Monday, 18 February 2013

Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar

[Posted here because it might interest readers of The Empire’s Corps]

-Rob Goodman

There is no shortage of irony, as Goodman notes, in George Washington holding Cato the Younger up as an example of resistance to tyranny. Even if we accept that Caesar was a tyrant (and he had yet to take supreme power at the time Cato committed suicide) we have to note that Cato played a large role in creating the crisis that eventually led to the Civil War and Caesar’s eventually victory (and later assassination.) Cato’s closest analogy during the American Revolution would not be Washington, or Franklin ... but Lord North.

Cato the Elder was known for holding a grudge. He was, among other things, the loudest voice demanding the destruction of Cartage; he was very involved in provoking the incidents that eventually led to the Third and Final Punic War. His son was all that and more, eventually seeing his name becoming a byword for honesty, stubborn integrity and a complete refusal to compromise. Cicero’s rather snide comment – “he talks as though he were in Plato’s Republic, rather than Romulus’s Shithole” – sums Cato up perfectly.

That stubbornness developed at a very early age. When he and his teenage playmates were ordered to serve under the child of one of Sulla’s associates, they rebelled and went on strike. This could have ended very badly for the teenagers, but instead Sulla allowed them to choose their own leader. They chose Cato. (Caesar too was a recipient of Sulla’s grumbles, but eventual forgiveness.) Unsurprisingly, Cato became soundly Republican and openly expressed a desire to kill the Dictator. His tutor insisted on searching him before allowing the young man anywhere near Sulla.

Like most Roman politicians, Cato spent time in the military. (The concept of separating the military and political sphere would have been alien to the Romans.) He shared his men’s hardships and became very popular with them, something that would be of aid to him in later life. Upon returning to Rome, he was put in charge of managing the treasury, which he did with considerable skill. However, Cato’s excellent personal example was unable to produce lasting reform – as he discovered upon a return visit. Honesty and integrity were still largely lacking from the department.

Cato’s first major clash with Caesar came about in the aftermath of the Catiline conspiracy. Caesar argued that the suspects should be jailed permanently (a very un-Roman suggestion) while Cato and Cicero argued for their deaths. They won. (This would come back to haunt Cicero, although Cato largely escaped the consequences.) Cato’s personal dislike for Caesar might have stemmed from an incident when he discovered that his half-sister was having an affair with Caesar. However, there was plenty about the young man to dislike.

When Pompey returned from campaigning in the Middle East, Cato was one of the politicians who worked to block Pompey’s requests for land for his veterans. Cato was so stubbornly opposed to this that he refused the offer of a marriage alliance between himself and Pompey, one of many times when his stubbornness and principles cost him a chance to avert the looming disaster. This was short-sighted, to say the least; eventually, Pompey allied with Crassus and Caesar, allowing them to dominate Rome. Cato showed no lack of personal courage in opposing the three strongmen, but he failed.

As part of his moves against Cicero, Clodius moved to send Cato to Cyprus and annex it to Rome. Cato refused, at first, but was unable to avoid being dispatched to the island, clearing the way for Clodius to move against Cicero. Cato did his task extremely well – unlike many Roman governors, he took nothing for himself – and returned to Rome with perfect account books ... both of which were lost in transit. Only his reputation for integrity saved him from suspicion of fraud. (Although, given the nature of most Roman governors of the time, it is hard to think what he could have done that would be worse.)

Cato was back in Rome to witness the political storm that swept over the Republic when Crassus died, unbalancing the relationship between Caesar and Pompey. Stubbornly defending the ancient system, Cato helped to make it impossible for both sides to find a compromise – and therefore ensured that there would be war. Cato fled Rome with most of the Senate as Caesar advanced from the north, then accompanied Pompey into exile. His faith in victory (or stubbornness) kept him going even after Pompey was defeated in the battle of Pharsalus. Eventually, with Caesar’s forces finishing off the Republicans, Cato committed suicide.

Like many modern-day politicians, Cato had great difficulty balancing his private and personal life. He was stubbornly incorruptible – there is no reliable evidence that he ever took anything for himself – but tended to take a milder view of corruption when family were involved. His behaviour with his second wife – he divorced her so that someone else could marry her, then remarried her after her new husband died – was strange even by Roman standards. (What his wife thought of it, if she was consulted at all, is not reported.)

