Elly McDonald


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Ancient Warfare: A very short introduction by Harry Sidebottom


Accurately subtitled “A Very Short Introduction’, Ancient Warfare is ambitious in that it attempts to summarize a range of academic perspectives and to critique their main premises. This makes for a genuinely helpful overview for students new to the formal study of warfare in the Classical worlds of Rome and Greece. The first four chapters do assume some ability to engage with academic theory but general readers will find the writing accessible. The final three chapters – including chapters on ‘Strategy’ and ‘Fighting’ – are enthralling.

The Further Reading list at the back of the book is an invitation to explore in more depth how different historians have interpreted Classical warfare; I found the diagrams, reproduced art and Chronology useful too.

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Silence & Lies (short story) by Harry Sidebottom


Readers of Harry Sidebottom’s Warrior of Rome and Throne of the Caesars series will already be familiar with Castricius, an enigmatic and oddly sympathetic sociopath referred to in Silence & Lies as “the knife boy”. Silence & Lies allows us some insight into part of Castricius’ personal history and leaves us with as many questions as it answers. With the release of the third Throne of the Caesars novel, Fire and Sword, we may learn more.

Castricius is the perfect character through whom to explore issues of secrecy, identity, mutability, espionage and evasion. Sidebottom explicitly pays tribute to a familiar pulp fiction genre – the sheriff in pursuit of an escaped outlaw – and does not neglect the action side, but here he is largely concerned to investigate character and philosophy.

A striking hallmark of Sidebottom’s novels is the sense that despite the Roman Empire of the 3rd Century being geographically vast, there is little leeway for a fugitive to lay low – places to run, maybe, but nowhere to hide, nowhere to claim safety. This short story addresses this head-on.

Castricius might think he can shed one skin and transmute. But can he?

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Throne of the Caesars: Fire and Sword by Harry Sidebottom


Fire and Sword is the concluding novel of the Throne of the Caesars trilogy – although as I felt compelled to google the historical narratives of its real life characters afterwards, I hope author Harry Sidebottom might one day get around to writing sequels, if only in short story form. I loved the short stories he’s written to “bridge” the second part, Blood and Steel, and this third novel; the short stories are currently only available online, so if further short stories are added perhaps there’ll be enough for a hard copy volume.

As you’d expect from Sidebottom, an Oxford academic who specializes in ancient warfare and the Hellenistic influence within the Roman Empire, Fire and Sword is a riveting reconstruction of 3rd century Rome. Unobtrusively yet authoritatively, extensive research serves as the foundation for all depictions here of locations (terrains and town layouts), garments, foods, transport, historical personalities, politics and characters’ worldviews. But the trilogy is an epic of imagination, too: records of the politics and political players in this drama are unreliable and incomplete, so Sidebottom has to a large extent extrapolated personalities and inferred backroom events from scant sources.

The characters he’s `created’ are engaging, although it did take me a little while to reorient myself to who is whom and where we were in terms of where the plot picks up from the previous books and stories. The plot moves fast, much faster than in the first novel Iron and Rust. I was a little worried by the introduction of a caped bandit king early on, who I suspected might prefigure a bodice-ripper subplot, and I hope it’s not a spoiler to say Sidebottom, thankfully, had other purposes for this character.

As well as concluding the Throne of the Caesars trilogy, Fire and Sword is a kind of prequel to Harry Sidebottom’s popular Warrior of Rome series, and introduces Warrior of Rome’s main character, the Saxon hostage prince Dernhelm a.k.a Marcus Clodius Ballista. Even as a young teenager Dernhelm’s thought processes are recognizably those of his adult self as readers have come to know him through the six novels so far in the Warrior of Rome series. Sidebottom has more Ballista novels planned, and readers who love Ballista and his familia, his close cohort, will welcome both Dernhelm’s appearance in Fire and Sword and also future tales of his travels and travails 25 years later.