Macdowall, S. Catalaunian Fields AD 451 (Osprey, £14.99; ISBN 9781472807434)
Donahue, J.F. Food and Drink in Antiquity (Bloomsbury, £22.99; ISBN 9781441133458)
Nisbet, G. (tr.) Martial: Epigrams, with Latin Text (OUP, £9.99: ISBN 9780199645459)
Macdowall (Catalaunian Fields) is a former army office who has seen service all over the world as well as holding positions in NATO and the UK government. He writes with great authority in this beautifully produced 96pp, large-format paperback, decorated with excellent colour illustrations, plates, maps and battle-plans. The battle in question, fought on June 20 AD 451 in Champagne on the plains of France (sometimes known as the Battle of Châlons), brought Attila with his Hunnic and German army face to face with a previous ally Flavius Aetius, now largely master of the previously chaotic Western empire, controlling a force of Romans, Goths, Alans and other Germans. M. sketches well the rise to power of Aetius and Attila, and the reasons for the battle: partly (among other things) Attila’s desire to win lands richer than those he controlled in the East, partly a claim to the hand of Honoria, sister of the Western emperor Valentinian III. The result was a victory for Aetius, but he did not finish Attila off, probably because he wanted his old allies the Huns to be available to support him in case of Gallic uprisings against him. Attila duly sacked Italy, but he died in mysterious circumstances on the night of his to marriage to his new wife Ildico; and now that the Huns were beaten, Valentinian, who had never liked Aetius, murdered him.
In his Food and Drink in Antiquity (p/b, 299pp), Donahue has produced a fine, wide-ranging sourcebook based on Greek and Roman sources, interspersed with clear, intelligent commentary. After an introduction, the six chapters cover the Mediterranean triad (grain, grapes and olives), food and drink in literature, in their social context, and in the service of religion, the military and medicine. A huge range of sources is quoted, from starving enemies into submission, providing an annual feast of meat for a town in memory of a beloved son and Plato’s proposal to train the young in self-control by getting them drunk from an early age, to apples as love-spells, the best location for a lamprey pond, and the need for fat people who wish to slim to eat meat with lots of fat on it to sate them as soon as possible.
Martial is an epigrammatist of unmatched range and brilliance. Treating life, society and human foibles with coruscating wit, he mixes vicious abuse, frequently sexual, of individuals with biting satire on human weakness and lyrical reflections on Rome, friendship and country life. In his extremely useful Martial Epigrams (p/b, 290pp) N. selects over 300 of his subject’s c. 1600 poems, doing full justice to Martial’s range. A first-rate introduction takes us through the history of epigram, Martial’s Rome and his place in satire. N. emphasises the cumulative effect of the ‘universe’ Martial constructs and the clever structuring of the bewildering range of topics and characters, making us eager to find out what guise Rufus and others will appear in next. Well-judged notes at the back explain references and put each poem in context.
The translation is accurate and solidly prosaic: no snap, crackle or bite there. But then N. admits he is no poet, and it does require a Pope or Swift to do Martial full justice. The saving grace is that the selection comes with the Latin on the facing page. Even those with basic Latin, then, will be able to taste something of Martial’s supreme virtuosity. To give some idea of Martial in English, here is Sir John Harington on Galla:
When Galla for her health goeth to the Bathe,
She carefully doth hide, as is most meete,
With aprons of fine linnen, or a sheete,
Those parts, that modesty concealèd hath;
Nor onely those, but e’en the brest and necke,
That might be seene, or showne, without all checke.
But yet one foule, and unbeseeming place
She leaves uncovered still: What’s that? Her face.
Not a poet, then, for those university students who need a safe space from anything that might shock them.