The Road Not Taken by Frank McLynn

How Britain Narrowly Missed A Revolution

In the introduction to this book, McLynn refers to two other contemporary books on the same topic:  David Horspool’s The English Rebel and Edward Vallance’s A Radical History of Britain.  In these, Vallance took an optimistic stance, tracking a chain of progressive ideas through history and sees the rebellions and protests of British history as part of that; Horspool sees the rebellions as failures and often rooted in tradition.  McLynn tries to walk somewhere between these – he stresses that he isn’t a Marxist, but does find himself rooting for the underdog.

The book focuses on a few big movements: the Peasants Revolt in 1381 (and to a lesser extent Jack Cade’s revolt), the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, the influence of the Levellers on Oliver Cromwell, the Jacobite rebellions (particularly 1745), the Chartists, and the General Strike of 1926.  The underlying question is why did these protests never turn into a true revolution?  The Glorious Revolutions is dismissed as a mere regime change, and Cormwell’s Protectorate as not radical enough.

One answer is the flexibility and, to be blunt, the dishonesty of the ruling class.  The Machiavellian talents of Henry VIII are shown off in the 1530’s, as he stalls and charms his way out a tricky military situation then stamps down on the rebels (McLynn portrays Henry as a brutal tyrant in the mould of the worst 20th century dictators – he’s not a fan).

The double dealing and outright lies of the General Strike are also covered in detail.  McLynn shows disdain for the gradualists of the Labour party like Ramsay McDonald and right wingers in the unions like J.H Thomas, who would let down and even work against the strikers.  The unreasonably hardline Conservative government of Baldwin, Churchill, F.E Smith and Joynson-Hicks also comes in for a bashing.  The characters are well drawn out.

Frank McLynn’s area of expertise (despite his long and varied list of biographies) is the Jacobites, and that part of the book probably feels the least obvious.  How revolutionary would Charles Stuart have been?  There were Jacobite followers of various kind and we are introduced to some (including some Tories) who sympathised with the working classes.

It could have been revolutionary in that sense, but it never really feels like a true overthrow of the system – this is true throughout the book.  What McLynn does or does not include lacks consistency, or (more generously) sometimes needs a little bit of imagination to see “what if?”.  In what he does cover, McLynn does trace a fascinating and personal history of near-revolutionary change in British history and attempts to explain what prevented it from sparking.  It’s more interesting than authoritative, but the portrayal of the personalities of the general strike alone make the book worth reading.


Genghis Khan by Frank McLynn

genghis khan.jpgFirst off, I enjoyed Frank McLynn’s biography of Marcus Aurelius when I read it a few years ago.  He occasionally felt a bit bias towards his own opinions, and there was quite a lot of tangential material; but it was a full and detailed biography of the man.  This 2015 profile of Genghis Khan keeps the details but drops some of the more out there tangents.

We go right from Genghis/Temujin’s birth on the steppes of Mongolian, beyond his death, to the division of his empire into four on the death of his grandson Kublai Khan.  McLynn feels authoritative and familiar with the material; in all aspects – military, social, political.  The Mongols and Genghis can be a complex topic.  There is a contrast between the nomadic warriors and the ease they settle into the use of Chinese style bureaucracy; between the paranoid cruelty of Genghis (even early on) and his religious tolerance.  McLynn does catch this, but often he is telling rather than showing.

At times though, I got lost in the sheer scale and speed of Mongol expansion, along with the horrifying death toll.  A more focused approach may have presented these with a bit more skill, rather than the epic one volume history given here.  McLynn doesn’t get bogged down in too much ethical judgement of the conquest, but as a reader it is hard not to have to pause at points.

Ultimately, I don’t have the reference points for Genghis and the history of the East that I do for Marcus Aurelius and Rome.  This was quite a dry read throughout much of the book, and I found myself having to struggle against the temptation to skim read.  By the time the Mongols were pushing into Europe I was a little more comfortable, but it isn’t as easy introduction to the Mongols.