Cato also had problems dealing with his friends, preferring to stand by his principles instead. He was friendly with Cicero, but was responsible for denying him a Triumph (a military parade in his honour) after his return from Cilicia. He also offended a friend who visited him in Cyprus by not laying on the customary banquet, causing a freeze between the two men that lasted for several years. Indeed, his reputation was something of a weakness. Most Roman politicians found him difficult to deal with. (It is suggested that his removal from naval command and transfer him to a port was because Pompey didn’t like him, although – as only ill-luck prevented Bibulus from scoring a decisive victory, it is possible that Pompey made the right choice.)

Sometimes, this became absurd. Cato was unquestionably the best person to assume command of the Republicans after Pompey’s death, but chose to stand aside, first promoting Cicero (a laughable concept) and then Metellus Scipio. His reasoning? They were both higher than him in the chain of command. is

Outside politics, Cato is best known as an advocate of Stoicism. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans managed to incorporate it into their political system, with Cato attracting several admirers for his rectitude. Without him, it is unlikely that it would have continued to gain adherents in Rome, including (eventually) Marcus Aurelius.

There is a certain tendency to idealise Cato as a champion of liberty, a staunch defender of the republic against Caesar. However, Republican Rome had become a powder keg by the time Caesar and his enemies came to blows. Cato’s opposition to the Land Bill (which eventually boiled down to ‘let well enough alone’) might have been in the interest of the Senate, but not that of the poor, starving and dispossessed. His attempts to isolate and marginalise Pompey pushed him into Caesar’s arms; his attempt to cripple, then exile Caesar helped spark off the Civil War. In short, Cato did a great deal to keep the lid on the powder keg, but all he did was eventually make the explosion worse. The Republic Cato so loved had become snarled up; if Caesar had fallen, it is unlikely that it would have somehow automatically become better. By the time the storm passed – and Augustus Caesar became Rome’s first true Emperor – the Republic was well and truly dead.

Cato’s political life might well serve as a warning, rather than something to emulate. Great political storms will sweep over our world; those that try to be too stubborn in defence of the old order will be destroyed. Those that learn to bend and adept will survive.

Overall, this is a very good book on a fascinating character. Well worth a read.

Friday, 7 December 2012

The Kildaran

-Adam Gaffen and Richard Evans, based on a universe by John Ringo

It is rather curious that while I normally like John Ringo’s writing, Ghost was the only book of his that I couldn't really get into. By around CH7 of the first part of the novel, my sense of the absurd was overpowering my suspension of disbelief and I gave up. But then I read Book Two and found myself hooked. The Paladin of Shadows series is politically incorrect, strongly masculine...in short, very much like James Bond. Mike Harmon, former SEAL, is just what every man wants to be.

The series is set in an alternate universe of sorts, where a tribe of families – the Kilder – live in a mountain settlement in Georgia (the country, not the state). In Book Two, Mike accidentally becomes their leader and starts training them up as proper warriors. This expands rapidly through the next three books, with the families eventually serving as a Special Operations force closely allied to the US military, battling terrorists, insurgents, criminals...and saving the world on more than one occasion. John doesn’t sugar-coat anything; the villains are very evil, the barbaric habits and customs of certain cultures are illustrated, along with the result of criminal activities like drug trafficking and sexual slavery.

Part of the charm of the series lies in the Kilder themselves. At first, they appear to be just another tribe in a barbaric and deeply corrupt country. As the series continues to expand, however, they reveal surprising depths – and their origins, drawn from a lost tribe of Vikings. (This isn't entirely impossible. There are suggestions that Romans, captured in Persia, eventually ended up in China.) Some of their customs are thoroughly odd, but just right to appeal to the readers. One example is a form of ‘bride price,’ with the bride selling her virginity to Mike for her dowry. And even that has deeper implications...

One of the most important characters in the series is Katrina, a young girl who Mike rescued right back at the start of Book Two. Unsurprisingly, she fell in love with him; surprisingly, Mike didn't move in on her at once. Katrina set her sights on becoming the Kildaran, the wife of the KIldar, and was working towards it when John Ringo put the series on hiatus.

