Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Osprey : Republican Roman Warship

It is a long time since I was impressed by an Osprey book so it is a pleasant surprise to get one that is in an special area of interest of mine that delivers more than expected! The format is always limiting but this example - unusually - makes the most of it.

The confusing situation where Osprey display a different cover to the actual book as shown in Amazon notwithstanding,,,,,
Osprey ?

 Rafaelle D'Amato strikes a good balance between packing in as much as he can, along with supporting evidences, but keeping it concise and interesting. It is rare to find him going off on personal interpretations or space-filling digressions in this volume and he covers a lot of detail.

One such rare digression is to discuss a poem, 'Colomban's Celeuma'. I think this can just as easily be seen as the author using a literary device based on an observed rythmic phenomenon - that of rowing oarsmen - rather than an objective record of how oarsmen kept time. Circular argument alert..

The book ranges from considering what Rome's earliest warships may have been, down to the battle of Actium and the demise of larger warships. The Egadi material is included with some nice photos.

One advantage D'Amato may have is that a lot of archaeological evidence is relatively close to him but in contrast to many he gets off his backside and takes new photos or gets them taken and does not rely on stock images. This alone makes the book worthwhile. New pictures of sculpture I know from many books but only from one camera angle are very welcome and very informative as well as items previously unpublished in accessible form. Who buys an edition of archaeological papers to get one image of a pot lid ? (Ok, me , maybe . occasionally, but not many )

D'Amato gallops through a lot of modern writing without pausing to give detailed references but the important thing is he compiles the interesting bits here. A single sentence summarises several dusty numismatic papers- BRAVO! In fact one could say that he deals with almost ALL areas -outside shore facilities and administration - so little we know on this subject ..

The colour plates are a key attraction of the Osprey format. Here they are by G. Rava who illustrated 'Ancient Warship' and his style has not changed. Where is the editorial control over images? The ships depicted here are clunky, massive and often two dimensional. The overall effect of action plates like the siege of Syracuse (E) are reasonable but offset by outrageous scale distortions and wierdness such as Pompey's marines attacking pirates up a beach in a Trajanic testudo formation(C).
Illustration increases relative size of man and figurehead by about 3 and oars shown as thick as telegraph poles. Ram is shown as steel or silver but they were of bronze.
On the positive side, I greet  ANY colourful representations of classical galley warfare with an eye on historical accuracy with a cheer.

With reference to the illustrations, and to illustrate another point, as it were, D'Amato's translation of cærulus as 'dusky p.20 is an editorial omission. There are many, which may be due to the author writing in a second language. I know the problems well myself and it is possible to write something in a foreign language one thinks is passable but which grates immediately on native speakers. There are many oddities in the book , giving an impression of Euro-English. What the hell do Osprey editors get paid for ? Cærulus/cæruleus, by the way , CAN mean darkish blue, but it can also mean black. In reference to ships, the obvious black is pitch or tar, used to protect timber and an obvious detail of any wooden ship. 'Dusky' is not a colour, but an adjective. Could not a junior editor or half-blind proof-reader at Osprey have seen this ? Because of this (?) all the ships illustrated get shown as blue but tar and pitch are nowhere to be seen.

There are no battle plans or tactical diagrams. Maybe a good thing, because they are often done poorly or at least, uninspiringly, and we can all read the ancient accounts ourselves anyway. Many aspects of this topic are open to interpretation but in this book the basic information is often provided rather than only the author's view. This treats the reader as an adult and gives confidence in the author.

It is not necessary to write more because this Osprey, at least, is well worth the money. It has certainly given my Punic Wars ship development a big boost.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sorry, but if you think that the illustrators at Osprey aren't controlled by the author of the book and the editor, you're completely wrong and you don't know what you're talking about.
    All technical detail are pedantically verified twice, firstly on the pencil sketch and on the color plate, after. Trajanic Testudo included, read by yourself the extract from the brief (italian language):
    "Gli schieramenti Romani visibili potranno essere: la testuggine di fonte 20 o le truppe disposte in avanzata di fonte 21;"

    Giuseppe Rava-Illustrator