Taken At The Flood by Robin Waterfield

21517671Way back at the start of this blog, I read and reviewed his book Dividing the Spoils.  In that he charted the growth of the successor kingdoms to the empire of Alexander the Great.  I guess this book covers the fall of one of those kingdoms, Macedonia.  More than that, it covers the end of hellenistic Greece.  Ultimately though, it’s a book about Roman imperialism.  Waterfield is open about this from the preface, he believes Rome’s conquest was deliberate, cynical and self serving: no accidental empire or well meaning peace keeping.

I believe that the Romans were more aggressive imperialists in this period than used to be commonly held before the first edition of Harris’s War and Imperialism in Republican Rome in 1979—that they did not go to war only when they were truly threatened (though they might pretend they were), nor were they dragged into entanglement with the east by accident or a series of accidents (Gruen, simplified), nor were their eastern wars purely the result of factors systemic to the Mediterranean world of the time (Eckstein, simplified).

Don’t worry – this is no polemic.  Waterfield offers a fairly balanced account of Rome’s policy in Greece from the First Illyrian war in 229BC to the Achaean War in 146BC.  In brief, we find Rome challenging the existing hegemony of the Macedonian and Seleucid kings.  The Greeks get to know the Romans, finding them greedy and brutal.  The Romans get to know the Greeks, finding them an extravagant but tempting influence.  The Roman attitude shifts from the soft approach (the greek loving Titus Quinctus Flamininus who “liberated” the cities from the Macedonians), to the hard (the looting of Lucius Aemilius Paullus).  Finally, after almost a century of dividing and conquering, the kingdom of Macedonia fell and the Romans squashed any chance of other Greek states taking its place.

The book has had its share of criticism.  Waterfield presents Rome as unusually brutal, but doesn’t really explain how their hegemony and coercion differs from the coercion of states closer to home.  When Rome goes to war it’s belligerent, when Macedonia does it’s the done thing for a Hellenistic king.  The Roman destruction of Corinth was shocking, but so was Alexander the Great’s destruction of Thebes.  On the plus side, this is a period of history that often gets missed over in favour of the second and third punic wars during the same period.  Just like Dividing The Spoils, Waterfield writes accessibly and brings to life the main characters and sources.  Correctly balanced or not, the insights into the Roman methods of “remote control” are fascinating.  The wars with Carthage are still going to be the best place to start with second century Rome, but this is well worth reading for a look beyond that.

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Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor by Paul Stephenson

8660508Yes, I have just read two biographies of Constantine very close together.  It actually works, both books have a certain focus.  And with the reliability or paucity of the source material, there are different interpretations to be set out.

Like David Potter’s book, Stephenson also takes some time to set the scene.  For Potter that was the administrative and imperial state before and after Diocletian.  For Stephenson, it is the religious state of the Roman empire in the late third century.  Where Potter was happy to sideline the topic of religion, Stephenson wants to set out his views on Constantine’s conversion: a real conversion but due to his identification of the Christian God as a pagan style victory giving god.  This is contrasted with early Christian pacifism and an army that was among the slower parts of society.  While Potter was sharp and analytical, Stephenson (although clearly knowledgeable) doesn’t build his arguments quite as tightly – they sometimes seem a bit speculative.

The book doesn’t just focus on religious issues.  The military and governmental sides are also covered, making the book perhaps more rounded that Potter’s.  One interesting discussion looks at Constantine’s development of Rome and Constantinople.  After looking at how Constantine adapted the work of his rival Maxentius in Rome, he suggests that another rival Licinius started work on Constantinople before having his contribution more successfully removed from history.  Both authors do see a similar motivation in refounding the city, as Potter described the previous use of Nicomedia as an administrative centre.  Ultimately the emperor was looking for a fresh start in his own image.

