Posts Tagged ‘ancient history

03
Oct
15

Book Review: The Classical World: An Epic History From Homer To Hadrian – Robin Lane Fox

Classical World: An Epic History From Homer To HadrianThe Classical World: An Epic History From Homer To Hadrian by Robin Lane Fox

Written right on the cover of Robin Lane Fox’s book about the history of Greece and Rome is the word epic. It’s there three times, actually. I guess that’s a word which has lost it’s power in recent years, but it used to apply to the ancient world a lot, particularly to long poems by Homer and Virgil.

Neither of them really have a large role here in his book, but the sheer size and scope of Fox’s book sort of reminded me of them: he attempts to take a good 600-plus years of history, pretty eventful ones at that, and condense them down to 600 pages. He did a pretty good job, but it’s more of a casual history than something in-depth.

Lane opens his history with the archaic Greece of Homer, Hesiod and the rise of city-states (nothing, sadly on the Mycenaean era) and wraps up with the emperor Hadrian. In between, he looks at the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, the rise of Rome and decline of Greek power, the conquests of Alexander the Great and the Ptolemaic dynasty. He particularly writes with authority on the Roman years, especially when the last years of the Republic and the start of the Roman Empire. It’s all well and good, but it’s the kind of thing any textbook could have.

But where his book diverges is when it comes to literature and society, particularly in how they relate to the history he’s covering.

For example, his look at the first years of the Roman Empire is filled with references to the letters of the Younger Pilny, who he says produced the closest thing to an autobiography that’s come down to us. And the last years of the Republic are filled with references to the writings of Cicero: letters, speeches and works of philosophy. He uses these works of literature to show how people – at least the upper class, anyway – thought and felt, how they had to act publically and expressed in private.

It’s also interesting when he examines the roles of various forms of art, particularly portraits of people. What can the picture of a couple on a wall of a villa in Pompeii tell us about the people who lived there? What about the face of a boy painted on top of a mummy? There’s certainly some supposition, but Fox’s writing on what we know about these examples is fascinating stuff; I’ll admit to being a little haunted by the mummy portrait, too.

At the same time, his look at literature also jumps around and overlooks some people. Poets like Virgil and Horace show up a often, but others like Ovid and Juvenal barely show up at all. Lucretius, whose poem On the Nature of Things is arguably one of the most important pieces of literature to come out of Rome, is relegated to a single line.

But then again, he had only so much space to work with and condense into 600 pages. And there was a lot to cover. I’m reminded Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra, which tackled a similarly large, eventful era in a relatively small book. There was more ground covered there, but I think Fox did a similarly good job on this era. It’s readable, never gets bogged down in statistics or historical minutiae and should be pretty good for the general reader who’s interested in learning what happened so long ago and, more importantly, why we should know about it.

Rating: 7/10

30
Jun
15

Rome at the Brink: The Jugurthine War and the Conspiracy of Catiline by Sallust

The Jugurthine War and the Conspiracy of CatilineThe Jugurthine War and the Conspiracy of Catiline by Sallust
(translated and edited by S.A. Handford)

The last years of the Roman Republic were a pretty wild time. Casear was running his army through Gaul, Pompey was battling out in the East and at home, there was discontent and riots. Two of the most interesting moments care rather early in the late period and were both covered by the same author in two short monographs.

Sallust was a senator and governor in these years. According to legend, he was wildly corrupt and made a killing before being asked to resign, when he retired to a private life of writing histories. Two of these have come down to us: one looks at the short war against Jurgantha, the other examines Cataline’s conspiracy to bring down the government in a coup. I can’t speak to Sallust the politician, but as an author, he’s an interesting one, if one that’s problematic.

Let’s start with the Jugurthine War. Jugurtha was a king in what’s now northern Africa and an ally to Rome, although someone who wanted power, which Rome wasn’t willing to give. He bribed people in the senate to overlook his naked power grabs as he marched up and down the country. He eventually ended up killing Romans and pissing off the republic, who sent an army down to deal with him. Sallust’s timeline isn’t exactly clear, but he generally follows as both Quintus Caecilius Metellus and Gaius Marius ran consecutive campaigns against him.

