Zenobia: Dreamers of the Day
Though the events in Zenobia: Dreamers of the Day are fictional, the events of the campaign are based on an historical period—the world of Rome and the Near East in the 3rd century. For players who wish to add to their experience and develop deeper background for their characters, I have included a list of suggested readings. The current list is heavily biased towards Rome. I will attempt to add more sources on Palmyra and the Sassanian Persians as I find them.
I initially refrained from listing fictional portrayals of the period (movies, comics, novels, etc.). Aside from Harry Sidebottom’s Warrior of Rome novels, there is very little on this particular historical period and region that is helpful for atmosphere. Getting a “feel” for the period is problematic, and much that is touted as “historical” fiction boils down to modern sensibilities masquerading in historical clothing—much like those awful sword and sandal films of the 40’s and 50’s.
However, I understand that some players have very little interest in the history behind the game. They may not be intrigued by a weighty tome by Peter Brown of Michael Grant, or they may just want to have fun without worrying about a faithful depiction of the past. As an historian I may find this troubling but as a role player and game master I understand that my first responsibility is maximizing fun for the majority of the players. As such, I will try to post more historical fiction and film titles.
Heavy History (So you want to know all about the Roman Empire?)
Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity Norton & Comp. 1989
A good reference for the cultural and ideological make-up of the period. Written by the man who put “Late Antiquity” on the academic map. A must for any student of the period.
Michael Grant’s The Climax of Rome Weidenfeld, 1993.
A sprawling work that focuses on the collapse and reorganization of the Roman world in the 3rd century. Not as readable as Brown’s work in my opinion, but Grant does justice to the great vibrancy in the plastic arts, particularly in the eastern parts of the empire.
Ramsey MacMullen’s The Enemies of the Roman Order Harvard, 1966.
MacMullen surveys the “enemies” within Roman society (discontents, minorities, outlaws, and the disaffected) to reveal the complex relationship between the established Roman ‘order’ and those who opposed, and benefited, from it. The chapters on Magicians and Astrologers, Diviners, and Prophets may be helpful to players in establishing how such “magic users” were viewed and treated in Roman society.
Fergus Miller’s The Roman Near East 31BC – AD 337 Harvard, 1993.
A work of vast scope and weight (this book could be used as a doorstop), Miller’s book covers Octavian’s earliest official dealings in Syria all the way up to the time of Constantine. The book is broken down into two parts, the narrative and the geographical. Each part could be a book in of itself, but the later part is quite handy for a quick guide to regions, cities, and political factions within the Roman Near East. Think of it as a GM’s guidebook rather than a handbook for the players.
D. S. Potter’s The Roman Empire at Bay Routledge, 2004.
A hefty tome that examines the institutions of the Empire and the endemic defects that led to its partial collapse.
Touraj Daryaee’s Sasanian Persia: the Rise and Fall of an Empire, I.B. Tauris, 2009.
A very brief introduction to a relatively unstudied culture. Sasanian Persia is a good beginner’s look at the diverse world that was Persia from the 3rd to the 8th century. While it lacks the detail and atmosphere of histories of Rome, this can be excused since there is very little on the subject that is familiar to western readers.
Kaveh Farrokh’s Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War Osprey General History, 2007.
This book spans pre-Achaemenid Persia to just after the downfall of the Sassanid Empire and the Arab conquest. I class it as “heavy” mainly for the size (almost a coffee-table book). Lavishly illustrated, as is expected of Osprey, Dr. Farrokh’s book is meant for a non-academic audience. Don’t let the scope frighten you, almost half the book is devoted to the Sassanians.
Light History (So you want to know about the Roman Empire in a weekend?)
Paul Elliott’s Legions in Crisis: the Transformation of the Roman Soldier AD 192-285 Fonthill, 2014.
Written by ZENOBIA’s author and military historian/reenactor Paul Elliott, this short work is a great introduction to Rome’s crisis of the 3rd century and its long reaching effects on the military and political organization of the empire. Particular detail is given to the arms and equipment of the legions. Beautiful color plates of the archaeological depictions of soldiers’ kit as well as modern reproductions graphically illustrate the look and “feel” of the warriors of the period.
Michael Grant’s Collapse and Recovery of the Roman Empire Routledge, 1999.
A truncated version of Grant’s Climax, it reads very much like an anthology from primary sources and includes excerpts from Grant’s larger works. A quick read for players unable or unwilling to jump into a larger work on the period.
Osprey Publishing has several well illustrated works on the military organization and equipment of all the principle players of the period. I am partial to the titles with color plates by the late, great Angus McBride. Enemies of Rome (5), the desert frontier focuses on Syria, Roman Arabia, and north Africa.
Historical Fiction (The thrills of the setting without the footnotes)
Harry Sidebottom’s “Warrior of Rome” series from Penguin paperbacks. Sidebottom is a classical historian with a focus on warfare at Oxford University. His “Warrior” series follows Marcus Claudius Ballista (loosely based on the historical figure) through the turbulent 3rd century. There are currently six titles in the series: Fire in the East, King of Kings, Lion of the Sun, The Caspian Gates, Wolves of the North, and The Amber Road. “Warrior” is a bloody romp with hard-nosed, fast paced storytelling. A tad light on literary form and character development, the main characters drink, curse, whore, and kill a lot. A very adult but very entertaining read. Sidebottom has subsequently released the first volume of a series of fiction set in the beginning of the crisis that appears to focus more on the political intrigue of the time. I eagerly await the opportunity to read his latest works.
While not set in the 3rd Century, Wallace Breem’s classic novel Eagle in the Snow (first published in 1970, last reprinted in 2004) is a wonderfully evocative work that captures the creeping desperation and fatalism of Roman garrison life just before the fall of the Empire in the West. Dealing with themes like duty, honor, decay, religious conflict, and the inevitable defeat of a once great empire, this is a real page turner. I knew the Goths were going to win but I hoped against hope that Maximus might actually pull off a brilliant victory, and when he failed I felt the loss of a great idea, the idea of Rome (even if the book skillfully depicts Rome already rotten to the core). My only complaint is that Breem’s depictions of Roman army life and equipment are somewhat anachronistic, being based mainly on early imperial sources. In the end, the skillful storytelling and compelling (and deeply flawed) characters more than make up for any historical quibbles I can raise.