Friday, November 16, 2012

Ancient Egyptian and Roman dice

Ptolemaic Egyptian D20

A Pompeii exhibit came the Denver Museum of Nature and Science this fall. Among the objects were some Roman gaming dice. I tried taking a picture, but it didn't come out. Luckily, you can view all sorts of ancient dice on The Metropolitan Museum of Art website. You can read descriptions by clicking on these photo captions. Another nice one is here, and the auctioneer Christie's has an especially nice glass example here.

Ancient Roman dice

Monday, September 17, 2012

1/72 Saxon Warband

I painted Saxon opponents for my Song of Blades and Heroes Romano-British. The troop types for these warbands were provided in the Song of Arthur and Merlin rulebook. I used 1/72 scale plastic MiniArt Germanic Warriors with the addition of an archer from the Airfix Ancient Britons set. I was pleased that such an old model could still be useful. He even has the Suebian hair knot popular with Germanic warriors.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

All about the Benjamins (Franklin books)

I think it's cool how some history-lovers focus their reading on a single favorite person. Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, seems to have a lot of expert admirers. I have always meant to learn more about Benjamin Franklin, so this year I am reading a bunch of his biographies. I grew up near Philadelphia. Franklin got a lot of attention in my elementary school, and I read one thin kids book about him a back when I was in third grade, but that was bout it until this year. Since January I have read five biographies and as many childrens books (to my kids).

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is a must, of course. You can download it free for your eBook reader on Project Gutenburg.

Benjamin Franklin by Edmund S. Morgan was the first modern biography I read. It's a good general book and provides context for Franklin's life which is helpful to have before reading Ben's biography. The author has a bit of humor, which is very appropriate to a man like Ben.

Benjamin Franklin: The First Mr. American by Roger Burlingame has been my favorite general history of Franklin. I stumbled upon this 1955 paperback at the antique store. It's a shame that the book is out of print, as it includes a good range of the most amusing anecdotes. This book offers detail on Franklin's service on the Pennsylvanian frontier during the French and Indian War. Everybody knows Ben was a genius inventor and diplomat, but I was surprised to learn how active he was in the military defense of the colony. He directed a frontier community to construct a fort using his own design!

For the serious Franklinphile, Historian J. A. Leo Lemay wrote an exhaustive series of biographies, The Life of Benjamin Franklin Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3. The last book brings us only to 1757. Unfortunately the author died before he could write the next books completing Franklin's life. I am finishing the second book now, and I am most looking forward to reading about his scientific and military accomplishments in volume 3. The level of detail is just amazing. Each 500 to 700 page book takes the reader slowly along Franklin's life. If you are interested in colonial era politics, business, printing/publishing, or military history, then you will appreciate the great depth of Lamay's writing.

My grand goal is to read all of the current Franklin bios in print. If your book's-to-read queue is too long, listen to these tow podcasts:
Benjamin Franklin discussed on BBC Radio 4's In Our Time
Stanford University’s Ben Franklin and the World of the Enlightenment


I read to my kids at bedtime every night, so they got to hear a lot about Franklin too. I started with Benjamin of Old Philadelphia by Margaret Cousins. This was first published in 1952 and is still a solid older-kid-appropriate biography. When we finished it we moved on to some other books, and then I asked what they'd like next. My nine-year-old replied, "My favorite books are about people who had adventures, you know, like Ben Franklin." I hadn't thought about it like that, but she's right. Franklin totally did have adventures. We have since read more, but Cousins' book has proven to be the best for kids.

What's the Big Idea, Ben Franklin? by Jean Fritz was a book I bought from one of those Scholastic catalogs in elementary school. It's a very short book with lots of cool 1970s illustrations. I just gave it to my kids to read on their own. Interestingly this book—which is supposed to be for younger readers—is the only children's book we've read that describes the drowning death of Benjamin's infant brother. There is even a Edward Gorey-style illustration of a kid's feet sticking out of a tub of soap suds!

At our local used bookshop I found Benjamin Franklin: Inventor, Statesman, and Printer by R. Conrad Stein. It seems like this 1972 biography is out of print, which is just as well. Although it added a few more anecdotes, the read didn't contribute much to our understanding of old Ben. I was most amused to see that this book lied to children. In an effort to hide the illegitimacy of Ben's son, the author wrote, "Ben and Deborah were married in September 1730. A short time later a son, William was born." Truth is young William, son of a mystery woman, was already in Ben's custody before their common-law marriage.

