As I understand it, this book from 1971 was influential in paving the way for current scholarship that treats the period form the 3rd to 8th centuries as distinct from the earlier Classical Roman period. Brown is positive about this era finding growth and creative in place of or alongside the traditional views of decline and destruction. I’ve read more recent, and more detailed books on this – The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham stands out. This still added something for me – the short accessible format is, for want of a better word, accessible. In particular the book brings up cultural figures like Augustine and Plotinus and shows the vibrant world of religious transformation (for better or worse). There are some great pictures throughout the book that really help to make the topic anything but dry. It would sit nicely alongside Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall Of Rome, which adds a much more argumentative and pessimistic view of the era – bringing up economic and archaeological evidence that Brown brushed over. Both books are rather short introductions to what could be a very heavy debate.
Kwasi Kwarteng is a Conservative MP, and a Brexiter at that. This may or may not be relevant, but I thought it was worth setting out there first thing. In this history of the British Empire he picks six regions that came under British rule at some point (Iraq, Kashmir, Burma, Nigeria, Sudan, Hong Kong) and gives a sort of brief history and analysis of them during and after British control. He doesn’t set out with an idealistic opposition to empire (although I suspect he might be happy to if pushed), instead he strikes at a different argument. In a purely functional sense the Empire was chaotic, anarchic and badly managed – disinterest and a focus on individuals allowed for a massively (and constantly changing) diversity of policy.
Kwarteng’s writing is sometimes repetitive, and often uneven. In Nigeria, for instance, I came away with a desire to read post-colonial literature but no idea why the British were actually there. However, he does use each region to show troublesome aspects of the empire – the strict hierarchy of Hong Kong; the division sowed in Sudan; the priority given to particular cultures in Nigeria; the arbitrary decisions made in Kashmir; and the pointless adventurism of Burma. There may be bigger and better arguments against imperialism, but Kwarteng still convinces with the argument that even on its own terms, the empire was problematic. As a final footnote, as a Tory MP it does feel like he occasionally pulls punches – some relatively mild criticism of Chris Patten seems to back off, and he feels possibly a little too pragmatic on the topic of class.
Last month there were two big podcasts for me to listen to: a new episode of Hardcore History from Dan Carlin, and When Diplomacy Fails’ Korean War podcast. The two together almost simultaneously introduce me to a major historical figure that I had somehow escaped hearing about before – the Chiang Kai-shek of the title.
Dan Carlin takes on the extreme nationalism and militarism of the Japanese empire in the half century or so before the Second World War. It’s an interesting topic – and as ever Carlin, it’s possible to see relevance to modern political situations as the Japanese government is forced down a harder and harder line by the threats (and occasionally assassinations) of the hardcore minority. The episode ends with Japan in China in the early stages of what would become World War Two – and hence my introduction to the struggles of the Chinese warlords.
Zack Twamley of WDF is slowly working his way through the Korean War (at the point I’ve got to, we’re only in the first few days of the war after twenty episodes of setup). The focus is, as ever, diplomatic. There’s also an extra set of provocative theses here: that Stalin engineered the war to pull Mao’s China away from the West; that elements within the US ignored the warning signs in order to justify military spending and strategy. As presented these seem reasonable, the former even more so than the latter, but there’s a lot of diplomatic meetings and messages. Setting these ideas up required a lot of background, particularly in China, much of which was new to me.
I don’t tend to read twentieth century history, and especially not that of World War Two, but both of these were very interesting – taking me to places that I don’t tend to go. I look forward to reaching the conclusion of both, but I understand that will take a while for these two podcasters (for different reasons).
Recently I read two quite different works of historical fiction by French authors, both obsessed in their own way with a kind of authenticity. In the post-modern HHhH (from 2010) the author Laurent Binet inserts himself and his writing process into a story about the assassination of Reinhardt Heydrich. Uncomfortable about straying from historical fact or even inventing dialogue with real characters, Binet will intersperse the narrative with his thoughts on his own writing and his experiences researching the book. I’m not sure whether this quirk is inventive or not; but it is wasn’t quite as well done as this the book would be unreadable. The reticence against invention leads to the characters that a flat and, although the story still has its drama, it feels like Binet could have made more of it. His interventions do add to the build up, but it’s a gimmick that I enjoyed but wouldn’t particularly care to see again. In all, I enjoyed the book as a one off; and I’m tempted to break through my usual aversion to WW2 histories and find a real book on the assassination.
