On a weekend away in Berlin a fortnight back (part of the reason there have been so few posts on here recently), we wandered onto Museum Island and took a walk around the Pergamon Museum. In short, it is fantastic! The early 20th century Germans seem to have just transplanted or reconstructed parts of ancient cities through the Mediterranean and Middle East. Whatever the ethics of this may be, the sheer scale of these exhibits is astonishing (the photo below shows me being dwarfed by the Ishtar Gate of Babylon).
The Pergamon Altar that the museum is actually named after is currently closed for remodelling, but the Market Gate of Miletus, the Processional Way (also from Babylon), and a room from Ottoman Aleppo impress on an epic scale. The so-called Aleppo Room has a particular poignancy, with a display outside showing the damage to the original district of the Syrian city.
Other exhibits are on a smaller scale, but displays from Assur, Sumer, and a dozen locations throughout the islamic world (in the Museum fuer Islamische Kunst in the same building) are engrossing. With each culture or location house in their own separate display, it highlights these unique cultures a lot more than other museums – where one can seem to blend into another around time and space.
I am definitely looking forward to returning in a few years for the updated and reopened Pergamon exhibit.
This is a book with a reputation. Bill Gates said it was one of the most important books he’d ever read, and it has been praised by academics and writers from all sorts of backgrounds. It has also received its fair share of criticism. Reading it, it is obvious why – Pinker has written an ambitious book, not just setting out to show that humanity has become a more peaceful and tolerant species over its history, but also trying to explain why this has happened.
In this era of Brexit, Trump and ISIS, I was looking for something to cheer myself up. Something to bring back some sense of optimism. Some sense of progress. Pinker’s 800 odd pages of statistics and anecdotes on war, murder, rape and bigotry somehow fit the bill. It is indeed grim reading, but there’s plenty of interesting and positive bits here – the huge decline in rape and murder even in the last few decades for instance.
Sometimes though Pinker may be too ambitious. His analysis of pre-historic violent deaths seems to draw particular ire. The power law trends and Poisson statistics on warfare are interesting – and while I’m aware that one new piece of data won’t invalidate things, I would be interested to see these include the fighting in the middle east since 2011. At times Pinker is a little too optimistic, a little too sweeping, and possibly indulges in cherry picking or dismissing inconvenient data.
The actual conclusions and psychology side of things didn’t appeal to me that much, but the statistics were fascinating. Whether or not you find yourself entirely convinced by Pinker’s arguments, it’s definitely worth reading to find some sense of perspective on our often chaotic world. Those 824 pages of graphs will just fly by.
I came across this quote the other day:
“In village games, players with hands tied behind them competed to kill a cat nailed to a post by battering it to death with their heads, at the risk of cheeks ripped open or eyes scratched out by the frantic animal’s claws.”
(originally from Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century).
Back in the days when you had to make your own entertainment!
Subtitled ‘The man who discovered Britain‘. This could be a great exercise in how to stretch out as little information as possible. Pytheas, a Greek explorer from Marseille in the 4th Century BC, wrote about his exploration of north western Europe and it seems to have been well known among later Greek and Roman writers, but the problem is that only fragments and quotes have survived to us today.
With this in mind, Cuncliffe sets out to describe the Mediterranean culture that the explorer set out from in 325 BC and the lands that he may have discovered. Each fragment or reference to Pytheas in Pliny or Strabo or Diodorus Sicilus is examined in depth, and the author speculates on locations based on archaelogical finds. As speculation goes, it’s a better job than The Ancient Paths by Graham Robb.
Concerning Pytheas, or even the ancient Celtic culture, there’s not really much to get a grip on but the general information on ancient travel, agriculture and the tin trade is interesting enough. Piecing together these from archaeological sites reminds me of Philip Parker’s descriptions of Vinlandia in The Northmen’s Fury, but with even less evidence to go on. Other bits of information were even dismissed by ancient commentators as fanciful – the lurid tales of the cannibal Irish or Britons sharing wives between a dozen or more men.
Pytheas claimed to have circumnavigated Britain and visited the mysterious island of Thule to the far north. Whether or not he did so, the debate over the location of Thule has trundled on ever since. Pytheas was an educated man and was able to make measurements of latitude and give a rough description of his six day journey, ending in drift ice. Iceland is one possibility, and Cuncliffe sticks squarely to it and sets out his arguments against the other options of Norway and Shetland. As far as evidence goes, it’s like bald men fighting over a comb. The whole thing could just be Pytheas passing on rumours and hearsay from further North.
The style is friendly enough, and the hand drawn maps are cute if not entirely useful! It is a lot more grounded than Robb’s book and less poetic and rambling than In The Land Of Giants by Max Adams (another take on ancient Britain), but at times I found it hard going – jumping from archaeological finds to excerpts from classical texts, often leaves the main narrative.