A friend recently gave us Benjamin Franklin, American Genius by Brandon Marie Miller. This 2009 book is full of activities as well as the story of Ben's life. My older daughter loves science activities, so this has been a great gift.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

1/72 Diorama of My Grandpa's WWII Port Company in Normandy

This week Osprey Publishing released the eBook edition of my book Longshore Soldiers. Two years ago when I first self-published the paperback I painted up a diorama of my grandpa's company moving supplies on Utah Beach. I thought I'd re-post to welcome the new eBook.

"I didn't mind moving the ammo. It was the gas that worried me I didn't want to burn to death [if a Germans hit the DUKW]" —Cortland Hopkins, in Longshore Soldiers.

In WWII my grandfather served in a US Army port battalion. Port company stevedores unloaded supply ships. This was ordinarily done on the docks of a port, but for the Normandy invasion they needed to load DUKWs (amphibious trucks) and drive the cargo to shore. On Utah Beach and Omaha Beach this was done under weeks of German shelling and aerial bombing.

My book charts my grandfather's service from enlistment to Boston, England, Utah Beach, and Antwerp. After all that research I was also inspired to paint-up some port company models. Finding a DUKW was easy. I bought a plastic 1/72 Italeri model. This was the first model I built in about 15 years. Naturally I lost a tiny piece, glued my fingers together, and stabbed myself in the leg with an X-Acto blade. My DUKW had rear view mirrors for a time, but after taking these pictures I noticed that they had snapped off without me noticing. (click any of these photos to view a larger version)

The 1/72 scale oil drums, jerry cans, and block of supplies came from Sgt's Mess.

Finding suitable stevedore models in 1/72 was slightly more difficult. Really the only choice was a box of Airfix's U.S.A.F. Personnel (see the full sprue scan on PlasticSoldierReview). The working poses lacked helmets, so I chopped off the head of the MP model and glued them on the worker bodies.

Pictured above is my grandfather Cortland on D-Day (on left). His jacket showed no marks of rank. He's carrying an M1 Garand he picked up from a fallen soldier, because his carbine jammed during the fight. On the right is Donald H. on guard duty. One of the veterans I interviewed, Don served in the 284th Port Company, attached to the 5th Engineer Special Brigade on Omaha Beach. He carries the standard firearm for port company troops, an M-1 carbine. These are Italeri models.

The helmet markings worn by the port battalion troops are especially interesting. For the D-Day invasion my grandfather's unit was attached to the 1st Engineer Special Brigade. All attached troops received a blue arc. Below is a color photo of some 1st ESB men on Utah Beach in 1944. Port battalion helmets on Omaha Beach received the marking of the 5th and 6th Engineer Special Brigades. There's was a white arc with a blue & yellow amphibious training command insignia underneath. This insignia is visible as a shoulder patch in the photo below.

My Book Blog has articles and photographs to supplement my book. Since publishing I have broadened my research to include port battalions and supply operations outside my grandfather's unit.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Eager for Glory: The Untold Story of Drussus The Elder, Conqueror of Germania

Military biographies tend to be written by the same historic figures over and over again. There are dozens of books devoted to men like Julius Caesar, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, etc. There is a popular interest in such famous personalities, and there are ample resources on which a biographer can base his research. In Eager for Glory Lindsay Powell chronicles the life of an important Roman leader who has been unfairly neglected by history.

Before his accidental death, Drusus the Elder was successfully conquering western Germany. He was stepson of Emperor Augustus, the brother of Emperor Tiberius, father of Emperor Claudius, grandfather of Emperor Caligula, and great-grandfather of Emperor Nero. Had he not died so young, his exploits and family connections would have commanded a prominent place in Roman and world history.

Eager for Glory gathers the scattered evidence of Drusus' life and presents as near a complete story as can be told. The last person to write a biography of Drusus was the Emperor Augustus himself. Sadly, that text was lost to history. There is no surviving autobiography as Caesar has left us, nor are there full accounts written by ancient historians such as Plutarch or Tacitus. Yet, there are some short references to Drusus among ancient writings. Powell pieced these with his deep knowledge of the the Roman military, recent archaeology, and the general history surrounding Drusus' life. The gaps are filled with Powell's own intriguing theories.