It’s pitched stuff. Roman armies come close to defeat, but pull out a win at the last moment. Roman leaders corrupt Jugurtha’s confidents, who then stage plots to kidnap and sell their king to Rome. Marius captures a city when a foot solider discovers an overlooked path that leads right around the strongholds. Finally, there’s an all-or-nothing battle where Jugurtha throws it all on the line and loses.

Meanwhile, the Catiline conspiracy is shorter, but even crazier. Catiline was “an ambitious careerist,” as Hardford puts it, who eventually decided he should rule Rome. After losing elections and seeing his enemy Cicero be elected to power, Catiline staged a conspiracy to put together an army and take Rome by force.

It wasn’t really all that crazy. At the time, Roman generals commanded a lot of personal power with their armies, who looked to them for everything from pay to a plot of land when they retired. And at the time, Pompey and his army were out in the far east.

In Sallust’s hands, it plays out like a morality play. Catiline corrupts people with his wealth and attracts all sorts of undesirables. Meanwhile, the upstanding leaders in Rome – Cicero, Cato and Caesar – investigate like detectives, debate appropriate punishments and set up resistance. Coming from a guy who was legendarily corrupt himself, seeing such moralizing is kind of funny. Although again: Sallust is great at setting tension and building a gripping narrative.

Here’s where the trouble comes in: he’s often confusing and misleading in his storytelling. At worst, he’s outright malicious and disingenuous. He places events where they have more dramatic impact, not when they actually happened. He gives people cool dramatic dialogue – “I will check the fire that threatens to consume me by pulling down everything about your ears.” – but provides it at the wrong time (and, according to Cicero, gives us the wrong words, too!).

This is where a good editor like the late S.A. Handford comes in handy: he establishes the misleading errors, provides context and lays out a clear timeline in two introductions and keeps the taut, dramatic narrative intact. Even if Sallust wasn’t an accurate historian, he was still a pretty solid writer, although I’d rank him in a second class behind Livy (Previously reviewed: The Rise of Rome (Books I-V); The War With Hannibal (Books XXI-XXX); Rome and Italy (books VI-X)  or Tacitus (Previously reviewed: The Annals).

Rating: 7/10

View all my reviews

17
Feb
15

Two Lives of Charlemagne: Various, translated and edited by Lewis Thorpe

Two Lives of Charlemagne: The Life of Charlemagne; Charlemagne (Penguin Classics)Two Lives of Charlemagne: Various, translated and edited by Lewis Thorpe

After reading a mammoth biography of Nixon and a pulpy detective story, I decided to plunge into something quick, enjoyable and far removed from our times: two ancient biographies of King Charlemagne.

I’m the kind of reader who digs reading ancient history and especially primary sources, but generally my knowledge is limited to ancient Rome and Greece, not to medieval history. So this collection of Charlemagne stories was something of a start point for me. I think it’s a good one for anyone, too.

In a nutshell, Charlemagne was a Frankish king who lived in the eighth century. He didn’t quite found the Carolingian Empire, but he greatly expanded it to include most of modern-day France Germany. In 800, Pope Leo III named Charlemagne emperor at a ceremony in Rome, giving him a formal grip of this vast territory. Ruling such a large area was no mean feat: he employed a large number of public servants to keep things running as he fought battles throughout his kingdom.

Sure, he could command an army, but consider the Carolingian Renaissance, too. As Lewis Thorpe points out in his introduction, Charlemagne was illiterate, but had a healthy respect for learning: his schools, where students copied works of ancient writers, kept many Roman writers from falling into oblivion.

So by anyone’s standards, he was an interesting guy. Which is why the two biographies included here are so interesting. Einhard, an adviser at Charlemagne’s court, wrote the first only a few years after the king’s death. An anonymous monk wrote the second a few decades later. The difference between the two shows how quickly the man’s legend was growing into mythology.

Of the two, Einhard’s is the drier and more formal. Structurally, it’s a lot like Suetonius: a formal biography of an emperor. It lays out the life and the man in a set order, dealing with his actions in one book, then his personal life later on. It’s a dry read, where Charlemagne deals with one war after another, subduing them as he goes. But there are interesting little touches, like how he used to enjoy wearing a jerkin made of sheepskin. Still, these details are key to this book because of what comes next.