As a character both pictures of Constantine feels similar in many ways: determined, ruthless but often tolerant and morally led in decision making.  Despite twisting religion to suit his own views and ends Paul Stephenson’s Constantine feels less cynical than David Potter’s.  Stephenson does though point out the bias of our biographical sources – usually religious – and suggests that our image would change if we had accounts from other backgrounds.  This is probably the best introduction to the emperor that I have read (actually, I’d suggest Mike Duncan’s podcast), but it’s not without its odd twists and nuances – particularly some of the speculation.  Personally I preferred Potter for the better defined scope and analysis.

 

 

Emsworth Bishop Slayer

We were watching Inside The Factory on BBC iPlayer (watching Gregg Wallace amble around a production line is a guilty pleasure).  They were explaining the popularity of oysters in Britain in the nineteenth century and their subsequent decline.  The event that really sparked that decline was a banquet at Winchester in 1902, where guests became ill with typhoid and four people died, including the Dean of Winchester Cathedral.  What really caught my attention was the source of the oysters – Emsworth in Hampshire.

Emsworth is a pretty little town just five minutes up the road from where I work.  It’s quite pretty, with a nice harbour and some good walking routes into the nearby countryside.  There are also some particularly good pubs and restaurants.  This dark past suddenly made sense.  One of those pubs, the Blue Bell Inn, teamed up with a Portsmouth brewery, Staggeringly Good, to make an Oyster Stout called Bishop Slayer.

bishop-slayer-oyster-stout

Some of the proceeds from the beer go to  project called the Solent Oyster Restoration Project, which is slowly reintroducing oysters to the Solent (as you might guess from the name).  Before the early twentieth century oyster scare and more recent pollution, the Solent was europe’s biggest oyster growing region and the aim is to make it so again – with a goal of five million oyster in five years.  Whatever your thoughts are on the subject of fish and beer, that has to be a good outcome.

 

Constantine The Emperor by David Potter

519wcldixtl-_sx327_bo1204203200_Constantine must be among the best known Roman emperors, but it sometimes seems like there are less popular history books and historical fiction on him than I might expect.  I guess that makes sense in a way, what exciting narrative scenes exist are too wrapped up in his conversion to Christianity – not exactly a fashionable topic.  It seems hard to find writing about Constantine that isn’t really part of the larger story of the rise of Christianity or the decline of the Empire.  His great predecessor Diocletian feels even more obscure.  Maybe the story is too political, not enough scandal and sex appeal?

This book by David Potter bills itself as a biography of Constantine, but it’s more limited than that: the majority of the book sets up the role of the Emperor and his administration before and after the reforms of Diocletian.  Constantine only really comes into play after the first third, and only really gains power in the final third.  Potter looks at how Constantine conformed to and retreated from those conventions as Emperor.  The focus is there rather than his Christianity or his military exploits – though clearly both are covered as part of a general picture.  It’s an interesting take, and it does help to put his career and decisions in proper context.

David Potter paints a complex picture of Constantine.  A man whose religion and image would be carefully adjusted over time.  He is astute enough to dismiss some of the mythical stories – the failed assassination attempt by Maximian, for example – and set out our ignorance on others – the circumstances of the death of his son and exile of his wife Fausta,  As a character Constantine comes across as power hungry and ruthless, but also cautious and tolerant.  It’s a detailed and authoritative portrayal, but unfortunately one that can come across as a little dry and perhaps a little lop sided in places.

 

An Artist Of The Floating World

I read a set of books by David Peace a few months ago – Tokyo Year Zero and Occupied City.  Both set in Japan in the post war period.  Both were clearly well researched, by someone who is sympathetic to and at least tries to understand the Japanese experience of that era.  Although David Peace is British, he has lived in Tokyo for years and certainly did not seem to be ‘using’ the setting with consideration.  On the other hand, both books felt like writing exercises: the first a detective novel with traumatic flashes of memory and a twist; the second a book with many characters and sources providing their own take on events, each written in a unique style.  It all got a bit much in the end.  I actually laughed at John Crace’s Digested Read for once.

