Monday, January 5, 2015

Review: The Iron Hand of Mars by Lindsey Davis

A historical fiction review by  © 2015

I first listened to an unabridged version of Lindsey Davis' "Iron Hand of Mars" back in 2005 and wrote an article about the historical context then. But, I've incorporated and rewritten much of that information in this review following my current review format.

Of all of the Falco novels, this one turned out to be one of my favorites, probably because it included more military adventures than other Falco books and swordplay.

This tale of intrigue is set in Germania where Falco, Vespasian's agent, is tasked with attempting to derail a rebellion led by the Batavian leader Civilis and win over a mysterious prophetess. Since most of my study of Rome has concentrated on the late Republican period, I was not familiar with this major insurgency that arose during the reign of Vespasian. So, I did a little research.

Gaius Julius Civilis was the leader of the Batavian rebellion against the Romans in 69 AD. Although his name indicates he was Romanized by Augustus or one of the other Julian emperors, Civilis was twice imprisoned on a charge of rebellion, and narrowly escaped execution. During the tumult that followed the death of the emperor, Nero, Civilis took up arms under the pretense of siding with the Flavian emperor, Vespasian, and induced the inhabitants of his native country to rebel.

The Batavians, who had rendered valuable aid under the early emperors, had been well treated by subsequent emperors. They were exempt from tribute, but were obliged to supply a large number of men for the army. This conscription and the oppression of provincial governors, however, ultimately led to revolt. The Batavians were immediately joined by several neighboring German tribes, the most important of whom were the Frisii.

The Roman garrisons near the Rhine were driven out, and twenty-four ships captured. Two legions under Mummius Lupercus were defeated at Castra Vetera (near modern Xanten) and surrounded. Eight cohorts of Batavian veterans joined their countrymen, and the troops sent by Vespasian to the relief of Vetera threw in their lot with them as well.

The result of these accessions to the forces of Civilis was another uprising in Gaul. There, the Roman commander, Hordeonius Flaccus, was murdered by his troops and the remaining Roman forces were induced by two commanders of the Gallic auxiliaries--Julius Classicus and Julius Tutor--to revolt from Rome and join Civilis in a new independent kingdom of Gaul.

The conspiracy of the Batavians under Civilis by Rembrandt 1661-1662 CE.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The prophetess Veleda predicted the complete success of Civilis and the fall of the Roman Empire.   Veleda was a virginal holy woman of the Germanic tribe of the Bructeri.

"The ancient Germanic peoples discerned a divinity of prophecy in women and regarded prophetesses as true and living goddesses. In the latter half of the 1st century CE Veleda was regarded as a deity by most of the tribes in central Germany and enjoyed wide influence. She lived in a tower near the Lippe River, a tributary of the Rhine. The inhabitants of the Roman settlement of Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (now Cologne) accepted her arbitration in a conflict with the Tencteri, an unfederated tribe of Germany." - Wikipedia

Veleda by Laurent-HonorĂ© Marqueste.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Like the pythia of ancient Greece, envoys were not admitted to her presence; an interpreter conveyed their messages to her and reported her pronouncements. So, it is not known whether Veleda just prophesied the victory or actively incited the rebellion.

But, ultimately, tribal disputes ended any chance for success and Vespasian was able to put down the rebellion with the arrival of Quintus Potillius Cerealis and a strong force. Civilis, himself, was defeated at Augusta Treverorum (modern Trier) and Vetera, and forced to withdraw to the island of Batavia. It is thought Civilis negotiated an agreement with Cerialis whereby his countrymen obtained certain advantages, and resumed amicable relations with Rome, although Civilis disappears from the historical record at this point, an ominous sign.  However, Cerialis, like Julius Caesar, was known for his clementia so the outcome may not have been dire after all.

As for Veleda, she was either captured by Rutillius Gallicus or "offered asylum" in 77 CE.  She is thought to have negotiated the acceptance of a pro-Roman king by her tribe, the Bructeri, in 83 or 84 CE.

