Saturday, August 16, 2014

Review: Wolves Of The North by Harry Sidebottom

A history resource article by  © 2014

In Book Five of Dr. Harry Sidebottom's best-selling series, we find my favorite "Warrior of Rome", Marcus Claudius Ballista venturing even further north into the Asian steppe on a mission to deflect a potential alliance between the various tribes living there and the Persian Empire.  Ballista is stIll on tenuous terms with the Roman emperor Gallienus since Ballista was briefly forced to don the purple after the events in book 3, "Lion of the Sun".  But, his old friend has continued to avoid ordering Ballista's execution despite pressure from advisors in the emperor's concilium.  But, Ballista has other problems plaguing his faithful little band.  Even he is concerned about the curse called down upon him by one of the barbarian priestesses he refused to "marry" in Book 4, "The Caspian Gates" and now members of his column are being found murdered and horribly mutilated.

I read that Dr. Sidebottom had become interested in branching out to murder mysteries and it is reflected by this subplot.

Ballista's mission to attempt to negotiate a peace treaty with the fierce Heruli, notoriously known as eaters of flesh, is viewed as nearly impossible and the murders up the ante considerably.  So the tension in this novel is pretty much non-stop.  

A 54mm figurine of a 3rd century Alamanni
Warrior who attacks Ballista and his allied
Heruli.  Image courtesy of

Dr. Sidebottom immerses both Ballista and his readers in the culture of the Heruli as described by 6th century historian, Procopius.  In his author's notes he admits that Procopius was hardly objective about these Germanic peoples but Dr. Sidebottom had few other sources to rely on.  He then assumed the Heruli also assimilated cultural practices from other tribes with which they came into contact - cannabis use from the Scythians, wife sharing from the Agathyrsi (both attested to by Herodotus) and scapulimancy (divination by the study of a mammal's scapula - shoulder blade - that has been heated in a fire) and cranial deformation practiced by the Huns.

When Dr. Sidebottom first described the Heruli' s cranial deformation I was surprised as I had not studied the Huns in depth so associated cranial deformation with New World cultures like the Maya, especially since I have photographed a number of Pre- Colombian artifacts depicting individuals with apparently deformed skulls.  But when I researched this practice further, I learned that archaeologists have found a Neanderthal skull with evidence of intentional deformation dating back 45,000 years.  

The earliest written record of cranial deformation dates to 400 BC in Hippocrates' description of the Macrocephali or Long-heads, who were named for their practice of cranial modification. 
In the Old WorldHuns and Alans are also known to have practised similar cranial deformation. In Late Antiquity (AD 300-600), the East Germanic tribes who were ruled by the Huns, adopted this custom (GepidsOstrogothsHeruliRugii and Burgundians). In western Germanic tribes, artificial skull deformations have rarely been found. In the Americas the MayaInca, and certain tribes of North American natives performed the custom. In North America the practice was especially known among the Chinookan tribes of the Northwest and the Choctaw of the Southeast. The Native American group known as the Flathead did not in fact practise head flattening, but were named as such in contrast to other Salishan people who used skull modification to make the head appear rounder. However, other tribes, including the Choctaw,Chehalis, and Nooksack Indians, did practise head flattening by strapping the infant's head to acradleboard. The Lucayan people of the Bahamas practised it. The practice was also known among the Australian Aborigines. -Wikipedia
This elongated Allamani skull is an example of cranial
deformation.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Apparently. Germanic deformation has been confirmed archaeologically by remains found in a burial discovered in Austria. Anyway, I thought this vibrant culture provided a fascinating context for the novel's events.

Another fascinating aspect of the book is one of the characters practices physiognomy.  Physiognomy is the assessment of a person's character based upon his physical attributes, particularly the structure of their face. It is thought to have been formalized by Greek philosophers of the 5th century BCE Athens.  It gained widespread acceptance among philosophers of the 4th century BCE and was even embraced to some degree by Aristotle.