Adam Gaffen and Richard Evens, however, have continued the series with The Kildaran. With Mike settling into a kind of domestic life in the village, complete with harem, Katrina finally makes her move, convincing him to marry her. In the meantime – because it wouldn't be the same without a B-Plot – several nukes have gone missing in Russia and one of them might be on the way to the village. Another seems to be heading for Moscow...which is a problem, because Mike and Putin have clashed once before and Putin wants him dead.

As Mike allows his relationship with Katrina to grow and develop, the teams scramble to hunt down the nukes before they can be deployed, unaware that a deadly shadow from the past has returned to take revenge on Mike – and one of his most trusted allies.

I wrote two books set in one of John Ringo’s universes, but Adam and Richard took on a much harder task, using John Ringo’s characters. I can offer no higher praise than to say that all of the characters sound right, very much like their original versions. Even the ones who have grown up over the novel (and previous books) show very definite links to the past, particularly Katya. It is a rare fan fiction writer who manages to mimic the original style so well, but this book definitely succeeds.

Like the books written by John Ringo in this universe, the novel is delightfully and outrageously over the top. Beautiful women, cool gadgets, villains who thoroughly deserve every bad thing that happens to them, a complete lack of political correctness...

What more do you want?

The Kildaran can be downloaded for free from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/260223

Or you can visit the author’s blog - http://www.thekildaran.blogspot.com/

And you can download the first five books from http://baencd.freedoors.org/Discs/Baen%2018/index.htm

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Admiral Who? - Luke Sky Wachter

 

Humans love having someone to blame for their problems. Admiral Battenberg of the Riyal Navy was hounded from office for having a German name in 1914. Stalin lopped off the heads of officers he blamed for disasters suffered by the Red Army during World War Two, as did Saddam. The whole idea of a scapegoat in times of trouble is as old as humanity itself. Someone has to be the fall guy.

In the universe of Admiral Who, the Montagne family launched an attempted coup against the government – and lost. Naturally, everyone on the wrong side (the one that lost) who managed to survive was treated as a pariah from that moment onwards. Jason Montagne grew up knowing that his sole role in life was to serve as Parliament commanded, with execution waiting in the wings if he showed any signs of political ambition. (Not too unlike a British Royal, only we hound them with reporters instead.) His latest position – which is supposed to be purely honorary – is nominal commander of a fleet in deep space. Real power is firmly in the hands of the Imperial Admiral in command...

...Until the Imperials withdraw, taking with them the best and brightest of the fleet – and leaving Jason in command. Jason, who knows nothing about deep space operations, let alone combat. Jason, who will be executed for returning home with a fleet, even one that seems on the verge of mutiny. Jason, who seems thoroughly screwed.

Jason is far from a perfect hero, which is part of his charm. He blunders from crisis to crisis – mutinous crews, an invading enemy – somehow managing to stay ahead of absolute disaster. His ignorance is both his strength and weakness; at one point, he gives a very famous sword to a girl he rescued, only to discover that she was furious with him. It turns out that giving a girl a sword, in her culture, is a proposal of marriage. And to add to the problem, there was more than a hint of accidental coercion in his actions...which makes Jason look like a dishonourable prat rather than someone who made a honest mistake.

He is helped by an Engineer who may be more than a little insane (and utterly devoted to the Lucky Clover, the ship Jason commands) and a crew that seems rather split on the issue of following him. Some just want to go home, others fear what he could do with an entire starship and plot to kill him.

As the story progresses, Jason finds himself growing into his role – even if everyone does keep asking the same question. “Admiral WHO?”

Overall, this book is a wonderful blend of comedy and space opera, very much like the early pulp science-fiction stories. If you liked the Stainless Steel Rat books, you’ll like this one. It is well worth a read.

Admiral Who can be downloaded from Amazon Kindle.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Dark Mirror (Star Trek: The Next Generation)

 

-Dianne Dune

“It is easier for the civilised man to play the barbarian than vice versa.”

Star Trek has often been a hit-or-miss show for me. Some episodes had great ideas, some were corny and often puerile. But one of the most interesting shows was Mirror, Mirror, when Captain Kirk and three of his crew were tossed into an alternate universe where the Federation had been replaced by an Empire (and Spock had a goatee). Sadly, Captain Picard’s crew never visited the original alternate universe and when Deep Space Nine came around, the evil counterpart to the Federation had been destroyed. Tedious and boring, said I.

