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

Trumbo by Bruce Cook


The book that inspired the 2015 film starring Bryan Cranston, this biography of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was written in 1977 shortly after his death, and republished recently to include photos from the recent film.  The topic of blacklisting, McCarthy and the culture of the US at the time is potentially fascinating, but unfortunately I find this book to only sporadically show that off.

The majority of the book is about his pre-blacklist career.  It’s not uninteresting – growing up in a religious family, working in an industrial bakery to pay the bills while pursuing his writing career, finally breaking into Hollywood through reviews, short stories and novels.  Unfortunately I haven’t read them myself, but his novels seem to have been well received satire, hinting at an alternative career in the mould of Sinclair Lewis.  Scriptwriting paid the bills, however, and that was to be the main focus of Dalton Trumbo’s work.

Throughout this early career, we see Trumbo’s political views develop through his experience at the bakery, union activity, and his anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun.  Trumbo would eventually join the Communist Party – with solidarity to colleagues being a major factor.  This was radical at the time, but not as unusual as it would become – the Soviet Union were war time allies and it had over 100,000 members at its peak.

After the war the clampdown on communism began, and after being named as a party member pressure was put on Trumbo to reveal other members and testify on communist propaganda in Hollywood.  Trumbo (and others) stayed silent and fought this pressure on the grounds of the first amendment, but were convicted of Contempt of Congress.  After a year in jail, Trumbo moved to Mexico and resumed writing under pseudonyms and through proxies.  During this time, he won an Oscar for writing The Brave One under the name Robert Rich, and also wrote the award winning film Roman Holiday.

Finally in 1960, he was openly credited on the films Spartacus and Exodus – breaking the blacklist and showing the threats of reprisals to be hollow.  He went on to write many more films, including Executive Action and Papillon, as well as directing an adaption of his novel Johnny Got His Gun.  His health decline and he died in 1976.

The book covers this later period with plenty of interviews, both with Trumbo and with his contemporaries, and discussion on Trumbo’s role and reaction to the blacklist.  As with the book as a whole, there is definitely enough there to interest the reader and spark further reading; but at times it feels a bit shallow.  A wider discussion of Hollywood practice or US politics is hinted at, but absent.

At times too, the character of Dalton Trumbo feels flat – for instance, he was apparently a witty (but occasionally caustic) man but, a few anecdotes aside, this doesn’t come across.  He was a family man, but this is told to us rather than shown.  A longer book may have had room for something more in depth, but this is a good introduction on a character that could have been forgotten.

Crimes of Elagabalus by Martijn Icks

According to the author Neil Gaiman: “Heliogabolus was just a weird kid with a thing about animals and big dicks.”   As summaries go, this may not be far off – he’s that strange a character.  Elagabalus (officially Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus) was emperor for for years, starting at the age of fourteen.  In that time, he mostly concerned himself with religious matters – he had been brought up to be the priest of a Syrian sun god called Elagabal.  As emperor he continued in this role and promoted the sun god as the highest of the gods.  He was also, mostly famously, accused of shocking acts of decadence and sexual behaviour.  In the end, he was assassinated by guards and replaced by his cousin at the age of eighteen.

In this book, Icks starts by reviewing the historical sources and Elagabalus’ probable life.  Although the sources are heavily biased and reports of scandalous behaviour has to be taken with a pinch of salt, the emperor was unpopular enough to be killed after a short reign despite the lack of any military, natural or economic disasters.  The religious element too is exaggerated, despite stories to the contrary it does not seem that Elagabalus was planning on turning monotheist – but the religious reforms seem like the most likely source of discontent.

In the context of the 3rd century, Elagabalus could seem like a step in the transition from the Principate to Constantine – the shift of focus on to the Syrian sun god (Sol Invictus) was later carried out more successfully by Aurelian and certainly helped the later transition to Christianity under Constantine.  In fact, the religious changes seem more of a false start than a stepping stone, and only add to the feeling of a character ‘out of time’.