The second biography is a lot looser and more colourful. Written either by someone named Notker the Stammerer or The Monk of St. Gaul (who may even be the same person), this book is fast and loose with the facts, but doesn’t let anything get in the way of a good yarn.

If the Charlemagne of the first biography seems like a kingly ruler, a smart tactician on the battlefield and a patron of learning at home, in the second he seems less like a statue and more like a real person. Notker packs his book with anecdotes that might not be completely true, but serve to illustrate a point.

My favourite is when a bunch of nobles show up in their finest clothes while Charlemagne breaks out his old goatskin. After spending a day hunting and a night drinking, they’re ordered to show up in the same clothes the next morning. Of course, their clothes are a mess; Charlemagne can’t resist showing off how clean and comfy his simple goatskin still is.

Here’s another. After short riding cloaks become popular among nobles, he demanded they only wear longer ones, saying:

“ ‘What is the use of these little napkins,’ he asked. ‘I can’t cover myself with them in bed. When I am on horseback I can’t protect myself from the winds and the rain. When I go off to empty my bowels, I catch cold because my backside is frozen.”

Only a few decades after his death and the man is quickly becoming a legend. From here it’s not too far to the anonymous epic The Song of Roland (Back in 2011, I looked at Dorothy Sayers’ translation here), where Charlemagne plays a key role. It’s a little like reading about the legends surrounding Romulus in Plutarch – or even about George Washington and the cherry tree. Note how quickly famous figures pass into legend as their stories spread and shift like a game of broken telephone!

But if Notker is more entertaining, he can also be more frustrating, too. His account is wildly inaccurate, getting names and dates all mixed up. And he intersperses his biography with stories about bishops and monks behaving badly, none of which really have anything to do with Charlemagne.

This is where Thorpe’s great editing comes in. In my edition – originally published in 1969 – Thorpe prepared a lengthy introduction, breaking down the history of the Franks and taking detailed looks at each book. And in the back are nearly 30 pages of notes, plus a large index. In all, that’s nearly half the book! His notes are largely helpful, pointing out inaccuracies and allusions (Notker was a fan of Virgil, it seems) and explaining obscure references: which ancient people inspired which story, for example.

There are some things I wished he’d have included, like translations for the many writers he quotes in other languages, usually en francais but sometimes in Latin. I understand a little French (and almost no Latin) and suspect reading them in Google Translate means I’m missing something. Some more maps – there’s only one, showing the empire as it stood in the mid 8th century, well before Charlemagne was named emperor – would’ve been nice, too.

Side note: Penguin has a newer edition out, translated by David Ganz. I’m not familiar with it, but I should point out that at 160 pages, it’s a slimmer volume than this. The notes are probably a little more up-to-date, however.

But really, those are minor gripes for an interesting read. And for someone like me, who was relatively new to this period, it was a good starting place, focused on a key figure and showing both his importance and influence. I’ve already grabbed a copy of Gregory of Tours History of the Franks, too!

Rating: 8/10

26
Nov
14

It’s (Not Quite) All True: Josephus – The Jewish War

The Jewish WarThe Jewish War by Josephus 

(trans. G.A. Williamson, revised with notes by Mary Smallwood)

 

Generally, the winning side wrote Roman history. When Carthage and Rome clashed or when Caesar ran amok through Gaul, Hannibal and Vercingetorix didn’t get to tell their sides of the story. Instead we know it through Caesar (previously reviewed here) and Livy (previously reviewed here, here and here). Essentially, the Romans wrote their own stories, either as propaganda, popular history or for moral teaching. Hell, they even made up their own origin story.

Indeed, the few ancient writers who’ve come down to us generally came through the Romans somehow, from their adoption of Greek history to the Byzantine Empire’s preservation of writers through the dark ages. Everything has a bit of a Roman spin to it. Which makes Josephus’ history of the Jewish War so interesting.