Note: The chief authority for the history of the insurrection is Tacitus, Histories, iv and v, and Josephus, Bellum Judaicum, vii. 4.

So, there is quite an opportunity for Falco to strut his stuff on a scale far greater than his usual sleuthing in  back alleys.  I think that is why I was drawn into this story more than some of his other adventures.  Although I knew Falco had once served in the legions, he was far more physical in this tale than the others and his sardonic personality was kept relatively in check because of the heightened danger of his circumstances.  I highly recommend it!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Review: The Seven Wonders by Steven Saylor

An historical fiction review by  © 2014

I know Steven Saylor's "The Seven Wonders" came out in 2013 but my "to-read" stack has gotten so tall, I am a bit overwhelmed and only just now finally got a chance to read it.  (Listen to it actually, as I have the unabridged version from Several of us on Facebook's Roman History Reading Group had suggested to Steven that he go back and write more stories about Gordianus the Finder when Gordianus was a young man.  So, I was pleased to see that is exactly what he did with "The Seven Wonders."

Gordianus, the son of Gordianus the Finder (the elder) has just turned 18 and his old tutor Antipater of Sidon, an acclaimed poet, has invited him to go on a grand tour of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  But first, Gordianus the younger and his father must participate in a charade where they arrange the "death" and funeral of Antipater before the journey.  Even after reading the entire book, I'm still not sure why Antipater requested this.  But, the funeral is held and young Gordianus and Antipater, now calling himself Zodicus or Zeugma, slip out of Rome without being recognized.

The first stop is Ephesus where the pair will explore the famous Temple of Artemis.  While in Ephesus, Gordianus gets involved in a local plot designed to discredit local politicians who support Rome.

1st century CE Roman copy of
the cult statue in the Temple of Ephesus
Image courtesy of
Pvasiliadis, Wikimedia Commons
Of course, Gordianus solves the mystery using his own natural instincts coupled with lessons in investigation that he learned from his father.  Then, Gordianus and Antipater move on to the next wonder where another mystery awaits.

So the book is like an anthology of short mysteries with the overarching narrative of a travelogue.  Each little mystery is intriguing but what I enjoyed the most was the intricate description of each wonder in the condition it must have been in during the 1st century BCE.  Saylor describes each structure so vividly I felt like I had personally visited it and seen it for myself.

As it turns out, Antipater of Sidon was a real Greek poet that lived either during the second half of the 2nd century BCE or, according to Cicero, in Rome during the time of Crassus and Catulus.  Some scholars think Cicero confused Antipater of Sidon with Antipater of Thessalonice.  But, for the purposes of this novel, Saylor uses Cicero's Antipater of Sidon. Antipater of Sidon, along with Philo of Byzantium, Strabo, Herodotus and Diodoros of Sicily are attributed with developing the list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

In the book, though, Antipater credits Alexander the Great who he said developed the list to prove that his kingdom encompassed the greatest structures in the world.  Antipater also explains the sacred significance of the number seven.

However, as I read the book, I must admit I became baffled when Gordianus and Antipater reached the Great Pyramid and proclaimed they had seen all seven since they had not yet traveled to Alexandria and seen the Pharos.  But as it turns out, Antipater's Anthology never included the famous lighthouse as we see from his poem:

I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, 'Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.'  — Antipater, Greek Anthology IX.58

So, Antipater counted the remains of the beautifully enameled walls of Babylon and the Hanging Gardens, only remembered from tales by the time of Gordianus, as two wonders.

I didn't miss out on a thorough description of the Pharos in Alexandria, though, because Gordianus and Antipater have their last adventure there.  I knew the lighthouse had three tiers but I had always thought the Pharos contained only one great mirror, not a series of mirrors that could be redirected to transmit coded messages from Ptolemy to his subordinates as well as guide ships entering the harbor.  But I have never read the original descriptions by Arab authors that are said to be the most thorough and consistent.

