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We're talking about the antagonists in my opinion absolutely marvelous account of the battle of Masada which took place and I think 73 A.D. The book is published by Simon and Schuster. It's written by Ernest K. Gann whom of course you will know about. And Mr. Gannon will be back in just a moment. This is book B. Each week introducing you to leading authors and critics this program is made possible in part by the National Book Committee and the American Booksellers Association. Your host is Robert Crumb a daily columnist for The Chicago Tribune and a contributing editor of book world the Sunday Literary Supplement of the Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post. I was delighted to see in your credits that you mentioned how much Dean's Masada meant to you in doing the book. When I think about it if it hadn't been for that I would NEVER been able to write this book.
He must be a marvelous man and I hope someday to meet him. And as you know he did all the research and the rediscovery of my side of the cause before that in all the research I did subsequently. I could only find the great Jewish historian Josephus had written about five or six paragraphs. And as far as I know no other recording of this magnificent event existed. And what this really is is an adventure story and someone described it a young lady as a matter of fact who had read it described it today as being Custer's last stand in the Judean desert. It was absolutely right. Yeah except that I don't think Custer and his people were quite as heroic as the defenders of Massada. Well there's no question about that and because. Custer made some
horrible mistakes when they've been there in the first place in the whole campaign it's something we can't be very proud of explained Massada for people who don't know it was heritage hide out his hide away. Well very simply the whole story of my side I should say that they that it is a mountain in the Judean desert it rises thirteen hundred feet straight up out of the Dead Sea. It's a plateau on top and from the air and it's like an aircraft carrier when it grows as many times as large. And here 900 years ago approximately after the Romans had conquered all of Palestine. Nine hundred approximately 900 Jews holed up on top of this mountain. And they said to the famous Roman 10th Legion which is it was the toughest fighting outfit that the Romans had come in get it. They had plenty of food and plenty of water left there by King Herod who left it there a hundred years before in storehouses and was in perfect
preservation. So they had no food or water problem. And the Romans were very embarrassed by this. And their family mentioned that we and United States are embarrassed by our inability to make the Vietcong do exactly what we think they should be doing. And there are very few of them compared to us especially power wise and the situation was exactly the same in Judean desert 900 You defied 5000 region areas and a cracked Roman general and a crack Roman general. And he the only thing he could do about it finally was to move one mountain to another. And when you go down the side of this day there is the ramp that the Romans built with the help of 16000 slaves runs right up the side of the mountain. You stand on the top of the mountain and you look down you see the Roman camps all route lined they're still in the rubble but it's that's exactly the way
they were because of course the Roman camp laid out exactly the same as an echo in the matter where in the world it was. And finally when the ramp came up at the very end they first really that I know about anyway that first Patrick Henry. Not only did he say Give me liberty or give me death or BEN Yes yes the Jewish leader. He convinced all of his followers that liberty or the death was preferable to slavery. There's nothing new about this right to this very day. Perhaps not today but tomorrow or the next day and certainly a few days ago. People are dying because they believe in their idea of liberty. They do it in Czechoslovakia in Poland in Hungary in North Vietnam and South Vietnam and in many places in the world so there is this hasn't changed the human quality for doing that. And
when I discovered the story and I read a little bit before because I'm a frustrated archaeologist I would like to do what it does rather than write books but anyway I knew a little bit about the story and I read his book and I said how where were some more material. Why hasn't this marvelous adventure story been told. And to my amazement I found out it hadn't and. So I went to Simon Schuster my publishers and I said Look I've got a problem. I said I know a marvelous adventure story and I want to tell it in a very inspiring story. He said what's your problem write it. I said my problem is it took place in Israel and I happen to be a Scotchman. Do you think that I can tell a story with that handicap. It can be called that. They say we think you can do a much better job than a Jew could do with it
because you'll have a more objective view where this is so or not I don't know. There's no way to tell. All I can say is that I approached the story with a reverence. You know I did the best I could. And this is a kind of a ticklish thing because the present motto modern Israel is that my side I shall not fall again. And they mean it. Well I don't know what a Jewish writer would have done with it but I must say that the non-Jewish writer did a tremendous job and it's an excellent book and I'm eager to find out how my Jewish friends like it and if they don't like it I'm going to be very disappointed in them because they in my opinion certainly should. How did you get your background on that besides going to Mossad and you know where you get your stuff about the Roman Legions and Rome you must have done a tremendous amount of research. Well I did but then I had a peculiar quirk in my life. I didn't graduate I never went to the eighth grade in grade school.