Continue reading ‘It’s (Not Quite) All True: Josephus – The Jewish War’

11
Mar
14

A Revisionist History of Ancient Greece: Moses Finley’s The World of Odysseus

The World of Odysseus (New York Review Books Classics Series)The World of Odysseus by Moses I. Finley

If you’ve read my reviews here for any length, you’ll know I’m a sucker for Ancient History. I’ve read everything from Aesop to Tacitus, histories to poetry. But if I had to choose one that I’ve enjoyed the most, it’d probably be the Fagles and Knox translation of The Odyssey: not only is it presented in a great translation with a ton of notes and context, but it’s just a blast to read.

But truthfully, part of that enjoyment came on a recent re-read, which I did on the urging of another book I recently picked up by the late Homeric scholar Moses Finley: The World of Odysseus, which was recently republished by The New York Review of Books with an introduction by Knox.

A clear, concise and fascinating look at the world of Ancient Greece,  Finley’s The World of Odysseus busts a myths about two of the most famous stories to emerge from the ancient world and lays out a clear vision of how Finley thinks things were nearly 3,000 years ago.

On the surface, it sounds like one of two things: dull, full of academic jargon and of little interest to the average person, or full of supposition and guesswork. Surprisingly, it’s neither of them. Finley supports his opinions with careful readings of Homer, opposing them against other Ancient Greeks (Hesiod, generally), and with the support of our knowledge of oral epics in other cultures and other ancient societies. And the way he does it, carefully laying out an opinion and explaining why how he reached it, never comes across as overly academic – or in a way that talks down to his readers.

In a nutshell, Finley lays out a thesis that neither The Iliad or The Odyssey have any real basis in fact: there may have been a Troy, but it certainly wasn’t subject to a ten-year siege, for example. And forget trying to chart Odysseus’ journey on a map: if Homer knew anything about geography, he didn’t leave it in his poem. He goes a step further, too, explaining customs between city-states (finally, a good explanation for the gift-giving!), between a king and his community and man and the gods.

Two examples to show the simple genius of Finley’s book. In one chapter, Finley points out the changing roles of Greek religion in Homer: the sun-god Helios, who you’d think would rank among the most powerful gods, has such little power he has to turn to  Zeus when Odysseus’ men eating his cattle. In another, he observes how oral histories of the Second World War have changed and been embellished in just a short period of time; based on that, how could one reasonably think a history told over hundreds of years, in many oral forms, could retain anything but a grain of truth?

Finley’s book is packed with interesting observations like that. It breaks down myths and misperceptions, trashes naive and lazy assumptions by historians and archaeologists. It came just as the Linear B tablets were discovered and just before they were decoded; once they were and the idea that one might find Ajax’s receipts was destroyed, Finley’s controversial takes were finally accepted. Looking back, it’s a wonder anyone thought otherwise.

Rating: 7/10. It’s a short read, but one that’s remarkably full of insight, lucidly presented. People who know The Odyssey in depth will have things to chew on here, but so will newcomers. It’s a scholarly text that reads like a popular history. Recommended!

22
Oct
13

3000 Years in 500 pages: Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson

Ancient history is an interest of mine and earlier this year, I made the trip to Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum to get a look at some stuff first-hand. After all, it’s cool to read about Ancient Rome or Greece, but actually getting to look at statues of the Caesars and pottery decorated with the exploits of Heracles is something else completely.

It was a fun experience, but I was blindsided by something there: the sheer breadth of materials and knowledge of Ancient Egypt. I knew I didn’t know much about the period before I went there, but I was shocked at how little I knew, like how Cleopatra actually lived closer to our time than to the construction of the pyramids. This was the kind of thing I needed to remedy, so I started looking for a good volume of history to tackle. I’d hoped the ROM’s giftstore would have something, but the only books there generally went along these lines.