In 1951’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Margeurite Yourcenar tries to strip her own personality and touch away from the writing; through detailed research and critical editing (a number of earlier attempts were scrapped entirely) she produces what reads like a real set of memoirs. This sometimes leaves the book more admirable than enjoyable but at it’s best it can be moving, especially as Hadrian deals with the death of his favourite Antinous. His internal struggles show a character with real depth, as a man who fundamentally believes that peace is the best way forward but throws himself wholeheartedly into his military role. Compared to another recent read, Julian by Gore Vidal, the emperor feels genuine and subtle; the themes seem to occur naturally from the story. It’s a very gentle work, and you can feel the time and effort that have went into it.
As far as authenticity goes, Yourcenar definitely has the better balance of research and narrative; I could probably stand for a little less realism, but I think it’s a good model for fictionalised biography. Binet self-reflects on his failure to do justice to the narrative, and in a way that deprecation makes the book work, gives it a source of humour on a grim topic. I don’t think even close to a model of how to write, but it is however a very enjoyable book.
One thing I did learn from Edward Said’s Orientalism is to be suspicious of any writer who is an expert in a particular subsection of a field and writes a general overview of that topic – particularly when it ends up in modern day politics (the expert on a niche field may not be such an expert when it comes to other topics). Hourani was a self-labelled Orientalist who mostly wrote on the Middle East in the 19th century, but here offers a general history of the Arabic world from its origins to the modern day (or 1991, when he wrote it, although my version comes with an epilogue by Malise Ruthven taking it to 2012). From both Chris Wickham and Karl Popper I had it drummed into me recently to distrust histories that follow a particular theory of progression or teleology. Hourani presents the world through the lens of Ibn Khaldun’s theory of Asabiyyah, a certain sort of solidarity that can explain the rise (and fall) of empires and dynasties. So this book could ring alarm bells.
Both these criticisms do apply, but thankfully neither are as bad as might be feared. Despite some non-specific referencing, Hourani avoids grand sweeping statements and tackles some very dry topics in a readable way. Between social, political, legal, literary, and philosophical sections, it’s a very wide ranging book. Hourani clearly enjoyed the literary and intellectual side of Islamic culture, and he neglects some of the more military and biographical directions that might have dominated in other books. He gives a sense of the changes for normal people in urban and rural societies, but only really gives a broad overview of the political and military narrative.
The definition of Arab Peoples is happily flexible – essentially working with groups that speak Arabic, so that Turkey and Persia are largely outside the scope while Sudan, for example, edges in. Within the empires – the Ottomans and the Caliphate – we focus on the areas settled and dominated by Arab culture along with a general history of the leadership (as far as necessary). Hourani does still look at the experience of minorities (Jews, Christians etc.) in these regions.
As the book goes on the thesis of Asabiyyah seems to fall by the way side, especially as we come to the modern Arab states, but he brings it back by the end by bringing to mind the interest groups, sectarianism and dynasties that dominate these states. In this sense the suggestion that these states would eventually fall too seems prescient, but I’m not sure it’s a particularly daring prediction. However, the book does seem to be an unbiased, (very) knowledgeable and sympathetic history of how the Middle East and Islam got to where it is today; and if you have the time to wade through it, it is worthwhile.
There’s sometimes a bit of a paradox as you look closer and closer into an event or period in history. The end of the Roman empire can a great example of this – classically it was thought that the empire (and indeed civilization) came to a crashing halt under waves of barbarian invasions, but as historians have looked more closely at the years, decades and even centuries after they see all sorts of continuity. Often the same type of people were running things, often using the same methods. People living through these world changing events may not have realized they were quite so defining. Yet living standards did fall, economically things declined, the quality of items found by archaeologists drops. How do you trace a middle path that can account for both sides of the argument?
For Chris Wickham, you do it very carefully. In this book Wickham tries to summarize european history between 400 and 1000 A.D. (including the Byzantines and Islam) while constantly stressing that there is no overarching story or end point. At times this begs the question, why put it all together in one book? But Wickham does piece together certain themes throughout the book – the influence of Rome on these successor states and how they continued or broke away from the old ways of doing things.
Despite all the ambiguity, Wickham seems authoritative (on Latin Christendom at least). The range of anecdotes, analysis and information is breathtaking; and where there is nothing to go on, Wickham is explaining that as well. The painstakingly precise style means that it isn’t always an easy read, but it does feel worthwhile. It may help that my podcast listening had recently taken me to Patrick Wyman‘s podcasts, and he stresses very similar continuities.
Perversely, the sheer scale and depth of the book actually helps. A look into the political procedures of one kingdom might be dry and difficult to follow; but repeated over multiple kingdoms, regions and cultures it starts to become understandable. This comparison seems to justify Wickham’s scope for the book: Why include Islamic empires? Why even include outlying regions of Europe like Ireland or Scandinavia? Because these shine light on the successor kingdoms to Rome that could otherwise be the focus of a more conventional book.
