The Deadlord walked through the graveyard, frost and the frail bones of rodents crunching under his black boots. Headstones stood on all sides like rows of broken grey teeth. Moss and lichen spots clung to their faces like rot. As he walked, the hard turf parted and hands draped in pale, peeling flesh fumbled in the cold air. The dead dragged themselves up, standing on corpse-white legs to greet their king.
There was no joy in it. The Deadlord looked over his motionless flock with hollow eyes shining green in the soft moonlight. His heart was empty, blacker than his charred soul. He met the watering eyes of each of his subjects, daring them to resist the threads he had woven through the shadow realm, binding them to his will. His bright, vacant eyes met no resistance. What was command worth without someone to resist and test his strength.
His eyes flashed, catching sight of the great man. He was tall with a barrel gut and broad shoulders. The titan marched through the ranks of the risen. Every step seemed to peel back the shrouds of shadow and death from his form. The Deadlord could feel the thread begin to fray.
The titan held his gaze. There was hunger in his frozen white eyes. He had been a slave to greed in life. The Deadlord could hear echoes of his hunger reverberating in the shadow realm. Hunger for food, drink and flesh.
The titan’s great ham of a hand closed around the Deadlord’s neck, drawn to the scent of his blood. Living blood. He hungered for it.
‘Thank you,’ the Deadlord said, his voice like fallen leaves turning to mulch underfoot. He raised one hand between them, palm out. The grip around his neck tightened and his lungs burned for breath. He touched his palm to the titan’s chest and felt the thread snap. The great man’s flesh drifted away in grey-green strips. He dissolved in a thick pool of brown muck around the Deadlord’s feet, pale yellow bones sticking up through the slime.
‘Anyone else?’ the Deadlord asked, looking around at his motionless, blank-faced subjects. ‘No? Let’s be off then.’
5 months since my last post. Apologies for the delay and hope to bring you something worth the wait.
There’s something in the cellar. Dane knows it’s down there. He hears it move, groan and howl in the night. It stops him sleeping. All he wants is to rest his eyes, clear his mind and dream.
Dreams. Sleep. And the moaning thing in the cellar.
Dane lives alone in the woods. Cold dark woods which stretch for miles, a sea of trees cast in black shadows. Night comes on and the moon sleeps behind the clouds, but Dane can’t sleep. He hears the rattle of chains at the bottom of the stairs. He wouldn’t mind if the thing lived outside in the dark and cold. If the beasts were all outside then he would fear the night, but the famine of sleepless, dreamless half-life wouldn’t be cutting through him like a slow, cold blade. But the beast sleeps below. It sleeps in the day. At night it howls for the slumbering moon.
His house is old, cobbled together from thick timbers with nails and saws. Rough walls. Splinters. Soot staining a black shroud around the fireplace.
Rough wood gives comfort, knowing the hands which carved each beam held him as a babe. The same arms which plied the saw rocked him in his crib. But rough wood frays rope over time as it runs across its abrasive surface. Dane’s rope was already thin as it was. Calloused hands held him as a babe. Rough arms swung his crib. Maybe they were too firm. Maybe baby Dane won a bruise, caught a fracture. His own fault. Too frail.
The rope frays and then it snaps.
Dane reels out of his narrow bed, drunk on rage and fear. The thing in the cellar groans and rattles its chains, tempting him down.
‘Come on then!’ he answers it. ‘Come on!’
But it’s Dane who comes. He doesn’t so much charge down the stairs as he attacks them. He attacks the whole house. A final protest against its rough fostering. His shoulder collides with the doorframe hard enough to make him bite his tongue. He tastes blood and spits it out with a harsh snarl. The banister gives a crack as he rams into it. Then he’s crashing down the stairs, his bare feet pound on the steps and the whole house seems to shake around him. In the cellar, the thing screams a scream to put ice in the blood.