Campaigns of Alexander

As part of a self-improving attempt to actually read ancient historical sources (albeit translated into English), I read Appian‘s Campaigns of Alexander recently.  Given some of the dry stuff out there, I was surprised at how well it stood up.  It reads like the more narrative end of modern military history.  It would be pushing it to compare it to historical fiction, but there is elements of that.

I also listened to Jamie Redfern‘s A History of Alexander podcast for some commentary on the source.   Originally from 2011-2012, it’s probably in the first wave of podcast inspired by Mike Duncan’s History of Rome.  As with many of these, initially the production can be a little rough but it settles down (I think there’s even a remastered version that I somehow missed).

There were some nice comparisons of the sources (Appian being his favourite) and discussions where things may have been obscure, as well as the occasional bit of humour.  Actually, with the most exciting scenes quoted on the podcast it almost worked as an audiobook alternative.

What else is there to add?  The story of Alexander is a classic.  There are battles, intrigue, a clash of cultures.  In either form, it’s very enjoyable.

Fire in the East by Harry Sidebottom

0718153294As far as historical fiction authors go, Harry Sidebottom has good credentials – DPhil in ancient history at Oxford, where he has continued on in a teaching role.  This knowledge definitely shows in this novel from 2008 (the first of a series called Warrior of Rome).  It is set in the 3rd century AD, not one of the most fashionable eras but a lively one nonetheless.  The empire is being (just about) ruled by a series of short-lived military emperors as pressure is put on it from both external and internal sources.  This story has an officer of barbarian/Angle origin in the Roman army, Ballista, sent east to defend a city against a huge Persian force.

The setting is very good, there’s a host of characters from various backgrounds and a ton of suitable classical references (Satyricon by Petronius is mentioned a lot).  Unfortunately for me, something doesn’t quite click – there’s plenty of plot but none of it really draws me in.  The barbarian background of Ballista feels a little unecessary.  The characters feel like they have a history, but you get the nagging feeling that that backstory might be more interesting.

Would I read more of the series?  Probably.  It did pick up as I got further into the book.  The setting and the detail that Sidebottom provides would allow be enough for me to give it another go.  One to check out from the library.

The First Crusade by Peter Frankopan

The first question that this book should pose is “Why?”.  Why do we need another history of the crusades?  What does this one add?  I had previously enjoyed Peter Frankopan’s Silk Road, he clearly has a head for both the details of politics and the big picture.  In this book he applies that talent to the role of Byzantine emperor Alexios Komnenos in the crusade.

This allows him to pick up on a couple of loose threads from the traditional story of the first crusade: why did Alexios send to the west for help?  Why and when did the Byzantine cut ties with the crusaders?  The obvious historical source for Alexios is the Alexiad, but this is written by his daughter Anna and has an pretty definite bias to it.

The answer to the first question is perhaps the more interesting: why did the Byzantines request help at that point in time?  Alexios had been in power for over a decade, and the Alexiad presents him as leading a recovery for earlier military setbacks.  The chronology is not as simple as it appears however – Alexios’ reign had military failures too and he was becoming increasingly under threat domestically.

Later in the book Alexios feels more peripheral, but Frankopan presents a case that this distance from the crusaders was in good faith.  He was unwilling to leave the capital and risk revolt there, he provided supplies readily in most cases, and where he didn’t it would have appeared futile to do so.

I don’t think this book succeeds at significantly changing the narrative of the first crusade, but it does provide a new slant and point of view.  The coverage of the campaigns in Asia Minor is particularly good.  Worth reading for anyone who thinks they are already familiar with the story of the crusades.

War On Heresy by R.I Moore

Catharism is probably the best known Medieval heresy.  It has popped up in Dan Brown and Bernard Cornwell books, and in Iron Maiden songs.  People may be familiar with the crusades against it, famous quotes like “Kill them alllet God sort them out”, and even with the general idea of dualism with a split between good and evil, spiritual and physical.  In another sense it isn’t well known at all, much of what we know comes from anti-Cathar propaganda or rebuttals.

