Becoming Roman by Greg Woolf

The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul

179679The last time I read a book that focused on Roman (or pre-Roman) Gaul, it was the rather disappointing and very confused The Ancient Paths by Graham Robb.  This book, thankfully, isn’t that one.  Woolf’s book from 1998 is an much more academic argument against the concept of “Romanization”, that happens to give a pretty decent description of the changes in Gaul as it settled into the Roman Empire.

In brief, Woolf argues for a more open interpretation of Roman identity.  It was possible to be Roman and have humanitas, and also to have a provincial identity.  There were new towns, there Roman colonists, but Roman additions came bit by bit – a temple here, some road layout there.  The religion altered but retained some local character (within acceptable Roman limits).  Local tastes changed, but so did local produce and the trends did not mirror Italian trends.

It’s not always an easy read, there’s as much pottery in here as you’d expect.  More than that though, it’s nuance and subtlety that requires some attention – the balance difference between urban and rural (Woolf might suggest that this is sometimes overstated), the difference between the busy Mediterranean coast and the marginal Breton peninsula.  There aren’t many sweeping statements here.  There also isn’t all that much theory on identity or empire, which is fine with me.  I enjoyed it, definitely on the academic side but not inaccessible for a non-specialist with an interest.

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The Holy Roman Empire by Peter H Wilson

Subtitled A Thousand Years of Europe’s History, this impressive but difficult work does pack a millennium and quite a bit of detail into seven hundred or so pages.  When I was younger, dazzled by Medieval Total War, I quite fancied the idea of a single volume history of the HRE.  Later I realized that that could be a quite hefty prospect (like the dry and extensive The Dutch Republic by Jonathan Israel), but then this book came out – and superficially seemed to be promising that.  Hopes were raised by the easy going cover, blurb and subtitle.

51fcnp9kqvl._sx322_bo1204203200_They were then scattered by the restaurant-tasting-menu style table of contents.  Single word chapter titles like Association and Governance for chapters spanning seventy pages.  No sub-divisions listed here.  And indeed some of the chapters are heavy going – particularly the opening ones on ideology and the relationship between church and state.  Sorting the history thematically means that each chapter crosses back and forth between that thousand years of history in a baffling way unless you are familiar with the events and characters of the empire.

Some later chapters do flow more chronologically, but even they rely on a lot of pre-existing knowledge.  Major events are brushed over in a few words, new people appear without introductions.  The ending tacks on a short bit on the legacy that verges between the interesting (changing views amid the rise of 19th century nationalism) and the unfortunately outdated (lessons to be learned in EU comparisons).  To give these topics the attention needed would really be a whole other book, so it feels like an inessential finale.

To say some positives about it – Wilson clearly has a great command of the material, and doesn’t lower his level for the reader.  By taking the focus away from the great men of history and from material culture, he really gets to deal with things on the level of ideas, justice, identity.  He gets to deal with mis-conceptions about the weakness of the empire or the push and pull of (de)centralisation.  It’s fascinating, in a very involved sort of way

PS. It’s page 2 before Wilson uses the Voltaire quote, if you were wondering (as I was).

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin

2166088In her introduction, Judith Herrin sets out the aim of this book: to convey the idea of Byzantium (what it was and why it is worth paying attention to) to the general public (or more specifically, more builders who were working near her office).  I don’t think it’s true to say that there’s isn’t a popular account of Byzantium.  John Julius Norwich wrote a very good one – a chronological narrative that races along at pace (especially if you get the condensed version).  Herrin takes a different approach, setting things into thematic (no pun intended) chapters which loosely follow the timeline.

This actually makes it a lot easier to get your head round this society, how it differed from classical Rome or the western medieval world, and how it changed over time.  The chapters are filled with anecdotes and odd bits of information that really helped to provide colour alongside the broader streams.  The jumble of facts can occasionally be a little awkward, leaping from one idea to another and shifting back and forth in time.  It is all in there though.  That makes this a nice introduction to the continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire – one where you can pick up the political organization, the religious life, the well developed education system – all in a brief three hundred pages.