The text begins with a discussion of Drusus' early life in the imperial family. As a young adult he enters politics. At age 22 Augustus puts him in command of the Roman operation to conquer the Alps. This was the Bellum Alpinum (aka Bellum Noricum) against the Raeti. I have seen this war briefly mentioned in other Roman military books, so I was very interested to read Powell's detailed account. Those readers unfamiliar with the Roman, Celtic, and German ways of war are supplied with backgrounds on the respective armor, weapons, equipment, tactics, etc. Speaking of armor, Roman history buffs will be interested to see how Powell ties the introduction of segmented armor to Drusus' own legions. After the conquest of the Raetians, Drusus is rewarded with a governorship of Gaul.

Although technically provinces of Rome, the three Gauls are still a fertile land for rebellion. Through clever diplomacy, Drusus diffuses a potential revolt. He then responds militarily to violent incursions from German neighbors. The unstable border encourages Augustus to subdue and assimilate the people East of the Rhine. Powell narrates the daring exploration and long-distance combat of Drusus' Bellum Germanicum. At the book's end we learn of Rome's reaction to Drusus' unexpected death, his (until recently) fading legacy, and an assessment of the man. Eager for Glory is an engaging story of a worthy, yet forgotten Roman commander.

P.S. Other reviewers have grumbled that the figure numbers in the text don't match the photos. This really isn't much of a problem as it is easy to figure out which image his writing refers to.

P.P.S. Powell wrote a related article: "Bella Germaniae: The German Wars of Drusus the Elder and Tiberius" in Ancient Warfare, Special 1, 2009, pp. 10-16.

P.P.P.S. By the end of this year we can expect Powell's next book, a biography of Germanicus. Agrippa comes after that. It's looking to be a nice series of accomplished and overlooked Roman generals.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Knight: The Warrior and World of Chivalry by Robert Jones

I was big into knights when I was like 10-years-old or so. I had a bunch of coloring books and those thin kids' paperbacks about knights and castles. I made drawings of knights making ample use of a silver crayon, one of which has survived to this day (see scan at left).

Seeing the suits of armor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was impressive, but a scholarly interest didn't develop until after I left college. After I got my first job I went through a short phase of reading Medieval history books. At lunch break I'd walk down the street to the bookstore and would browse the shelves for new books. Then I got into Roman history, and I left Medieval books behind for another decade.

Last fall I finished reading the current books in G. R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, which reignited my curiosity about knights. It seems pretty clear that Martin researched actual Medieval life, so I decided to look into the real-life story. I started with a general history book on knights, aptly titled Knight: The Warrior and World of Chivalry.

As with most of Osprey Publishing's books it is lavishly illustrated. You won't see any reconstructions painted by modern artists, but every spread displays colorful imagery from period manuscripts, photos of surviving armor, etc. You could describe Knight as a coffee table book, but the text itself is well researched and well written. The author calls upon a wide range of art objects, writings, and archaeological examples to support his points. Performing his duty as a good historian, Jones also includes contradictory evidence.

There are the expected chapters on armor and weapon development, organization, tactics, etc., but I was interested to find that the author delved into the mind of the Medieval knight. We consider his emotions, his beliefs, and how these affected prowess in battle. For instance, I was genuinely surprised to read how faithful to honor knights could be. I knew they were supposed to be chivalrous, but I was impressed to learn of opposing knights refusing to kill each other in battle, hostages agreeing not to attempt escape, and whole cities agreeing to remain "captured" after the invading army leaves.

This book was a good introduction to the military of the Middle Ages. The one criticism I have is that this general overview of European knights focuses primarily on the English. I believe the author is himself English, so it makes sense that the material most accessible to him would be limited to his own language. In any case, it's a good text, and I now see just how historic the world of Games of Thrones really is.

In keeping with my real-life Games of Thrones study, I plan on reading War of the Roses by Alison Weir.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Medieval lord walks the streets at night

This grumpy fellow was one of the 28mm townsfolk sold by Mega Miniatures.