The Pharos depicted on a coin from the reigns of Antoninus Pius
and Commodus.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Saylor's description of the lighthouse included Tritons on each of the structure's four corners that are depicted on extant Roman coins struck by the Alexandrian mint and a statue of Zeus at the very top.  In the novel, Antipater explains that it is definitely Zeus, not Poseidon, the god of the seas, because Zeus is considered the protector of sailors.

Gold armband, with Triton holding a Putti,
Greek, 200 BCE.  Photographed at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons.
So, like all of Steven Saylor's novels, "The Seven Wonders" taught me more fascinating details about the ancient world while thoroughly entertaining me.

It made me sorry I haven't seen the last surviving ancient wonder, though.  I postponed my trip to visit the Great Pyramid due to the political unrest following the Arab Spring in Egypt. But I will certainly have Steven's description in my mind if I finally get there.  At least I have seen the beautifully enameled creatures that once flanked the Ishtar Gate in Babylon at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and the remains of the famous Mausoleum of Halicarnassus at the British Museum (until I visited the British Museum I didn't even realize there was anything left of the Mausoleum!).

Vibrant Striding Lion from the Processional Way of Babylon
Neo-Babylonian Period 604-562 BCE Molded and glazed brick
Photographed at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
by Mary Harrsch © 2009
There's also a replica of the Parthenon with a huge statue of Athena (not Artemis but close!) in Nashville, Tennessee that I found quite impressive several years ago.

Multistory statue of Athena in a replica of the
Parthenon in Nashville, TN.  Photo by Mary Harrsch.
 I think even Antipater of Sidon would have agreed, too!

Review: Nox Dormienda by Kelli Stanley

A history resource article by  © 2008

This is a cross post from my "Books of the Ancient World" blog.  One of the members of the Ancient Roman Reading Group up on Facebook asked about this book today so I updated my review and cross posted it here. Nox Dormienda actually garnered the Bruce Alexander award for historical mystery back in 2008.

"The morning staggered by, still looking for a party. Saturnalia was officially over two days ago - unofficially there were still cockfights and dice throws, more wine-soaked quickies and the odor of vomit filling every alley."

Welcome to Kelli Stanley's world of Roman noir.

I have enjoyed "detectives in togas" for a number of years - particularly a late Roman Republican sleuth named Gordianus the Finder penned from the imagination of Steven Saylor. But I am not familiar with the private eyes that populate the books by Stanley's favorite author Raymond Chandler. Perhaps the closest I have come to this genre is reading James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux novels. Likewise, I have not shared my son's passion for noir genre films, although Bogart's Casablanca deserves its reputation as a classic. So I wasn't quite sure what to expect when Stanley sent me a copy of her book "Nox Dormienda", the first of a planned series of mystery novels featuring a crime-solving medicus in Agricola's Roman Britain promoted as a new genre, Roman noir.

For a child of the 50s and 60s raised on a diet of traditional historical epics, I found the "snappy-tough" noir-style dialogue jarring at first as I struggled to lose myself in the gritty reality of life in early Londonium. I felt like I had bought a ticket to see "Gladiator" but made a wrong turn inside the cineplex and stumbled into Tarrentino's "Pulp Fiction". But as the novel progressed and I got to know the interesting cast of characters, especially the quirky half-Roman, half-Britain medicus who could be gently caressing a puppy one minute and groping in the abdomen of a nearly eviscerated legionary the next, I succumbed to this author's efforts to conjure up a unique view of ancient Rome and began to enjoy the bumpy ride as Stanley's protagonist tugged me through Londonium's back streets, down into a mithraeum, up the back stairs of a seedy brothel, then into the provincial governor's palace where a weary Agricola, one of Domitian's most successful and honored generals, brooded over rumors of his pending dismissal as he realized his old soldier's boots may not be the best footwear to navigate the tightrope of imperial politics. I think what I enjoyed most was becoming an invisible member of the raucous household of Julius Alpinus Classicianus Favonianus (that's Arcturus to you natives or Ardur to any rheumy-eyed Trinovantean females) whose members so eagerly attempted to assist the Dominus in his investigations.