Dark Mirror is one of the few STING novels I have bothered to reread; it is also one of the best. While on very deep space patrol, the USS Enterprise is kidnapped into an alternate universe as the final step before the Empire jumps across the universal barriers and invades the Federation. The crew of the Enterprise find themselves unable, at first, to understand what is going on, until they discover that they have been covertly boarded by a counterpart from the ISS Enterprise. They have to board the Imperial Starship to learn how to build their own ‘inversion device’ that will allow them to return home, all the while avoiding the evil machinations of Mirror Troi.

The Next Generation was known for its rather...pollyanish view of the universe, where Captain Picard can give a speech and convince old hatreds to magically fade away into the ether. Where Dark Mirror shines is in its portrayal of an alternate crew, one that rose to high-ranking positions in an empire of stunning brutality and ruthlessness. Mirror Riker is a backstabbing cunning loon looking out for his chance to off his Captain and take command of the Enterprise for himself. Mirror Troi is a mind-raping security officer who prowls through unwary thoughts for any hint of betrayal (makes you wonder how the people she talked to in OTL felt about the empathy.) Mirror Worf, his homeworld crushed beneath the Empire’s boot, is a broken shadow of the honourable warrior we know. Mirror Beverly Crusher is Mirror Picard’s ‘Captain’s Woman.’

Sometimes, this can be quite striking. Captain Picard and Mirror Picard seem to be opposite personalities, but there are moments when it is clear that they are the same person. They share an abiding love for the Enterprise that overpowers all other loves, as Mirror Beverly points out to Captain Picard (while convinced that he is her Captain.) Mirror Picard is also responsible, it seems, for murdering Beverly’s husband to get his hands on her, and her son. (Who seems to want to kill him.) Other characters are more pronounced inversions; Barclay, a semi-coherent engineering officer in Captain Picard’s crew, is the head of Mirror Picard’s security detail.

Service to the Empire is no bed of roses. Senior officers know that they could be assassinated at any moment, or replaced by security for no reason. Junior officers and crewmen are at the mercy of their superiors. All of them carry agonise devices for immediate punishment if they screw up, longer punishments involve sessions in the Agony Booth. It is not a safe place to live or work.

Dark Mirror also takes a look at the history of the Mirror Universe, one that differs from the Deep Space Nine version and is considerably better. There, there was no Khan – and therefore no Eugenics Wars. Instead, there was a bitter Third World War which ended with the Empire determined never to run close to the brink of extinction again. The human race roared out into the galaxy, making common cause with the Vulcans (themselves different from their original universe versions) and exterminating or enslaving everyone else. Mirror Picard’s early career is a dark inversion of the first season of TNG, with mass slaughter and outright genocide instead of noble speeches and high ideals.

Captain Picard claims, towards the end of the book, that the Empire is simply expanding too far, too fast, and that it will eventually collapse like a house of cards. His counterpart seems aware of it too, hence the plan to invade the Federation and escape the coming chaos.

On the downside, there are odd moments in this book. The most jarring is Riker and Worf going to the holodeck to enjoy some opera in the midst of crisis. This isn't exactly badly written, with some amusing comments on the long-term effects of opera fighting in the Klingon Empire, but it is odd.

Overall, however, this is one of the best characters-meet-evil counterparts stories out there, something that rarely happens in TV. It is certainly a better version of the trope than the Deep Space Nine series and those written by Captain Kirk.

The Story of Martha (Doctor Who)

One of the persistent jokes from British radio plays in the 1960s was ‘let’s see them do this on television,’ after describing an impossible feat like one person standing on a second person’s shoulders and then pulling the first person up beside him. A problem with any SF show from that era, like Doctor Who, was that special effects were very limited. It was often impossible to perform the acts that the plot needed.

This does not really apply to books, of course. The Doctor Who New Adventures could be set anywhere, in any time period, without having to worry about the high cost of special effects – or, for that matter, the availability of specific actors. The Eighth Doctor could visit all seven previous Doctors, despite some of the actors being dead or significantly different from their Who-form. For that matter, a massive army of Daleks could fight it out in a civil war without breaking the BBC’s entire budget. The only real limits were the writer’s imagination.

And that, I think sums up why The Story of Martha is such a disappointment.

