Posts Tagged ‘Roman 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

27
Jan
15

Shakespeare – Anthony and Cleopatra

Anthony and CleopatraAnthony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Oxford World Classics, edited by Michael Neill

Okay, so let’s start with the obvious. Anthony and Cleopatra is a Shakespeare play, which means that it’s generally very good, sometimes a little confusing and very much a work a fiction.

Essentially, the play follows the final months of the second Roman Civil War, the one where Anthony was defeated at Actium and Octavian assumed control of the Roman Republic, essentially turning it into the Empire and setting the stage for a good 300 years of perpetual dictatorship. You know, season two of HBO’s Rome. The play plays fast and loose with the facts – Stacy Schiff has noted Cleopatra was likely a good deal more savvy  than Shakespeare plays her, for example – but even now, this play has tremendous influence; when was the last time you heard Anthony called by his proper name, Antonius?

As for the play itself, I’ll restrict myself to a few loose thoughts. I’ve never seen it in performance, but I imagine it works a great deal better here than it would on stage. Yes, Cleopatra, Octavian and Anthony are all fascinating characters, but the staging and pace of this thing is hard to figure out: Act 5, for example, has a confusing scene where Anthony’s body is taken to Cleopatra: was it lifted or taken off stage and brought around? There are others, including a triumph scene and Enobarbus’ death, which seemed a deal hard to picture in my head.

Still, it’s a fun read and one I enjoyed thinking about, especially the political scenes where Anthony and Octavian talk in formalities as they plot the other’s downfall; I’m currently reading a book about Nixon’s first term of office and I can’t help think of the similarities. Anyway, it’s Shakespeare. You’ll probably like it.

So the focus here is in this specific text, the Oxford edition first published in 1994 (and currently in it’s third edition). It weighs in a hefty 400 pages, with a lengthy introduction and notes by Michael Neill. In a novella-length intro, Neill writes about the textual history of the play, it’s performance history and looks at it in the context of it’s times. He makes some interesting observations about parallels between it and an earlier play and to North’s translation of Plutarch (see here and here for stuff I’ve written about Plutarch). There’s also a lengthy analysis of the different themes of this play, which I found occasionally interesting but mostly over-my-head or pedantic. I suppose students studying this play in a classroom would get more from that than a casual reader.

Thankfully, Neill spends a lot of time on the play’s performance history; how it wasn’t staged for many years, then staged with archaeological trappings: whatever the current trend for how Roman Egypt looked was how the play was staged. I suppose it’s interesting, but truthfully, I was more interested when he describes how different performers played their characters to different effect. For example, Patrick Stewart’s Enobarbus gave the play a different feeling than Helen Mirren’s Cleopatra. There’s an interesting bit on the lack of black casts for this play, which does go out of it’s way to describe Cleopatra in similar language as Shakespeare describes Othello. It’s all interesting stuff; going back to it after reading the play helps set the scenes you just read a little better, too.

The book is packed with notes, too. They can seem overwhelming, especially when they dominate the page, but they’re almost always helpful. Sometimes they explain an obscure word or point out how it’s the first recorded use of one. Sometimes they offer textual commentary: why he added or dropped a word from the manuscript or other editions. Occasionally, they help explain a scene and how a reader should interpret it, like this note to scene 2.6, a confrontation between Anthony and Octavian:

“The veiled ironies of this scene are nicely caught in Peter Hall’s note to his actors at The National: ‘this scene is about politicians who never say what they are thinking… conceal your hostility beneath a veil of utmost charm. Make it sound perfectly genuine. The art is to show now nice you can be.’ ” (pg 204)

Generally, I found myself reading each scene twice. Once straight through, then a second time going back and forth between the text and notes. I usually didn’t have any trouble; unfamiliar words usually explain themselves in the play’s scenes. But the notes helped too, especially on the second reading, since they explain what’s happening on stage or what various editors (from Dr. Johnson right up to Neill) think Shakespeare was getting at.

A final note: I find that when reading Shakespeare, or any play for that matter, it’s worth remembering it’s meant to be read out loud, like poetry. If you’re passive when reading his work, it’s easy to fall into his verse and never come out; phrases that seem hard to follow on paper are a lot easier to keep track of when read out loud.

I don’t have this play in another edition, so I can’t compare it directly to Arden, Pelican, Norton or other editions, but generally Oxford seems about the same with Arden’s long introduction and heavy annotation. It doesn’t have the critical appendixes Norton’s usually does – just an abridged version of North’s translation of Plutarch’s Life of Antonius and a section on pronouns – but it’s more specific than I usually find Pelican editions to be: no general intro on Shakespeare and his life, no long discussion of The Globe or etc, but a detailed and specific intro to the play.

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’

10
Jun
14

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.

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.

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.




Archives