Servant of the Secret Fire

Random thoughts on books and life in the reality-based community

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Location: New York, United States

The name I've chosen comes from "Lord of the Rings," when Gandalf faces down the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. My Hebrew name is Esther (which is related to the word for "hidden" or "secret") Serafina (which means "burning"). This seems appropriate because although I don't usually put myself forward, I do care very passionately about a lot of things. Maybe through these blogs I can share some of these passions, as well as less weighty ideas and opinions, with others.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

And they don't have eyes because God created them underground (sarcasm)

Cool! Click on title for full story.
Prehistoric ecosystem found in Israeli cave

Wed May 31, 8:10 AM ET

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli scientists said on Wednesday they had discovered a prehistoric ecosystem dating back millions of years.

The discovery was made in a cave near the central Israeli city of Ramle during rock drilling at a quarry. Scientists were called in and soon found eight previously unknown species of crustaceans and invertebrates similar to scorpions

Monday, May 29, 2006

Memorial Day

We must remember all those who gave their lives in the service of our country, but the most recent are always the most poignant, especially when we consider that as immoral, illegal and unnecessary as this war is, if it had at least been conducted competently, so many of these people (and so many Iraqis) would still be alive today.

Note how evenly the casualties are distributed across the "coalition."

There have been 2,690 coalition deaths, 2,466 Americans, two Australians, 113 Britons, 13 Bulgarians, three Danes, two Dutch, two Estonians, one Fijian, one Hungarian, 30 Italians, one Kazakh, one Latvian, 17 Poles, two Romanians, two Salvadoran, three Slovaks, 11 Spaniards, two Thai and 18 Ukrainians in the war in Iraq as of May 29, 2006, according to a CNN count. ... At least 18,184 U.S. troops have been wounded in action, according to the Pentagon.


The Da Vinci Code

I saw the movie today, and actually enjoyed it very much, despite not being a Tom Hanks fan – more the opposite, in fact. I didn't find it boring, although some people might not care for a lot of the dialogue being done in French, Italian(?) and Latin with subtitles – very cosmopolitan of them! I do have to agree with a lot of the reviewers, though, that Sir Ian McKellan makes the movie with his portrayal of Sir Leigh Teabing – a wonderful character even in print, but perfectly cast and brought to life by Sir Ian. It followed the novel pretty closely, although I think the ending was a little different.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Book Review: Why the Jews Rejected Jesus

Why the Jews Rejected Jesus by David Klinghoffer *****

In Why the Jews Rejected Jesus David Klinghoffer, who states at the beginning his background as both a traditional Jew (although not raised as such) and a political conservative, attempts in a serious and considered way to address the puzzlement and discomfort that he encounters from well-meaning Christians who just cannot understand why he fails to see what is obvious to them – that Jesus was the Jewish messiah. Along the way he traces Jewish views of Jesus and Christianity, as well as the relations between the two religions, from the time of the first century to the present day.

Obviously, as some reviews on Amazon which rather hysterically accuse Klinghoffer of not knowing his own scriptures show, this book is not going to decrease the discomfort and feeling of threat that a lot of Christians feel at the thought that their interpretations of the Hebrew Bible are not the only ones nor even the obvious ones. One of his most valuable insights, I feel, is that the traditional way for Christians to study the Bible is to see the “Old Testament” in the light of the New and to accord the New Testament a higher authority. Jews, on the other hand, learn the Hebrew Scriptures on their own terms, and most of the places where the New Testament claims that such and such a prophecy was “fulfilled” by Jesus look to them very much like after-the-fact rationalization. To be honest, I feel the same way about the same type of thing when it is done by the rabbis in the Talmud. His claim that all this rabbinic proof-texting (or finding rationalizations in the Bible for decisions that were originally just stated without any biblical authority) is a result of the same process being used in the New Testament is new to me, so I can’t comment on how accurate it is.

Klinghoffer’s account of the political situation that Judea found itself in at the time when Jesus began teaching is insightful, and his suspicion that Paul may have exaggerated his Pharisaic qualifications if not his own Jewish birth is a theory that I have seen before (see The Mythmaker by Hyam Maccoby), and a lack of deep knowledge as well as frustration at not being able to live up to what he saw as the demands of an adopted religion goes a long way (to me, at least) towards explaining his vitriolic denunciation of the “Law” as a “curse.”

