Not too long ago, I was reading a historical novel and wondering if it would be a good present for someone I know. My one concern was the violence — this was a novel about the Roman army, and there were a few battle scenes. And then, maybe the next day (?), I was reading the Aeneid, which includes such passages as this:
Tarquitius next set himself in the path of Aeneas’ fury.
Born to a nymph, Dryope, and fathered by Faunus, the woodlands’
God, he was prancing, proud in his blazing armour. Aeneas,
Hefting a spear, pinned the massive weight of his shield to his breastplate.
As the man begged in vain and prepared to keep pleading, Aeneas
Slashed off his head. When it fell to the ground, he rolled over the headless,
Still warm trunk with his feet… -Aeneid 10.550-556, trans. Ahl
This, I concede, is probably not the most violent scene in the Aeneid, but I hope it suffices as an example. This poem is violent, filled with many grim deaths. But overall, it is worth reading — the violence is part of the story, part of the art, and contributes to the bigger themes I discussed when recommending that you read this epic.
The Aeneid is not the grimmest of Latin epics when it comes to violence. From what I have read so far, that goes to Lucan’s Civil War:
One of the twins dared grab a Roman vessel
from his Greek stern when oars were interlocked
in slanting comb; but a heavy blow from above cut off
his hand, which clung there still, such was the pressure of its grasp
and, holding on with tightened muscles, it grew stiff in death.
In adversity his courage grew: mutilated, his noble wrath
increases and with strong left hand he renews the battle
and leans across the waters to seize his own right hand:
but this hand too with all the arm is severed.
Now without his shield and weapons, he is not hidden deep
inside the ship but exposed, and as he protects with naked breast
his brother’s shield, he stands firm, though pierced by many a spear,
and in a death already well earned he receives the weapons which
in their fall would have killed many of his own people. Then he gathered
into his tired frame the life that was departing by many wounds
and braced his limbs with all the blood remaining
and, though his muscles were failing in their strength, he leaped
on to the enemy ship, to damage it by his weight alone.
-Civil War 3.609-626, trans. Braund
Not the most gruesome death, but possibly one of the most bizarre as Braund observes. This death, which continues on the blood-soaked ship until it sinks, like the others in Lucan, highlights the monstrosity of civil war. There are no heroic deaths here, for the order of the world has been cast awry.
One more example from Latin epic, the death of Pentheus in Ovid, Metamorphoses 3:
… The whole mad throng
Rush at him, all united, and pursue
Their frightened quarry, frightened now for sure,
Now using less fierce language, blaming now
Himself, admitting now that he’s done wrong.
Wounded, he cries, ‘Help, Aunt Autonoe!
Mercy! Actaeon’s ghost should move your mercy!’
Actaeon’s name’s unknown. She tore away
His outstretched hand, and Ino seized and wrenched
The other off. With no hands left to stretch
Out to his mother, ‘Look, mother!’ he cried,
And showed the severed stumps. And at the sight
Agave howled and tossed her head and hair,
Her streaming hair, and tore his head right off,
And, as her bloody fingers clutched it, cried,
‘Hurrah for victory! The triumph’s mine!’
-Trans. A. D. Melville
The Expendables films having nothing on Ovid.
Each of these poems has its violent moments. But each also has wider themes — love, destiny, the wrath of the gods, freedom, glory, right behaviour. The violence and death are not there to be glorified or revelled in. They are subservient to the wider purpose of great poetry. And, whether you like them or not, these three are consummate poets.
Turning back, then, to a modern historical novel, the question should be the same, even if the artistry is not Virgilian, Ovidian, or Lucanian. What does the violence do? Does it propel the plot? Does it deepen a character? Does it expand a theme? Or is it merely titillation for the violent side of males who live in a society that prevents most of them from being legitimately violent?
Once these questions are answered, the rest should fall into place.