I do like a good bibliography – I’ve been interested by the books Mike Duncan has been selling as fundraisers – not necessarily to get his copy, but it’s a good prompt for what I might get myself. I recently finished Patrick Wyman’s podcast Fall of Rome and I’m looking forward to his follow up, Tides of History, that promises to cover a little more on the end of the Roman Empire and a lot more on the formation of the (early) modern world (or Europe at least). I was therefore interested to see that he has put a biography on his facebook page. For my own notes as much as anything else, I have copied the post below.
A number of folks have asked me about a bibliography. I’ll continuously update this post as I have time.
General Works – Fall of the Roman Empire:
-Chris Wickham, “Framing the Early Middle Ages”
-Guy Halsall, “Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568”
-A.H.M. Jones, “The Later Roman Empire, 284-602: A Social and Economic Study”
-Michael McCormick, “Origins of the European Economy”
-Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, “The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History”
Late Antiquity and the Fall of the Roman Empire:
–Bryan Ward-Perkins, “The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization”
-Peter Brown, “The World of Late Antiquity”
-G.W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar (eds.), “Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World”
-Guy Halsall, “Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568”
–Peter Heather, “The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians”
-Megan Hale Williams, “The Monk and the Book: Jerome and the Making of Christian Scholarship”
-Peter Brown, “The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity”
-Peter Brown, “Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD”
-Thomas Sizgorich, “Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam”
-Guido Ruggiero, “Renaissance Italy: A Social and Cultural History of the Rinascimento”
-Charles G. Nauert, “Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe”
-Brian Jeffrey Maxson, The Humanist World of Renaissance Florence
-Patrick Baker, “Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror”
-Paul D. McLean, “The Art of the Network”
-Richard Goldthwaite, “The Economy of Renaissance Florence”
-Richard Goldthwaite, “Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, 1300-1600”
-Gary Ianziti, “Writing History in Renaissance Italy”
Justinian, Natural Disasters, and the End of the Roman Empire:
-Kyle Harper, “The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire”
-Lester K. Little, “Plague and the End of Antiquity”
-John Moorhead, “Justinian”
-Peter Sarris, “Economy and Society in the Age of Justinian”
-Michael Maas (ed.), “The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian”
-M. Shane Bjornlie, “Politics and Tradition Between Rome, Ravenna, and Constantinople”
-Torsten Jacobsen, “The Gothic War: Rome’s Final Conflict in the West”
Rise of Capitalism:
-Avner Greif, “Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy”
-Christopher Dyer, “A Country Merchant, 1495-1520: Trading and Farming at the End of the Middle Ages”
-Edwin S. Hunt and James M. Murray, “A History of Business in Medieval Europe, 1200-1550”
-Martha C. Howell, “Commerce Before Capitalism in Europe, 1300-1600”
-Wendy Childs, “Trade and Shipping in the Medieval West”
-David Nicholas, “The Later Medieval City, 1300-1500”
-James M. Murray, “Bruges, Cradle of Capitalism, 1280-1390”
-Robert Duplessis, “Transitions to Capitalism in Early Modern Europe”
-Maarten Prak (ed.), “Early Modern Capitalism: Economic and Social Change in Europe, 1400-1800”
-Richard Lachmann, “Capitalists in Spite of Themselves: Elite Conflict and Economic Transition in Early Modern Europe”
-Reinhold C. Mueller, “The Venetian Money Market: Banks, Panics, and the Public Debt, 1200-1500”
-J.W. Hanson, “An Urban Geography of the Roman World BC 100 to AD 300”
-Helen Parkins (ed.), “Roman Urbanism: Beyond the Consumer City”
-Adam Rogers, “Late Roman Towns in Britain: Rethinking Change and Decline”
-Ray Laurence, A.S. Esmonde Cleary, and Gareth Sears, “The City in the Roman West, C.250 BC-c.AD 250”
-J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman City”
-Hendrik W. Dey, “The Afterlife of the Roman City”
-John Rich, “The City in Late Antiquity”
-Michael Kulikowski, “Late Roman Spain and its Cities”
-Claudia Rapp and H.A. Drake (eds.), “The City in the Classical and Post-Classical World”
-Brogiolo, Gauthier, and Christie, “Towns and their Territories Between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages”
-Geoffrey Parker, “The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800”
-David Parrott, “The Business of War: Military Enterprise and Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe”
-FrankTallett, “War and Society in Early Modern Europe, 1495-1715”
