Posts Tagged ‘history


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


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


Richard Nixon: Alone in the White House – Richard Reeves

President Nixon: Alone in the White HousePresident Nixon: Alone in the White House by Richard Reeves

A huge, exhaustive look at Nixon’s first term of office, Reeves’ book is a compelling day-by-day look at the making and unmaking of a presidency, often at the same time. It’s an interesting read.

When Nixon rolled into the Oval Office in 1969, he brought in a handful of loyalists whose jobs were to insulate him from stuff he deemed un-presidential. If people wanted to talk with him, they had to go through Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman first. So right from the get-go, maybe Nixon’s presidency was doomed: he didn’t trust his staff, loathed the media and had nasty, paranoid edge. He assumed everyone else did, too.

The Nixon that emerges out of the pages of this biography is one of a guy who couldn’t trust people and assumed everyone was as paranoid, cynical and prone to backstabbing as he was. He’d lie to one person, tell another lie to a second and wait to see which lie got into the media first. He had a whole cabinet at his disposal but trusted just a handful of people: namely Henry Kissinger, Haldeman, John Mitchell and John Ehrlichman.

So he plotted, plotted and plotted. At his direction, journalists had their phones bugged and conversations were secretly recorded. Even before Gordon Liddy proposed operation Gemstone – more on that in a second – the Nixon White House reads like something out of Machiavelli or Game of Thrones, a place where everyone plotted how best to stab someone in the back. Indeed, things got nasty early on, when the White House helped cover up the murder of a Vietnamese agent by CIA agents, a move Nixon personally pushed along and helped inspire Daniel Ellsberg to leak the Pentagon Papers.

Eventually because of that and other leaks, a second and more infamous cast of characters comes into play: Liddy, Charles Colson and The Plumbers. These people were assigned to find and fix leaks in the White House, to stop people from talking to the press and to deal with what the White House deemed enemies. In one particularly insane passage, Liddy pitches a program he called Gemstone to Mitchell and John Dean:

“I have secured an option to lease a pleasure craft docked in the canal directly in front of the Fontainebleau Hotel. It is more than 60 feet long, with several staterooms, and expensively decorated in a Chinese motif. It can also be wired for sight and sound… we can, without much trouble, compromise these officials through the charms of some ladies I have arranged to have living on the boat.” (pg 430)

Mitchell and Dean both think the plan is insane, but regardless Liddy is kept on anyway, and soon plans are hatched for bugging prominent Democratic leaders.

It’s easy to focus on the seamy side of this book, but Reeves covers the triumphs of Nixon’s Presidency, too. He goes in depth on how Nixon reopened relations with China, the long and arduous peace talks with North Vietnam and the SALT treaty with the Soviet Union.

In many of these foreign deals, Kissinger played a key role, often operating under only Nixon and in total secrecy from everyone, including Secretary of State William P. Rogers. The more I read, the more Kissinger reminded me of Nixon, too: paranoid, often near hysteria and constantly plotting against others. Unlike Nixon, though, he loved attention from the media, which eventually gave him a pass on some of the stuff he does in these pages, like ordering the bombing of Cambodia.

The book more or less focuses on Nixon’s first term, ending with the President admitting defeat and wandering off to soak in a hot tub in April 1973. A brief epilogue covers the final months of his presidency in brief.

Reeves does an admirable job cutting through the many, many documents Nixon left in his wake. There are hours of tapes, thousands of notes and even annotations on his news summary, just to mention what Nixon was behind. And while the book is detailed, only occasionally did I find the sheer mass of information overwhelming.

More often, it read like a screenplay, cutting between Nixon in Moscow and Liddy breaking into Larry O’Brien’s office, two currents representing the highs and lows of Nixon: his success in foreign affairs and his paranoid tendencies that ultimately brought him down.

It’s also worth noting the book is well-researched, with a good 50 pages of notes, a lengthy bibliographic essay by Jonathan Cassidy and had interviews with everyone from Nixon and several of his cabinet officials (although John Connelly is an interesting omission, if not a surprising one; he passed on Caro, too).

A final note: between the lines, Reeves sketches out what we could call the post-Nixon era. As President, Nixon looked to cater to what he called the Silent Majority. The way he went out to make the Republican Party more like that of southern Democrats, the way he relentlessly attacked the media and the way he tried to unite working class people against students, intellectuals and journalists seems like the beginning of the populist playbook used by everyone from Reagan to Sarah Palin, with varying degrees of success. Nixon: he haunts us still. (I believe Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland covers this in better detail; I haven’t had a chance to read it yet).

Rating: 7/10. Although it’s maybe a little too much at once for people looking for a concise look at the Nixon presidency and it ends a little sooner than I’d have liked, President Nixon is a well researched and compelling read about his first four years. Recommended.

View all my reviews


At War With The Samnites: Rome and Italy by Titus Livy (Trans. by Betty Radice)

Rome and Italy: Books VI-X of the History of Rome from its FoundationRome and Italy: Books VI-X of the History of Rome by Titus Livy
Translated by Betty Radice
Introduction by R.M. Ogilvie

The second volume of Livy’s monumental history of Rome, Penguin’s Rome and Italy covers a less famous period of history but is still a blast to read.

