Pen and Sword Military (2020) h/b 256pp £25 (ISBN 9781526766120)
This book is a comprehensive, fully researched and well-documented account of early Roman mythology. It is packed with interesting facts and anecdotes and written with the occasional amusing turn of phrase (C. on Castor and Pollux—‘the boys were back to perform another epiphany’) that belies C.’s scholarly background.
In the Introduction, C. writes that ‘Roman mythology is used as an eloquent vehicle to explain the very origins of Rome and some of its most enduring religious, political and social practices’. He goes on to discuss the concept of ‘Romanitas’ and explains that the book is the story of war in Roman myth and legend.
Each chapter then deals with different, but interconnected, aspects of the myths that the Romans used to cement their early history, using stories ranging from ‘The Aeneas Foundation Myth’, through to the time of the early Republic. There are chapters on ‘Warlike Women in Roman Epic’, and ‘Trojan Heroes’—including Sinon, who, though not Trojan, ultimately in the legend ensured the Trojan Horse was taken into the city.
In Chapter 2, ‘The Gods of War’, after taking us through an (almost) exhaustive list of ancient sources available, C. treats the reader to an equally exhaustive and thorough list of gods that the Romans associated with war. I found this to be fascinating reading, full of names of gods that I never knew existed. Lists of ‘Warlike Women’ and ‘Trojan Heroes’ are equally interesting.
Chapter 3 explains how warfare was a fact of life for the Romans, and we are then treated to a detailed outline of the role of the Fetials in Roman warfare and the legendary story of Mettius Fufetius. before the real meat of the book begins. C. now takes the reader through the Aeneid, using its relationship to Augustan propaganda as a starting point to discuss the early legends associated with the foundation of Rome and the interpretations put on the stories by different writers, both of the time and later. Thus we are taken through the history of Rome and so many legends, involving especially women, associated with her early wars.
In later chapters, the works of Horace, Propertius and Ovid come under scrutiny and the last two chapters discuss ‘The Theban Legion Massacre of 286 CE’ and ‘The Vision of Constantine’.
There are 43 plates illustrating some of the Roman myths in art through the centuries, ten Appendices, Notes, Further Reading and an Index.
The Appendices cover the Seven Kings of Rome, the Alban Kings, two different timelines, some Latin terms, archaeological and historical information and notes on the Cursus Honorum and the Mos Maiorum, though Octavian’s birth year should have been mentioned in the 133-27 BC timeline.
I had some minor difficulties with the book. The three illustrative maps are useful, but very hard to interpret. The first on the ‘Wanderings of Aeneas’ could have been much more focussed on the journey line with fewer unnamed rivers and clearer labelling. There are several glaring spelling mistakes e.g. preafectus, Corliolanus and Matamorphoses, and a couple of places where the same, or very similar, sentences are repeated within the space of a couple of lines, such as the paragraph on Mithras. These are an indication of either a redraft or simply lackadaisical proof reading.
Nevertheless, C. has written a book, full of fascinating detail of the mythical legends of Rome. He brings a new perspective on the Romans and how they used not simply adaptations of Greek mythology to explain their history, but their own legends as a means of illustrating their ‘Romanitas’. You do not have to be a scholar to enjoy it and a thorough knowledge of Roman history is not a prerequisite to purchase.