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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

An Old Man's Vanity

Winter Quarters - Alfred Duggan

Alfred Duggan wrote in the nineteen fifties and compared to a lot  of contemporary fiction set in the ancient world his books are slow. The emphasis is not on power struggles and battles but on the mind-set of the period. Rather than creating characters who are  like his contemporaries but dressed in togas, Duggan tries to depict individuals who are conditioned by the cultural norms of their time.


When Gallic nobles, Camul and Acco, become polluted by killing a bear sacred to a local goddess, they are forced to leave their community and enlist in the Roman army where they become involved in the ill-fated expedition of the plutocrat, Crassus, against the Parthians.


Duggan's uses the contrast between the outlook of the Gauls, in which everything is seen through the prism of honour, and the ruthless, pragmatic politics of Rome to great effect. The campaign of Crassus, which at first seemed a glorious enterprise, gradually emerges in its true light as the vanity project of an elderly businessman with no understanding of war.

The highlight of the book for me is the portrait of Crassus dressed in the trappings of an imperator, waiting to receive the Parthian envoy: 'his face bore the strained expression of the deaf, and his wrinkled neck sagged with age.' By contrast the Parthian looks and acts like a real general. As Camul watches this meeting unfold  he understands that the campaign is doomed, but like all the others, legionary or auxiliary, he is caught in the juggernaut of Crassus's ambition and there is nothing he can do but play his part in what will inevitably be a terrible slaughter.