The acknowledgment of a tradition within Judaism that the Jewish authorities at the time were responsible for Jesus’ arrest, if not his death, as well as the publication of several unflattering Talmudic references to him (suppressed for fear of Christian persecution) are painfully honest. As Klinghoffer feels compelled to point out, though, most Jews of the period never had the chance to “reject” him during his lifetime since they never even knew that he existed. I’m afraid that I raised my eyebrows at one reviewer’s assertion that “neither Mel Gibson, or any other intelligent, educated person, blames all Jews.” Since the Second Vatican Council felt it necessary to denounce it, it seems that many “intelligent, educated” people held that belief as recently as the 1960s.

The second half of the book deals with the history of Jewish-Christian debate over the centuries since Jesus’ death. Klinghoffer examines (and sometimes finds wanting) various rationales for the Jewish rejection of Jesus given by some of the sages who, whether voluntarily not, found themselves defending their religion against a Christianity which often held the upper hand where power was concerned; a hesitant groping, beginning surprisingly early, towards reconciliation that culminated with Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption; and the traumatic effect that failed messiahs such as Sabbetai Zevi had on Jewish views of messianism.

My main criticism of Why the Jews Rejected Jesus is that while he does it rarely, Klinghoffer occasionally lets his political conservatism and his prejudices against liberal Judaism, which he seems to view as hardly less a break from “true” Judaism than Christianity, come through. On the whole, however, I found it to be a thoughtful, honest, and (mostly) non-polemical view of a thorny subject, and would recommend it highly to Christians but particularly to Jews, who unfortunately are often ignorant of their own scriptures and thus easy pickings for missionaries.

Book Review: Talk to the Hand

Talk to the Hand by Lynne Truss *****

The latest book from the author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves is another extremely civilized rant complete with a generous dollop of dry British wit, this time about the lack of civility in society at large. Rather than attempting to teach us “manners” a la Emily Post, Truss sensibly takes a broader approach, attempting to “save the world from philistinism and yobbery” with her “six good reasons to stay home and bolt the door.” She makes a lot of excellent points about how simple it is to show basic courtesy, the sheer annoyance of a lot of automated customer service (I personally don’t mind it most of the time but feel that there should always be a real person readily available for those who do), and the general self-centeredness of the iPod and cell phone society, not overtaxing our resources and making us smile when we’re not nodding in agreement - and sometimes when we are. Not a deep book - as the author rather pitiably reminds us, she has "gone quite pale and crosseyed" reading those so that we don't have to - but an enjoyable and accessible read on an always timely subject.

Luckily, I don’t seem to encounter a lot of this rudeness everyone always talks about, maybe because I hang out with such civilized people!

The truest sentence in the book, and the one that sums it all up for me: "In a truly egalitarian society, everyone would show respect for everyone else" – not dis respect, in other words.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Book Review: The Sins of Scripture

The Sins of Scripture by John Shelby Spong ****

Retired Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong once again takes up the fight against simplistic fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible, examining and deconstructing what he calls its “texts of terror,” which are used to marginalize, abuse and exploit women, gays and Jews, among others.

Starting with an account of his “love affair” with the Bible and how his understanding of it evolved, he concludes that as much as he loves it, he cannot believe that it is literally the “Word of God.” There is too much in it that is problematic or out-and-out repulsive and he does not accept the pious attempts to explain these parts away. His stated aim, however, is not to destroy but to create, and to go beyond these timebound texts to find the God of love. While he certainly ends up giving an uplifting vision, I am not sure that it is one that will appeal to many people over the traditional one.

Most of the book is devoted to an examination of the “terrible texts,” placing them in historical context (often exposing later accretions that have nothing to do with the original meaning), and attempting to show why they are inconsistent with a religion that proclaims a loving God. Spong spends entire sections on the Bible and the environment, women, homosexuality, children (in which he argues against portrayals of God as an “abusive” parent), and anti-Semitism. He also has a chapter on the need for certainty, which he finds damaging and feels needs to give way to a tolerance for ambiguity. The last section, “Reading Scripture as Epic History,” is a detailed examination of how the various books of the Bible came to be written. (Speaking of tolerance for ambiguity, I wish that he had been a little less definite in this part and more clear that much of the story he tells is necessarily speculation.