Compared to John Julius Norwich, there’s a lack of drama.  He plays well with the military campaigns, the plotting, and the politics.  This buries it among the rest of the information.  His chronology keeps track of the broader story better.  Both have their place however, and right now I probably prefer Herrin’s book as an introduction.

Russian Rulers Podcast bibliography

I do like a bibliography, and Mark Schauss’ Russian Rulers podcast has one on its website.  So I thought I’d copy it over.  It’s maybe not a complete bibliography, more of a suggested started point for someone inspired by the show to read more.

I have none of these books, although I am aware of a few of the authors.  Orlando Figes was always on my wishlist, but I’ve heard a few strange things about him – secret amazon review accounts and libel cases – ah well, I’m sure his books still stand up.

  • A History of Russia – Nicholas Riasanovsky and Mark D Steinberg
  • A Brief History of Russia – Michael Kort
  • Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia – Orlando Figes
  • Czars – James R Duffy and Vincent L Ricci
  • Russia: A History – Gregory Freeze
  • Peter The Great – Robert Massie
  • Tolstoy – A.N Wilson
  • Tolstoy – Henri Troyat
  • Pushkin – T.J Binyon
  • Pushkin – Henri Troyat

 

Bits of Gibbon (Vol. 1 Chap. 13)

When Britain was thus dismembered from the empire its importance was sensibly felt and its loss sincerely lamented.  The Romans celebrated, and perhaps magnified, the extent of that noble island, provided on every side with convenient harbours; the temperature of the climate, and the fertility of the soil, alike adapted for the production of corn or of vines; the valuable minerals with which it abounded; its rich pastures covered with innumerable flocks, and its woods free with wild beasts or venomous serpents.  Above all, they regretted the large amount of the revenue of Britain, whilst they confessed that such a province well deserved to become the seat of an independent monarchy.

In this passage, Gibbon seems to get a bit carried away with some of the panegyrics written after the recovery of Britain from the rebellion of Carausius.  He occasionally has a tendency to get a little bit patriotic and play up his home in a way that jars with the rest of the narrative.

It’s a good thing everyone has stopped over-estimating the importance of Britain!

Russian Rulers Podcast

Another old school podcast – starting in 2010 inspired by long running podcast The History According To Bob, podcaster Mark Schauss’ personal family links to the country, and his old college professor Paul Avrich.  This may sound like a backhanded compliment, but the best thing about this podcast is the short episodes.  With episodes typically lasting fifteen minutes, this actually breaks down the hundreds of years of Russian history in something easier to digest (as a beginner to the topic).

Schauss tries to add variety to the show with an extra section at the end of each show – listing events on this day in history, or reading parts of a primary source.  None of this really works.  When he gets to the Soviet era, he goes with a short biography of a lesser figure of the time (Fritz Platten, Felix Dzerzhinsky).  That works slightly better, but can still feel like a unnecessary break.  Ultimately he drops it in the race to the end of the Soviet Union.

The reading is history focuses mostly on a chronological narrative (largely derived from a favourite set of sources – Robert Massie, Duffy and Ricci’s Czars, Mark Steinberg).  Schauss’ delivery is fairly straightforward, but the script portrays the drama well.  We get a little of a analysis seeping through over the whole series as Schauss identifies some of the bigger turning points in Russian history.

The show is a good take on Russian history for beginners (like me).  I find Russian history to always have an agenda or a spin, and Schauss remains cautiously neutral: ignoring Yeltsin’s later career as too recent to comment on, and giving a bare set of facts on Putin.  This is fine.  But it could be a little more daring and a little more polished.

