Thursday, May 3, 2012

Chronicle of the Roman Republic by Philip Matyszak – Review

The Chronicle of the Roman Republic by Philip Matyszak presents the lives and times of Roman rulers from Romulus to Augustus, in an accessible and colorful way. The book is part of the Chronicle Series, published by Thames & Hudson, which also includes the Chronicle of the Roman Emperors, of the Popes, of the Old Testament Kings, of the Russian Tsars, and so on – with the obvious goal of making history accessible and easy to understand.

Truth is, this is the kind of book you'd never think of buying until you run out of gift ideas for a friend with an interest in history. It's rather a coffee table book than one you can take with you in the bathtub to enhance your knowledge while relaxing in lavender bubbles. It has hundreds of nice illustrations, inserts and text boxes that describe various aspects of the daily life in ancient Rome, serving as explanations for the main events.

Thus, the book is awesome for quick references, when you don't have your smartphone to check something on the net, but it doesn't get you a smooth reading experience, which is a pity, since history is supposed to be a story after all. The format would be better suited for hypertext rather than printed text, but I have yet to find a website that's organized with so much care and attention to details. The main problem is that the format of the Chronicles series doesn't really suit the topic. The author has to break down the time-line by the lives of the rulers, so he can't always follow through each event in its logical unfolding. The format works great for the imperial period, but the history of the Republic is a mixture of legends, confusion, and taunting archaeological evidence, which doesn't always make sense. Probably the Romans themselves, despite being used to the annals, would have been confused by the system as well: their first history of Rome purposely mentioned no names; people weren't relevant, the City was.

Once you get over the initial disappointment that you have a pretty book that can't be read like a normal book, you'll find that the Chronicle of the Roman Republic has actually a lot of substance. Philip Matyszak does not compromise accuracy for the appeal of the text, but he does have a sense of selecting trivia and amusing details to keep the reader entertained. If you've already read all the primary, ancient sources, and one or two other books about the period, you may not find a lot of new information in the Chronicle – but it's still a pretty thing to have. If you're new to the topic, and you're looking for a good overview, it makes a great resource, because the Republic is otherwise rather dull, and many other materials that have been published on the topic are not easy to swallow by casual readers.  

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Getting Very Serious about Knots... Hercules Knots, That Is

Some people take knots seriously.

For instance, the Hercules knot, which is a simple, square knot, used to tie a rope around something... basically what knots do, when they're left alone to be doing what they're supposed to. But Hercules knot has an aesthetic dimension as well, unfortunately for it. It's symmetrical, and therefore caught the attention of jewelry makers and fashion designers since ancient times.

It's main use though is in medicine, to tie bandages. Pliny records that wounds heal faster when the bandage is protected by a Hercules knot, which, like many absurdities recorded by Pliny, is correct, and modern medicine still uses this knot to this day.

Another association is with Mercury, whose trademark caduceus displays two snakes which appear to form a square knot. This signifies the strength of an agreement (Mercury being the god of merchants, bankers, robbers, and other honest people) – the more the sides are pulled apart, the stronger the connection between them. By why do they call it Hercules knot, when it belongs to Mercury? Good question. Maybe the Gauls inspired the change, considering that they identified Mercury with Hercules. Or maybe not, I have no idea.

So – healing, commitment, bonding – the next logical step is to associate the Hercules knot with marriage, of course, and to use it for the design of bridal jewelry and clothing. (Hence the phrase to tie the knot? Hm. Maybe.)

The sad part is that the Hercules knot is actually very weak. The International Guild of Knot Tyers (told you some people were very serious about this) warns against its improper use, which allegedly caused many deaths over the years. Maybe you should think twice before selecting is as your wedding ring design. Maybe a Celtic knot would be more appropriate? How about no knot at all?  

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Mist of Prophecies by Steven Saylor – Review

In 48 BC, Rome is holding its breath, waiting for the outcome of the conflict between Caesar and Pompey. Nobody knows which side to take, everybody expects a bloodshed, irrespective of the winner, supplies are scarce, debts are accumulating, and, basically, the world is changing forever... but that's no reason for a good detective to stop investigating murders, is it?