It is possible to infer character from features, if it is granted that the body and the soul are changed together by the natural affections: I say "natural", for though perhaps by learning music a man has made some change in his soul, this is not one of those affections natural to us; rather I refer to passions and desires when I speak of natural emotions. If then this were granted and also that for each change there is a corresponding sign, and we could state the affection and sign proper to each kind of animal, we shall be able to infer character from features.  — Aristotle, Prior Analytics 2.27 (Trans. A. J. Jenkinson)

The oldest extant work about physiognomy
was written by Aristotle.  Photographed at the
Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy by
 © 2009
So it was interesting to read what the book's practitioner inferred from the physical appearance of those around him.
As for Ballista himself we are now in fictional territory since he disappeared from the historical record after the battles with the Persians and Roman usurpers portrayed in "Lion of the Sun".  Although he is struggling a bit with getting older, he is still the courageous warrior I first admired in "Fire In The East".  I fear my time with him is drawing to a close, though, as death seems to be circling his familia. I've alway had a hard time saying "goodbye" and it will be especially hard this time after journeying with Ballista through so many adventures. I guess I'll find out if he finally meets his end as I've already purchased Book Six, "The Amber Road."

Monday, June 30, 2014

Anthropomancy and other slanders against Julian the Apostate

A history resource article by  © 2014

Today, I read a review of Terry Deary's latest book "Dangerous Days in the Roman Empire" and was appalled by his apparent support of claims that the ancient Romans regularly engaged in anthropomancy, the foretelling of the future by the examination of the entrails of human sacrifices.  Deary gained notoriety for his "Horrible Histories" series for children. The books were later the basis for a BBC television series. (I tried to watch an episode of the television series once and found it so sensationalistic and lacking in historical accuracy (in my opinion) I couldn't even bother to finish it - and yes, I'm sorry to say the BBC is not immune from the production of inaccurate documentaries).

Julian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarians, by Edward Armitage, 1875
Anyway, I was curious as to why Deary would include such misinformation and what sources may have misled him.  So I did a search on anthropomancy +Roman and found a reference to the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate and anthropomancy.

The online "Occultopedia" claims Julian engaged in macabre moonlight rituals in which large numbers of children were sacrificed so he could study the movement in their entrails.  Of course no ancient sources are provided for this citation.  The article goes on to claim just before Julian's fatal encounter with the Persians at the Battle of Samarra, Julian secreted himself into the Temple of the Moon at Carra.  When called unexpectedly back to battle, he locked the temple behind him. Later, after his death, the temple was reopened and a woman with her liver torn out was found hanging by her hair.  Again, no ancient sources were provided.

19th century agnostic and orator
Robert Green Ingersoll.
So where did these charges originate?  Well, I found a citation by 19th century agnostic Robert Green Ingresoll that references such reports and attributes them to two of Julian's enemies (and so-called Fathers of the Church), Gregory and Theodoret.  But Ingresoll wisely takes into context the political and theologically-charged environment of the empire at the time and professes his belief in their lack of credibility:

"They say that the Emperor Julian [AD 331-363] was an "apostate"; that he was once a Christian; that he fell from grace, and that in his last moments, throwing some of his own blood into the air, he cried out to Jesus Christ, "Galilean, thou hast conquered!" 
It must be remembered that the Christians had persecuted and imprisoned this very Julian; that they had exiled him; that they had threatened him with death. Many of his relatives were murdered by the Christians. He became emperor, and Christians conspired to take his life. The conspirators were discovered and they were pardoned. He did what he could to prevent the Christians from destroying each other. He held pomp and pride and luxury in contempt, and led his army on foot, sharing the privations of the meanest soldier. 
Upon ascending the throne he published an edict proclaiming universal religious toleration. He was then a Pagan. It is claimed by some that he never did entirely forget his Christian education. In this I am inclined to think there is some truth, because he revoked his edict of toleration, and for a time was nearly as unjust as though he had been a saint. He was emperor one year and seven months. In a battle with the Persians he was mortally wounded. "Brought back to his tent, and feeling that he had but a short time to live, he spent his last hours in discoursing with his friends on the immortality of the soul. He reviewed his reign and declared that he was satisfied with his conduct, and had neither penitence nor remorse to express for anything that he had done." His last words were: "I submit willingly to the eternal decrees of heaven, convinced that he who is captivated with life, when his last hour has arrived is more weak and pusillanimous than he who would rush to voluntary death when it is his duty still to live." 
Some early Christians attribute Julian's death to Saint
Mercurius, a converted Roman soldier executed by the
Roman emperor Decius during one of his religious persecutions.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
 When we remember that a Christian emperor murdered Julian's father and most of his kindred, and that he narrowly escaped the same fate, we can hardly blame him for having a little prejudice against a church whose members were fierce, ignorant, and bloody -- whose priests were hypocrites, and whose bishops were assassins. If Julian had said he was a Christian -- no matter what he actually was, he would have satisfied the church. 
The story that the dying emperor acknowledged that he was conquered by the Galilean was originated by some of the so-called Fathers of the Church, probably by Gregory or Theodoret. They are the same wretches who said that Julian sacrificed a woman to the moon, tearing out her entrails with his own hands. We are also informed by these hypocrites that he endeavored to rebuild the temple of Jerusalem, and that fire came out of the earth and consumed the laborers employed in the sacrilegious undertaking. 
I did not suppose that an intelligent man could be found in the world who believed this childish fable, and yet in the January number for 1880, of the Princeton Review, the Rev. Stuart Robinson (whoever he may be) distinctly certifies to the truth of this story. He says: "Throughout the entire era of the planting of the Christian Church, the gospel preached was assailed not only by the malignant fanaticism of the Jew and the violence of Roman statecraft, but also by the intellectual weapons of philosophers, wits, and poets. Now Celsus denounced the new religion as base imposture. Now Tacitus described it as but another phase of theodium generius humani. Now Julian proposed to bring into contempt the prophetic claims of its founder by the practical test of rebuilding the Temple." Here then in the year of grace 1880 is a Presbyterian preacher who really believes that Julian tried to rebuild the Temple, and that God caused fire to issue from the earth and consume the innocent workmen. 
All these stories rest upon the same foundation, the mendacity of [Christian] priests.
Julian changed the religion of the Empire, and diverted the revenues of the church. Whoever steps between a priest and his salary, will find that he has committed every crime. No matter how often the slanders may be refuted, they will be repeated until the last priest has lost his body and found his wings. These falsehoods about Julian were invented some fifteen hundred years ago, and they are repeated to-day by just as honest and just as respectable people as these who told them at first. Whenever the church cannot answer the arguments of an opponent, she attacks his character. She resorts to falsehood, and in the domain of calumny she has stood for fifteen hundred years without a rival. 
The great Empire was crumbling to its fall. The literature of the world was being destroyed by priests. The gods and goddesses were driven from the earth and sky. The paintings were torn and defaced. The statues were broken. The walls were left desolate, and the niches empty. Art, like Rachel, wept for her children, and would not be comforted. The streams and forests were deserted by the children of the imagination, and the whole earth was barren, poor and mean.
Christian ignorance, bigotry and hatred, in blind unreasoning zeal, had destroyed the treasures of our race. Art was abhorred, Knowledge was despised, Reason was an outcast. The sun was blotted from the intellectual heaven, every star extinguished, and there fell upon the world that shadow -- that midnight, known as "The Dark Ages." - Julian the Apostate by Robert Green Ingersoll
St. Gregory Nazianzen.
Image courtesy of
If one of the ancient sources was, in fact, Gregory Nazianzen, how credible would such a defaming report be by someone who stridently and publicly describes Julian as the public and private enemy of all in common?

"HEAR me all ye nations, give ear unto me all ye dwellers upon earth," for I am calling on you all, as it were, from a conspicuous and lofty watch-tower, with a cry both high and loud. Hear ye nations, tribes, tongues, every kind of men, and every age, as many as now are, and as many as shall be; and in order that my proclamation may be greater, every Power of heaven, all ye Angels, whose deed was the putting down of the tyrant, who have overthrown not Sihon, king of the Amorites, nor Og, king of Bashan -- insignificant princes, and injuring but a small part the land of Israel -- but the Dragon, the Apostate, the Great Mind, the Assyrian, the public and private enemy of all in common, him that has madly raged and threatened much upon earth, and that has spoken and meditated much unrighteousness against Heaven! " - Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 4: First Invective Against Julian

As for Theodoret of Cyrus, the fifth century Eusebian scholar was probably merely repeating stories promulgated by Gregory and, perhaps, Theodoret's knowledge that Julian was an initiate of the Eleusinian Mysteries (associated with mysterious nighttime rituals). Theodoret may have been further motivated by Gregory's possible association of Julian with the Assyrian Church of the East (at least one possible interpretation - note the reference to "the Assyrian" in Gregory's tirade above, although this could have been merely an ethnic slur as Julian was born in Constantinople - ancient Assyria, known for its martial brutality - but let's run with my alternate theory.)

The Assyrian Church of the East originally developed during the 1st century CE in the Mesopotamian Eastern Aramaic speaking regions of Assyria, Babylonia, and northwestern Persia (today's Iraq, southeast Turkey, northeast Syria and north western Iran.  It is considered an apostolic church founded by  the apostles St. Thomas (Mar Toma), St. Thaddeus (Mar Addai), and St. Bartholomew (Mar Bar Tulmay). Scholars of the church advanced the doctrine that Christ embodied two natures, one human and the other divine.  But this viewpoint (later referred to as Nestorianism) was later declared heretical and was one of many rejected by Theodoret and other followers of Eusebius of Caesarea who promoted Arian-like interpretations of the nature of Christ.  Ironically, though, Julian actually spent his early childhood with Eusebius of Nicomedia, also a strong supporter of Arianism.