As a member of the senatorial class, Arcturus does not lead the hand-to-mouth solo existence of Lindsey Davis' Didius Falco. His extended family includes a cook, Venutius, who tries to win Arcturus over with cullinery experiments that often go awry, Draco, a hulking bodyguard with a legendary appetite who must be barely out of his teens as he's still growing out of his tunics, a steward, Brutius, who tries to keep Arcturus' adoring public at bay, Coire, a slave girl who would like to perform in the bedroom but is relegated to the examination room, and a love-struck freedman, Bilicho, who serves as assistant surgeon/gumshoe. As the story progresses, the seductive Gywnna, daughter of an aging Trinovantean auxiliary commander moves in along with her 10-year-old brother Hefin. Then, Bilicho drags home Stricta, his Egyptian girlfriend and one-time prostitute who also happens to be a witness to the murder Arcturus is attempting to solve. Add to this a faithful and much loved dog, Pyxis, her puppies, a cat, and a smattering of chickens and you definitely experience the "urbanity" of Roman life.

The only plot development that struck a sour note with me was introduction of an insane Christian legionary. Stanley seemed compelled to offer insanity as an excuse for his dichotomous behavior. Early Christians were not necessarily the pious, submissive victims of "The Robe", though. The violence of a soldier's profession would not have been viewed as incongruous with Christian teachings. This attitutde is clearly demonstrated several centuries later by the first so-called Christian emperor Constantine. Furthermore, a soldier who zealously berated his bunkmates for their embrace of other relgions of the period, like Mithrascism, would be doubtful in the inclusive polytheism of Roman culture. Acting like a near-zombie, chanting religious mantras with eyes glazed over, would have netted a man a quiet but violent fate in some back alley. The Roman army was still a well-oiled machine at this time and its members would not have tolerated such gum in the works for very long. That is not to say that there weren't any Christian legionaries. I just don't think the behavior exhibited by this character was needed to validate that portion of the plot.

Inevidentably, people who have read my review of Ruth Downie's "Medicus" will ask me how I would compare the two, since both not only feature a Roman medicus as primary protagonist but both set the stage for action in Roman Britain, albeit different time periods. Downie's Ruso is a regular army medicus recently transferred to the XX Legion in the remote port of Deva (now Chester). He is starting over after a ruinous divorce from a socialite wife that has left him almost penniless. His father has also died leaving a mountain of unpaid bills to Ruso and his brother struggling to scratch a living from a small farm in Gaul. Ruso's sense of "dignitas" drives him to not only attempt to reverse his family's financial misfortunes by writing a medical treatise, but to become a reluctant sleuth when a serial killer surfaces in the seedier part of town and no one else seems to view the lives of the unfortunate prostitute victims as worth the trouble. Ruso is a healer first and foremost and only consequentially an investigator. Arcturus, on the other hand, seems to eagerly embrace the opportunity to discover "who done it", welcoming the diversion from the humdrum of the normal practice of the governor's medicus. Both men, though, seem to be equally gifted with the healing arts.

Ruso's world is also decidedly different that than of Arcturus and, with the exception of Ruso serendipitously saving the life of the emperor Trajan in an earthquake, did not include encounters with the famous. But that is not to say that Ruso did not interact with equally intriguing characters. Downie's dilapidated military outpost teemed with vibrantly-drawn people thriving in the cauldron of a remote Roman frontier where two cultures attempted to co-exist. Arcturus' Londonium is nearly as primitive, since it is decades earlier. But, Arcturus' lineage from a native mother married to a Roman centurion provides Arcturus with an internal conflict in which his two halves attempt to co-exist in a single body. So, I would say both novels offer a unique perspective on the Roman experience in Britain and I look forward to the next installment in both of these series.