My main difficulty with this book may have something to do with the fact that I come to it as a Jew, and while I believe that Bishop Spong has consciously worked hard (and for the most part successfully) on eliminating any residual anti-Semitism from his fundamentalist upbringing, I still see vestiges of Christian triumphalism and a view of Judaism as somehow inferior and obsolete. Ironically, I noticed this the most in his section on “The Bible and Anti-Semitism.” Writing about the final split between Christianity and Judaism, he says, “Traditional Judaism could not and would not change. Anything that gets so rigid it will not adapt to a new reality will finally die.” The last I noticed, Judaism was still in existence. On the Jewish attitude to the Hebrew Scriptures: “They invested these scriptures with both absolute authority and literal truth...Nothing more is essential; nothing more is necessary.” Has he never heard of the Talmud? Also, Judaism has never read even the Torah, the most sacred of the scriptures, literally in the sense that Christian fundamentalists read both the Old and New Testaments today.

I sincerely doubt that this book will win over any doctrinaire biblical literalists (of whatever persuasion), but apart from what I must consider to be the glaring weakness detailed above, it may be very useful in showing those who are more open to persuasion that not only do they not have to denigrate others to be “good” Christians, but that such attitudes are directly antithetical to the “abundant life” that Jesus (and the Hebrew Scriptures) promised.

First they came for the Democrats...

If you think that you guys are safe because you're Republicans, Messrs. Hastert, Frist et al., think again. The message they're sending is, "It can happen to you, too. Toe the line." Newt gets it – however ethically challenged he may be, he's not stupid. Click on title for full story.

FBI Raid on Lawmaker's Office Is Questioned
Democrat Jefferson Denies Wrongdoing
By Dan Eggen and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 23, 2006; Page A01
An unusual FBI raid of a Democratic congressman's office over the weekend prompted complaints yesterday from leaders in both parties, who said the tactic was unduly aggressive and may have breached the constitutional separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), in an e-mail to colleagues with the subject line "on the edge of a constitutional confrontation," called the Saturday night raid "the most blatant violation of the Constitutional Separation of Powers in my lifetime." He urged President Bush to discipline or fire "whoever exhibited this extraordinary violation."

Friday, May 19, 2006

Watch out, Stephen Colbert

I hope this doesn’t give Dubya any ideas. For full story click here:
Egypt: Support for Detained Award-Winning Blogger Alaa Abd El-Fatah

Reporters sans Frontières (Paris)


May 11, 2006

Posted to the web May 12, 2006

Reporters Without Borders voiced support today for blogger Alaa Abd El-Fatah and his family following El-Fatah's arrest along with 10 other people while demonstrating outside a Cairo court on 7 May. Three of the 10 have since been released.

El-Fatah has been charged with illegal assembly (in violation of the state of emergency law), blocking traffic, insulting President Mubarak, and verbal abuse of police officers at the time of his arrest. Reporters Without Borders called for his release in a letter to the Egyptian authorities on 9 May on the grounds that the charges do not warrant his being kept in custody.

Russ Feingold - a nice Jewish boy with cojones

Russ Feingold walked out of the committee yesterday working on the anti-gay marriage amendment, which of course was following none of the rules and - as someone put it, it was so appropriate that they were meeting in a "closet"? Good for him! He'd better watch out, though - they'll be accusing him of being gay soon, since he hasn't run out and found himself a third wife, or even held auditions in advance of the second divorce like Newt. (Where's the line? I'm sure there's one forming somewhere.) It's good to know that we have so few problems that Congress has time to occupy itself with momentous issues like an amendment that doesn't have a snowball's chance in Hell of passing and declaring English to be our “official” language. I feel so much safer now! On second thought, since I just used a non-English word in my heading, I’ll probably be carted away to Guantanamo.