-Adrian Bell, Anne Curry, Andy King, and David Simpkin, “The Soldier in Later Medieval England”
-Michael Mallett, “The Italian Wars, 1494-1559”
-Fritz Redlich, “The German Military Enterpriser and His Work Force: A Study in European Social and Economic History”
-’Idan Sharar, “Warriors for a Living: The Experience of the Spanish Infantry in the Italian Wars, 1494-1559”
-Maurizio Arfaioli, “The Black Bands of Giovanni”
-Jan Glete, “War and the State in Early Modern Europe: Spain, the Dutch Republic, and Sweden as Fiscal-Military States”
Eastern Roman Empire in the Fifth Century:
-Michael Maas (ed.), “The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Attila”
-Fergus Millar, “A Greek Roman Empire: Power and Belief Under Theodosius II, 408-450”
-Anthony Kaldellis, “The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome”
-Gerard Friell and Stephen Williams, “The Rome That Did Not Fall: The Survival of the East in the Fifth Century”
-Christopher Kelly, “Ruling the Later Roman Empire”
-Alan Cameron, “Barbarians and Politics at the Court of Arcadius”
-Roald Dijkstra (ed.), “East and West in the Roman Empire in the Fourth Century”
The Rise of the State:
-John Watts, “The Making of Polities: Europe, 1300-1500”
-Joseph Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of Modern States
-Hendrik Spruyt, “The Sovereign State and its Competitors: An Analysis of Systems Change”
-Thomas Ertman, “Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Early Modern Europe”
-Daniel Nexon, “The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe: Religious Conflict, Dynastic Empires, and International Change”
I’ve bolded the ones I have actually read, but I do have works by some of the other authors: Christopher Kelly, Anthony Kaldellis, Chris Wickham.
Mike Duncan of Revolutions Podcast is doing another fundraiser (possibly more of a downsizing, as he moves house). As ever, I’m interested in the books he’s selling – largely to add to my own reading list, so I’ve reproduced them below. Check out his podcasts if somehow you haven’t, and if you are familiar with them, check out the extra episodes and some good t-shirts (I do like his “Livia did it” one).
- Critique of Pure Reason – Immanuel Kant
- On Revolution – Hannah Arendt
- The Prince – Niccolo Machiavelli
- Leviathan – Thomas Hobbes
- Second Treatise of Government – John Locke
- Essential Rousseau – JJ Rousseau
- Birth of Tragedy – Nietzsche
- Beyond Good And Evil – Nietzsche
- Thus Sprach Zarathustra – Nietzsche
- Genealogy of Morals – Nietzsche
- Autobiography – John Stuart Mill
- On Liberty – John Stuart Mill
- Utilitarianism – Mill and Bentham
- An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding – David Hume
- Political Essays – David Hume
- Cambridge Companion to David Hume
- Surveys From Exile – Karl Marx
- Common Sense and Rights of Man – Thomas Paine
- Guerrilla Warface – Che Guevara
The English Civil War
- The Causes of the English Revolution – Lawrence Stone
- The Causes of the English Civil War – Conrad Russell
- Britain in Revolution – Austin Woolrych
- The Crisis of Parliaments – Conrad Russell
- History of the Great Rebellion – Earl of Clarendon
- Revolution, Riot and Rebellion – David Underdown
- The World Turned Upside Down – Christopher Hill
- The Century of Revolution – Christopher Hill
The American Revolution
- Rules of Civility – George Washington
- Washington – Ron Chernow
- A Defence of the Constitutions – John Adams
- The Federalist Papers
- The Americans – Daniel Boorstein
- American Scripture – Paulin Maier
- Paul Revere’s Ride – David Hackett Fischer
- The Birth of the Republic – Edmund Morgan
- The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution – Bernard Bailyn
- Radicalism of the American Revolution – Gordon Wood
- The Unknown American Revolution – Gary Nash
- Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution – Arthur Schlesinger
- American Slavery, American Freedom – Edmund Morgan
- The Glorious Cause – Robert Middlekauff
The French Revolution
- Massacre at the Champs de Mars – David Andress
- Talleyrand – Duff Cooper
- The Longman Companion – Colin Jones
- The Peasantry in the French Revolution – PM Jones
- Twelve Who Ruled – RR Palmer
- The Sans-culottes – Albert Soboul
- The French Revolution and Human Rights – Lynn Hunt
- Becoming a Revolutionary – Timothy Tackett
- Reflections on the Revolution in France – Edmund Burke
- The Origins of the French Revolutionary Wars – TCW Blanning
- Interpreting the French Revolution – Francois Furet
- The Coming of the French Revolution – Georges Lefebvre
- The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution – Alfred Cobban
- The King’s Trial – David Jordan
The Haitian Revolution
- Toussaint L’Ouverture – Jean-Bertrand Aristide
- The Haitian Revolution – David Geggus
- Slave Revolution in the Caribbean – Laurent Dubois and John Garrigus
- Haiti – Laurent Dubois
- Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in French Saint-Domingue – John Garrigus
- You Are All Free – Jeremy Popkin
- Confronting Black Jacobins – Gerald Horne
- The Making of Haiti – Carolyn Fick
- Facing Racial Revolution – Jeremy Popkin
- The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon – Philippe Girard
- A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution – Jeremy Popkin
- Bolivar – Marie Arana
- The Spanish-American Revolutions – John Lynch
- Francisco de Miranda – Karen Racine
- For Glory and Bolivar: The Remarkable Life of Manuela Saenz – Pamela Murray
- Simon Bolivar – John Lynch
- Writings of Simon Bolivar
- Bolivar – JL Salcedo-Bastardo
- The United States and the Independence of Latin America – Arthur Whitaker
- The General in His Labyrinth – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- Jose Antonia Paez – RB Cunninghame Graham
- Scipio Aemillianus – AE Astin
- The Civil War – Caesar
There’s also a baseball section, but I think that’s beyond my interests.
It’s Rise, Greatness and Fall 1477-1806
This is a heavy book – over eleven hundred pages, with narrative chapters; chapters on social history, architecture, art and the economy. It’s not easy reading. I only picked it up because in 1672 the dutch killed and ate their prime minister, and that seemed like an idea worth exploring.
Seriously, it’s a dry book, detailed enough to get lost in but fast enough to not burst into life at the more colourful events (of which dutch history has many). Dutch history is the history of a rich and complex society about which most of Britain (including myself) now knows much less than it should. I’ve previously struggled with Lisa Jardine’s book on the topic. I thought I would focus on a few things that did come across strongly.
- Being from Northern Ireland, I’d happily leave William of Orange alone – but he’s actually a fascinating character. Manipulative, populist and authoritarian. His rise feels like something from a much later period of history (Napoleon III?).
- In fact the whole of dutch history feels like something from a much later period – with a necessary focus on party politics, economics and industry. I’m not sure you can get away with a Great Man approach to history here.
- Dutch history seems to be a constant series of division and factionalism: north/south, catholic/protestant, rural/urban, coastal/inland, republican/Orangist, the Reformed church vs Arminius, religious tolerance vs repression.
- There’s an oddly familiar feel to the Dutch Republic. Liberal, but only in part. It manages to create and house free-thinkers like Spinoza and Descartes, and then force them out or keep them quiet when they go too far.
- The strength of the Republic feels constantly precarious, and despite the book being loaded with information it can be difficult to really see how it became and remained so powerful for so long.
- These ethereal connections that held it together seem to eventually collude in it’s downfall with the decline of the navy as William III let the British Navy take over.
I’m glad I struggled through it, but I’m still looking for a genuinely accessible introduction to the Netherlands.
A long time ago, I posted on David Crowther’s History of England podcast. Since then Crowther has went from strength to strength, with at least another hundred episodes and two more centuries. He has also explored ways of expanding the podcast – with a patreon platform and additional members podcasts – though I think he does still record in his shed. I faded out of listening to it a year ago, as he reached the Tudors (a topic that has never really been close to my heart).
I’ve picked it up again in the last month or two and actually quite enjoyed the topic. Although Crowther still loved to quote from the Ladybird Book of kings and queens, Sellar and Yeatman, and Winston Churchill (though the latter mostly just to wheel out an impression), he really seems to have dug into the historiography on the Tudors. His coverage of Henry VII finds a surprisingly light and positive tone, different to many popular histories, and his coverage of Henry VIII finds him exploring academic opinion over time. It’s detailed without getting bogged down – very well done.
Tacking a different tack on the subject, I recently re-read John Julius Norwich’s Four Princes. A quadruple biography of Henry VIII, Charles V, Francis I and Suleiman the Magnificent. Norwich is as opinionated as ever – writing offhand comments on topics that Crowther agonised over for episodes – but he is still a very entertaining writer. There may not really be much new material there, even the focus on the relationships between the princes and their effect on foreign policy, but the inclusion of Suleiman is a good touch. Norwich does show how the Ottomans could drive the politics of Europe that the other three fought to rule, and it feels good to have them in their proper place in a history of Europe.