followed this up by managing to slaughter a Roman army twice the size of his with the perfect tactics at the Battle of Cannae, showing tactical brilliance that is still revered today.

However, he was hamstrung by the stalwart loyalty of much of Italy (some, but not enough, deserted Rome), the political weakness of Carthage and the almost unbelievable patriotism and confidence that Rome possessed at this period of history. He could not maintain the string of stellar successes as the Cunctator held him off and a new crop of more skilled generals such as Marcellus, Nero and Africanus took command.

Number One: Alexander

Alexander the Great is one of the few men who really deserve the title. He did benefit from a wonderful inheritance, namely the finest army in the world, as well as a fine practical education in the military (he destroyed the elite Theban Sacred Band when he was 17) but he did even more with it than anyone could have predicted.

After slapping Greece about when it tried to throw off Macedonian hegemony he invaded Persia. There was not a city that did not yield to his will, nor was there an army that could withstand his own forces. Fortune smiled upon him too. At the Granicus Black Cleitus saved his life (Alexander would later do quite the reverse when he drunkenly killed Cleitus with a spear) and he survived being shot in the lung a short time before his death.

Persia was like a snake, and Alexander realised that defeating the head (the Great King Darius) at the Battles of Issus and Arbela would force the rest of the colossal Persian armies to flee. In India he faced more competent opponents such as King Porus, but prevailed there as well. The only adversary to best him was his own army which, after more than a decade away from their homes and families, refused to march any further east.

He died very young, in his early 30s, and his unborn son was a pawn that was eventually killed by the Diadochi who tore his fledgling empire apart as they struggled for supremacy.


Monday, 23 July 2012

Top Generals of the Ancient World 6-10

I'm using a broad(ish) definition of 'Ancient World'. I was going to limit it to BC, but one chap absolutely demanded to be included (in the 1-5 piece which will follow this). In reverse order, here are the lower half of the top 10.

Number Ten: Leonidas

The King of Sparta is tremendously well-known, and his fame was only increased by the recent film 300. He's famous for just one thing, but as one things go this is pretty impressive. When Xerxes, Great King of Persia, was invading Greece with an enormous army the city states decided (for once) to co-operate. However, they needed time. Leonidas led 300 Spartans in the defence of a narrow pass called Thermopylae (Hot Gates). Previously the force had been larger and included some other soldiers, but once it became clear a traitor had shown Xerxes a secret path that would encircle the defensive position Leonidas ordered the non-Spartans to leave. For days he kept at bay a force that outnumbered his by hundreds, perhaps thousands, to one. When defeat became inevitable he met it as resolutely as Constantine Dragases would almost two thousand years later. And, ironically, the king of an oligarchic state saved democracy in Athens.

Number Nine: Brasidas

Not a household name, but perhaps the most able general in the Peloponnesian War. Brasidas showed strategic cunning, a slyness of wit and personal bravery when he (briefly) spearheaded the Spartan war effort. However, his fortune did not match his valour and he was one of a handful of casualties sustained in combat with the Athenian forces.

Number Eight: Julius Caesar

Some say he's better than Hannibal Barca, but he isn't. Caesar was very strong logistically and strategically, and engendered deep personal affection amongst his soldiers. He was responsible for making Gaul submit to the eagles and won the Civil War against his old friend Pompey, reshaping the history of Rome and the world.

Whilst not the first emperor (that was Augustus, his nephew) he did decisively shift the destiny of Rome away from a decrepit republicanism towards an imperial path. He also changed the calendar (lots of chaps tried this but only July and August have stuck) and his surname came to mean 'king' in umpteen languages.

He also invented the comb-over (according to QI).

Number Seven: Hamilcar

The father of Hannibal Barca (his sons were referred to by some as the lion's brood), Hamilcar was actually pretty fantastic in his own right, not unlike Philip II and Alexander. During the latter stages of the First Punic War he was in charge of Sicily and, using the tactical brilliance that would prove hereditary, gave the Romans quite a seeing to. Unfortunately the war was really a naval one and through no fault of his Carthage surrendered.

After this the city state couldn't pay the wages of its mercenaries, which was a dangerous situation. Hamilcar gathered what troops he could and chased the mercenaries away, then dogged their footsteps and annoyed them so much that they began to chase him. He led them into a narrow canyon, blocked the exit and cut them to pieces.