We will probably never know how the full story of Pytheas’ journey, but what we do makes for interesting speculation. It’s probably a bit too speculative for me, but it’s an interesting starting point for ancient exploration.
If you’ve ever (as an english speaker) listened to someone speaking dutch, you might be surprised to find much common links between the two countries. In the 17th century however, there was a huge crossover of ideas and culture – eventually culminating in William of Orange taking the British throne. Lisa Jardine argues in Going Dutch that William’s Glorious Revolution was more of a hostile military occupation than the standard portrayal. William brought tens of thousands of men, his personal guard patrolled the streets of London. He was easily assimilated however, because of a long recent history of shared culture between the two nations.
Jardine goes through each aspect of this shared culture in detail – letters and collaboration between scientists, taste in artwork, styles of landscaping gardening, and the roles of prominent families like the Huygens family. The detail is fascinating, if often overwhelming, occasionally repetitive and sometimes over-reliant on the aforementioned Huygens family (and on Robert Hooke, who Jardine had also written a biography of).
I did have a few other issues with the book, the tone suggests a groundbreaking change in how we should view the Glorious Revolution but the actual content is much more grounded. While the extent of the dutch connection might be forgotten, I’m not sure anyone really believes William’s propaganda as fact. The subtitle “How England Plundered Holland’s Glory” is also over the top, and not really justified by the content of the book.
Ignoring this, it’s an enjoyable overview of cross-channel culture during the 17th century. There’s plenty to enjoy and it does point towards art, architecture*, landscape and more for anyone wanting to explore their dutch heritage.
*It reminded me of this documentary by Jonathan Meades, which investigates the same topic with a slightly different tone.
During the last days of Republican Rome, the battles in Spain between the rebel general Sertorius and the Roman legions of Pompey, Metellus and others are often relegated to a bit of a sideshow. This book by Philip Matyszak puts them centre stage.
I rather like these books by Pen & Sword, they can occasionally be a bit uneven but they often cover topics that others don’t. This is definitely on the better end of the scale. The writing is accessible, The maps are useful – with ones showing relief, rivers, settlements and ethnic groups – all relevant for the campaigns that follow.
The book begins with Sertorius as the focus, covering his earlier days as a Marian general and giving a sense of his character – loyal, honest and level headed. After the return of Sulla, we see Sertorius forced out to Spain where he allies with local tribes and drives off the forces sent to remove him.
Without really delving into the politics of Rome, Matyszak shows how Sertorius could initially hold hopes of a shift in domestic politics allowing him home. This was an interest thread, he was a Roman and presented himself as a legitimate Roman governor, but he fought alongside Spanish tribes and was linked with potential alliances to Mithradates and other enemies of Rome. It was a thin line to walk, made possible only by continued military success.
On the military side of things, the high point was a series of brilliant victories against the young general Pompey (later to be “the Great”). Rome however was able to resupply and replenish its armies, and Sertorius’ subordinates did not always perform as well as their leader. Decline inevitably set in. Matyszak sets this against the rise of Pompey, with his style marked by the memory of those defeats and his sons to later fight against Caesar in the Iberian peninsula.
This is a very readable account of Sertorius’ wars. This topic is often skimmed over in popular histories of the late Republic, but there are plenty of wonderful details and the easy, relaxed tone of the book reminds me of Tom Holland’s Rubicon. It probably doesn’t work as a stand alone book – too much about the politics and characters of Rome is left unsaid – but it is well worth reading if you have already enjoyed a more general history of this period.
The 17th century contained great political disruption throughout Europe, but also the Scientific Revolution and the beginnings of a recognizably modern world. In this book, the philosopher A.C. Grayling briefly sets out his view on the century.
First he runs through the Thirty Years War and Anglo Dutch Wars, with stops along the way for a few bits and pieces about what was going on elsewhere – flicking between Wallenstein and Robert Harvey, or from Gustavus Adolphus to scientific publications. The narrative is short and told with confidence, but simplified (a necessary evil to cram the whole century into 300 pages, but it does lead to some irritating mistakes or assertions).
After this Grayling gets stuck into the various attempted paths to knowledge of the time – from the network of letters between natural philosophers to less rational sorts like alchemists, hermeticists, occultists like Dr John Dee, and the Rosicrucians. There was often crossover between the developing modern way of thinking and the old irrational ways, but Grayling explains well how religious men like Mersenne or Descartes or occultists like Isaac Newton could still lead the way to a more rational methodology.
There is a brief section on language, society and politics that mashs up the likes of Locke, Hobbes and the Diggers. There are lots of interesting facts throughout, and very enjoyable to read as Grayling jumps from one topic to another. It does tend towards the same conclusion though, that the political situation of a post-reformation Europe left space for new ways of thinking to flourish.