I never warmed up to Martha, mainly because she acted more like a lovesick puppy following the Doctor rather than as a person in her own right. (Mind you, this worked out fairly well in some episodes.) However, it is often difficult to create a complex character on a TV screen, so I hoped she would do better in a novel. There are some good points in her story, I will happily admit, but the whole idea is basically wasted.

The background is simple; The Master has wrapped the whole Earth in a paradox field, creating an alternate timeline where he has crushed the human race and is now planning to build a fleet of warships to invade the rest of the universe. Martha is travelling from place to place, trying to organise resistance and telling everyone about the Doctor, for reasons that are explained in the last episode. In the course of her travels, she tells three different stories of her life with the Doctor and escapes the Master’s goons, as well as encountering other aliens on Earth.

So why is this a wasted opportunity?

Let’s be clear on this; the Doctor has been visiting Earth for centuries. He has a network of friends and allies scattered across the planet, including Sarah Jane Smith (who guest-starred in an early Tenth Doctor Adventure.) Even if we limit the scope of the Doctor’s friends to the adventures of the Ninth Doctor onwards, there are still plenty of potential guest stars, ranging from Donna Noble to Jack’s Torchwood institute. Martha’s brother? What about Harriet Jones?

Actually, Harriet Jones might have been the best possible person to introduce. An interview with RTD made it clear that the Tenth Doctor’s decision to arrange for her dismissal as PM opened the gap for the Master to jump in and take over the world. Dealing with the consequences of that decision would have made a fitting plot for the story.

If I had written it, I would have brought back all the guest stars who are no longer with us, because no one really dies in a TV world. The Brigadier could have led resistance against the Master, along with UNIT; just imagine Martha fleeing while the remains of UNIT make a final stand against the Master’s flying servants. Or the hidden aliens on Earth who might have joined the fight. There was so much potential in this idea. Instead, we get three stories that really don’t blend together.

A fan should have written this book.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Adrian Goldsworthy: An Overview

 

As a real – and by any standards a fairly significant figure in history – Julius Caesar must find it annoying that his name has been permanently associated with an frustratingly independent village in Gaul (France), let alone being permanently pestered by cartoon characters who indomitably resist the siren sound of Roman civilisation and display many of the weaknesses that ensured that the fall of Rome led to a new dark age. Alas, those of us born after Latin was taken out of the schools have our first introduction to Caesar and his era through the Asterix comic books. They are funny, witty and often entertaining (apart from the last one, which was ghastly) but they bear little resemblance to reality.

However, there has been a new outpouring of interest in ancient Rome and Adrian Goldsworthy, historian and novelist, is on the forefront of expanding a new generation’s horizons to admiration and understanding of the past. It says much about the failures to teach history in modern schools – or at least the schools I attended – that Goldsworthy manages to provide chronology and entertainment as well as education, and the schools provided nothing of the kind. If teachers were as capable as him, there would be more interest in history.

Goldsworthy’s first exploration of Rome is concentrated on the men who built, maintained and ultimately lost the Roman Empire. In the Name of Rome studies the Roman commanders in battle, ranging from Fabius (the delayer) to Belisarius, to whom I was first introduced through Eric Flint and David Drake’s six-book SF series. The book seeks to place their campaigns in context, explaining how they became prominent as wells as what tactics they used in their relentless pursuit of victory. And relentless the Romans certainly were; no other state could have carried on a global war after the staggering defeats the Romans absorbed in the Second Punic War. Famous names such as Pompey and Titus mingle with lesser-known Generals and Emperors, including Julian the Apostate and Belisarius.

One trait that does flow through the later days of Republican Rome is the jealous nature of its senior citizens. Many a Roman General found that he was to be used, praised and discarded by the Republic after he had served his purpose (to paraphrase Cicero’s statement about Octavian/Augustus). Scorpio was eventually hounded into exile; Pompey was regarded as a toothless fool as soon as he disbanded his legions and Caesar, faced with ruin by his jealous enemies back home, crossed the Rubicon and launched a civil war rather than submit to destruction. This trend tended to grow sharper even in the era of the Roman Empire, with successful Generals often forced into suicide or into campaigns of civil war.

One can quibble with the choice of featured Generals. Sulla, the first military officer to take power by force, isn't featured. Nor is Agrippa, Octavian’s trusty ally, while the inclusion of Julian is only explained by the writer’s desire to show just how far the Roman system had shrunk in the years between Octavian/Augustus and his era.