The Trojan War by Barry Strauss

91023After reading Bettany Hughes’ meandering and detailed book on Helen of Troy, this promised to be a little more direct.  Subtitled A New History, my expectations were a book with a strong narrative backed up with more recent archaeological evidence.  Unfortunately it didn’t quite gel like that.  The narrative portions essentially feel like an inferior re-write of Homer; and the archaeology is patchy.  I understand that our evidence can be slight, but Strauss does not do as good a job as Hughes at stretching that out and forming it into a coherent book.

On the plus side, there is good context setting with the portrayal of the war as a sideline to the great civilisations of the Hittites, Assyrians and Egyptians.  But this isn’t a book on the Hittites.  It doesn’t provide a tight focus on Bronze age warfare.  It isn’t quite a book on Greek society.  It dabbles in many topics but none of them really satisfy.  Strauss touches on a lot, but this lacks the depth and detail of Bettany Hughes’ work.

Bits of Gibbon (Vol. 1 Chap. 8)

This bit just seemed worth noting for when he covers Christianity on detail later.

But there are some remarkable instances, in which Zoroaster lays aside the prophet, assumes the legislator, and discovers a liberal concern for private and public happiness, seldom to be found among the grovelling or visionary schemes of superstition. Fasting and celibacy, the common means of purchasing the Divine favour, he condemns with abhorrence as a criminal rejection of the best gifts of Providence.

The History of the Crusades Podcast Bibliography

I’m a sucker for a bibliography so I’ve included the one from Sharyn Eastaugh‘s History of the Crusades.

Main Texts:

    • Thomas Asbridge The Crusades – The War for the Holy Land 2010
    • Christopher Tyerman God’s War – A New History of the Crusades 2006
    • Steven Runciman A History of the Crusades Vol 1-3 1951-1954
    • Jonathan Phillips Holy Warriors – A Modern History of the Crusades 2009
      Amin Maalouf The Crusades through Arab Eyes 1983

Other Texts:

      • Chronicles of the Crusades edited by Elizabeth Hallam 1989
      • The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades edited by Jonathan Riley-Smith 1995
      • Hugh Kennedy Crusader Castles 1994
      • Robert Bartlett The Making of Europe – Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950-1350 1993
      • R.H.C. Davis A History of Medieval Europe 1957
      • Friedrich Heer The Medieval World – Europe from 1100 to 1350 1962
      • Karen Armstrong Holy War – The Crusades and their impact on today’s world 1988
      • Francesco Gabrieli Arab Historians of the Crusades 1957
      • Anna Comnena The Alexiad translated by Elizabeth Dawes 2011
        Tim Severin Crusader – By horse to Jerusalem 1989
      • Thomas Asbridge The First Crusade – A New History 2004
      • Jonathan Phillips The Second Crusade – Extending the Frontiers of Christendom 2007
      • Usamah Ibn-Munqidh An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades translated by Philip Hitti 1929
      • Bernard Lewis The Assassins – A Radical Sect in Islam 1967
      • Marshall Hodgson The Secret order of Assassins – The Struggle of the Early Nizari Isma’ilis against the Islamic World 1955
      • Medieval Isma’ili History and Thought edited by Farhad Daftary 1996
      • Joshua Prawler The World of the Crusaders 1972
      • R.C. Smail Crusading Warfare 1097-1193 1956
      • Amy Kelly Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings 1950
      • Alison Weir Eleanor of Aquitaine – by the wrath of God, Queen of England 1999
      • Malcolm Cameron Lyons & D.E.P. Jackson Saladin – The Politics of Holy War 1982
      • Geoffrey Hindley Saladin – Hero of Islam 1976
      • Jack Weatherford Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World 2004
      • Piers Paul Read The Templars 1999
      • Alan Forey The Military Orders from the Twelfth to the Early Fourteenth Centuries 1992
      • Colin Morris The Papal Monarchy – The Western Church from 1050 to 1250
      • John Julius Norwich The Popes – A History 2012
      • E.R. Chamberlin The Bad Popes 1969
      • Eamon Duffy Saints and Sinners – A History of the Popes 1997