Dane is scared. He’s sweating and close to wetting himself with fear, if he hasn’t already, but he carries on. He’s committed now. His hand is closing round the cellar door, ready to rip it open and confront the cobwebbed darkness below. If he turns back and creeps away to his bed, he’ll never sleep in the house again.
He moves slower now, cautious of pale corpse fingers reaching over the steps to trip him on his way down. A short tumble, a broken neck and an eternity with the thing. He’s careful in spite of his fear.
An hour later, the smell of gasoline heavy in his dilated nostrils and its taste thick on his tongue, he throws a match onto the porch and watches the flames sate their hunger on the rough old timbers. There’s a sweet catharsis in it, but he feels sick to the pit of his stomach. He tries not to think about the thing he saw in the cellar. The memory wanders uninvited across his tear-soaked eyes.
A woman, no more than a girl if his memory paints an honest picture, kneels on a stained mattress in the middle of the dank cellar. Chains rattle around her scabbed, bleeding wrists. ‘No more,’ she begs. Does he listen?
He descends the stairs, shivering in a euphoria of terror. He’s never seen her like this. A little red pill dissolved in a rusty can of water keeps her asleep through the day. He fears her at night. But tonight it ends and he’ll never need to fear her again. Soon he’ll sleep and she’ll never wake.
Welcome to a list of the best books about Ancient Rome. This comprises two lists: fiction and nonfiction.
Best Ancient Rome Fiction
5. Under the Eagle (Eagles of the Empire #1)
Under The Eagle (part of Simon Scarrow’s bestselling Eagles of the Empire series) is a double-time march in the footsteps of the Ancient Roman legions. What I like to categorise as sword-and-shield historical fiction, expect plenty of nail-biting fights and gritty detail as you watch the lives of Cato and Macro play out on the barbarian frontier of the Roman Empire.
The protagonists are written around each other in the best possible way: inexperienced intellectual Cato and toughened veteran centurion Macro. Easy reading which shouldn’t take you long to finish and is more than likely to get you hooked on the series. It did for me!
4. Dictator (Cicero Trilogy #3)
Political thrillers and Ancient Rome go together like tea and biscuits, and Robert Harris proves himself to be a masterful composer of that ensemble in Dictator. In it he brings together two titans of the Late Roman Republic, Cicero and Caesar.
Ambition, corruption and uncertainty are three of the hallmarks of the book and the period. Set during one of the pivotal moments of Roman history, this novel certainly deserves its place in the top 5 historical novels set in Ancient Rome.
I misbehaved and skipped ahead to the third in the trilogy, but you can find Imperium (Vol 1) and Lustrum (Vol 2) by following the links.
3. Fire in the East (Warrior of Rome #1)
Fire in the East falls into the same sub-genre as #5, but Harry Sidebottom’s thrilling Ancient Rome fiction series is significantly more developed. I say developed to avoid calling it more sophisticated. That would be unfair to Simon Scarrow, whose legionary romps fill a slightly different niche.
The series follows Ballista, a barbarian who has become a leader in the later Roman army. What I loved most about this historical novel is the message of one man standing tall against seemingly impossible odds. He is a barbarian at the heart of an empire which views his kind as backwards and untrustworthy. His task is to hold a small fortress against the mightiest foe Rome ever faced. It’s impossible not to root for that kind of underdog!
If you do give it a go and enjoy it, I highly recommend reading on to #5 in the series, Wolves of the North; an absolutely fantastic read!
2. First Man in Rome (Masters of Rome #1)
Politics, manipulation, deceit and ambition. Colleen McCullough’s gripping Masters of Rome series really does stand on the top rung of Roman Empire historical fiction. She takes us all the way through from Marius and Sulla to Pompey and Crassus and finally the great man himself, Caesar.
Masters of Rome is the first instalment and, as is so often the case in historical fiction series, the first outshines the rest. Absolutely a recommended read for any fans of the sordid politics of Ancient Rome.