The book isn’t really long enough to provide a solid argument for such a big thesis, and at times it feels like Grayling hasn’t really bothered. The aforementioned sloppy mistakes are rife – at one point he wonders what it would be like if Britain still had control of land on continental Europe, somehow forgetting Gibraltar. He perhaps overstates the role of the Catholic Church and understates the role of Medieval philosophers (it reminded me that I’ll have to post on God’s Philosophers by James Hannam at some point). In its bold assertions and Whig history story of relentless progress, this book on the Modern Mind often feels rather old fashioned.
I have previously enjoyed but been disappointed by Graham Robb‘s Discovery of France and Parisians. Discovery of France was more about the geography and identity of France than I had expected – in hindsight, it was inevitable for a country with such strong regional identity. Parisians told the history of Paris through a series of short stories. It was an interesting approach, but many of the stories weren’t that compelling in themselves.
With The Ancient Paths, I looked before I leaped and was a bit worried by what I found. A startling theory about the wisdom of the druids, discovered by Robb taking a map and drawing straight lines between Celtic sites? He insists it’s not like Ley Lines? One for the library then!
His theory is that the Celts located their cities and built roads along lines of meridian and solstice, often at significant intervals. He also looks at Celtic buildings and art and traces their shapes within solar inspired geometry. These feats would required more scientific knowledge than they are usually credited with, and Robb is eager to give them that credit (possibly too eager!). Robb shows his working throughout and has clearly put a lot of effort in, sometimes cycling long distances to visit sites of interest. Unfortunately, it doesn’t sit well for me. There are too many things that could easily be coincidence; too much complexity in drawing it together. It’s all a bit psuedo-science.
In presenting his theory, however, he tells the history of the Celts and their defeat and assimilation by Rome. There is a lot to like here, Robb is a good writer and the story of Caesar’s Gallic Wars and various Celtic migrations are told well. He also gives compelling descriptions of visiting these sites in the modern day. These do give a hint at a complex civilization that has perhaps been unfairly tarnished as “barbarians”, but perhaps Robb should have stopped there.
This is probably the first Viking history I’ve read since Horrible Histories, when I was a kid. I’m certainly wasn’t disappointed – Parker gives a narrative history of the Vikings through their early raids in Ireland, France and England, to the high points of the great Heathen Armies and the Danelaw, and finally the settlement into various Christian kingdoms. Alongside this he covers the sagas and writings that have preserved this Norse culture so we can read it today.
This book ties in with a few other things I’ve read recently – Gospel of Loki by Joanne M Harris and The Empire Stops Here. There is a little bit on mythology here, but by and large Parker is focused on fact (or at least the more possible sorts of legend). The myths of Loki, Odin and Thor are mentioned, but only to explain how the fit into the Viking world. Actually, Christianity plays as big a part in this history, and much of our story is on the conversion and settlement of the pagan raiders. By avoiding telling these myths for their own sake, Parker actually gives the book a greater sense of purpose. It allows an almost unbroken focus on the raiding and colonization of the Norsemen; one can get a sense of the connections and development throughout Scandinavian societies.
In comparison to The Empire Stops Here, I preferred Parker’s style here. Although he clearly has a solid take on the dry details, Parker’s writing is at his best when he has a colourful story to tell. The Viking world isn’t short of those! Harald Hardrada in particular stands out, for me, as a highlight. He was a man who seemed to collect good stories, even when they were blatantly stolen from elsewhere!
The chapters on Iceland, Greenland and (what we know of) Vinland are also good. They give a good picture of how the societies in these lands were built, and what may have went wrong (in the case of the latter two). Parker deals with the problem of evidence well; in many situations we just don’t have historical evidence to fill in a complete picture.
Parker keeps a pace and a vividness that makes the Viking age just as interesting to read about as the stories one reads a a child. Maybe a bit more factual, but also more varied – the Viking influence spanned such a geographical area (from North America to the Middle East) and time (Norn was being spoken in the Scottish islands as late as the 19th century!). It’s just a luxury to encounter them from such a distance.
Apparently it was Shakespeare Week this week. I saw a display in the local library just as it was ending – a little late to actually get involved. On closer inspection, it’s not actually aimed at me. It’s designed to get primary school age children. The aim is to give them early (and fun) exposure to Shakespeare.
It seems like a good idea. I only read the Bard in secondary school, and it may have been a different approach. After reading MacBeth we watching a couple of productions – including Trevor Nunn’s dark and minimalist version with Ian McKellan and Judy Dench (probably a bit arty for kids) and Roman Polanski’s Playboy version (definitely not for kids).
On a different note – I had actually made this recipe for honey flatbread from a Shakespeare heritage site. The honey was a really good touch, it gave the bread a sweet warming quality, and the salt contrasted with the sweetness in a nice way. Stayed tuned for more top literary insights (or not) next time!