Of course I must admit I realize a reference associating Julian with a Christian theology in the first place would be considered highly improbable, since Julian "The Apostate" is painted by history as the last "pagan" emperor.  Other scholars, though, have also found Julian's actual beliefs to be puzzling since he often appeared to be merely attempting to return the Empire to its former religiously tolerant state rather than promoting one religion over another.  Furthermore, Julian spent quite a bit of time in Mesopotamia and another scenario could have been that he at one point actively studied cultural beliefs of the region in anticipation of its conquest and this apparent interest was misinterpreted.  Sadly, our contemporary source material for the 4th and 5th centuries is woefully fragmented, so all we can do is speculate.

Anyway, I hope I have made my point about the folly of quoting sources (even ancient ones) without investigating the political context in which they were made and the relationship of the source with the target, especially if the information is defamatory in nature.  At least Ingersoll approached these sources with a scholar's healthy skepticism (although he obviously had his own axes to grind) rather than blindly repeating them as a sensational "fact" as Deary does in a book touted as "nonfiction".

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Persians by Aeschylus to be presented at the Getty Villa

A history resource article by  © 2014
A Persian soldier depicted in the mosaic of the Battle of Issus from the House of the Faun in Pompeii, 1st century BCE - 1st century CE.  Photographed at the Archaeological Museum of Naples, Italy by  © 2007
I see that "The Persians" by Aeschylus is slated to be the annual outdoor production in the Greek-style theater at the Getty Villa this year:

Persians by Aeschylus

September 4–27: Tickets on sale July 1 | The Getty Villa

Tickets for the Getty Villa's Annual Outdoor Theater Production go on sale July 1!

Directed by Anne Bogart
Created and Performed by SITI Company
Translated by Aaron Poochigian

This emotional story of war, victory, and loss experienced by an imagined Persian court is not only the earliest Greek tragedy to survive, but also the sole surviving play centered on a historic battle. Persians glorifies the Athenian victors, yet humanizes the defeated Persians, emphasizing the universal impact of war on family and community.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

300 Sequel Stylishly Lays Waste To History

An ancient history resource article by  © 2014

Note: although this article refers to historical sources, film viewers unfamiliar with history may consider some of the examples provided as spoilers.

Years ago when I went to the theater to see "Troy" and within the first few minutes saw Menelaus skewered by Hector, I muttered to myself, "So much for Homer". To me, that plot point signaled that I shouldn't expect much as far as literary parallel was concerned. I felt the same way watching 300: Rise of an Empire" when Themistocles drew a bead on Darius and skewered the great king with an arrow during the battle of Marathon. At least Menelaus was at the siege of Troy! Darius wasn't even present at the battle of Marathon and I'm afraid Xerxes wasn't either!

However, at least Themistocles is thought to be was one of ten strategoi (generals) that rotated command at Marathon. But, It was Miltiades who was credited with the charge that ultimately succeeded in routing the Persians.

Relief of the Persian king Xerxes (485-465 BC) in the
doorway of his palace at Persepolis, modern-day Iran.
The bearers of the parasol and the towel-and flywhisk
symbolize the royalty and power of the monarch.
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Remembering the appearance of Xerxes in the original "300", I was surprised to see an average-looking Xerxes at the beginning of this sequel. The battle of Marathon, of course, preceded the battle of Thermopylae so this little flashback is provided to give us insight into Xerxes development. The backstory reveals how the rather ordinary princeling is bullied by Artemisia into undertaking a mysterious religious rite that converts him into the towering God-King dripping with gold chains attached to a plethora of body piercings that we first encountered in "300".

Bas reliefs at Persepolis do depict Xerxes as significantly taller than his servants but size differences were often used in ancient art to indicate differences in social status. And as for Xerxes fashion sense, he is shown wearing the traditional royal robes of an Achaemenid ruler and sports the intricately curled beard in fashion with Persian nobles at the time - a far cry from the hairless punk rocker pictured in the film.

As for Xerxes deification, there is some disagreement among scholars as to Xerxes religious beliefs. But, Herodotus reports Xerxes claimed he ruled by divine rite bestowed by Ahura Mazda - a clear reference to the Zoroastrianism adopted by his father Darius and an acknowledgement of a power greater than him.