One last note - I truly appreciate the writing device Kelli Stanley uses to acquaint the reader with common latin references. Each time she uses a latin word, she places it in italics and includes it in a gloassary at the end of the book. Since I have read a number of novels and nonfiction works about the Roman Empire, I was familiar with many of the terms without looking them up. However, I welcomed the opportunity to expand my latin vocabulary. I was particularly pleased to learn that posca was a cheap alcoholic drink made from vinegar and herbs. I had to smile when I read that since it made me think of the personality of Julius Caesar's wannabe-strategist-slave, Posca, in the HBO miniseries, "Rome". I think a blend of vinegar and herbs aptly described him!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Review - Soldier of Rome: The Legionary by James Mace

A history resource article by  © 2014

The first book in James Mace's Artorian Chronicles opens during the dramatic final moments of the disastrous ambush in Teutoburger Vald when Germanic tribes under the leadership of one-time Roman auxiliary officer, Arminius, wipe out the 17th, 18th and 19th legions of the first Roman emperor Augustus.  A few desperate survivors struggle through boggy marshes trying to rejoin their unit and defend their last few brethren from sacrifice to the barbarian's blood thirsty gods.

Ambush in Teutoburger Wald courtesy of Total War: Rome II by Creative Assembly
The scene changes and we meet a young Roman boy named Artorius who lives happily on his father's farm near Ostia.  His father, once a Primus Pilus in the legions, was grievously wounded and forced to retire.  But, he takes pride in his older son, Mettelus, who serves with the legions in Germania. Artorius, too, is fiercely proud of his older brother and dreams of joining the legions one day himself.
Then word arrives that Mettelus died heroically saving his Centurion at Teutoburger Vald. Artorius is crushed and vows to take revenge on the Germanic barbarians that took his brother's life.  He trains diligently to strengthen his body so he will be ready to join the legions when he assumes his manly toga.

1909 depiction of the defeat of Arminius' victory at Teutoburger Wald by Otto Albert Koch.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The day finally arrives for Artorius to enlist.  His father has signed the necessary documents and written a letter of introduction.  Artorius reports to the recruiting station in Ostia and soon finds himself on the way to Germania.

As Artorius undergoes training in basic weapons usage and close combat, the reader has the opportunity to learn about the proper handling and deployment of a pilum (Roman javelin), the movements to overcome the longer barabarian swords with the short, stabbing gladius and how the scutum, the distinctive rectangular shield, is maneuvered to batter an opponent or slice an enemy with its edge.

Artorius is also given instruction in the operation of siege weapons like the onager, a type of Roman catapult, and scorpion, a kind of automated cross bow.

The onager allowed the Romans to employ
fairly large projectiles at relatively long range.
It fired not only solid projectiles, but also a form
 of grapeshot made from smaller stones baked
in a clay ball. -

Artorius discovers that a childhood friend, Pontius Pilate, is one of the legion's artillery officers.  I thought that this was interesting as there is little information about Pilate's early military career. However, in the Russian satire, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, it is mentioned that Pontius Pilate fought in Germania during this period.

Mace vividly describes life as a legionary recruit, including their daily chores like  cooking  a breakfast of wheat cakes and bacon, as well as daily visits to the bath house.  Artorius makes friends of the other seven men in his tent and meets his instructors, centurions and commanding officers, so we also learn about their pasts, their motivations and any ambitions they may have.  Mace does an outstanding job of characterization and clearly his own military experience has given him insight into the development of comradery within a fighting unit.

Finally, Artorius is sworn into the Legio XX Valeria Victrix 2nd cohort as a full fledged legionary. But, his comrades and training officers are concerned about his anger over his brother's death and desire for revenge.  This becomes apparent during the first raid on a Germanic village when Artorius wounds a barbarian then, rather than giving the man a quick death, grinds a flaming torch into his face.

