Friday, 24 March 2017

Benevolent Dictators

Dictators have a bad name, but it was not always so. The word originally referred to a specific political office of the Roman Republic, which involved absolute power being invested in an individual (assisted by a deputy, called the Master of Horse/Magister Equitum) for a time-limited period.

This was done at moments of national crisis, and the holder of the office handed back the power and resigned when his task was done. (The major exception would be Julius Caesar who was appointed, perhaps not without his approving consent, dictator for life. However, Brutus et al. did manage to exploit the slight flaw in the plan by curtailing the lifespan of Caesar. It’s hard to be dictator when you’ve embarked upon an exciting new career as a human pincushion).

So, here are a few of the splendid dictators, whose excellence benefited Rome to a huge degree.

Marcus Furius Camillus

You have to be a pretty cool cat to get the nickname Second Founder of Rome, and so Marcus Furius Camillus was. He was made dictator a grand number of five times. His first stint was in a closely contested war with Veii, which was going quite badly. Camillus turned the situation around and utterly annihilated the adult male population of the city.

But, after another war (successful but with little plunder), Camillus was exiled from Rome by his political opponents.

Unfortunately for Rome, the Gauls then invaded, and crushed the Roman army before capturing Rome itself. It turns out exiling your greatest general just before your worst enemy invades isn’t terribly clever. Camillus organised his local militia and attacked the Gauls, who were drunkenly celebrating in their camp. As might be expected, he won a great victory, and was appointed dictator to give him full authority to ensure the Gauls were properly defeated. He then fought the Gauls besieging Rome, and rescued the city, earning himself the moniker Second Founder.

Titus Manlius Torquatus

Titus Manlius Torquatus was a very interesting chap. His father was an utter imbecile, and, because the young Titus had a speech impediment and was looked down on, sent him away to live almost as a servant. The same father then managed to piss off most of Rome when he held authority and was halfway through a trial when Titus returned to Rome, visited the prosecuting official, put a blade to his throat and made him swear to drop the case.

Whilst this is a questionable act of justice, it did earn Titus some credit for his filial loyalty, especially to a man who didn’t deserve it. Later, as a soldier, Titus fought a massive Gaul in single combat, slew him and claimed the torque from the corpse, earning him his new name.

Titus was a formidable general, as well as a soldier, commanding armies sometimes as a consul, and sometimes as a dictator. He was also extremely strict, and when it was agreed no man should leave his post on penalty of death, Titus was forced to execute his own son, whose youthful exuberance had outweighed his discipline.

Quintus Fabius Maximus

Rome had a problem in the Second Punic War. Its only battle tactic was to line up a lot of men, charge the enemy, and stab until the battle was won. Unfortunately, Hannibal Barca had repeatedly kicked their arse, most notably at Lake Trasimene. Tens of thousands of Romans were dead, hundreds of senior military and political officials were no more, and there were fears for Rome itself.

A dictator was called for. Quintus Fabius Maximus was the man selected, although his magister equitum, Marcus Minucius Rufus, was chosen for him, rather than by him. Maximus decided to adopt tactics that seemed strange, even cowardly, to Roman eyes. He didn’t try to fight Hannibal. Instead, he delayed, giving Rome time to build up his strength, harrying foragers sent by Hannibal (who was, after all, marauding in enemy territory). Moreover, his adversary was no fool. Although Hannibal was unable to ambush Maximus (and lost prisoners to the dictator), he left Maximus’ own estates untouched, creating feelings of resentment and even suspicion towards the dictator.

When prisoners were swapped (with the Carthaginians returning more Romans than vice versa), Maximus sold his estates to fund the extra compensation necessary to make up for the disparity in numbers.

Hannibal sought fresh foraging ground to the south, but Maximus realised this and recognised he could trap the Carthaginian in the mountains, fighting him where the excellent Numidian cavalry would be worth far less than on the plains of Italy. Hannibal escaped the noose by ‘attacking’ at night, using cattle with torches tied to their horns which sentinels mistook for an army, enabling the Carthaginians to slip away.

Maximus, who had acquired the not necessarily complimentary nickname Cunctator (Delayer), was annoying the Romans by his tactics. New consuls, Varro and Paullus were elected.

These two men brought (on a day of Varro’s command) matters to a head with a decisive attack on Hannibal, using a force four times the size of a regular consular army. The lessons of Maximus were thrown away, and perhaps the highest casualties recorded in Europe until the advent of machine-gun warfare in World War One was the result. The Battle of Cannae was a perfect military victory for Hannibal, and tens of thousands more Romans (including Paullus) were dead.

Later Roman generals took on the concepts of logistics and strategy emphasised by Maximus, notably Nero, Marcellus and, of course, Scipio Africanus.

If you want to read more on these fellows, and more besides, I can strongly recommend Livy’s Early History of Rome, Rome and Italy, and The Hannibalic War, as well as Polybius’ work on the Second Punic War.


Friday, 17 March 2017

Review: The Darkness That Comes Before, by R. Scott Bakker

I first tried reading this book perhaps a decade ago, and didn’t like it. To my surprise, I still had a copy, and following the insistence of a chap who was most enthusiastic, I decided to give it a second look.

And was disconcertingly surprised to find my opinion had changed drastically.

The Darkness That Comes Before is set in a fictional world that has suffered an apocalypse or two. The technology is medievalish, alongside which is magic, used by a variety of competing schools that are independent or semi-independent of the kingdoms and empire clustered around the Three Seas. One school of magic, the Mandate, sees itself tasked with preventing the next apocalypse, but the enemy (the Consult) hasn’t been seen for centuries, leading to them being the object of much ridicule.