Overall, however, In the Name of Rome is an excellent introduction to Rome – and far more than just the primer it could be.

Goldsworthy’s second book, The Punic Wars, focuses on one of the best-known Roman wars, the (effectively) world war with Cartage. Here, Goldsworthy is up against tougher competition; I had actually read Nigel Bagnell’s volume on the conflict prior to discovering Goldsworthy’s volume. However, it provides a welcome introduction to one of the most significant conflicts of the ancient world.

This book was followed up by Caesar, a biography of Julius Caesar. I can honestly say that this biography is one of the best I have ever read, of anyone. Goldsworthy does far more than outline Caesar’s life; he places that life in context, while being very open about things that we simply do not know. This is important for several different reasons, the most important being that Ancient Rome was a very different society to anything currently existing today. Caesar, along with Pompey, Cato, Cicero and other names that resonate down the ages, was the product of a society many of us would find profoundly alien.

Goldsworthy does not stint in outlining what transformed Caesar from just another general to one of the greatest military and political leaders in history. Caesar was personable, devastatingly intelligent and capable of learning from his own mistakes. Goldsworthy outlines many of those mistakes for us, both to demonstrate what they meant for Caesar personally and how he learned from his experiences. More importantly, Goldsworthy dismisses the claim that Caesar had always aimed at revolution, at forging an Empire. Caesar was driven by ambition, yes (he would have been a very strange Roman if he had not been ambitious) but it is clear that he never sought the dictatorship purposefully. Instead, he was pushed into launching a civil war through political backstabbing that would otherwise have destroyed him.

The book is also one of the best histories of the final years of Republican Rome, a state that had been rotting away since the moment the Gracchi brothers were killed. Much of the final crisis that killed republicanism was caused by problems we might feel an uneasy kinship with today; a suffering poor, over-mighty politicians and a complete inability to come to grips with the true cause of the problem. At heart, Rome remained a city even when it was at the heart of an Empire. It is not surprising that the Republic suffered countless upheavals before the arrival of the first Emperor, Augustus Caesar.

Following Caesar, Goldsworthy moves forward several hundred years to chart the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The Fall of the West is a largely chronographic account of Rome’s gradual decline, punctuated by heartbreaking moments when the Empire seemed capable of recovery. Goldsworthy attempts to puncture the myths that barbarians destroyed the Empire; simply put, the Empire fell because it had lost the energy that bound it together. It is difficult to imagine the Roman Republic, or the early Empire, suffering from the same malaise. However, the civil wars that brought down the Republic had their echo in the infighting within the Roman Empire, with one 50-year period suffering from 60 different claimants to the Imperial Throne.

Asimov once noted (roughly phrased) that ‘a strong emperor is only strong if he allows no strong subordinates. A strong general will seek to overthrow the emperor and take his place. Weak generals will lose battles and wars; an Emperor-General will be so tied up with fighting that he won’t be able to stabilise the Empire.’ This was true of the Roman Empire in its later years. The career of Julian the Apostate, for example, nicely illustrated this trend. When a subordinate, Julian was constantly threatened with execution by the Emperor; when Emperor himself, he had to divert his attention to campaigning and not to governing the Empire.

What did this do to the Empire? Troops fought civil wars instead of defending the borders. The Empire’s capital was often where the Emperor was instead of Rome. The bureaucracy expanded rapidly, often outside the requirements of the empire or indeed of its ability to fund it. There was a general loss of competence that eventually doomed the Empire to fall apart. Ironically, one might make the case that the consequences would be less disastrous if the fall took place much earlier. The Roman Empire might have become a handful of major states that would be far stronger than their later followers.

Having studied the fall of the Roman Empire, Goldsworthy then looks back at one of the most famous love stories in history – Antony and Cleopatra. The book focuses on Antony as he climbs his way up into Caesar’s confidence and how Cleopatra managed to assert herself in Egypt. It is clear that the martial customs of the Egyptians rulers probably played some part in their decline; brothers would marry sisters, fathers would marry daughters. Still, Cleopatra was something special by their standards; if history tells us true, Cleopatra was the first of her line to genuinely care about her position as more than a source of wealth or power. Indeed, she was the first to speak Egyptian!