After a bit of looking around, I came across Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. It promises the nearly unthinkable: to distill over 2000 years of Egyptian history into a single, highly readable volume. It pulls it off, too, which is a remarkable achievement and not just because of the total number of years covered. Ancient Egypt had several wild changes of fortune, ranging from the early years under kings like Djoser and Khufu, to years of imperial power under Ramesses to subject rule under the Ptolemaic dynasty. Here, Wilkinson is able to lucidly go from one age to another, carefully showing how and why things changed, be it repressive taxation, the influence of the army or priesthood or foreign invasion. More importantly, he explains the human cost too: his history presents a sober look at a dictatorship, where the commoners were often worked until they died, the rich schemed to keep money and grain for themselves and the king used whatever means necessary to keep power, even if it meant skinning people alive and displaying the results to scare people into line.

Wilkinson’s specialty is the early years of Egypt and in the first half of the book, his scholarship shines. He spends a lot of time on the early kingdoms, detailing the construction of the pyramids, the growth of Egypt’s writing and religions and the reign of each line of kings. There’s a ton of information here on the first half of the Egyptian dynasties, especially on people like Narmer, who unified Egypt and was it’s first Pharaoh. He gives each of the early kings a detailed look, such as Khufu, who built the Great Pyramid and lost the support of the people: even centuries later, when Herodotus visited Egypt, Khufu was hated. Of him Wilkinson writes:

“So if the pyramid was not exactly a national project in which the whole country could take part and feel pride, what was it? The uncomfortable answer is that it was the ultimate projection of absolute power. Despots throughout history have been attracted to colossal buildings, from Nicolae Ceausescu’s Palace of the People in Bucharest to tin-pot dictator Felix Houphouet-Boigny‘s vast (and ridiculous) basilica in the jungles of Ivory Coast. The Great Pyramid of Khufu is merely the most audacious and enduring of such folies de grandeur.” (pg 71)

As Wilkinson moves along in Egyptian history, the pace picks up and less time is spent on each dynasty. His coverage of people like Thutmose III helps give lesser-known Pharaohs their due; indeed, Thutmose is called “the greatest of all pharaohs.” I’d wager his name isn’t familiar to the average person. But the pace keeps up and accelerates throughout the book. By the final couple of chapters, Wilkinson covers centuries in a matter of pages. But this mirrors the collapse of Egypt, too. By the time of the battles against the Sea Peoples, Egypt was a spent force. Eventually, it fragmented and was ruled over by the Nubians. By the time of Alexander the Great and the Ptolemys, it feels like Wilkinson is working at a record pace,  glossing over stretches of time, although it should be noted that he doesn’t have a ton of information to work with, thanks to fragmentary evidence.

His book ends with a section about Cleopatra, who he thinks ruled over a dead empire and unsuccessfully hedged her bets with Mark Antony. It’s interesting to compare his brief overlook with Stacy Scheff’s: Wilkinson is less giving of praise, all but brushing over how successful Cleopatra’s domestic politics were in favour of a pragmatic look at her disastrous foreign policies. Of Antony’s exchange of lands and collections of books for her support, he writes:

“Phony title deeds and a collection of books in return for real troops and supplies was hardly a fair exchange. In the far-off days of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Egypt had been respected and feared as the mighty bull of Asia; now, it was Rome’s milk cow.” (pgs 477-78)

Egypt ended with a whimper: after a succession of defeats, Antony fell on his sword and died in Cleopatra’s arms. Alexandra fell and Cleopatra shortly followed, most likely by her own hand. Egypt would be ruled by foreign powers for much of the next millennia: Rome, Byzantium, Ottomans and eventually the British. With it, interest in the Pharoahs dimmed and fell out of common knowledge; as Wilkinson notes, it was only revived by the French, when Napoleon visited the country.  But ever since, it’s rarely left us; at the ROM, their Egyptian section dwarfed their section on Rome.

Rating: 8/10. This is an interesting read that never feels especially bogged down in details and goes out of it’s way to provide visual evidence: besides a bunch of colour photographs, black-and-white images are interspersed throughout. And it’s supplemented by extensive notes and a bibliography that’s dozens of pages long. If you’re looking for a history of Ancient Egypt, I don’t think you can go wrong with this. They should sell copies in the ROM’s giftshop.