I graduated from the seventh grade not graduated but I passed through the seventh grade and the next thing I knew I found myself at the University of Minnesota reading Caesar and go all in Latin. It was and I was an experimental student. I don't recommend it. It's a very lonely job. And. So I read this and I got more and more Latin and I became more and more fascinated with things Roman and I guess I never got over it. And on this I did a tremendous amount of research in addition to that. And. How long did you spend at Massada. Right on top of the mountain I was only necessary to be up there one day. However I was in the around all around the desert there and down with the Romans camp and everything else but they still have the old ritual Baz and they have everything is and it's all been excavated by a volunteer help from all over the world. Yeah I remember. Yeah and mostly young people who
came in who believed in this tribute to freedom. Well a big cache of coins they found is I would presume the cash that you had the priest buried. Exactly I don't know why I did that. And also the shards are all there are little pieces of pottery that they used when they finally chose up lots to see who the last ten were going to be left alive. And everything is there. It's a pilgrimage that everyone should make. Who believes in freedom I think it's so inspiring this thing that way it rises up out of the dead and. I wish that we had a. In other words at Valley Forge. I wish we had some suitable or similar sort of thing which we don't have probably for example phrase pretty much polluted right now. But was there any basis in fact and I assume there wasn't for the Jewish girl you have falling in love with Flavia the Roman general.
No but the only basis is that I don't think human nature has changed very much. And I got to thinking about this Roman general he had to be quite educated. He disappeared from history incidentally. I can find no trace of him after I saw it was taken. And I cannot believe that a man like he had to have been of had a job in the first place. I would be willing to sit in the desert for over two years and not have a little companionship of some kind. Well since there are no Roman females wandering around a Judean desert I assume that he might have made friends with Joyce. And it is certainly conceivable he might have liked it. In his case he was desperately in love with well actually you have woven your love story in very deftly and I
like the scene in which he sends the girl up that it's that little back path that nobody could go up and if the people on top didn't want them to and certainly no invasion could be made up but he she he goes up the path and talks to persuasion with Madonna meet the Roman general halfway on that moonlit night that's a marvelous scene where this is why the book is called the antagonist because I know that it sounds naive but I believe if it were possible before a war get started if we could get the top principals together and make them sit down and talk the war would never happen. However as shown in the war once it gets rolling then you put the principle together they have passed all this propaganda out now they can't on crank the awful machine. In this case an attempt is made at it and I think it be wrong to say how it turns out.
But if we could only get better see that during World War Two had it been possible for Hirohito and Roosevelt to sit down like you and I are sitting here and saying Now what's your problem and how can we solve this without beating each other over the head. Maybe it would have worked before but after once the ball started rolling. No hope. Well then other people take over anyway. Larry take him salute me. And there's just no way to stop it. This isn't my story. I didn't write the story the story was written by the people involved and I had to be very respectful of that. I did enter the factory. I liked that 75 year old who wasn't afraid and came down to try to spread prophecies through the Roman ranks of what was going to happen when the sun really got hot. He was beautiful.