So, what of his fetish for gold? Xerxes actually punished his subjects in Babylon by destroying their temple of Marduke and melting down the god's golden statue. None of the ancient sources say what he did with it.  I suppose the imaginative among us could propose he ordered a pair of gold speedos but I seriously doubt it. The gold was most probably used to finance Xerxes' ambitious building projects. According to Herodotus, Xerxes oversaw the building of the Gate of all Nations and the Hall of a Hundred Columns at Persepolis, which are the largest and most imposing structures of the palace. He oversaw the completion of the Apadana, the Palace of Darius and the Treasury all started by Darius as well as having his own palace built which was twice the size of his father's.  He also maintained the Royal Road built by his father and completed the Susa Gate and built a palace at Susa. With Xerxes' taste for projects even more gigantic than his father's I doubt that there was a lot of that gold left by the time Xerxes was assassinated in 465 BCE.  It's too bad the film makers couldn't have worked that into the story to lend at least a little authenticity to the "god-king" claim.

Xerxes I lashes the sea for destroying his first
bridge across the Hellespont during the second
Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BCE.  Image
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
I was surprised, though, that Xerxes played a much more minor role in this film than he did in the original. He appears to have been used by the filmmakers as a visual linchpin to the original film but little else. Most of the action is centered squarely on Themistocles and Artemisia. We get a little backstory on Artemisia that is pure comic book fantasy in which she is captured and abused until near death. Then a kindly passing Persian saves her and trains her up to be a great warrior. This fictional background is provided to explain Artemisia's bitterness and rather homicidal behavior.

But, in fact, Artemisia's father was the king of Halicarnassus, Lygdamis I and she was probably raised in a palace. How she developed her leadership skills was not divulged in the ancient sources.  Herodotus does not describe her martial prowess either, just her considerable cunning. But I doubt Xerxes would have entrusted the care of some of his offspring to Artemisia after the battle of Salamis if she had been the female psychopath portrayed in the film.

The film makers do not provide any significant backstory for Themistocles. This is where the film makers drop the ball. Themistocles' mother was born in Hallicarnassus - a countrywoman of Artemisia. His mother's ancestry was a major obstacle to Themistocles in his rise to political prominence in Athens and it could have served as a basis for heightened tension between Themistocles and Artemisia if Themistocles psychologically transferred his deep seeded resentment of his mother's heritage to Artemisia. But, perhaps this would have been considered too "intellectual" for the film's targeted demographic.  Instead we get a revenge-crazed female super warrior taking on a representative of male martial superiority.

Of course anytime you have a contentious male-female relationship, Hollywood cannot pass up the opportunity to inject a lascivious sex scene. The one in " Rise of an Empire" is nothing short of raw brutality. There is no seduction and definitely no submission - just a vicious wrestling match with each participant trying to end up on top. I certainly hope young male viewers do not idolize this approach to human sexuality.

The climax of the film is even more comic book fantasy. Rather than portray Artemisia's actual hair-raising escape from the Greek trap at Salamis by ramming friendly ships that got in her way or quickly switching flags to confuse pursing Greek ships, film makers give us a fight to the death that simply never occurred.

I was also dumbfounded by the appearance of a Spartan fleet that supposedly saved the day. Spartan warriors were admired for their prowess on the battlefield but Sparta was not a formidable sea power. In fact, I didn't even think they had any warships but found in my research that they did contribute a meager 16 ships to the Greek allied fleet. In contrast, Athens manned about 180 ships at Salamis.

I was also exasperated by the film makers inferring that Themistocles did not really plan the trap in the straits of Salamis but merely fought the battle as it developed out of sheer desperation - a great disservice to the genius of Themistocles!

In summary, I admit that I enjoyed the male eye candy as much as any other female viewer, but I would encourage anyone truly interested in the actual events and the amazing female admiral that survived the real battle of Salamis to check out Herodotus' actual account.

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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Book Review: Pompeii: A Tale of Murder in Ancient Rome by Robert Colton

An ancient-themed historical fiction review by  © 2013

An ice storm and four day power outage gave me the opportunity to finally read a Kindle version of this book by new author, Robert Colton.

