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The Monty of ancient Rome - and his batman; Scipio . By Ross Leckie, (Canongate, pounds 15.99). Courtesans and Fishcakes. By James Davidson, (Fontana, pounds 9.99) Reviewed by Stephen Harrison.

One of the delights of recent publishing is the growth in intelligent fictions set in Classical times.

Arguably, Mary Renault remains the undisputed queen of the genre, her reputation resting securely on such loving re-creations of Ancient Greece as her trilogy on the life of Alexander the Great or her account of the life of the poet Simonides of Ceos, Th e Praise Singer.

The field has, however, been more adequately fleshed out of late - albeit with more of a concentration on Rome rather than Greece - by the likes of Allan Massie and the Birmingham-born Lindsey Davis.

Massie's fictionalised insights into the lives and times of such as Julius Caesar and the Emperors Augustus and Tiberius have provided a magisterial counterpoint to Davis's more raffish tales of her roguish hero, Falco, the Philip Marlowe of the mean str eets of Rome.

Ross Leckie's latest novel Scipio, demonstrates that he, too, is finding fertile ground for modern times in the classics.

A follow-up to Hannibal, it tells the story of Publius Cornelius Scipio, the aristocrat who paved the way for Rome to emerge as master of the world by finally defeating in battle its Carthaginian rival, led by Hannibal.

Archly, Leckie chooses to recount Scipio's life in dual versions - his own words (as imaginatively dictated to his secretary) and the running commentary provided by said secretary, one Bostar.

In essence, what the reader gets is a chilling insight into the education and upbringing of the officer class that enabled Rome to exert its dominance over the world that confronted it 2,200 years ago - just the kind of officer class that, one imagines, also spearheaded Britain's forging of its own, now vanished, empire.

Yes, Scipio triumphed finally at the Battle of Zama - but at what personal cost to him as an individual or, one wonders down the centuries, to say, Montgomery at El Alamein?

Leckie brings considerable erudition and imagination to his welorked tale. The reader is grateful.

By contrast, James Davidson - who lectures in ancient history at the University of Warwick and was previously Research Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford - lays much less stress on the imaginative faculties in Courtesans and Fishcakes.

His account of the appetites for food, drink and sex in classical Athens, however, appears to be formidably erudite.

Drawing on a host of little-known sources and sub-titled The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens, it amounts to a celebration of the three varieties of bodily gratification to which the whole human race, according to Plato, is susceptible from birth.

Aristotle, a little later, was to describe such appetites as "animal cravings."

This reviewer, as susceptible as the next man (or woman) to them all, can only marvel at Davidson's detached approach.

And what is one to make in these politically correct times of the orator Apollodorus's definitions of the uses of women: "Hetaeras we keep for pleasure, concubines for attending day-by-day to the body and wives for producing heirs and for standing trusty guard on our household property."

My father to this day (after 50 years of marriage) insists: "All women are lovely." I think I know what he means.
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Author:Harrison, Stephen
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Sep 19, 1998
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