Well I and joy. I think I have every one of my books have had it I have a terrible problem keeping minor character minor characters from running away with a stare a good summary and then I fall in love with minor characters and sometimes lose interest in the bigger one. We're going to do this is a play. Oh great. Starring starting next. Thanks Paul. They're eyeing a fairly competent actor named Richard Burton. I've heard of him yes. He would have been married to somebody. Yeah so you happen to be married to a Jew is and whether or not last time I saw Miss Taylor she said Richard and I were talking about the play and how we were going to do it everything. And she said over in a corner of the room and all she said was make my part bigger. She hadn't even read it yet. So the only part in it for is either the wife of Ben year which is a minor part
or else the girl is whether or not she will ever want to do it or not I can't say but he's going to do it and. And she plays the captive slave because the play is even more of a love story. I'll be very happy and I think she will do a very good job and it's very exciting the way we plan to do it. And if you saw Don Juan and Howe or John Brown's Body because the audience can feel it in their mind it much more imposing mountain of my said than any scene painter can ever paint. Well I was I was touched when the Roman seal because in the two Jews who have come down and he's going to kill them for spreading rumors and and undermine even morale of the German I mean of the Roman troops and then he discovers that Ezra was a great admirer of the charioteer whom he'd always
liked and he so unhappy to think that his the only one man on the whole desert surrounding desert who knew this charioteer. And you really shouldn't call him in and talk to him and never does I was hoping you'd call him in and talk to him about those chariot races. Ron I think you wanted to write he said in in essence in our modern way of speaking when he looked down at this Jew who he intended to kill anybody who likes that charioteer can't be all bad. So we spared his life. And it's been a fascinating book to work on and every way. I learned a lot in three years of effort wrapped up in it. That's pretty good. That some of my Jewish friends and I have a great many. I have learned from only one just say what reaction if you had just only had one reaction from I want to have about six reactions on the book one of yours which delights me as if this is just starting and won't be officially published
until Monday. And this is from a man in San Francisco whom I first told him I said you know if I had to cast this is a play and you're an actor which he is not. I said I can't imagine a more perfect band yeah. And I said I'm going to send you a copy of this book. Now as many Jews have never heard to my amazement. The mountain of my site I read the story which I. It's like many Americans not having heard of Elmo's friends have all my day ahead sure. Yeah well that's that's very interesting because I've run into in fact the majority of my Jewish friends had not did not know this story. Would he like it very very much very very much. He took it down he said down to Palm Springs. The reason I wanted to be in the midst of my people when I read it
I thought it was pretty nice and that I very enthusiastic better but he is the only one except the editors at Simon and Schuster who are also of the faith and I because I am in fear and trembling is no place for a Scotchman trembling you see that first printing of fifty thousand all sold out back for another printing and deservedly so what did you get the idea for that pop and Jay who came in from from Rome with his two boyfriends. Well I had a lot of fun with him too because I think he's a good character pum pony is Falco. And I hate authorities on subjects that don't know what they're talking about. But opposes the 30 which he has won. Also in Rome at the time there are many similarities with their own. They had inflation the stock market was very unreliable.
They had terrible union problems trying to build a house and the plumbers are on strike of the plasterers are on strike yet still this house. Yes which is actually in the book. They had a student on rest who made ours look like a picnic. They had very serious immigration problem even worse than ours and had trouble trying to rule the world. Trouble is I remember world A.J. I scattered all over the world and they were bleeding the Treasury white and the Senate would keep sending out people to get these things straightened up. Which company is Palko was one. And there were also a great deal of homosexuality. It was an accepted thing far more than it's accepted now and has been since. So I think that people will be able to draw many comparisons with our situation the only thing that they didn't have was was pot
and and various drugs for use for pleasure that they had a lot of wine. They even had long haired and not so much you know of the they did beards were there seem to be all the sculpture that I studied. All I have read beards where some men had them and some men didn't. But long hair was very rare among the Romans themselves. They were given almost to shaving their heads people they conquered had long hair some of them didn't oh yeah and it's in fact of course the Jews in Israel were long haired and bearded both. I mean I think I urge you the next trip you take if you go to the Holy Land and do some very interesting things I found my research for example nowhere in my did research
did I find any mention. And this is 70 years 70 A.D. a man named John Christ. No mention what so ever in any of the books are there. And I couldn't understand this until a little bit more research. There were many prophets through the land and all kinds. There is Saul of Tarsus who became Paul as Ezra reminded the general he said he also had a bad eye an eye and a bum leg it is because he is quite prominent but the man and he is talking about other than what he is talking about is not to be discovered. So when you're Roman general as a curious combination
