Book review: The Wolves of the North

Academic scholarship and bloodthirsty narrative come together in a tale of ancient skullduggery and violence

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Tue, Dec 11, 2012 - Page 12

“Divide and rule” was an old Roman principle, today being used again by Israel in the Middle East. And in this new novel in Harry Sidebottom’s Warrior of Rome series, the imperial Romans in the 3rd century AD are at it with a vengeance, sending a hand-picked group into the steppes, in theory to see if there are any hostages still alive who they can ransom, but in reality with the intention of setting one tribe of warlike nomads, the Heruli, against their neighbors, the Goths, so as to make the Roman presence on the Black Sea coast more secure.

University scholarship and bloodthirsty narrative don’t usually go hand in hand. But Sidebottom is not only an Oxford academic, admittedly one specializing in ancient warfare, but also the author of an on-going series of novels set in ancient Rome that, if this one is anything to go by, are notably realistic when it comes to ritual murder, arrow wounds, attacks with swords and daggers, and indeed any kind of military combat in the days before the invention of gunpowder.

This is a tale of vast grasslands, foraging nomads, some of whom hold their women in common and have sexual relations with animals, treachery, physical deprivation and blood feuds without end. The location is the area northeast of the Sea of Azov (an extension of the Black Sea). Called the Pontic Steppe, it’s the undulating, almost treeless grassland that lies between the Black Sea and the Caspian.

The plot centers on conflict between the Heruli and the opportunistic raiders, the Alani. The Roman delegation, which is on a formal visit to the Heruli, helps them defend themselves, and takes part on one occasion in a royal hunt, driving stags and other prey down to the banks of the River Volga.

Meanwhile, there’s a sub-plot involving an unknown assassin, possibly a member of the Romans’ own party, who kills and ritually mutilates a range of victims, from a scholarly eunuch to a young Germanic warrior. The main character’s pursuit of the perpetrator of these crimes, once he’s been discovered, ends the book. But it’s a resolution that’s inconclusive, and the subject will clearly be taken up again in a forthcoming volume.

The author admits that our knowledge of the Heruli (partly to be identified with the Scythians) is scant, largely because nomads leave few archaeological remains. He has, he says, had to decide between several kinds of speculation, opting for a version that has them lengthening their skulls by manipulation in infancy, using cannabis by throwing armfuls of the herb onto a fire in a small tent for the benefit of those crowding round, practicing scapulimancy (divination by the examination of shoulder-blades), and displaying a fondness for red tattoos.

This geographical and historical background proved, for me, absorbingly interesting. The characters, by contrast, were less enthralling. Ballista, the main character, is a Roman general assigned a variety of tasks throughout the novel cycle. Here, in The Wolves of the North, he appears brooding and taciturn, involving himself in none of the sexual escapades of his fellow officers, only longing to be home with his wife and children in Sicily.

The reason neither he nor any of the other characters is especially engaging is that Sidebottom avoids what critics call “interiority” (complex speculation and self-analysis) whenever possible. His notes also reveal that he’s happy to denigrate, and have his characters denigrate, a form of Latin literature called the consolatio, a consolation offered to those who had lost loved ones. Instead, the author prefers warfare and military tactics, plus their results. “A medical friend … told me how to remove human eyeballs,” he writes in his endnotes.

Indeed, the finer feelings, as they’re called, such as nobility, compassion, or even nostalgia, are hard to come by in these books. Sidebottom is a tough-minded realist, both as a novelist and, presumably, as a historian. A quick perusal of his volume Ancient Warfare in Oxford’s excellent “A Short Introduction” series would be a quick way to find out about the latter.

It’s hard to question the historical accuracy of an Oxford academic, but I had to wonder about characters originating in northern Europe quoting Anglo-Saxon poems such as Beowulf and The Wanderer in the 3rd century. Traditional scholarship dates the first poem as written between the 8th and 11th centuries, though it may have been based on earlier versions handed down orally. But even proponents of this “oral tradition” theory accept that the historical figures possibly represented in the poem lived in the 6th century. As for The Wanderer, scholars date it from anywhere between the 6th and the 10th centuries, but none as early as the 3rd century. Also, both poems have Christian elements, and the Anglo-Saxons weren’t converted to Christianity until the late 6th century. There probably isn’t a reputable scholar of Old English anywhere in the world, therefore, who believes these poems were current as early as the 3rd century — the date Sidebottom has his characters quoting from them.

The author is generally keen to display his literary antecedents. Many ancient writers, from Herodotus onwards, are cited in his very useful endnotes on places, peoples, characters and technical terms, his Historical Afterwords. He also credits Anton Chekhov’s long tale The Steppe (1888), and the historical novelist R.F. Tapsell whose out-of-print books, he thinks, deserve to be re-issued.

I left this novel eager to find out more about the steppes in general and their ancient nomadic peoples in particular. I longed to read books like E.H. Minns’ Scythians and Greeks (1913), A.M. Khazanov’s Nomads and the Outside World (2nd edition, 1994) — “the essential comparative work on pastoral nomadism” — and T.S. Allen’s The Royal Hunt in Eurasian History (2006). (Chekhov’s The Steppe is easily available online). But I felt a strange reluctance to tackle other novels in Sidebottom’s “Warrior of Rome” series — except, that is, for their Historical Afterwords. These were, I felt, certain to be enthralling.