As the novel progresses, Artorius' legendary commander, Germanicus, leads the army of the Rhine on a vicious campaign of revenge against the Cherusci, the tribe of the traitor Arminius, as well as their allied tribes.  This campaign historically occurred between 14 and 16 CE.  Mace handles the battle sequences very well and you hear, see and smell combat from the viewpoint of those fighting in the front ranks, both Roman and German.

1st century CE portrait of legendary commander
Germanicus at the Palazzo Massimo in Rome, Italy.
Image by  © 2009
Artorius also helps recover the remains of the earlier Varian disaster, tracing the final struggle described by a surviving Centurion to his brother, giving his brother proper burial and releasing his shade to eternal rest.

Gravestone of Marcus Caelius, 1st Centurion of the
18th legion killed in Teutoburger Wald at the age
of 53.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The final battle at Idistaviso on the banks of the Weser River was not only riveting but an excellent description of Roman battle tactics employing infantry, cavalry and both types of Roman artillery. Although Tacitus gives us a general outline of the battle, Mace filled in the details quite expertly. Finally, Artorius' desire for revenge is more than sated as the legions slaughter thousands  (10,000-20,000 according to Tacitus).

Mace has obviously done extensive research in preparation for this novel and rarely deviates from the historical record.  One exception I noticed was Artorius kills Arminius' uncle, Inguiomerus, in the final battle of Idistaviso and garners his first silver torq for valor.  But, both Arminius and Inguiomerus escaped the battle of Idistaviso.

Although the famous monument to Arminius in
North Rhine-Wesphalia, Germany depicts the
Cherusci war leader as bearded and mustached,
this portrait bust shows him clean shaven.  If this
bust is properly identified, it may depict Arminius
while he was an auxiliary Roman commander.

Tacitus says, "As for Inguiomerus, who flew hither and thither over the battlefield, it was fortune rather than courage which forsook him." (Tacitus, Book 2.21)

I see how this somewhat vague statement gives Mace an opportunity to interpret Inguiomerus' loss of fortune on the battlefield.  However, as I read Tacitus further I found that Inguiomerus could not have been killed, because Tacitus tells us he later deserted Arminius in a war with Maroboduus, king of the Marcomanni.

"For when the Romans had departed and they were free from the fear of an invader, these tribes, according to the custom of the race, and then specially as rivals in fame, had turned their arms against each other. The strength of the two nations, the valour of their chiefs were equal. But the title of king rendered Maroboduus hated among his countrymen, while Arminius was regarded with favour as the champion of freedom." 
"Thus it was not only the Cherusci and their allies, the old soldiers of Arminius, who took up arms, but even the Semnones and Langobardi from the kingdom of Maroboduus revolted to that chief. With this addition he [Arminius] must have had an overwhelming superiority, had not Inguiomerus deserted with a troop of his dependants to Maroboduus, simply for the reason that the aged uncle scorned to obey a brother's youthful son." - Tacitus, The Annals, Book 2.44-45 
Modern statue of Roman historian Tacitus at
the parliament building in Vienna, Austria.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
However, for the purposes of drama, Mace's choice increased the esteem for the young legionary in the eyes of his comrades (important for subsequent novels) and was not disruptive to the main historical events that occurred in the narrative.

I recommend this novel not only for entertainment but as an excellent introduction to what life was like for a common soldier in the legions (so many other novels are written from the command perspective instead),   I also definitely look forward to reading the other books in this series. That is actually a pretty tall order in itself as James Mace is such a prolific author he has penned twelve books since publishing The Legionary in 2006 and only retired from a full-time career in the U.S. Army National Guard just three years ago.  Although he has now branched out into writing books about the Napoleonic Wars and the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, he has not abandoned ancient Rome entirely and just released book 2 of a new trilogy about the Roman-Jewish War of 66 to 73 CE. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

The House of the Tragic Poet: What's love got to do with it?