of very generous very generous impulses and extreme cruelty which I guess was very common at the time it isn't too uncommon. Oh well it isn't too uncommon now the only thing that really interested me about the cruelty part is that crucifixion was there was that was not considered cruelty. This was a standard way of killing anybody and so there was no nothing special about this in fact the Romans in the same outfit the Tenth Legion that silver served with it was not then the commander Titus was a commander then they crucified ten thousand Jews outside the walls of Jerusalem and they say their problem is that they ran out of lumber but it was not considered cruelty like beheading on the Oriental rugs I suppose and it is their idea of cruelty during those years was so different than ours and so so casual from
Again the research I wasn't there and went down all the difference in the world. I think that any Roman general who had this as was his the sign. Had no other way of thinking. Yeah yeah. But at the end he gave a little money to help some of the refugees. Well he does in the book whether they're real sober ever did that or not I don't. Rob I'm really not but he might've. You might have. You might say that you can't this is the fascinating part about writing. In fact in the plays include the Jewish defector Josephus who was a Jewish general he defected to the Romans and he sets up in a box. And he says to the audience directly if you know history I want to show you that history depends on who did the reporting. Even Moses
he reported things one way and we say that's exactly the way it was. But if you read somebody else it was a little different. And every minute of history is completely different. So he said I want to bring in the principals who are at my side and let them tell you how it really was. So we turn to the back of the audience and he says General Flavius could you spare us a few minutes of your immortal time. And Richard Burton stands up out of the audience walks down the aisle. He's got plenty of time lined up. That's a good that's a great ploy and this goes right through. Well the principal members of the cast walk down the aisle and take their place up on the stage and they tell it the way it was with certain comments by the man in the box. I think it may be a very interesting way of telling this same story this story if I had done a good job will one day be read by students
of Roman and Jewish history. Either one and they will say well now you see that's the way it was because here in a book by what's his name Ernest King again never heard of. Anyway here's what he said and the way it was and they were going to write their themes and one of them will write a book and they will say it this was this way and this is what happens to history and it certainly is you know. What Dina had you Gayle he had seen on the show you were on a book beat and he is such a fantastic character because of course he was an archaeologist and the general is one of the crack generals and he uses archaeology and he went on biblical trails fighting the Arabs showing up or nobody expect him to come from. So there are the fantastic people. You learn Hebrew a little didn't you. Well very little but I did take Hebrew lessons on the immigrant ship I took over there in the synagogue where I was most welcome incidentally and they both my wife and I and I put a black cap on my
head and I went in and it was it was a lot of fun because you know if you have 10 Jews you have 11 opinions. So the other Jews are in there also learning Hebrew because very few Jews Americans basically speak Hebrew they speak Yiddish and they were in there they're going to immigrate and Hebrew is the national language of Israel. So they were taking lesson one just like I was. This is asymmetric language which is very difficult for Jews who have never been exposed to it. And especially for Anglo Saxons to get a lot. Plan C ations. Anyway the funny part of it was my wife and I we stood at they had the class and the final graduation. Because we had paid attention while the jury students were arguing with the professor and saying Now you mustn't pronounce your ing these this way they were teaching him English.
Well and of course also they were on their way across to take up their abode and you had other things and you could concentrate more on it probably. Well we worked harder at it and they they were so busy teaching him English and that. But I finally learned and had the great pleasure of surprising him. And your weak pilot friend. I'm going to tell us exactly. And that Bandstand I ordered an orange pop in Hebrew and he didn't know I could speak word one. That's very funny we were talking with Ernest K. Gann author of the antagonist a beautiful book about my side of. The battle between the Romans and a handful of Jews mostly and many of them zealots on the top of a mountain in the desert 100 years ago I Bob told me from the Tribune. Thank you for watching us I hope we see you again and are just delightful to see you again in a marvelous book. Thank you very much. Book beach has been made possible by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Book Beat
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Book Beat is a literary radio program hosted by Chicago Tribune columnist Robert Cromie and made possible in part by the National Book Committee and the American Booksellers Association. In each episode, Cromie interviews an author about a specific book theyve written or translated. Authors discuss the books background, topics, and themes as well as their research and writing process.
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Host: Cromie, Robert, 1909-1999
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