That wasn't the end of his victories though. He went to Iberia and began conquering the land, which included lots of lovely silver mines. He was killed in action there, and replaced first by Hasdrubal the Handsome, his son-in-law, and then Hannibal.

Number Six: Marius

Marius was the uncle of Julius Caesar and a big figure in history for reasons beyond that. Through cunning he managed to wrest control of the Jugurthine War, which he subsequently won, from his former patron Metellus Numidicus. After this he achieved the not inconsiderable feat of defeating the Cimbri, a tribe that had slaughtered Roman armies thrice before (including at the disastrous Battle of Arausio).

Marius also engaged in military reforms, and although the precise nature of some of them is lost in the fog of history their legacy was known by the name of Marius' mules given to soldiers (because he reduced the number of baggage animals so the men had to carry almost everything themselves). His political ambitions meant that he weakened an already creaking political structure, and perhaps provided a template for his nephew to follow.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Music: Taylor Davis

Regular readers will know I'm quite into the sounds of videogames, in terms of both voice-acting and music.

There are quite a lot of good covers of themes to be found on Youtube (the piano cover of Skyrim's theme by Taioo stands out, for example) and one of my favourite such artists is Taylor Davis (aka Violin Tay).
She's released an album and a number of singles, which can be purchased from a variety of retailers as well as through her own site:

So, if you're a fan of videogame soundtracks and/or violins why not do some downloading? The video below includes some brief samples of the various tracks (from 1:50 in), which should be enough to decide whether or not a track would be to your liking. [On an unrelated note, I'd forgotten how good the Zanarkand theme was, possibly because my overriding memory of FFX is what an annoying little shit Tidus is].


Sunday, 15 July 2012

Review: Dragonfly Falling (Shadows of the Apt 2), by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Dragonfly falling is the second in the quite large Shadows of the Apt series, and follows on from Empire in Black and Gold, which I read perhaps over a year ago. It's a fantasy story, set in a fictional world with various human races, called kinden, who are named after insects/arachnids and have related natural abilities, strengths and weaknesses.

It follows on more or less immediately from the events in Empire in Black and Gold, with the Wasps continuing their military expansionist ways and Stenwold doing his best to persuade the disparate other nations to collaborate (think of Greek city states uniting against Persia).

The cast includes those of the first book but there are also a reasonable number of additions and quite a lot of points of view. Mr. Tchaikovsky does a very good job of using the wide range of perspectives to put together a coherent and broad-ranging narrative. Or, to put it a non-management-speak way: the story's big but still easy to follow.

One possible disadvantage, however, of so many varied viewpoints is that there's less room for character development because each character gets less time. Tynisa, Tisamon and Totho all progress, as does Thalric, but Salma, after lots of early action, seems to drift into irrelevance later on and Scuto never gets past being a gruff and ugly chap.

I also liked the way that the war is described, both regarding battle scenes and the rapid advances in technology which have put a premium on invention and manufacture. On the strategic front, there's a really nice sense of the war being hard fought and slightly unpredictable.

It's been a while since I bought the previous book, but I suspect I'll buy the third rather sooner.


Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Fodder Races

Lots of fantasy (and other fiction) revolves around or has some involvement with warfare, and decides to go for a fodder race.

Fodder races enable tons of guilt-free violence because the enemies being killed are literally subhuman, or the walking dead, or aliens who don't really count because they're horrid.

They don't have to be non-human, though. In Star Wars the stormtroopers (the name itself is a nice nod to the Nazis, the group of humans that can be killed with minimal bad karma in recent history) are all masked. In fact, they're covered from head to toe in armour, which nicely dehumanises them. It's later revealed that they're all clones anyway, which may (for some) reduce their humanity, as they're essentially grown for the job rather than being an individual with freewill.

Orcs and goblins, most famous in The Lord of the Rings, just have the appearance of humans that have been smacked very hard in the face with the ugly stick. They also tend to seem rather bloodthirsty and perhaps be a bit thick. Although we like to pretend not to judge books by their covers (covers are arguably the single biggest factor people consider when buying a book, incidentally) we still prefer attractive people to ugly bastards (after all, that's basically the definition of what being attractive is). In Ancient Greece Phryne, a famous beauty, was put on trial in Athens and her lawyer offered a novel defence. He stripped her naked and asked who could condemn someone who was so clearly Aphrodite's handmaiden* (great beauty being considered a gift from the gods). She was found not guilty. In the same way, Galadriel is renowned for her beauty, whereas the Uruk-hai are not.