There are two premises to the story: a Holy War organised against heathens, and the personal quest of Kellhus, sent south to find and kill his father (who was sent on a southerly mission of exploration and appears to have lost his way). In addition to Kellhus, the protagonists include a Mandate schoolman, his lover (unfortunately employed as a prostitute), the Emperor of Nansur and a few others.

The world has depth, and feels interesting and original. I like the way the history and contemporary set-up of the world has been put together, although, especially early on, it does feel like there’s too much skirt and not enough leg.

The book’s tone is quite dark. There isn’t an overdose of sex or violence or general grimness, although all have their places, and I think the author’s been wise not to make such things too commonplace as the moments of violence have more impact happening occasionally, rather than constantly.

However, there are still things I disliked. The pace is slow. Too slow. I don’t mind gradual unfolding of events, but there are areas where sections could be axed wholesale or little pieces cut from every sentence to simply speed things up a bit. Description likewise is excessive. It reminds me a bit [though it’s a long time since I read it] of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn in that regard.

Overall, I enjoyed The Darkness That Comes Before, despite some drawbacks.


Friday, 10 March 2017

Review: Some Desperate Glory, by Edwin Campion Vaughan

As a rule, modern history isn’t my thing, but I was given this book, a British soldier’s diary from 1917, as a gift.

The author is a junior officer entering the war (and the trenches) for the first time. As well as being an enthusiastic, likeable fellow, Edwin Campion Vaughan is also a very engaging writer.

From January to August, almost every day has an individual entry. There’s a natural descent from the excitement at the prospect of doing one’s bit into the horrendous reality of one of history’s worst wars.

The sudden eclipse of anticipation by panic and fear is matched only by the touching humanity of Vaughan and the nightmarish latter entries. There’s a peculiarly persistent decency throughout regarding his view of the Germans. When he marches past a dead German being chewed upon by a cat, he has it shooed away, and when returning the same way and finding the mog returned has it shot.

The sheer arbitrary nature of death in World War One is brought home right from the off (Vaughan narrowly escapes death at a sniper’s hand when he slips and falls over, a bullet flying where his head should’ve been). Shells exploded where they may, machine-guns and snipers ever on alert. It’s a stark contrast (and, counter-intuitively), far worse than the ancient warfare I usually read about, where the enemy is often several thousand strong, in an army and fought at close quarters. In the First World War, death could come at any moment without a real chance to protect oneself.

Amidst the terrible conditions and danger, there are lighter moments, and it’s heartening to see that Vaughan and his comrades managed to keep their spirits up despite the horrors of their day-to-day lives. The part of France in which he found himself has been wrecked by years of warfare, riddled with shattered villages and the land scarred by shell holes (handy for shelter, in a pinch).

I found it very engaging, poignant and incredibly sad. If you’re seeking an unvarnished description of life in the trenches, with all the woe, levity and human spirit it entailed, this is the book for you.


Friday, 3 March 2017

Why Horses are Better than Cars, a guest post by Sir Edric

[As dictated by Sir Edric to his manservant, Dog]

It has come to my attention that many people in the United Kingdom, United States, and other minor nations, do not own horses. Even people wealthy enough to buy one.

Instead, the degenerate lunatics prefer carriages, of no horse drawn. These carriages, shortened by the vulgar to ‘car’, are a manner of metallic box, with a rubbery wheel at each corner. The wheels are driven by a belching demon of fire and brimstone that squats in the car and is fed oil in exchange for its diabolical service (although that doesn’t stop its constant grumbling, nor its toxic flatulence).

Whilst it is true a car is faster than a horse, that is a demented reason for preferring them. A man gets drunk faster by drinking pure alcohol rather than whisky (incidentally, do visit Scotland. The locals are strangely fond of skirts, but brew excellent beverages), yet you don’t see anyone but the suicidal trying it.

The horse has innumerable advantages over the charmless practicality of the car.

A man can reasonably own several dozen horses and select the best for a given task. A long journey necessitates a courser like Temper. Carrying luggage can be delegated to a nag like Churl. And charging into battle requires the services of a violent maniac like Moloch (assuming you can actually put a saddle on him without getting maimed).

Can you imagine charging a line of enraged Ursk in a 2CV? A preposterous notion.

Furthermore, horses are noble animals. Instead of poisoning the earth with their outpourings, they produce fertiliser which, Dog informs me, if used by the servants on one’s garden grows the most splendid roses. Try bottling the foul emanations of your nasty 4x4 and see how many flowers you can grow with it.

Horses, of course, are intelligent and trusty animals. The engine-demon is a fickle creature and responds as readily to a thief as a rightful owner. Try stealing Moloch and you’ll find yourself being scraped off the stable walls in the morning, assuming he hasn’t eaten you during the night. Not only that, but horses can be trained to respond to commands, which is damned useful when escaping from a bedroom window at short notice.

Have you ever heard of car therapy, where people with troubled souls feel better by stroking a car? Of course not. You’d have to be an imbecile to believe such a thing. Horse therapy, on the other hand, does exist, and can have a profoundly positive effect on unfortunate fellows who find themselves in need of reassurance.

Women find few things as irresistible as a man who can ride bareback at a moment’s notice. A stallion between one’s legs, obedient to the merest twitch of one’s thighs, makes the fairer sex friskier than a rabbit on Valentine’s Day.

Last, but by no means least, horses are an alternative to guide dogs. Whilst they are less likely to be accepted in restaurants, they do have superior longevity to hounds. Not to mention, you can’t ride a guide dog.

So, there we have it. Horses are heroic and magnificent animals, a boon companion for mankind. Cars are tedious boxes of demonic woe.

Sir Edric Greenlock, the Hero of Hornska