1. I, Claudius
This is a book which not only changed the way historical fiction about Ancient Rome is approached, but it has also influenced the way we think about the emperor Claudius. Many of the assumptions we make as students or observers of Claudius’ rule are grounded to some extent in this fantastic novel.
I, Claudius treats a man who rose unwittingly to the head of the Roman Empire in a very human way, portraying him as a simple man caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Robert Graves captures the essence of Roman politics and high society just as well as, if not better than, the above author. But he goes further in creating a compelling story which will immerse you in the imperial court of Ancient Rome.
Best Ancient Rome Nonfiction
5. Ancient Rome on Five Denarii A Day
I love the concept of this book. It tries to bring history out of the past and reconstruct it in a way which lets you really experience a lost age. A travel guide for a long dead civilisation with a good sense of humour, Ancient Rome on Five Denarii A Day is worth picking up if the drier, heavier history books aren’t really your thing.
4. Annals and Histories (Tacitus)
Unlike the above book, Annals and Histories isn’t going to be everyone’s idea of a good read. Tacitus lived in the period he is writing about, which makes his contribution to the historical record invaluable. With the painstaking care of a diligent chronicler, he takes the reader through the first century AD from the death of Augustus to the death of Domitian.
Undeniably, this should take a prominent place on the bookshelf of any would-be historian looking to gain a deeper knowledge of Ancient Rome and draw their own conclusions from a first-hand account.
3. The Twelve Caesars (Suetonius)
Another primary source, Suetonius differs from Tacitus in a significant way. The Twelve Caesars shows us much of the world explored by Robert Graves and Colleen McCullough in their novels, the public politics and courtly relations. But Suetonius has an advantage over them beyond having been present in the first century AD. He also lived at the imperial court.
This access and his willingness to lay all bare before the reader makes The Twelve Caesars more than just another stuffy contemporary account. The narrative is interspersed with anecdotes surrounding the Caesars’ private lives. These can range from who had an affair with whom to which poison was placed in whose cup.
2. SPQR (Mary Beard)
Mary Beard is my favourite historian because she has a brilliant ability to hone in on the daily lives of ordinary people in Ancient Rome. You can see this in her documentary series, Meet the Romans, which I’ll embed the YouTube version of below.
As for SPQR, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I’ve noticed a trend in history publishing recently where it seems that all we’re getting are new books which tell the same tired story in a different way. This couldn’t be less true of Mary Beard’s history of Ancient Rome. She captures small details often glossed over by other writers which add real value to the reader’s experience. Her entire approach is based on the brilliant idea that, no matter how small or insignificant, the stories of every individual in history are worth taking time to discover, understand and describe.
Tom Holland’s Rubicon manages to achieve everything a history of Ancient Rome should rightly aim for. My only regret about this book is that it only covers the end of the Roman Republic, because it’s that good you won’t want it to end!
The author uses a narrative history approach to lead you in through the gates of Rome and along its streets. You meet the important people and the common man. You experience their world and witness the great triumphs and tragedies of their lives. What stands out most to me about Rubicon is how the author brings this distant era of history into the present and draws parallels between the world of the Caesars and our own. A five star history!
The assassin led his worn-out mule into Old Akkolade and the sheriff watched him come. He was perched up on the jailhouse roof, hanging his elbow over the crumbling brick parapet and mincing a cigar butt between his tobacco-stained teeth. The deputies lounging around him winced in the fierce sunlight and swatted blood-fattened flies from their sweating brows.
‘First thing y’all should know ’bout Kid Bonn,’ the sheriff said, keeping his eyes on the dust-whipped high street and growling to catch their attention, ‘He’s the sorta fella who don’t look much. He’s a puss to look at, but this tomcat got fangs. Y’all best remember that.’
His deputies gave a chorus of thirsty croaks to show they heard. Every one of them was too caught up in his own discomfort of dread to offer any more coherent response. They were in a collective state of corpse-like repose, hoping to put off the moment when their cracked and blistered hands would reach for the baking metal of their rifles, brought to a skillet-hot temperature by the midday sun.