Seriously, though - if Feingold is running for President, he’s going about it in the right way, even though I believe that he is taking these stands on principle. Sometimes doing the right thing is also smart politically. If nothing else he is standing out from the crowd by standing up for what he believes in, and as shown by the unfortunate example of George W, people respect that, even when they don’t agree. At least he’s not “cowering in the corner” as a lot of his fellow Democrats were when he introduced his censure resolution, and as a lot of them still are - witness Nancy Pelosi denying even the possibility of impeachment. Whether you think it should be done or not, it certainly should not be completely taken off the table. (Nancy, every so often you have an attack of intestinal fortitude, but unfortunately you always recover.)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Mother's Day

This was my first Mother’s Day since I lost my mother back in September, and I can’t believe how much publicity it gets ahead of time. I think that was the hardest thing - every time I turned on the radio looked at my e-mail, etc., there was something saying “Get this for Mom” or something to that effect.

However, as I said during the shiva service when the rabbi (Esther, the second night) asked me to talk about her, I really always have her with me because she had such an influence on me and taught me so much about being a decent person. If I’ve succeeded at that, it’s because of her. She taught me to love books and knowledge, to be curious and think for myself, that all of us are God’s children and, I hope, to be strong in the face of the challenges that life deals us. Nothing exemplifies her own willingness to change her thinking than her evolution from a staunch Reagan Republican to a very harsh critic of the “Bush crime family,” as Mike Malloy refers to it, although we never could convince her to switch her registration at least to independent, or “none” as it goes by in NYS. (I love telling people I’m a “none.”) My sister and I were debating yesterday whether, if she were still here, she’d be ecstatic at the fact that a lot of other people are finally waking up (her) or whether she would have already had another stroke by now with all the abuses of power that are constantly hitting the news (me). Well, if she hadn’t had another stroke (or if she’s looking down on us), she would be glad that he’s finally even losing the support of his base.

Anyway, I hope she is in a better place, whatever that means since if there is an afterlife I don’t believe that we are able to conceive what it would be like, and free from all the frustrations that she had to suffer from in the last couple of years, which were almost worse than physical pain in decreasing her quality of life.

Friday, May 12, 2006

How much value does this have? None.

Here is an answer to the doubts that I expressed at the end of the last post, although to be fair, there is some back and forth about it further down. This guy makes the most sense to me, though.

NSA Sweep "Waste of Time," Analyst Says

It'd be one thing if the NSA's massive sweep of our phone records was actually helping catch terrorists. But what if it's not working at all? A leading practitioner of the kind of analysis the NSA is supposedly performing in this surveillance program says that "it's a waste of time, a waste of resources. And it lets the real terrorists run free."

Re-reading the USA Today piece, one paragraph jumped out:

This kind of data collection from phone companies is not uncommon; it's been done before, though never on this large a scale, the official said. The data are used for 'social network analysis,' the official said, meaning to study how terrorist networks contact each other and how they are tied together.

So I called Valdis Krebs, who's considered by many to be the leading authority on social network analysis -- the art and science of finding the important connections in a seemingly-impenetrable mass of data. His analysis of the social network surrounding the 9/11 hijackers is a classic in the field.

Here's what Krebs had to say about the newly-revealed NSA program that aims to track "every call ever made": "If you're looking for a needle, making the haystack bigger is counterintuitive. It just doesn't make sense."

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Specter vows (for about the thirtieth time) to hold hearings

Arlen dear, that phony outrage of yours is so cute! I’ll believe in it when you sign on to Feingold’s censure resolution, actually put a few of these people under oath, and put your money (or your chairmanship) where your mouth is! Click on title for full story.

NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls

By Leslie Cauley, USA TODAY
The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren't suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.
"It's the largest database ever assembled in the world," said one person, who, like the others who agreed to talk about the NSA's activities, declined to be identified by name or affiliation. The agency's goal is "to create a database of every call ever made" within the nation's borders, this person added.

For the customers of these companies, it means that the government has detailed records of calls they made — across town or across the country — to family members, co-workers, business contacts and others.

The three telecommunications companies are working under contract with the NSA, which launched the program in 2001 shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the sources said. The program is aimed at identifying and tracking suspected terrorists, they said.

