Posts Tagged ‘ancient rome

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

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’

26
Nov
13

A Fresh Take On Aesop

Aesop's FablesAesop’s Fables, translated by Laura Gibbs

With so many different versions of Aesop’s Fables, it’s probably futile to say one is the one to get. But still: if you’re only going to get one collection, you can’t go wrong with the Oxford World Classics edition.

For starters, it’s about as complete as you’re going to get. It collects 600 fables, taken from sources as diverse as Ancient Romans like Babrius and Phaedrus to Medieval manuscripts by Ademar and Odo of Cheriton. It’s a much wider cross-section than other collections (Penguin, for instance, has less than 400 fables in their “complete” collection). It has all the ones you remember, from the boy who cried wolf to the tortoise and the hare, but it has dozens most are likely unfamiliar with.

Here’s where this collection’s second strength comes in: the editorial work of Laura Gibbs. Not only has she translated all 600 fables into clear and modern English, but she’s gone a step further and organizing them by subject. All the fables about gratitude are lumped together, separate from ones about judges and ones about foolish gods. As a result, it’s a less haphazard read and makes it easier to navigate, especially if you’re looking for one in particular. She’s also supplied each with it’s Perry number, making it easy for people who want to compare it to Perry’s untranslated Greek and Latin edition. She’s also provided some useful footnotes and a nice introduction.

What about the fables themselves? They’re a blast, running the gamut from witty to instructive. Most offer at least some practical lesson – it’s not hard to see why so many people become familiar with them as children – but nearly all of them have a clever little turn of phrase or joke in them. Indeed, there’s a few sections included here of Aesopic jokes. One of my favorites has Diogenes getting insulted by a bald man and replying :

“Far be it from me to make such insults. But I want to complement your hair on abandoning such a worthless head.” (pg 268)

There are others I enjoyed, like Aesop and the Soothsayers or The Fox and The Stork. And there’s a ton you’ll recognize: the story of two pots, the snake and the farmer or the one about the goose who lays golden eggs.

The big drawback here comes from it’s sheer bulk. There’s so many fables that reading it cover to cover makes them all feel kind of samey after a while: some are variants, others just touch on similar themes. I found that reading them in a row led to some of them all blending together after a while. This is book that’s better read piecemeal, dropping in here and there for a fable or two.

Rating: 8/10. Even though they can blend together, this is as good a collection of Aesop as I know of. It’s bulk blows the Penguin and Signet editions out of the water, it’s translation never feels watered down or meant for children and it’s cheaper than the Loeb edition.  Recommended!

15
Oct
13

A Fresh Take On An Ancient Story: Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life

Cleopatra: A Life

Well-researched and well-written, Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra is a fascinating read about a figure who, for all her fame, remains sadly elusive.

After all, everyone knows the outline of Cleopatra’s life: an Egyptian queen who slept with Caesar and Mark Antony, then when Octavian subdued Alexandra, she killed herself with an asp. People as diverse as Florence Nightingale and Shakespeare have thrown her under the bus as a witch, whore or worse. And for nearly as long as she’s been dead, her story was used to illustrate what happens when a female corrupts someone great: nothing good.

Of course, Cleopatra was none of those things. And Schiff’s biography aims to set the record straight.

It’s a tough job. Even the ancient biographers and historians didn’t like her too much, although it should be said they wrote for a Roman audience and under patronage that Cleopatra fought against. So even from the get-go, the sources weren’t sympathetic. And thats where there are sources: there simply aren’t many for Cleopatra’s early years. Consequently, Schiff has a lot of holes to fill and not much to fill them with.

She does an admirable job. In a biography that’s a little short on definite conclusions, but heavy on showing multiple ideas for what could’ve happened, she recreates what she can of Cleopatra’s life and tries to put it into a greater context. Her early years are a mystery, but it’s known she was exiled when her brother Ptolemy XIII seized the throne. A civil war ensued and Rome found itself embroiled in it after Caesar found himself after Cleopatra emerged from a sack in front of him. Later, she’s emerge as sole ruler of the Egypt as it’s empire expanded to it’s largest size. She funded Roman conquests and one half of a civil war, having children with two of it’s most famous citizens.

But at the same time, she was a conniving queen. She was ruthless to people who stood in her way, killing two of her brothers and a sister. She often tried to play sides against each other and alienated those close to her, fuelling her downfall. And her feud with Herod would make an interesting book in itself: he was alternately supporter and enemy, eventually an active participant in her downfall.

That downfall is a dramatic story, the narrative backbone of this biography. It reads a little like a history of Rome in this period, going from the troubles at Rome when Caesar was assassinated, to the bombastic speeches of Cicero to the war between Antony and Octavian, climaxing with the battle of Actium. It’s helpful to people without a lot of knowledge of those turbulant times. And while she defers to a wide variety of ancient sources – Plutarch, Cassius Dio, and Josephus, among others – she’s always careful to present their biases, too.

She’s right to. This book clearly sets out to try and restore Cleopatra’s reputation or at least strip away some of the propaganda. There are centuries of it. One example Schiff uses is when Cecil B. DeMille pitched her role by asking an actress “How would you like to be the wickedest woman in history?”

To that end Schiff was successful: in her pages, Cleopatra comes alive as a queen who was astute and rich, able to connect to her kingdom in a way few leaders can and who, sadly, fell for the wrong man at at the wrong time (spoiler: she dies).

Rating: 8/10. While some might object to the lengths Schiff goes to in calling out ancient sources and the leaps of faith she makes (there are a lot of holes in Cleopatra’s life, let alone her motivations), it helps cut through the noise and lets one of the most remarkable personalties of the ancient world come through. Recommended, especially for history buffs.




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