Much of the second half of this book is taken up with reviews of literature and historigraphy in the centuries after, right up to the modern day.  There is a transition from medieval and early modern works that treat the emperor as a generic decadent tyrant, to twentieth century works that play with his gender and sexuality.  Both of these have something to them, depending on which sources you wish to use – the stories give a lot of scope: five marriages including a vestal virgin; marrying a chariot driver who he referred to as his husband; killing guests by smothering them with rose petals; selling himself as a prostitute; harnessing naked women to his chariot; attempting to have his genitalia surgically changed.  Among all the myths and interpretations the one that actually sits best for me is Elagabalus as the young, insecure emperor – bullied by his mother and grandmother, not quite mature enough for his role.

In the end, despite the lurid tales he’s a somewhat peripheral figure in Roman history and even in the art and literature it has inspired.  Despite the number of works covered in this book, they are all relatively obscure – he may or may not have been a unique personality among the emperors of Rome, but he is far from the infamy of Nero or Caligula – and even Commodus has Gladiator.  Perhaps his story is just a bit too odd to make great fiction?

Babylon by Paul Krizwaczek

Sometimes I just don’t gel with a book.  This is an interesting account of the history of ancient Mesopotamia from the formation of early cities through the Sumerians, Akkadians and Assyrians to the arrival of the Persians.  There is a mix of history, myth, culture and occasional attempts to make this contemporary (generally through Saddam Hussein references).  It touches on many different sources and interpretations, and all in a very readable way.

However, some of the modern analogies are forced, and conclusions on early developments towards civilization don’t quite convince (it’s probably impossible to do so many different cultures over so many centuries justice in just 270 pages).   Despite these faults, it’s an expert story teller giving the story of an often patchy period of history in an often unexpected way, and there was a lot to love about this book.  I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of monuments and artefacts (many of which are on display in Berlin).

My problem – I’m not that familiar with the time period and as a beginner I think I would have preferred a straight forward military/political account.  I cannot really appreciate commentaries on Sargon of Akkad or the Assyrians in II Kings, or even the story of Gilgamesh, as much as I’d like without knowing the narrative!  Babylon is by no means bad – I have a much greater sense of the culture of the region than I did before, but I can’t help feeling slightly disappointed.

Unreasonable Effectiveness

I just thought I would link to a couple of classic essays today.  These deal with the slightly mind boggling link up between mathematics and physical theories – often we have some sort of (often rough) measurements and a nice, neat mathematical formula that fits them, then the formula will seem to give a “law of nature” that is hugely accurate beyond what we might reasonably expect.

Is this just an artefact of how we use mathematics, or is there really an underlying mathematical structure to the universe?  It gets towards something that Steven Weinberg described in the book I read recently – the idea of a Final Theory in physics.  I’m not sure where I would come down on this, but they make interesting reading.

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences by Eugene Wigner

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics by Hamming

Paul: The Mind of the Apostle by AN Wilson

The apostle Paul has a bit of an image problem – he’s often seen as the man who took Jesus ideas and distorted them creating the rigid, repressive elements of Christianity that we still know and love today.  In this book, from 1997, he sets out to place Paul in the context of his time and culture and to re-evaluate his work.

For Wilson, Paul has to be seen within the Jewish culture of his time, rather than as an early Christian.  He sees Paul’s work as that of a liberal reformer (opening the church to gentiles, removing restrictions) who expected Jesus to return soon (rather than setting up a structure for a long lasting church).  His views on women and homosexuality are portrayed as usual for his time and his culture.  It was in the time after Paul that the gospels were actually compiled and for Wilson, these writings have as much Paul in them as Jesus – without a source unaffected by him, it becomes hard to charge Paul with a distortion of the message.

At one point Wilson describes Paul as the “first Romantic poet”.  He clearly likes Paul as a character and seems to often think the best of him, there is plenty of speculation (he speculates that Paul as a temple guard could have been present at the crucifixion).  Despite that, Wilson is critical at other points – looking for independent sources.  Through both speculation and scepticism, the author is open about his methods, which perhaps helps the book veer away from being too uneven.