‘Y’all hear me? He ain’t no puss.’
Now they bobbed their heads in unison as his cool green eyes fixed them one by one. The sheriff couldn’t see their eyes, only hat brims, bristle chins and Winchesters, but he knew they wouldn’t dare meet his gaze anyway. Snake Eyes was a viper. Look him in those almost-yellow lights and you’d be hypnotised, put down for the long sleep with a lead pillow to rest on. So folks said.
John Haker’s blog, post #1: Travels in Transylvania
I never saw myself writing a blog. To be honest with you, I’ve only ever been an infrequent user of social media. It just goes to show how much has changed in the past few weeks. Of course, none of it will mean anything to you unless you know something about me. I’m in my twenties or thirties, work for a niche corporate law firm in the city and to date nothing much exciting has happened to me. Does that sum it up well enough? I suppose you can tell I’m not keen to give too much away about myself. This is my first blog post after all!
Now imagine this for a turn of events. Right now, as I type, I’m sitting in the airport lounge waiting to board a flight to a place I’ve barely heard of, let alone thought about visiting. The Transylvanian Alps, somewhere in Romania. I’m travelling for business, not pleasure, and have absolutely no idea how long for. That’s right. It’s an open-ended business trip and I’m crossing every finger I’ve got hoping it won’t all be board meetings (bored meetings?) and tax planning.
I suppose it would be wrong to go any further without explaining the purpose of my travel. I’m going to advise a high net worth foreign client on some general matters of our corporation law. Not particularly gripping stuff for the uninitiated, I imagine. This is a very personal adventure for me. I’m happy to admit I was unscrupulous in acquiring this opportunity, but it’s best not to go into detail. Suffice to say this one trip could give my career the jumpstart it needs.
But that is nothing to the excitement I feel at the prospect of meeting the client himself, the real prize in this adventure. You see, I consider myself to be something of an amateur historian. I don’t readily delve into the unfamiliar without first doing all I can to learn and understand what it is I’m getting myself into. In the last few days of research, lukewarm at first but almost feverish in my appetite to discover more as my eyes were opened to this fascinating man, I’ve become something of an expert in the life and personal history of Boyar Dracul.
The first thing you should know about the man, the living legend to put it better, is that boyar is a title in that part of the world. Its equivalent would be our duke or count. Not to say my client holds such a title, though records indicate he comes from a long aristocratic line stretching back through imperial courts, local insurrections and bloodsoaked wars against invaders from the East. Boyar is his given name and I wonder what his noble parents expected of their son, hanging such a lofty title before a child’s eyes to chase after with all his strength.
It seems he has done just that, through sheer tireless will if not through virtue. Boyar Dracul’s name smears the cover of every local news website, blog and gossip column on a fairly regular basis, as far as I can read them. Those available in English paint a picture of a man for whom scandals and smear campaigns are things to be courted, rather than shied away from. His name even crops up in the occasional national spread, hints thrown out in evasive suggestion that his presence can be felt in some recent upsurge in organised crime, a new wave of local government corruption.
Pictures show a man in his sixties, dressed in dour clothes more often than not, but always surrounded by every possible trapping of wealth and success. Ah, but the real measure of the man can be found in his eyes, if I’m not mistaken. There’s clearly something in them, a fire which never dies. An insatiable thirst for life which defies his apparent age.
Of course, I may have utterly misjudged the man, but time will tell. For now, my flight is being called and I’d rather not miss it.
Prehistory is murky and often ignored. It lacks the appeal of the nearer, written past. We prefer to make use of Ancient Rome or Greece, China’s Confucius or the Founding Fathers of the United States to illuminate the present through the window of the past. The reason for this is that historians are building on the discoveries and conclusions of previous generations of scholars and there are two great problems with this approach.