A history resource article by  © 2014

Remains of frescoes depicting mythological scenes in the triclinium
(dining room) in the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii.  Image courtesy
of Wikimedia Commons.
Recently, I watched a fascinating lecture by Professor Steven Tuck of Miami University on the interpretation of imagery found in the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii.  He describes the scenes of mythical and literary events as sharing an overall theme of love with the exception of a panel depicting the sacrifice of Iphigenia in a vestibule of the peristyle adjacent to the triclinium.  He also explained that this jumble of images was possibly the target of Petronius, Nero's official "arbiter of taste". In his "Satyricon" written during this period, Petronius derided such, as he perceived it, tasteless displays proffered up by the nouveau riche.

When Dr. Tuck described the images I found myself searching for more meaning in their inclusion in a family home, too, other than just ostentation. So I searched the web and stumbled across an article by Bettina Bergmann entitled "The Roman House As Memory Theater".  Bergmann expresses her opinion that, what on the surface may appear to some to be unrelated lavish literary and mythical depictions, may have actually been carefully chosen scenes to enable visitors to the house, as well as its residents, to relate contemporary events to the ancient epic past as a means to both appreciate and understand the culture they all shared.  I hope I understood her correctly.

She thinks the choice of decor served as memory tools, called the method of loci, or the "Roman Room" technique, to facilitate intelligent discourse as described by Cicero in his thesis on oratory, "De Oratore".  The method of loci, also known as the memory palace or mind palace technique, is a mnemonic device adopted by ancient Greek and Roman rhetoricians that relies on memorized spatial relationships to establish, order and recollect memorized content.

Portrait bust of the famous Roman orator Cicero.
Photographed at the Capitoline Museum by
 © 2005

"In this technique the subject memorizes the layout of some building, or the arrangement of shops on a street, or any geographical entity which is composed of a number of discrete loci. When desiring to remember a set of items the subject literally 'walks' through these loci and commits an item to each one by forming an image between the item and any distinguishing feature of that locus. Retrieval of items is achieved by 'walking' through the loci, allowing the latter to activate the desired items. The efficacy of this technique has been well established (Ross and Lawrence 1968, Crovitz 1969, 1971, Briggs, Hawkins and Crovitz 1970, Lea 1975), as is the minimal interference seen with its use." - John O'Keefe and Lynn Nadel, The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map

Although I agree that the House of the Tragic Poet could have served wonderfully well as a "memory theater", I think each room's decor would not only provide a distinctive loci, but remind the visitor of an important aspect of human relationship either within the family or the society as a whole.  Dr. Tuck focused on an underlying theme of love and it is certainly an underlying thread in many of the images.   But depictions of power of those in authority over socially subordinate individuals and the consequences of defying authority is also present and in the strictly ordered society of late Republican and early Imperial Rome, this message to visiting clients would not be overlooked.

As a client enters the atrium, to the right he would see a panel depicting Zeus and Hera on Mount Ida.

Fresco depicting the wedding of Zeus and Hera in the atrium
of the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii.  Image courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons.
"Zeus persuades his modest bride to lift her veil and reveal her face, which she turns suggestively to the viewer.  This canonical scheme, seen in a metope from Hera's 5th century BCE Temple at Selinus, celebrates that liminal passage in a woman's life from invisibility to exposure, virginity to marriage." - Bettina Bergmann, The Roman House as Memory Theater

Bergmann refers to various interpretations of the Iliad for this example.  From a client's perspective, though, the marriage could represent a metaphorical one between the client and the patron.  Furthermore the lifting of the veil could represent the need for complete disclosure between the client and patron as a necessary foundation for trust.

Next, the client would see a painting of Achilles sitting before his tent after he reluctantly releases his concubine, Briseis, to Patroclus, who leads her away to the tent of Agamemnon.  Briseis, too, turns her glance back toward the viewer as she holds up her veil to dry a tear.  To a client, this could remind him that sacrifices may have to be made but the patron has the right to expect this.