A fictional 19-year-old protagonist named Marcellus Sempronius Gracchus (yes, a descendant of the famous Gracchi brothers) and his Egyptian slave, Tay, are touring Roman sites around the Mediterranean before Marcellus reports for military duty in Syria when Marcellus receives a letter from his uncle that his father is dying in Rome.  The uncle provides all of the transportation arrangements for Marcellus to return home so Marcellus and Tay board a ship to return them to the Roman mainland.  It is late in the sailing season and a difficult passage results in the ship needing to stop for supplies in Pompeii.  There, Marcellus witnesses a funeral procession for a local magistrate that catches his attention.  His interest is piqued still further when a trip to the baths yields gossip that the magistrate was probably murdered.  But Marcellus cannot linger to learn anything more.

When Marcellus and Tay resume their journey, they find that an elderly freedman named Darvus, who has boarded their ship, carries a letter from the widow they had witnessed in the funeral procession to a woman named Helen in Rome.  But the obviously ill old man dies before they reach their destination.  Before dying, however, Darvus asks Marcellus to deliver the letter for him and this task serves as the event that will launch Marcellus and Tay on an investigation that will be the basis of the plot for the rest of the novel.

Colton does a good job of recreating the ancient world, fleshing out his characters and writing dialogue. But as you read the backstory of his protagonist, Marcellus, you discover he is a rather feckless young man who has very little ambition and has spent much of his time since donning his toga virilus chasing married women and drinking himself insensible.  His slave companion, Tay, in contrast, is far more  astute in the ways of business and social relationships and experienced in physical combat.  Where Marcellus is an outright coward, Tay faces threats with a clear head and, if need be, a swift, lethal response, making Tay the more dynamic character.  But Tay is not framed as the main character, creating a problem with balance in the narrative.

When the pair arrive in Rome, Marcellus is surprised to find his hateful father still alive and we learn that father and son have had a contentious relationship for most of Marcellus' life.  When Marcellus mistakenly sends the secretive Helen the wrong letter from the stack in his father's office, Helen storms into Marcellus' home during the morning salutatio and confronts Marcellus in front of his father, who promptly suffers a fatal heart attack.  His father's old clients waiting in the atrium rush in and see blood all over the floor and will not believe Marcellus' father merely struck his head on the corner of his desk when he fell.  Helen, not wishing to become involved with imperial prosecutors, rushes away and Marcellus, without a corroborating witness is wrongly accused of patricide.  So, Marcellus and Tay must flee Rome to escape retribution from the unstable emperor, Nero.

As the pair gallop back toward Pompeii, slave and patrician reverse roles as a disguise in an attempt to elude authorities .  This plot twist, however, further exacerbates the character imbalance between the protagonist and his slave companion as Tay is now dressed as a wealthy Roman merchant and Marcellus is following along in the role of a mute valet.

On the road to Pompeii, Marcellus and Tay cross paths once more with Helen who has left Rome to return to Pompeii as instructed by the mysterious letter.  Marcellus is desperate for Helen to bear witness to the actual events leading up to his father's death to clear him.  But the heavily pregnant Helen is already engaged in a secret mission for the widow Fabia in Pompeii and tells Marcellus his favor must wait until she fulfills her other obligations.

But Helen meets a grisly end before she can bear witness for Marcellus.  So Marcellus and Tay must find Helen's companion, Marcus, who has also disappeared, to act as witness.

Once back in Pompeii, Tay, now a Roman businessman named Octavius Regulus with a mute valet named Demetrius (the former Marcellus),  plans is to embed himself in Pompeii society so he and Marcellus will not be viewed as suspicious as they investigate people who might know where Marcus may be hiding.  Tay begins by entering into a business relationship with a pretentious brothel owner named Popidius. (Marcellus has sent a secret letter to his wealthy friend Petronius requesting financial help and Petronius has responded with the delivery of a heavily laden strongbox.  So, money is the least of their worries at this point.)

But, the devastating earthquake of 62 CE (some sources claim 63 CE) strikes Pompeii and Regulus and Demetrius are left with a brothel full of alluring women and murder suspects lurking behind toppled columns and collapsed buildings.

I thought Colton did a particularly good job of describing the aftermath of the earthquake and the rescues and rebuilding efforts of Pompeii's citizens.  He also describes the activities of the brothel and religious activities of the period quite well, too.

But a weak protagonist who simply allows himself to be propelled by events rather than driving the plot is a fatal flaw in the narrative and diminishes the story's overall impact.

Although the murder mystery is ultimately resolved, I found it disconcerting that Marcellus was never vindicated for the death of his father and never can be under the parameters established by the author (which I found unconvincing in the first place).  So, I'm afraid the ending left me unsatisfied.  But I admire the obvious research and hard work that went into this first effort.
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Roman Archaeology Timeline