An Artist Of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro isn’t like that at all.  Ishiguro moved from Japan to Britain when he was five, so he probably has similar reference points, but approached in a different direction.  Here, a retired artist deals with the consequences of his role in Japanese militarism.  The story feels like it has a greater purpose – there is style here: subdued tone, delicate description, unreliable narration (?) – but the theme of faxing up to misguided ideals is a strong one.  Perhaps though, Ishiguro plays things on the safe side: he raises questions and poses multiple answers but doesn’t come down one way or another.

I’m happy enough to have read David Peace and he has a third coming out next year, which I may read; but I’d be unlikely to return to them.  Ishiguro, I enjoyed and I’d happily read again.

The Fall of Rome by Peter Heather

51wyaq06g3l-_sx320_bo1204203200_This was one of the first proper history books I bought, back in 2007.  Fresh from Robert Harris‘ Cicero first novel and Tom Holland’s Rubicon, I overreached.  It’s a fascinating, interesting, well written book, but it is a lot more academic than either of those.  I enjoyed it, but being unfamiliar with the details of the debate on the end of Rome I didn’t really get the most out of Heather’s arguments.  More recently, I read his The Restoration of Rome and found it to be a much lighter book than my memories of this.  Inspired by this and my improved understanding of Rome in the intervening decade, I decided to return to The Fall of Rome.

Peter Heather has the same stylish way with words that he showed in the more recent book ( one quote that stood out: “Clovis, in particular, seems to have enjoyed the merry crack of axe on skull”) but the popular analogies don’t come quite as frequent or quite as broad.  This is a much more serious book, which tries to set out a middle ground between the ideas that Rome either fell entirely because of internal decline, or that it collapsed solely due to the external force of the invading barbarians.  As he states near the start, no one seriously takes either opinion so a middle opinion was always inevitable; but he does have some points to make about the exact role that the Huns played in the process.

In Heather’s opinion the western movement of the Huns sparked the movements of other peoples, and it was these that caused the real damage to the empire.  There had been similarly fierce nomads before – the Sarmatians in the first century BC – but this did not have the knock on effect because the Germanic tribes that bordered Rome were too small and localized to have the same impact.  In the face of Roman power large confederations of tribes formed and united into even bigger ones.  Once these were forced to move, real trouble was unleashed.

The book covers both this argument and the surrounding history with some skill.  It’s not overly populist, but Heather uses anecdote and colour where appropriate.  On the other hand, he compares the archaeological record against established ideas and offers conservative and plausible figures on numbers.  I’m glad I returned to the book, and even after my intervening decade of reading about Rome felt that I  was reading a unique and valuable account of the topic.

Pax Romana by Adrian Goldsworthy

25930989I once read the criticism of Adrian Goldsworthy that he has a tendency to just report facts and evidence without adding much in the way of interpretation or conclusion.  And that is sort of true of this book, but like Philip Parker’s The Empire Stops Here it covers such an area and such a time period that it is hard to criticise the book for lacking a grand conclusion.

The two books actually cover some similar ground but Goldsworthy records some of the attitudes and experiences of the Roman empire (both as the Republic and fully fledged empire), while Parker seemed more concerned by the physical geography of the empire.  There’s nothing hugely new, but it’s a well written summary of how the Romans operated – economically, their laws, their taxes – and how parts of the empire were integrated in so successfully.  There’s not much narrative, and some material is a little dry, but the explanations are clear and well written.  His comparison of banditry to car crashes does linger in the mind – an ever present danger, but one that would easily be risked by most people.

The author largely suspends judgement on the morality or success of the empire, but does describe the brutality of Roman repression and that a push for security (as opposed to prosperity) was the main driving factor of the empire’s operation.  It’s not exactly a damning condemnation of the empire, but neither is it much of an endorsement.  It’s not state of the art academia, but Adrian Goldsworthy has written an interesting and relatively accessible book on a wide ranging and often complex topic.

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.