Fresco depicting The Greek hero Achilles surrounding his captive
prize Briseis to Patroclus who prepares to take her to King Agamemnon.
Image from the House of the Tragic Poet courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The third panel depicts Helen, also unveiled, boarding a ship that will take her from her homeland to Troy where strife and heartache await.  Again a client is reminded of the degree of sacrifice and obedience to which a patron is entitled.

Fresco depicting Helen boarding a ship
for Troy in the atrium of the House of
the Tragic Poet in Pompeii.  Image
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Once the client is called into the tablinum they find a scene of Alcestis hearing the news that her husband Admetus may be spared death if another dies in his place.  In the myth, the wife offers herself instead.  Obviously, a client-patron relationship in this period of Rome is to be taken very seriously and a client may need to be willing to throw himself under the chariot, so to speak, to save his patron.

Fresco of Alcestis hearing the news that her husband Admetus
will be spared if someone (her) dies in his place from the
House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii.  Image courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons.
The famous mosaic of  actors preparing to present a tragic satyr play stares up at the client from the floor.  The elderly choragos could again represent the patron who is instructing a flute player and two actors dressed in goatskin loincloths, representatives of the clients who are presenting themselves for their daily assignment.  I also think of this mosaic as reminding clients that they all have their parts to play (Even though Shakespeare was born many centuries later!)

Mosaic depicting the choregos and tragic actors from the tablinum in the
House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Of course all of my speculation is based on the viewpoint of a client visiting the patron which occurred every morning during the salutatio. But the underlying messages of respect for authority, obedience and sacrifice would apply even to the patron's visiting friends and peers since all would be considered in service to Rome. In her treatise, Bergmann offers all kinds of alternate suggestions based on image groupings from different angles that you may find interesting as well.

One image that gave Dr. Tuck pause to explain its connections to all the others from a viewpoint of love as the predominant theme is the image depicting the sacrifice of Iphigenia that adorns a small space of the peristyle diagonally across from the lararium.  I think it is actually the ultimate expression of love in the entire house, though.  In a Roman world of patron and client relationships and the exercising the role of pater familias, who has the power of life and death even over family members, I think this image served to remind the patron each morning after he sacrificed to his ancestors and household gods and turned to enter the tablinum, not to allow the heady intoxication of power and ambition lead him to sacrifice the most important people in his life or there would be dire consequences (like there was for Agamemnon!) - serving the purpose very much like the slave who rides with the triumphator in the triumphal chariot whispering, "remember, thou art mortal".

The sacrifice of Iphigenia found in a vestibule of the peristyle adjacent to
the triclinium.  I think this image would have reminded the patron of the
dire consequences of placing ambition above love for his familias.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I highly recommend that you read Bettina Bergmann's paper as it is not only interesting but has beautiful illustrations of the various reconstructed spaces within the House of the Tragic Poet.  I also recommend Dr. Steven Tuck's lecture series "Pompeii: Daily Life in an Ancient Roman City" available through The Great Courses.

The famous Cave Canem Mosaic at the entrance to the House of the Tragic
Poet.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 
The House of the Tragic Poet wasn't the only one with a
"Cave Canem" mosaic in the entryway.  Here's another
one I found in Pompeii in 2005.  Photograph by
 © 2005
One last note:  Dr. Tuck said Petronius made particular fun of the fact that the nouveau riche house in the Satyricon had a "Beware of Dog" mosaic at its entrance just like the House of the Tragic Poet. Petronius pointed out that it was totally ridiculous because all Roman houses have their door opened to the public during the day with, theoretically, all comers welcome.  I think the mosaic served as a subtle and very practical reminder to those who might be contemplating entering the home to do harm that, although the door is open, the house is guarded, whether literally or metaphorically - sort of the modern equivalent of posting a "Beware of Dog" sign even when you don't own one.  It makes perfect sense to me but, of course, I have never been designated as someone's arbiter of taste!

Roman Archaeology Timeline