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Zulu Rising

I have just finished reading Ian Knight's new book Zulu Rising: The epic story of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift. The 1879 Anglo-Zulu War may still be best known to many from the Stanley Baker and Michael Caine movie Zulu and the less famous Zulu Dawn. The first is by far the better film, although the second probably made more effort to be accurate. I also have a soft spot for it as I was old enough to see it in the cinema on its release in the eighties.

This book is about the history rather than the movie versions, and as always, the truth is far more interesting. A lot is written about this brief - and in many respects minor - conflict. One of the reasons is because of the inherent drama of a clash between Queen Victoria's redcoats and a strongly indepedent and vibrant African kingdom. On top of that the Zulu army, its men disciplined, but equipped with antiquated firearms or old-fashioned shields and spears, overcame and destroyed a British force camped at the foot of the hill of Isandlwana. Then, later that same day and into the night, a tiny, and heavily outnumbered British force entrenched at the mission station at Rorke's Drift held off a strong attacking force and won eleven VCs in the process.

Anyone who has already delved into the period will already know Ian's name. He has written a lot and it is always worth reading. In many ways I think this is best thing he has ever done - and I do not say that lightly. What makes it special is the sheer depth of knowledge behind his account. Its the product of decades of study, but also of a life spent walking the ground and listening to local oral history. When he started out there were still old folk alive who had been children during the war, and plenty whose parents had spoken of being caught up in it. Back in 2008 I went on a tour of the battlefields organised by Holt's Tours and with Ian as the guide. It was excellent, because he is a terrific speaker with not simply the knowledge, but a passion for the subject. Here is a picture of Ian Knight talking to the group. In the background is Isandlwana itself, and we were standing just about where the Zulu commanders were on the day of the battle. There view was tremendous, unlike the British CO, Lt. Col. Pulleine, who would have had a very restricted view wherever he moved in and around the camp.

The great strength of the book is that it tells both sides of the story well and with sympathy. Part of that is looking at things from the Zulu perspective. Almost as important is the inclusion of the many allied troops forming part of the British forces. Some were drawn from the settler communities. Many more were from the various African peoples, who had their own reasons for fighting. Some were Zulus, others exiles or fugitives from the Zulu kingdom. Hundreds of these men fought - and at Isandlwana died - alongside the redcoats. Throughout the book there is also a strong sense of trajedy. Both sides suffered dreadful losses, and in spite of the victory at Isnadlwana the Zulus could not hope to win in the long run. The war resulted in the dismemberment of the kingdom, carved up into chiefdoms and then left to fend for itself.

On Hannibal's Trail Series on BBC
Have just been sent an e-mail about a series showing in the UK on BBC4. Called On Hannibal's Trail it follows the three Wood Brothers as they cycle from Spain to Italy. On the way they see the sights and tell the story of Hannibal's march in 218 BC. I must confess I had not noticed this was on, so have so far only watched a bit on the BBC i-player here. It looks a lot of fun, and a good way of reminding us just how far Hannibal's men marched before they even began the main struggle with the Romans.
Knights and Caesar

Last week I was in Bath, popping in at the Roman Baths and then attending a book launch for Robert Jones' Bloodied Banners: Martial display on the Medieval Battlefield (Boydell Press). Have not yet had a chance to do more than dip into it, but am really looking forward to reading it properly. The idea is a very interesting one, looking at the visual displays and rituals of medieval armies from a range of perspectives - not simply the practical value, such as intimidating the enemy and building up your own confidence, but also the reasons why these things were done in that specific way. I suspect that there may be quite a few parallels with the ancient world, so it's well worth a look if you have an interest in how armies worked.

Also thought that I would mention that Caesar's two thousand and one hundredth birthday will fall this coming Tuesday. Am planning a good lunch in excellent company to toast the old boy!

Antony and Cleopatra
Antony and Cleopatra is due out soon - the 15th July in the UK and the 28th September in the USA. Orion have put the Introduction up on their website for people to read at this link

As usual all sorts of things have delayed the addition of this blog entry, so that it is now several weeks since I went to the cinema to see the move Centurion. It is essentially a pretty violent western with a loose second century AD setting. I rather like westerns, and try to do my best to switch off my brain before going to see anything set in the ancient world so that it doesn't upset me. So ultimately it is an enjoyable action/chase story.

History wise, well it's probably best not to dwell too much on that. The background story did not make any sense - with the governor eager to finish a war so taht he could leave his province, and the general premise that the Caledonian tribes fought so hard and in such an unusual way that the Romans had to withdraw and build Hadrian's Wall. Still it is no doubt nice to think that if you are a Scottish nationalist. Was quite surprised to see Inchtuthil depicted as a tiny outpost rather than a base for an entire legion.

Equipment wise, the legionaries looked generally OK & rather reminiscent of Gladiator, although sadly they carried big, broad-headed spears rather than pila. It would be nice if one day someone could get this right in a movie. Just about everyone was in lorica segmentata and there did not seem to be any auxiliaries of any sort, although one chap oddly enough described himself as a peltast. The legion displayed all the enthusiasm of movie armies to bimble along into an ambush without really looking. Inevitably the attack involved setting fire to things. It's been the same since Spartacus! Also not sure about a Caledonian (or Pictish in the movie) horse archer, or indeed warrior women, who in spite of woad and drab clothes look rather as you would expect movie warrior women to look - their woad and limed hair surprisingly flattering. I cannot say that seeing one of these stabbed in the eyeball with the broken shaft of an arrow quite fits with my idea of entertainment, but no doubt I am just old fashioned.

I missed Agora in the cinemas so will have to wait to rent the dvd. Have no idea whether or not it was any good, but did wonder how you could stretch Hypatia's story to a whole movie. I believe that The Eagle of the Ninth is coming later in the year, so it will be back north of the Wall again. I have fond memories of watching a BBC children's television version of this when I was young, but have been told that tapes of this no longer exist. Pity, as in my memory it was rather good.


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