A Mist of Prophecies is another novel by Steven Saylor in the Roma Sub Rosa series, and we follow yet again Gordianus the Finder as he tries to navigate carefully among the many political factions of the time, balance his checkbook, maintain peace in a household full of adopted children, and, of course, catch a murderer. If you liked the other novels in the Roma Sub Rosa series, you'll love this one. If you liked any of the mysteries set in the ancient world ever written, you'll love Steven Saylor, who's without a doubt one of the masters of the genre. (And, by the way, if you don't know yet what “Sub Rosa” stands for, you'll find out in this novel.)

The highlight of the Mist of Prophecies is the gallery of Roman women: Terentia, Fulvia, Sempronia, Cytheris, Fausta, Clodia, and Calpurnia – all actual historical characters, of which we know relatively little today. Saylor tries to give them a voice, or at least an image, and to imagine which places they held in the web of political intrigue of the age. This approach gives the author a lot of room for creativity, since the historical documents about the women of the time are scarce anyway, and unreliable at best, and the actual detective plot is entirely fictional – but Saylor does not compromise on historical accuracy in other details, which is why he's among my favorites.

Gordianus himself is more Hercule Poirot than James Bond, which does contribute to the impression of authenticity, but not to the character's charm. I for one could sympathize with his financial problems, but I found the romantic plot a bit far-fetched. Then again, after about a dozen of mysteries solved, maybe it was time for Gordianus to get trapped in a love story, like all detectives should, at some point.

The most fascinating character of them all, however, is Rome itself, seen through the eyes of Gordianus – at the same time familiar (in the way New York is familiar to those who watch CSI-NY, without having ever been there) and frightening – the place where anything can happen, and nothing is what it seems. It's good that we have Gordianus to guide us in the maze of streets, and it's even better that Gordianus has a bodyguard to take care of things when they get rough. But in the end, even if Rome is dangerous and unpredictable in 48 BC, you end up envying Gordianus the Finder, for being so closely involved in the events that changed the world. And for his love affair with a beautiful Egyptian.  

Monday, April 23, 2012

Tiny Token Empires Game Review – Conquer the Ancient World – The Fun Way

Have you ever wanted to recruit an army of philosophers, that can do some serious damage against ordinary legionaries, by dazzling and confusing them with complex theorems? Well, I hadn't – but mostly because I didn't know it was possible, until I stumbled upon this simple, but highly addictive game called Tiny Token Empires.

The game is a match three – strategy mash up, and one of the best mash ups I've seen in years. The matching part is quite original, as it's used to determine the results of the battles. You're not against the clock, and you also have to take into account the opponent's moves – so you have to think more like a chess player – and who thought there could be a new twist to match-3 games? You can skip the matching part, and allow the computer to decide the outcome of the battles for you, but, if you're not too keen on these games, you probably shouldn't try Tiny Token Empires in the first place, as the strategy part won't keep you occupied for too long. On the other hand, if you're good (and patient) at matching, you can do some serious damage without recruiting too many troops.

You can play various campaigns, on the Greek, Roman, Carthaginian, Persian or Egyptian side, collect artifacts from monsters, or simply go for the old and classic “conquer the whole known world” objective – what makes this game interesting is that it never takes itself seriously, as your powerful armies are, after all, just tiny tokens. The game has an easy-going appeal – but make no mistake, it's the kind of game that gets you hooked, and, before you know it, you end up spending hours and hours in order to conquer just one more territory or to find just one more artifact. The artwork is quite entertaining, and the texts are witty, so take your time to read the descriptions for each territory – you'll be missing out if you don't.

Tiny Token Empires Cheats and Hints

Normally I'm not a big fan of using cheats, but, sometimes during the Carthaginian campaigns, the game began to act stupid, and I really wanted to move on, so here are the cheats I've found so far, in case anybody else gets stuck: while you are on the map screen, type the following:

  • zeushelpme – you'll get 5000 gold
  • givemefive – 5 random territories will become part of your empire
  • fromhell – five mythological units are placed randomly on the map, in your service

So go plunder Persepolis, mess with the gods, defeat the Cerberus, help your generals find true love, and don't forget to add a couple of catapults to your army of philosophers, you never know when they might come in handy.