In this book Moore looks again at the response to heresy in the medieval church and particularly the Cathars.  He finds little to hold on to where they are concerned; it seems that the idea of the heretics being an organised group with a church structure and doctrine was a construction of writers within the catholic church.  The local heretics may have had reformist motives, complaints against clerical corruption, a desire to follow the bible more literally, or a desire for greater local independence – but aspects of their behaviour was taken and fit into a stock idea of a dualist heretic but churchmen who had been reading a bit too much classical literature!

In the earlier part of the book, Moore seems very comfortable with the sources, and convincing that there was no true heretical organization.  We see reformers of various types, some integrated within the church, some not.  Later on, as the book hits the 13th century, there seems to be a bit of extrapolation, that we should continue to interpret these later events in a similar manner to the former.  This may be reasonable – it is a very subtle book, possibly too subtle for me and I will have to leave judgement to those with a greater familiarity with the era.

Aimed at a general audience, but with some scholarship behind it, this is an interesting if difficult read and probably not one for beginners.  The conclusion of the book leaves the traditional narrative disrupted and muddied, but that’s the way history often is.  It’s worth reading for those familiar with the topic, but look elsewhere for an introduction (The Perfect Heresy by Stephen O’Shea perhaps?).

John Locke – beer tourist

John Locke

In 1683 John Locke fled into exile in Holland, after being connected to a scheme to assassinate Charles II.  While there he denied involvement or knowledge in such a plot and refused to implicate his friends.  His excuse, which amuses me, was that he was simply in Holland because he preferred the beer!  It seems pretty plausible to me.

(Unfortunately, I haven’t actually been able to find a primary source for that; it was mentioned in the introduction of my Penguin Classics’ collection of his Political Writings, and I have found mention elsewhere online.  Annoyingly many of his letters have been collected by a fellow called E.S de Beer, so google searches have been pretty difficult.  The man did seem to know his beer – as noted in this beer blog, with John Locke organising various types of British ale into categories.)


The City In Late Antiquity

I picked up this collection from my local library.  It’s a series of short essays, edited by John Rich, from archaeologists and historians on cities in late antiquity (as the name would suggest).  As one would expect, this essentially tracks changes in cities as the Roman empire declined.  This is a mixed bag of behaviours depending on region and time period – the essays are thus divided by regions.

Generalizing is difficult, but we read about the continued prosperity of cities in Africa; the decline of the Curiales (a sort of oligarchic council) than ran the settlements, replaced by the church in Gaul and the later Byzantine governors in the Danube; the discontinuity or continuity of towns in Britain*; the use of classical art styles by the Lombards in Northern Italy.

There’s a lot of detail in here, but it still feels like its only scratching the surface.  It’s not the most up to date volume (from 1992) or the most readable (more down to the number of authors across the chapters rather than a lack of quality) but it does show the variety of interesting threads that come out of this period of history.

*Something that came up in books by Francis Pryor and Neil Faulkner.


Greek and Roman Mythology on Coursera

As a spin off from my previous post, I had been doing an online learning course on Coursera, run by an Associate Professor at UPenn.  The actual tasks are fairly trivial – a series of 10 questions at the end of each section on the texts and the lectures – but the lectures were interesting and prompted me to think about of some of the classical texts I have been reading.

I’m sure none of it is new for anyone who has actually studied history, but it was nice to learn the basics about Euhemerism, functionalism, structuralism and common themes.  I would happily recommend the course to anyone else who is looking for a prompt while they read Homer, Hesiod, Virgil and others.

Roman Myths by Michael Grant

I have read a few of Michael Grant’s many books in the past.  They are generally okay, he is very readable and he clearly has a wide ranging knowledge of the classical world but they’re not always the most insightful or inspirational of books.  This book on roman myths from 1971 is probably the most engaging of his work that I have read so far.

Continue reading Roman Myths by Michael Grant