Cleopatra’s life was dominated by the struggle for power – and later the struggle to keep the favour of a powerful Roman. Her famed meeting with Julius Caesar was a last-ditch attempt to turn the tide in her favour. It seems likely that she did seek to seduce Caesar; quite simply, she had nothing else left. Goldsworthy casts doubt on just how far Caesar allowed himself to be seduced. At first, he was very canny with what he gave her; later, when she was in a better position, he was willing to give her more. He also gave her a son, Caesarion.

Antony’s character, as painted by Goldsworthy, isn't quite what legend suggests. Antony was born to power, ran up huge debts, and was basically lazy. Caesar rarely chose to employ him on the battlefield (despite a reputation for military skill echoing down the years) and in some ways Antony was a dangerous man to leave behind when Caesar gave chase to Pompey. Not because of disloyalty – there is no suggestion that Antony was ever disloyal – but because Antony was not particularly subtle in wielding power. He made enemies, including Cicero (who would later be killed at Antony’s instructions.) However, he did manage to bring Caesar reinforcements that turned the tide and led to Pompey’s final defeat.

Like Cleopatra, he was in Rome when Caesar was assassinated. The plotters saw fit to lure him away before they struck, assuming that the burly Antony’s first reaction would be to fight. Unlike Cleopatra (who could not play any role in politics, at least in Rome) Antony was rapidly drawn into the political infighting between the remaining plotters, Caesar’s loyalists and – most surprisingly of all – Octavian/Augustus Caesar. Following the path of treachery and deceit is confusing, I must say, but that was probably true of the people at the time too. Eventually, Octavian and Antony (with the forgotten Lepidus) formed the Second Triumvirate, which asserted its power with a purge that rivalled one carried out by Stalin. Cicero was murdered, along with many others.

Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra takes on centre stage as Antony moves into the middle east and prepares to wage war on Persia. Cleopatra seduced him, deliberately approaching him in a manner she believed he would find attractive. It is easy to blame Cleopatra for this (the Romans certainly did) but she had little choice. One thing the book makes clear is that Cleopatra’s position was insecure; the Romans could bolster her throne, or tear her down with ease. As Rome needed Egypt’s crops for the invasion of Persia, Rome had a strong vested interest in keeping Egypt under control. Cleopatra needed Antony more than Antony needed her.

Was there love? It’s hard to say, Goldsworthy admits. There is no strong evidence for any men in Cleopatra’s life apart from Caesar and Antony (one assumes that Antony found the fact that Cleopatra’s other lover had been the most powerful man in the world very exciting.) Certainly, Antony kept her close, even when it produced a political backlash; they produced three children together. They may even have been married, although Goldsworthy states bluntly that the evidence is inconclusive (and Cleopatra’s children could not take a role in Rome.)

Antony’s failings as a general became clear in the ill-fated invasion of Persia. Antony blundered badly; his common touch was true, but his planning was almost non-existent. The defeat led to the final round of fighting between Antony and Octavian, resulting in Antony’s flight from the battleground and eventual suicide. Cleopatra followed him into death a few weeks later and Egypt was annexed as a Roman territory. It was so prosperous that anyone given control might become a threat to the new Roman Empire.

What can one make of Antony, as Goldsworthy paints him? He was indolent, in a sense; he rarely chose to act of his own accord. The one major time he did ended in disaster. He may have conceded the war with Octavian long before the fateful battle. The Romans claimed that Cleopatra had sapped his fighting spirit. Looking at his history, one might counter that Antony’s flaws had become clear before he met Cleopatra.

And Cleopatra? Goldsworthy outlines everything we know about her, painting a far more complex picture than we might expect from her portrayal in movies and fictions. She was someone who tried to keep her kingdom together with a very weak hand, and did far better than might be expected.

So, in conclusion, what can I say about Goldsworthy’s work? If you only want one author to introduce you to Rome, in all its glory, Goldsworthy is the man.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Battle:LA Reviewed

Battle: Los Angeles

I am not a great movie-goer. Nine times out of ten, I regret going physically, even with my significant other. I don’t like crowded rooms, overpriced popcorn and supercilious ushers who bitch about you taking food from outside into the cinema. Very few movies get me actually going into the cinema and, to my regret, they didn't include Battle: LA. I really should have known better this time.