From the White House:
The White House defended its overall eavesdropping program and said no domestic surveillance is conducted without court approval.
''The intelligence activities undertaken by the United States government are lawful, necessary and required to protect Americans from terrorist attacks,'' said Dana Perino, the deputy White House press secretary, who added that appropriate members of Congress have been briefed on intelligence activities.

From Capitol Hill:

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would call the phone companies to appear before the panel ''to find out exactly what is going on.''

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the panel, sounded incredulous about the latest report and railed against what he called a lack of congressional oversight. He argued that the media was doing the job of Congress.

''Are you telling me that tens of millions of Americans are involved with al Qaeda?'' Leahy asked. ''These are tens of millions of Americans who are not suspected of anything ... Where does it stop?''

The Democrat, who at one point held up a copy of the newspaper, added: ''Shame on us for being so far behind and being so willing to rubber stamp anything this administration does. We ought to fold our tents.''

Another thing: how keeping track of calling patterns for all Americans has any value in the "war on terror" is beyond me! Also, I just heard on the Al Franken show that Qwest, the one company that stood up to the NSA, told them that if they went to the FISA court and got the OK, they would hand over the information; evidently, however, this was too much trouble for the people who work so hard to protect us from terrorism.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Book Review: The Last Cato ***1/2

The Last Cato by Matilde Asensi ***1/2

I have to say I’m very conflicted about this book. I enjoyed it, but there were a lot of places where I found it very hard to suspend my disbelief. The plot is that of the standard “religious thriller” (and no, Virginia, these have existed for as long as I’ve been reading - they didn’t begin with The Da Vinci Code). An expert (Dr. Ottavia Salina, a paleographer who also happens to be a nun) is asked to research aspects of a mysterious death, in this case the strange scarifications on a man who was killed in a plane crash, which seem to be linked to the theft of fragments of the “True Cross” from churches around the world. She is teamed up with Kaspar Glauser-Roist, a captain from the Pope’s Swiss Guard (who also happens to have a degree in Italian literature) and Farag Boswell, an Egyptian Coptic professor. They discover links to a 1500-year-old society whose mission is the guardianship of the cross, and following clues in Dante’s Divine Comedy, they travel the area around the Mediterranean undergoing the various initiation rituals that will enable them to locate the group.

The plot of the book was original and well-done, and the puzzles were intriguing. Often I found it hard to picture some of the scenes; this might have been the fault of the translation, which seemed a bit sloppy in places, but some diagrams also might have been helpful. There was also a lot of interesting information about the early days of Christianity, arcane subjects such as alchemy, and the Divine Comedy, needless to say. I do have to agree with at least one other reviewer, though, that the characters were not particularly well-developed, and did not grow much, although there were a couple of times that were obviously supposed to be life-changing moments for Ottavia, but in the end I didn’t feel that they lived up to their promise. The ending was a bit far-fetched, but on the whole I did enjoy the journey.

Here are some of the things that rather stretched my ability to suspend disbelief: 1) That these two incredibly well-educated people (Ottavia and Farag) are completely clueless about computers, and in her case at least, I mean completely; 2) That a paleographer who’s evidently in the top ranks of her profession apparently knows nothing about the techniques used to recover faded text - it’s not that she doesn’t know how these things are done, but that she doesn’t even appear to know that the techniques exist; 3) That another extremely smart, well-educated man (Glauser-Roist) doesn’t know the meaning of the word basileia; 4) Most unbelievable and essential to the plot, that a group existing in opposition to the Catholic Church is able to construct and maintain these huge, complicated structures in the midst of their enemy’s territory and keep their own people in charge of them without the Chuch ever finding out.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just

"I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever ... The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest."
Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XVIII, 1782. ME 2:227

Read it and weep. We may not be carrying out these killings, but especially when death squads are being run out of the government we put in place, we bear at least some of the responsibility. However opposed we may have been to this war from day one, all of these things have been done in our name.

"Reason for Their Death Is Known"
 By Dahr Jamail
Wednesday 03 May 2006

Death in Iraq. It is relentless and incessant.

Know what it is like when scores of your fellow citizens are being killed every single day while the world proceeds unheedingly on? As a journalist I've had but a taste of that poison during my eight months in Iraq. Try it out: be an Iraqi for a day, into your fourth year of being occupied, humiliated, tortured and killed, doing all you can just to survive.