16
Sep
13

Rome’s Most Fascinating Enemy: On Livy’s History of the War Against Hannibal

The War with Hannibal (Books XXI–XXX of The History of Rome from its Foundation)The War with Hannibal by Livy (trans. by Aubrey de Selincourt, edited with an introduction by Betty Radice)

A huge history of the Second Punic War, Penguin’s The War With Hannibal is composed of ten books of Livy’s giant history of Rome and covers one of the wildest periods of ancient history, when in a span of a few years Rome went from near-defeat to it’s biggest victory to date.

Although Rome and Carthage had engaged in war earlier in the third century BC, it’s the Second Punic War that most are familiar with. And for good reason: it has some of the most compelling personalities of the ancient world commanding armies against each other: Roman generals Fabius Maximus and Scipio Africanus facing off against the Carthaginian general Hannibal. This time, Rome and Carthage clashed for a little over 15 years all over the Mediterranean, from Spain to Greece to Northern Africa, with the tide constantly flipping. It’s a period Livy captures well in these books.

It’s less a modern history than something like a historical novel, as Betty Radice writes in the introduction. Livy lived far after these wars – some 200 years, actually – and relied more on books than first-hand evidence. Sometimes, he even names those authors. And like many of the ancient historians, he recreates speeches for the major players here, putting words in their mouths to the effect of what he thought they said (or should’ve, anyway). Asking it to comply to a modern standard is missing the point: Livy was one of the most popular historians in his day and it wasn’t because he was razor-sharp in his facts.

Where he stands out is in the drama and tension he puts into these battles, the colours he dresses up his stories with. He doesn’t tell us that Hannibal crossed the Alps, he tells us about soldiers falling off clips, elephants struggling against the cold and Hannibal’s ragged troops being besieged by mountain tribes. The battle of Cannae didn’t end with the Carthaginian troops picking off survivors, but with a cold-blooded massacre:

“Here and there wounded men, covered with blood, who had been roused to consciousness by the morning cold, were dispatched by a quick blow to the head as they struggled to rise from amongst the corpses.”

His skill makes the main figures of this book come to life: Fabius is cautious and his reluctance to risk everything in battle keeps Rome’s hopes alive after disastrous losses at Cannae and Lake Trasimine; Scipio is young, a little arrogant and more than a little clever. Barely into his 20s, he takes control of an army nobody else wants and rips off successive wins, eventually taking the fight to Carthage in the decisive Battle of Zama.

And there’s Hannibal, always somewhere on the page. He’s a unique mix: a smart general, a well-spoken orator and a hell of a pest. Even as he’s broadly portrayed as an enemy of Rome, he still comes across as the most compelling person here. He just about leaps off the page, able to turn the Roman’s front lines into disarray with his war elephants and catching legons off guard with shrewd manoeuvres. My favourite was when he tied torches to riderless donkeys, tricking the Roman legions into thinking Carthage was abandoning it’s camp, and mopped up Romans who came to loot the camp.

In a sense, the book shows the rise and fall of Hannibal. He comes riding across through Spain, crashes through the Alps and sets his sights on Rome. After routing the Romans, he even encamps at the city’s gates. But he never makes the final move, instead turning to the idea of defeating Rome by splitting it’s Army apart and wearing it into submission. This move never quite works and before long, he’s fighting to reclaim territory he only just won. After years of inconclusive combat, he’s recalled in time for a final showdown against Scipio; the two even had a brief conference before the battle.

But the history doesn’t focus on them: it ranges from long battles in Sicily to Greek allies fighting against the Macedonian forces of Philip V to Roman disasters and victories in Spain. By ancient Roman standards, this was a total war, with the entire known world in conflict.

The translation by Aubrey de Selincourt is pretty fluid and reads well. It’s not often that it it seems stiff or overly formal. He falls back on a few idioms occasionally; I don’t speak Latin, but I’m pretty sure Livy never said an army was “at sixes and sevens.” Meanwhile, Radice’s introduction is decent (if a little short) and her notes help make sense of some of the more obscure/inaccurate parts of Livy. The maps in the back helped out a lot, too, and there’s a helpful index.

Rating: 7/10. Livy, like all the ancient historians, can be a bit dry at times. Still, I think it’s worth the effort: it’s a monumental history and reads much more like an epic than his near contemporary Polybius. Recommended, especially for ancient history buffs.




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