The critics have panned the movie. It is apparently simplistic, bloody and unrepentant, something that they do not seem to expect from great movies. What can I say? Entertainment – and I go to be entertained – is a subjective measure. I happen to like some science-fiction movies and if some snob thinks I shouldn't...well, he can kindly take a sexual travel package.

Battle: LA has a fairly simple background. Massive asteroids have come down from outer space and landed in the oceans near human cities, including LA. These asteroids swiftly discourage an alien invasion force that advances inland, smashing through human resistance. Marines from Camp Pendleton scramble to repel the offensive and fight the aliens before they can overwhelm all of the state. In the heart of this action, a single Marine platoon is given a different mission. A police station in LA is being used to hide a group of civilians who cannot get out of the city. The Marines have three hours to rescue them before the USAF blows the shit out of LA.

In one sense, there is nothing particularly innovative about this movie. We’ve seen this kind of story before, without aliens. But what makes it work – and it does work – is how the movie concentrates on the small platoon without taking more than a handful of glimpses at the overall war. Independence Day operated on a bigger scale than Battle: LA and paid for it, not least through more clich├ęs than Battle: LA allows.

The Marine platoon are all more real than many of their counterparts from Independence Day. There’s a green LT charged with leading his men into a desperate firefight, a sergeant who suffers from PTSD, green Marines on their first tour; one is planning to marry, one is waiting for a kid...and one who looks so young you’d think he should still be in school. Battle: LA makes the Marines real; they’re not picture-perfect figures from bad propaganda or monsters from other kinds of bad propaganda. And when some of them die, you can really feel the loss they leave in the team.

Battle: LA is not afraid to go back to the basic core themes of modern war. The film is a story of selfless heroism, courage under fire, teamwork, decency and sheer determination, without taking smug swipes at conservative values so often targeted by Hollywood. Nor does it indulge itself with suggestions that the Evil Government brought this fate on us or that the aliens are somehow better than us. It wisely does not pretend to be great art, but yours truly rates it as good art anyway. Few films are so effective in making their point.

It also grasps the confusing nature of war. Few non-soldiers ever realise just how quickly a situation can go from stable to desperate, when all of a sudden a situation has suddenly become lethal, bullets are pinging in around a soldier...and he has to make decisions in a split second. The leftists would have you believe otherwise, but almost all of the incidents of civilians being killed by Western troops at checkpoints happened because someone had to make a decision in a handful of seconds and fired on a car charging towards the checkpoint, a car that could have been loaded with high explosives. In some ways, I wonder if Battle: LA was not influenced by British sci-fi films and television programs. Throughout the first part of the movie, the aliens are half-seen, shadowy forces that push the Marines without ever quite coming into view. Watching the Marines overcome this and learn about their foe is one of the better parts of the movie.

There are two issues I would care to raise as a critic, however. The first is that it is implied that the aliens want our water. That’s nice, but there is plenty of ice floating around in space without pesky Earthlings sitting on top of it. Titan is a watery world; comets are known as dirty snowballs because they’re largely ice. The second blunder is a confident statement by a Marine that the aliens have no air force. This had me howling right from the start – they can get across interstellar space...of course they have a goddamned air force! The Marines should have noticed that from the start, instead of being surprised when the aliens suddenly turn out to have aircraft and support weapons.

The critics don’t like this movie. I do. Critics have no taste. <Evil Grin>.

Battle: LA is, first and foremost, a story of humans at war. And that is what makes it important.

I’d like to see a version of this story done for Afghanistan, but the PC thugs would probably kill it. On the other hand...

Dumb Blonde Female Reporter: But you invaded their country...surely they have a right to fight back?

Pissed-off Marine: Listen; these fuckers beat and kill women for going to school and wearing make-up, kill anyone who refuses to grow a beard, torture their captives purely for the hell of it and are intent on exterminating all other versions of their religion. You really want to live in a country where showing anything of your body would earn you a beating? Where your father would decide who you married? Where your male children might become catamites or suicide bombers while your daughters retreat into mental illness? Where your husband could rape you at any time and call it martial sex?

A bit later on, the dumb blonde could be kidnapped by the Taliban...

Hey, I think I have an idea here. Anyone want to write a movie script?

And if they can do this, why can't they do a Posleen movie?