All communication with my Iraqi friends is punctuated by and smattered with their use of the words "praying," "God," and "Insha'allah" (God willing). Perhaps there is need to invoke something else altogether?

And all the dead air is alive. With the smell of America's God.
- Harold Pinter, "War With Iraq"

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondents' Dinner

The media is totally ignoring the brilliantly satirical remarks delivered by Colbert at the Correspondents’ Dinner, probably because they were the target of some of his most blistering invective.

Over the last five years you people were so good over tax cuts, W.M.D. Intelligence, the affect of global warms. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew.

But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works. The president makes decisions, he’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Put them through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know, fiction.

He also brought up things that I would bet no one dares mention in front of Dubya, like his 32% approval rating, the fact that his administration’s biggest (and sometimes it seems only) talent is staging photo-ops, etc.

The blogosphere, on the other hand, is cheering. If you want to send your own personal thanks, you can go here. You can also see the video at this site. The reason, oh Great and So Out-of-Touch Defenders of the Republic, is because he did what you won’t do. He spoke truth to power, while “power” was sitting less than 10 feet away from him.

I saw something that said that even Keith Olbermann (usually one of the good guys, but wrong on this one, if it’s true) was worried that the routine might have made poor Dubya “uncomfortable.” You know what I say? Good! He deserves to be “uncomfortable” and worse. All he hears, day and night, in his little bubble, is how wonderful he is, so of course a little dose of reality (which, as Colbert says, has “a well-known liberal bias”) is going to hurt. I mean, between Harriet Miers’ mash notes and Josh Bolten’s collection of photos of his hands, for God’s sake, the man doesn’t have a staff – he has a fan club. What he deserves, apart from trial and conviction for war crimes, is to never have a moment’s peace for as long as he lives. Like Richard III (Shakespeare's fictional Richard, not the real one), he deserves to have his dreams haunted by the thousands whose lives he’s been responsible for ending or ruining. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have enough imagination or capacity for remorse for that to ever happen.

What I’m a little worried about, as I told my sister yesterday, is that in the near future Colbert’s show will be cancelled due to his inexplicable “disappearance.” He also might want to consider not flying in the future, assuming that the government would let him fly, since he’s obviously an al Qaeda sympathizer.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Book Review: The Grass Crown *****

The Grass Crown by Colleen McCullough *****

The second book in McCullough’s “Masters of Rome” series, The Grass Crown picks up where The First Man in Rome leaves off, chronicling the slow decline of Gaius Marius, the main character in the first book, and the rise of his aristocratic colleague and rival Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Several other Romans, famous, infamous and obscure, also make an appearance, including the young Pompey, Cicero, and of course Julius Caesar, already charming, intelligent to the point of genius, and utterly ruthless.

With the impeccable research that made The First Man in Rome such a joy for lovers of historical fiction, McCullough also provides a richly detailed background for the careers of these well-known men. Roman history is such a vast subject, usually concentrating on the expansion of the empire and dry politics, that it is a treat to get an intimate glimpse into the Romans’ personal lives, alliances and rivalries, as well as the larger but often overlooked conflict with the other Italian tribes known as the Social War. The strong women who helped make Rome great, although their political power was virtually non-existent, are not neglected here either. Marius’ wife, Julia, and Caesar’s mother, Aurelia, are two exceptional women who made their first appearance in the last book; introduced here, as a child, is the treacherous Servilia, who will eventually become the mother of Brutus. In addition, we get an extended look at Rome’s great nemesis Mithridates, king of Pontus, and a glimpse of Egyptian dynastic politics before Cleopatra.

Although sometimes the details of troop movements and political maneuvering can be a little hard to follow, McCullough’s real forté is characterization. As with the characters in I Claudius, they can take such a hold on the imagination that it can be a little disconcerting to read non-fictional accounts and find that for all the research and loving detail, her interpretations of personalities, motivations, etc. are just that, interpretations. To me, this is a mark of truly excellent fiction - to make the us forget that it is fiction and that we are not actually there, eavesdropping on history.