Zombies are probably the most hackneyed modern fodder race. The walking dead, with a weird sort of virus that reduces them to feral animals and who can infect others with a bite. I'm not that into zombies (although I do like The Walking Dead and The Last of Us looks promising). The USP of zombies is the emotional connection. It's similar to vampires, the Borg, the cybermen and playing golf; that terribly gnawing fear that one day it could happen to me. Plus, it can happen to close relatives and friends, as a fate worse than death.

Then we have aliens. These aren't evil necessarily, of course, but their inhumanity can make them a nice fodder race. Ugliness can sometimes indicate whether they're wicked or not (compare the Jem'Hadar to the Vulcans) but this needn't be the case. Unlike zombies and the often stupid orcs/goblins aliens can not only match human intelligence, but often exceed it. A slight problem is that an actual alien idea is quite hard to come up with, so most of them end up being really very similar to us (two arms, two legs, a torso, liking war a lot etc).

The potential problem with fodder races is that it makes war a bit black and white. With the possible exception of WWII (the Nazis and Japanese PoW camps were not exactly nice) most wars tend to be morally grey. I think that a fodder race and clear dividing line between right and wrong in warfare can not only be a bit simplistic, it can also miss an opportunity for the author to explore moral ambiguity.

*That delightful snippet of ancient history is from Philip Matyszak's Classical Compendium.


Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Review: The Queen's Assassin (Volume Three of the Terrarch Chronicles) by William King

This might be my favourite Terrarch Chronicle to date.

The story continues to follow the exploits of protagonist Rik, his former unit The Foragers and his slightly suspicious patroness Asea.

It continues where the second book left off, regarding the disposition of a possible ally nation and its recently rescued queen-to-be. Rik finds out more about his father, and the very creepy Quan race of sentient soul-stealing squid are introduced.

Sardec, the commander of Rik's former unit, continues to develop nicely and I really like the air of ambiguity about Asea. I hope there are lots more Chronicles to come and it's very easy to see her being revealed as either an angel or a demon in later books.

Rik's nation (Talorea) and their enemy (Sardea) are vying for political advantage in a lesser border nation as well as the independent city of Harven. There's a mixture of political shenanigans, bloodshed and Lovecraftian arcane horror, and I think it works really well.

The pace is also nice and fast. I think I slightly criticised the previous book for sagging a bit in the middle, but The Queen's Assassin was thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish.


Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Monarchy in the modern world

Bit unusual for me to write about something that didn't happen over a thousand years ago, but a recent story on the BBC website got me thinking.

Republics are just as old as monarchies. Athens, in Ancient Greece, was famously a republic. Rome was a republic (after being a kingdom and before becoming an empire). Yet, for some reason, fantasy seems far more interested in monarchies.

A Song of Ice and Fire does not have the Seven Republics at war. The Dothraki do not elect a council of leaders.

Democracies and republics are seen as more modern and, by some, a more legitimate form of governance. After all, the leaders are accountable and elected and can be removed by non-violent means by the people. They have a popular (ahem) mandate.

That all makes sense. But if you asked the average Briton today whether they held Her Majesty the Queen or David Cameron/Ed Miliband/Nick Clegg in higher esteem I'd suggest that HM would win rather convincingly. Similarly, advocates of republicanism do face a rather big obstacle when people raise the prospect of a President Blair/Brown/Cameron.

Having an unelected head of state with reserve powers means that the nation can see the monarch as a symbol of unity, whilst retaining the accountability of those who govern and removing them if necessary. It's win-win.

But what if the Queen had the power to veto a public referendum or the will of Parliament? Technically, she does (she could refuse Royal Assent to a Bill and prevent it becoming an Act) but she has never used it and there's never been any suggestion she would. However, in Liechtenstein,a micro-nation principality, the Crown Prince has precisely that power, and uses it. In fact, his powers were increased in 2003.
There was a referendum held on this recently and 76% of those who voted supported the status quo. Now, Liechtenstein is a very small country that uses the Swiss franc and has a population of about 36,000 so it's perhaps not comparable to more sizeable kingdoms, but it is nevertheless interesting that people in the modern world not only tolerate but actively support such a powerful monarchy.

On an unrelated note, I'm thinking of adding an Interviews page (a page being a tab at the top of the blog, like Book stuff and Lore). Only got two right now, but they've both proven to be popular and I hope to get more in the future.