The Caspian Gates, by Harry Sidebottom
As someone who enjoys reading about the history of the Roman Empire , I figured that a good historical novel would be an acceptable way to spend the time in my lengthy commute, seeing as the audiobook for this particular volume spread out luxuriously over 11 ½ hours of material on 10 cds, read by Stefan Rudnicki, who does a good job at capturing the various voices in this multiple POV novel. Yet the book is a bit of a misnomer, for although the Caspian Gates, the area where barbarians from the Eurasian steppes to the north enter into the Caucasus region and from there into the vulnerable lands of civilization in Anatolia and the Middle East, is an important part of this novel, they are not even mentioned until the novel is about halfway over. This book is the fourth volume of a six-volume series written by slumming history professor Dr. Sidebottom about one Marcus Claudius Balista, who in history died around the time of the previous novel in the series when he was put to death by the Roman client king of Palmyra Odaenathus after briefly wearing the purple during one of the many revolts during the crisis of the third century. In history, he is a little known figure that barely has his own Wikipedia page , but in this interminable novel, he ends up nearly single-handedly rescuing several cities in Asia Minor from Gothic raids before being sent into exile by an insecure and slightly oversexed Emperor Gallienus, when the term Caspian Gates is first mentioned. While this novel is clearly the work of someone who spends a bit too much time working with Latin texts, making sure to pepper the novel with authentic titles in Latin, Greek, numerous barbarian languages, besides Sassanid Persian, and who understands the world of the late classical period very well, its history, its treachery, the uneasy balance of power between Rome and Persia, and the general decline of the Romans and Greeks, along with their use of barbarian soldiers, there are deeply uneasy aspects of the culture and perspective of this novel as well.
In terms of the contents of this book, they are a mix between content that would be of interest to a classicist with a fondness for military and diplomatic history and content that borders on swords and sorcery novels and even softcore pornography, making it somewhat unpleasant reading on a moral level. Not content merely to endlessly repeat that the age is one of iron and rust, of decadence and decline, the author positively revels in it, whether in the portrayal of Balista’s adulterous liaison with the heathen princess of the Suani, who he is sent to to encourage them to renew loyalty to Rome, or whether it is the emperor’s pederasty towards one of Balista’s freedmen, or whether it is in the descriptions of violence that fill these pages, whether in Gothic raids and piracy on the high seas or the climactic battle that closes the book. About half of the novel takes place in Asia minor, where Balista awaits the clemency of the emperor while, in his free time, roving from city to city as an ad hoc military leader to protect the vulnerable cities of the Aegean coast from Gothic pirates in the absence of effective ordinary Roman defense after a major earthquake in Ephesus. He is then summoned to Byzantium, where he and three other expendable Romans and their equally expendable Abkhazian eunuch interpreters are sent off to conduct diplomacy in the Caucasus for the glory of Rome. Along the way, they are waylaid by Gothic pirates and barely escape the pirates and a massive storm with their lives, before arriving to conduct diplomacy, where Ballista has an affair with a princess who [spoiler alert] takes being left behind when Balista is sent even further into barbarian territory very badly, putting a curse on him. As the eunuch notes, even though Balista is successful at rebuilding the Caspian Gates for the defense of Cappadocia and other provinces, his efforts leave the various kingdoms of the region even more under the thumb of the Persians than they were before, not a stellar success.
Just like Balista’s efforts were not a stellar success, this novel is somewhat unsuccessful as well. Part of that is that the author chooses to spice up what would be a fairly pedestrian novel of Roman geopolitics by adding lots of sex and violence. Unfortunately, these elements merely add corrupt the material rather than make it more interesting or worthwhile. Balista seems a bit like a Mary Sue, able to go into an entirely new town and save it from conquest after only a few days of efforts, and then able to know how to evade pirates and then engage in diplomacy, either unaided or with the help of equally impossibly skilled subordinates and allies. The novel glorifies all kinds of immoral behavior, making what could easily have been a cautionary tale about the folly of decadence into a tale where Balista is seen as the hero, even if he is morally far from heroic, quick to justify himself but slow to accept blame. Beyond the sex and violence, the novel glorifies various magical beliefs, whether we are talking about bogus scientific ideas like physiogamy, various charms and amulets and curses, or heathen worship and superstitions of the Romans, Greeks, Persians, and others. The novel has multiple points of view that manage to convey a sense of sympathy and understanding with virtually every belief system present in the Middle Eastern world at the time except for Christianity and Judaism, even though there are briefly Jewish and Christian characters portrayed, even if they are somewhat unimportant. It is striking that a corrupt novel about the moral corruption of a corrupt age glories in corruption, and does not in any meaningful way reflect on the moral code of biblical religion, likely because such beliefs would reflect negatively on the “values” the author wishes to portray. The novel, on its face escapist fiction about the Late Roman Empire, manages to speak about the tendency of contemporary elites to revel in our own decadence rather than stand against it. For our age too is one of iron and rust, where virtue is lacking, and where the greatest heroism we need is not in the physical courage to fight against invasion, but the moral courage to fight against the darkness of our own hearts and minds. This novel, its author, and its characters, notably fail in any sense to fight against that evil, and that failure makes it unlikely that I will look to read any further works by this author, whether scholarly or fictional.
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