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Thursday, May 29, 2003

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"Power and Stone," "Rome"


"Power and Stone," Alice Leader, Puffin Books; May 2003; 249 pp.

There's so much more to history than memorizing dates.

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Few understand this better than Alice Leader, a history teacher whose debut book for children, "Power and Stone," is a carefully researched and riveting story set on the frontiers of the vast Roman empire, along the 177-km-long wall built in northern Britain by Emperor Hadrian in the early 2nd century.

The time is A.D. 130: The Brigantes, once the most powerful confederation of Celtic tribes in Britain, have been conquered by the Romans after their queen, Cartimandua, forged an alliance with the invaders. The wall, a towering statement of Rome's military prowess, has sliced the ancient Brigante lands in two. The familiar world of this pastoral people has been altered beyond recognition: They have switched from sheep farming to cattle raising in order to supply beef to the Roman fortresses along the wall; their folklore is being lost, falling into obscurity as the Roman way of life takes over. For most of the natives, the change is unwelcome; and the fierce Caledonian, Novantae and Selgovae tribes want the Romans to leave.

This is the uneasy world into which two young Romans -- brothers Telemachus and Marcus -- arrive with their mother, Claudia. Their father has been appointed commander of one of the 12 forts on the wall and the family has come to join him.

Far from home and in bewildering surroundings, all three of them make Brigante friends. Claudia befriends Brigit, a Brigante born and bred in Rome. Marcus finds a companion of his own age in 12-year-old Bran, Brigit's nephew. And 15-year-old Telemachus resists getting close to the locals, till he meets Bran's sister Rhiannon and finds himself falling in love.

In the northern reaches of the Roman empire, two cultures make hesitant contact. The Romans find themselves reassessing their country's place in the world, their insular Roman outlook gradually giving way to a new admiration for Brigante culture. The Brigantes, meanwhile, feel their ancient way of life slipping away from them, but are beginning to appreciate -- grudgingly or not -- what the invading Romans have brought them: roads, trade and money.

This is history told the way no textbook can tell it, a rich glimpse of two different lifestyles: the lavish comforts of the Roman world -- with bathhouses and banquets -- and the earthy world of the Brigantes.

Although conventional history books describe the Romans in detail, they gloss over the achievements of those who were conquered. As the title suggests, the wall, the forts, the very roads along which the Roman soldiers came and went freely, were built of stone quarried from conquered lands. Rome's strength, in other words, was drawn from its conquests.

In Leader's remarkable retelling, she questions our basic assumptions about the winners and losers. Flying in the face of received historical wisdom, the author presents Cartimandua's decision to support the Romans not as a leader's betrayal of her own culture, but as the brave judgment of a queen who saw the winds of change.

Over time, that change ushered the fall of the Roman Empire, too. Today, the little that remains of Hadrian's Wall has been designated an architectural monument. History favors no one, and the closing of "Power and Stone" only reminds us that all civilizations -- great and small -- are transient. To study history from only the point of view of the victors is to lose sight of the fact that they won't be victors forever.

For children 12 years and older. Available early June at Kinokuniya, Shinjuku (03) 3354-0131.

"Rome," Stephen Biesty, Oxford University Press; 2002; 24 pp.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

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Illustrator and author Stephen Biesty's engaging picture book makes for a good companion read. It takes you to the home-city of Marcus and Telemachus, the heart of the known world in A.D. 128, to meet another Roman boy, Titus Cotta, and his father, Senator Marcus Cotta Maximus. Take a city tour back in time with the two Romans and discover the largest metropolis of the ancient world.

Titus' tutor won't be coming by today (like other Roman children, he doesn't go to a public school); it's the festival of the twin gods Castor and Pollux, and his father is taking him to the Colosseum and to the chariot races -- which means you get to go, too . . .

Biesty presents, in spectacular detail, the architecture, the traditions and the people of this thriving city. We accompany Titus from his lavish home on the Viminal Hill (not far from the center of Rome) out into the bustling street, and on toward the Temple of Jupiter by way of the magnificent Forum Romanum (built by Emperor Trajan). The destination is the Colosseum -- to see the gladiators.

After the games, it's time for a relaxing bath, Roman-style, and then we head out again with a rejuvenated Titus to the Circus Maximus for the chariot races before returning home again. This is as close as you'll get to seeing ancient Rome in a day.

If you go to Titus' city today, you'll still be able to see the Colosseum. The Forum's still there, too, but below modern street level. In other words, where Titus once looked up at the towering Forum, you have to look down at it.

Biesty's illustrations peel away the layers of time to reveal Ancient Rome in all its glory. Cutaway illustrations enable you to look into the buildings and see not only what people did there but also how these structures were built.

With the help of the meticulous captioning, you'll discover so many things about Rome. Did you know that the Romans divided the daylight period into 12 equal parts? Or that Roman pizza, called ocella, had no tomatoes on it? By the last page, you'll be feeling like a Roman yourself.

If the adventures of Marcus and Telemachus kindle your interest in what ancient Rome must have been like, look no further. Open this book, and you'll be there.

Available at Tower Records Shibuya, 7F, (03) 3496-3661.


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