It picks up where the first volume leaves off, just a couple years after the first Gallic sack of Rome, with a rebuilding Roman citystate and a bunch of other communities looking to shake off any obligation to Rome. Soon these skirmishes blow into full-scale conflicts: The Samnite Wars. Livy’s history covers this century in detail as the Samnites deal Rome a huge blow at the Caudine Forks, but fail to take Pontius’ advice and make a powerful, resentful enemy. The book follows these wars through their conclusion in the early 3rd century BC, when Roman armies routed the Samnites through the countryside.

Okay then, so why read Livy and not a more contemporary historian? After all, his account is a little muddled at times and certainly far from objective. But aside from the charm of reading something written by (and for) the Romans, Livy’s accounts are packed like a novel: between Livy recreating speeches and the dramatic action scenes, he colours in these ancient stories with fascinating detail. When these armies clash, the Roman commander yells aloud and throws himself into a pile of soldiers. The senate doesn’t just disagree, they debate back and forth. There’s even some sly humour about a group of Roman pipe-players who get tricked by a group of citizens.

But as with the other volumes, Livy (and translator Betty Radice) is at his best when describing combat. For example, there’s the account of Alexander, the King of Eprius, meeting his demise in battle:

Betty Radice’s translation is fluid and free of jargon, although the footnotes are kept to a minimum, usually to reference a related passage in elsewhere in Livy. R.M. Ogilvie’s introduction is nice, too, breaking down Livy’s sources, structure and comparing his account to surviving evidence. A slight downside: I would’ve appreciated a better selection of maps: Penguin’s comes with just four, one of which is stretched over two pages and loses a section in the middle.

Rating: 7/10. A fun, readable account of an oft-overlooked period of Roman history, Rome and Italy shows the start of Rome’s rise from a citystate to an empire, slowly overwhelming the other players in the surrounding country. It’s not as dramatic as Hannibal crossing the Alps, nor as famous as the Roman civil wars, but it’s a fascinating period nonetheless. Still if you’re new to Livy, I’d recommend starting at the beginning.


A Portrait Of The President As A Young Man: The Path to Power – Robert A. Caro

The Path to Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, [#1])The Path to Power by Robert A. Caro

Down in the United States, they’re entering an election year. It’s one here too, with Rob Ford running for reelection against political heavyweights like Oliva Chow and John Tory. So lately I’ve had a hankering for a good political read; watching Game of Thrones and House of Cards kind of scratched that itch, but not in the way I wanted. So, instead, I turned to something I’ve meant to read for years: Robert Caro’s multi-volume (and still, as of this writing, uncompleted) biography of Lyndon Johnson.

Even with all the hype and praise around this series, I was still surprised by The Path to Power It’s not just a detailed, engrossing look at the 36th President’s early years, it isn’t just a top-notch biography, its a detailed look at the tricky, crooked and utterly fascinating world of Texas politics in the first half of the 20th century.

As Caro makes clear, this was a hard world to live in. There was complete poverty in the hill country where Johnson grew up; even in the 1930s, this rural community was without electricity and indoor plumbing. People washed clothing by hand in front of a roaring fire (gotta keep the water hot, not to mention the sad irons), even on summer’s hottest days. And, politically, it was even harder: campaigning was a lot of hard travel and was often against the big shots in the city. LBJ’s father tried his hand at it for a while; before long, he was crushed by the land, by the politics and eventually, by debt. LBJ made sure that wouldn’t happen to him.

It’s a long book, but even through 700 pages, it’s compelling, taking readers along for LBJ’s rapid ascent, showing the inner workings of a complicated, opportunistic and driven young man. Drive is the key word when describing the young Johnson: while he demanded a lot from his staff – Caro at one point mentions how Johnson drove one worker to several nervous breakdowns over the years – he also worked insane hours, especially when campaigning. And the campaigns are the backbone of this book: the long drives through desolate Texas back roads, walking through fields to meet with isolated farmers and the backroom dealing with oilmen, construction barons and other wealthy, influential men. As Caro makes clear, LBJ was not going to end up like his father.

One may think this was a more naive, simple era of politics, but in many ways it was even more cynical than ours. Johnson wasn’t shy with money,  scheming to buy billboards, to grease newspaper editors and to buy votes en masse. Everyone else did, too. Caro doesn’t shy away from this; if anything, he makes a 1941 senate campaign sound like two groups of influential millionaires trying to out-bribe the other; it ended when one group managed to buy more votes than the other. The reporting here is top-notch: he doesn’t just keep track of where the money’s going, he turns what could be a confusing jumble into a clear narrative.

And that’s maybe the best way to describe this thing in brief, too. Johnson’s early years were complicated and shaded in misdirection. Caro doesn’t just cut through Johnson’s embellishments, he makes the dry Texas hill country come alive. He starts with the years when settlers first arrived, runs through his father’s years in state politics and looks at LBJ’s student years, when he turned a loose social group into a political machine. And it goes beyond just Johnson, too: this book has fascinating portraits of other influential Texans like Sam Rayburn, the Kleberg family and W. Lee O’Daniel.

Rating: 9/10. Detailed, compelling and packing a hell of a punch, The Path to Power is a startling look at the 36th president. Political biographies don’t get better than this. Recommended.