Archive for August, 2010

Empire coverEmpire:The Novel of Imperial Rome continues the story of the Pinarius family chronicled in Steven Saylor’s earlier novel Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome. In the earlier book, we followed the aristocratic family from the founding of Rome through the Republican years. Empire picks up at the end of Augustus’ reign and concludes at the end of Hadrian’s, covering about 130 years and four generations of Pinarii.  Saylor sets himself a Herculean task to cover the major events and people of the times in an entertaining and accessible way using a formula perfected by James A. Michner in his historical epics. He mostly succeeds. (more…)

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As I’ve said on my About page, I’m a history junkie and science geek. I love the intersection of these two disciplines: DNA markers that trace humankind’s exodus from Africa, isotope analysis of teeth and bones that tell us where and when ancient people grew up and what they ate, UV light to fluoresce bones and fingerprints on artifacts, and much more.  Over half of my “history in the news” stories this round up have a major science component–from what really killed people in Pompeii to discovering a “lost” Roman city from aerial photographs to where the Dead Sea Scrolls were manufactured. You can click on the links to see the original stories. We’ll start with Pompeii.

Most historians and archaeologists believed the people at Pompeii, who where not killed by spewing rocks, died of suffocation from ash and poisonous gas. Pliny the Younger described the process in letters written 25 years later. Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo, a vulcanologist from the Naples Observatory claims “Everything that has been written in the guides, and the texts, and that has been re-told to tourists [about how people died at Pompeii] is false.” He spent years analyzing skeletal casts, testing bone tissue and simulating Vesuvius eruptions. He published his findings in the science journal PLoS One.  Mastrolorenzo concludes that the people of Pompeii were instantly killed by a pyroclastic cloud, a surge of super-heated air. He also proved these high temperatures can be carried up to 12 miles away from the volcano. The Italian Civil Protection requires only those people living five miles from Vesuvius to evacuate, which puts 3 million people in and around Naples in harm’s way, in case of another eruption.


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Imperium coverImperium is the first in a trilogy of novels about the life and times of Marcus Tullius Cicero, one of Republican Rome’s most famous orators and politicians.  The book is narrated by Tiro, Cicero’s slave and secretary, many years after Cicero’s death. Tiro existed and is thought to have lived to be a hundred years old. He was famous for creating a short hand that he used for taking notes and later was adopted by the Senate.  There is considerable evidence he wrote a biography of his former master, but those books are lost to history. Harris gives him back his voice. From the opening pages:

Imperium—the power of life and death as vested by the state in an individual. Many hundreds of men have sought this power, but Cicero was unique in the history of the republic in that he pursued it with no resources to help him apart from his own talent. He was not, unlike Metellus or Hortensius, from one of the great aristocratic families, with generations of political favors to draw on at election time. He had no mighty army to back up his candidacy, as did Pompey or Caesar. He did not have Crassus‘ vast fortune to smooth his path. All he had was his voice—and by sheer effort of will he turned it into the most famous voice in the world.” (more…)

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