Firstly, we now have a vast amount of data available to us which earlier scholars simply were not aware of. Secondly, those earlier historians’ view of the past was coloured by the prevalent prejudices of the time. For an early Western scholar, any culture in the past or present which lacked the defining characteristics of contemporary Western civilisation (advanced technology, complex social hierarchy, rational scientific thought and visually attractive art) was inherently uncivilised. Lacking the wealth of data now available to us, they drew on presumptions based on prejudice, rather than inferences grounded in fact.
Our concept of civilisation’s birth has now advanced to the border between history and prehistory. The Bronze Age, with its Homeric heros, palatial settlements and recognizable cultural groups stands as the first beacon of what would become a modern, civilised humanity. What came before this age of civilisation’s conception, before writing or metallurgy, was dark.
This is the same narrative of darkness which pervades histories of the later Dark Ages, when mankind supposedly fell into a lull in terms of technology, social complexity, science and art. The Middle Ages are seen as an age of savagery and superstition, even if this period saw continued advances in metallurgy, astrology, social revolutions such as the rise of Protestantism and an artistic flowering which paved the way for the so-called Renaissance.
The lesson here is that any narrative which attempts to portray the past in terms of periods of light and dark, civilised and primitive is fundamentally flawed and short-sighted. Previous historians saw past societies with no writing systems and compared them with contemporary illiterate societies: hunter-gatherers, pastoral herders and nomads. They have described these as primitive ways of life, either portraying prehistory as chaotic and barbaric or noble, peaceful in its savagery.
The wealth of archaeological and anthropological evidence now available to us defies any and all of these presumptions. It is highly likely that the pre-literate groups observed and recorded by early scholars were not backwards remnants of a prehistoric human condition, but rather societies which at some point made a conscious choice to live beyond the frontiers of “civilisation” or else were marginalised by the expansion of more “advanced” cultures. Roaming tribes of hunter-gatherers are characteristic of life beyond the frontiers of settled human societies and there is no reason why this should have been any less true of prehistory.
The myth of “civilised” and “barbarian” societies is as outdated as the xenophobic Ancient Greek cultures which coined those terms. Tentative attempts to trace civilisation further back into the deeper human past have already established the Agricultural Revolution of the Neolithic as standing among the two most important developments in human history, the other being the Industrial Revolution. But it is difficult to persuade modern people living in industrial, non-agrarian societies of the importance of this fundamental shift in the human experience.
There is an overwhelming need to push deeper into this shadowed backdrop of human history, exploring the many other ways in which the hallmarks of civilisation pre-date any cultures to which its birth or conception has previously been attributed.
A warm ripple of a thrill went through him, as it always did when he caught sight of her home. It sat on the very edge of town, at the end of a short, narrow road where the most destitute and despised residents of Vidar’s Fast dwelt. Here, nothing was changed on the eve of war. Desperate children shuffled about, stooping to fish a misplaced trinket from the brown mire underfoot. Haggard women hopped over rivers of urine, balancing teetering piles of laundry in their lithe, dirt-streaked arms.
The smells were overwhelming, but sweet enough with rot and dung to be almost pleasant. Eldris dragged the seething miasma into his nose with great gulps, savouring the soothing sensation of being home. Vandar, deep in his cups, would often proclaim to anyone in earshot that he loved every woman in the Middle Isles, and had bedded half of them, but wouldn’t touch the cleanest maid in the Grip, named for the way it clung unwanted to the town. So Rothir griped, the Grip was a foetid pit of debauchery, vileness and heresy.
He knew they were both wrong. For as long as Eldris could remember, he was drawn to the stinking slum like a moth to a stuttering candle flame. It sprung up from lower ground than the rest of Vidar’s Fast, sewage and other detritus flowing down its cramped streets, but it contrived to match the rest of the town’s height. He blinked up in wonder at the soaring old tenements, gasping at how the leaning, ramshackle timber structures could bear their own weight when they came so close to touching overhead that only a sliver of sunlight could slice through the gap.
His pace slowed as he tracked through the winding streams of piss and mud, knowing better than to waste effort attempting to avoid them. There was no time to watch his footfalls anyway. Eldris was utterly absorbed by his surroundings, drowning in the familiar strangeness of this unknowable side of his hometown.
Women, covered from head to toe by tattered shawls and threadbare dresses even in their own houses, knelt on the rough boards of their hearths and gave whispered pleas to the gods. He hesitated each time he passed an open door or window, listening in rapt discomfort to their hushed prayers. When he first came to the Grip, he imagined a hundred causes for their devotion. Begging for food to fill their children’s bellies. Asking for their husbands to find a job which wouldn’t sully their hands with the stench of the cesspit or carthorse.
But it was always one thing they begged the gods to give them, rocking on their knees under the force of their own desperate earnestness. ‘Forgive me. Forgive me.’ For what? Eldris asked himself. He never saw them take a strange man to their bed, stumble drunk in the gutter or raise a word in reproach of the gods. The same gods who robbed them of dignity, cut their lives short before their bloom and gave them nothing but scraps for their children to fight over.
Eldris quickened his pace, forcing himself to be deaf and blind to their suffering. In his mind’s eye, he couldn’t help seeing the comfortable cottages and blazing halls of his kinsmen, boisterous children laughing as they ran along clean streets and hearing the drunken curses of their fathers. When Rothir returns, I’ll make him do something. I’ll tell him the gods spoke to me of that’s what it takes. There must be something…
He waited for Vandar’s tall frame to fade into the shadows of the forest then turned and made his way towards the stone stairs. It was easy going at first, tripping down the gently sloping steps as they stole down the side of the chasm. Ferns and lichen grew from fissures in the rock, brushing against his arms as he passed and sprinkling dew on the worn surface beneath his feet.
After descending only a dozen yards he was forced to check his pace. The stairs grew steadily steeper and slick with rain which hung in the air as a fine drizzle. Clouds of silver mist materialised in the canyon, lingering above the green canopy until Eldris couldn’t see a single tree. He was caught in a place between worlds. Above was a mass of grey cloud, hard walls of granite between and a floor of white haze below.
How important is agriculture from a historical perspective? There is more to this topic than growing food. Farming is a science, a practical activity and a cultural phenomenon. The science and practices of agriculture can be fascinating, particularly when you look at how humans of the past made great scientific advances before science was even invented, but this is history; our focus is on the culture of farming. Without doubt, it is one of the most important developments in human history.
Briefly, we should look at what came before farming. This is commonly called the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in which people relied on wild plants and animals for food by, predictably, hunting and gathering them (and fishing). The important part of this equation is not the hunting or gathering (or fishing), it is the fact that these food species were wild. Humans did not control food production; it was entirely subject to natural forces governing abundance.
Okay, where should I start? I have an idea, something which might grab your attention. No doubt it’s something you’ve wondered about. The Day The Internet Broke. Let’s start with that day, that one event which shattered the crystal cage we built around ourselves and revealed just how decrepit our sense of security was in relation to the enormity of the risk we faced.
In my office, waiting for a PhD student who, in stark contrast to her usual precise punctuality, was more than half an hour late. God forbid I would be forced to eat lunch in the campus cafeteria, rather than strolling into town and visiting my favourite deli. But if she didn’t arrive soon, it seemed more and more certain that I would be forced to compromise in saving what little was left of my afternoon break.
“Professor!” Her voice shredded the calm aura of my office. You have to understand, I am a man of no small pretensions. It has always been my aim to affect an air of studious impenetrability, my corner of the crowded campus being an oasis of serenity where minds could come together in restrained discourse. All of my students understood this unspoken rule and she was no exception. In spite of this sacred trust, she burst in like the furies were at her back and shouted. “You won’t believe what happened!”