Gospel of Loki by Joanne M Harris

61maar5m2bel-_sx327_bo1204203200_Just a quick post on this one:  It’s basically a fairly straight retelling of Norse myths, but with Loki as a cocky teenager.  The underlying myths are fun, so there is a certain amount of enjoyment in reading them again, but I can’t really get past Asgard as the “popular crowd” or Fenris as a stroppy teenage son.  It’s definitely a different take on it, and Harris does make the style just about fit, but it feels a bit half baked.

Compared to other modern takes on these myths and characters like AS Byatt’s Ragnarok or Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, the Gospel of Loki is very straightforward – it’s just the old narrative with a twist in perspective.  Seeing the various legends worked in is nice, but the characters around it are one dimensional and the style quickly grates.  It might work with more humour, but there isn’t much beyond Loki’s occasionally sarcasm.  For me, it isn’t really enough to make it work.

Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision by Pierre Hadot

Plotinus has popped up a few times recently in my current reading (and listening).  He was a bit part of The Climax of Rome by Michael Grant that I posted on, underpinning much of the introspective shift in culture in third century Rome.  He was portrayed as instrumental in the intellectual development of Augustine in Robin Lane Fox’s superb biography Conversions to Confessions.  And I have been thoroughly enjoying Peter Adamson’s podcast The History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps), in which his work also plays a major role.

However, through all that, I found Plotinus hard to pin down.  There is a big element of mysticism in his philosophy and it is difficult to tell how to take it, and how his contemporary and successors would have received it.  Pierre Hadot‘s short book is a great introduction to the man (what little we know of him) and his work.  In particular, Hadot manages to portray Plotinus as a teacher who was offering a spiritual way of life.

Basing his work on that of Plato and Aristotle, the pagan Plotinus developed ideas that would soon find their way into early Christianity.  His spiritual exercises and warnings against too much focus on earthly matters seems distant, but Hadot also shows a man who was grounded enough to join Gordian‘s invasion of Persia (in an attempt to learn more Eastern philosophy), teach lively classes with a wide range of influential students (there was even talk of the emperor Gallienus letting him start a Platonic city!), and show great kindness and awareness of those around him.

Hadot’s enthusiasm and admiration for Plotinus’ (and his student Porphyry’s) writing shines through, and although the book is a mere hundred pages I finished it with a lot more appreciation for the culture that surrounded these neo-Platonic thinkers.

The Empire Stops Here by Philip Parker

Subtitled A Journey Along The Frontiers of the Roman World.  Author Philip Parker describes the borders of the Roman Empire region by region, giving detailed descriptions of Roman settlements and the history associated with the region.  The initial chapters focusing on the Britannia and Germania are a bit of a blur of forts and long drawn out wars with raiders.  Further east and round the Mediterranean, however, things improved as Parker describes the clash of cultures and changing Roman military fortunes 51ymhrzutkl-_sy344_bo1204203200_with great colour.

Unfortunately I’d hoped for more of a travelogue in the style of William Dalrymple or Tim Mackintosh-Smith.  Parker has clearly viewed most of the remains himself, it shows in the vividness of his descriptions, but the few tales of modern travel that he tells add wonderful texture to the historical detail – being prevented entering a Bavarian forest by 21st century “barbarians” with hunting rifles, for examples.  It feels like a little bit of a missed opportunity.

There are various themes running through the book, archaeological evidence of religious changes reoccurs  – particularly the personal mystery cults, like Mithras or Isis, popular in the third century.  On the whole however, it can feel a little bit mixed up.  You could definitely learn a lot about the later Roman empire here, but it’s far from conventional in order.

Overall there is a grand sense of scale.  The photographs included in the book are beautiful and the detailed geographical descriptions bring the sheer size and variety of the empire into focus.  The sites that I am familiar with are there – the remnants of Roman Cologne, the Saxon Shore defenses on the south coast of England – and they are almost as impressive on page as they were in reality.  The sites that I have not visited (most it, to be honest!) are just moved further up my internal list of holiday ideas.

The Climax of Rome by Michael Grant

I’ve read a few of Michael Grant‘s books now, and this one begins in typical fashion.  Grant gives a brief overview of the history of the period (in this case, the Roman Empire from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine) before discussing the changes in architecture and art during that era.  His thesis is that the third century, often seen as nothing more than a period of military emperors, chaos and decline, is in fact a fascinating series of gradual changes – and not necessarily for the worse.

The first part of the Climax of Rome is a bit of a mixed bag.  The changes in artistic style are interesting, but the chapters come across as slightly disjointed with sudden jumps between eras (the book does cover a long period of time).  The military and political history (often the focus in this period) is rather skimmed over.  This all comes to make sense later.

The book really shines is the second half, when Grant gets onto the topic of philosophy, literature and religion.  He traces developments in style and genre, and manages to link them to the political situation.  In the face of ever more authoritarian government, the culture drifted towards more personal, self-reflective styles – Marcus Aurelius’ stoicism, Galen, the neo-platonic thought of Plotinus, early Christian thinkers, and the rise of the novel as an artform.

This was, in a sense, a form of climax for classical culture, in not necessarily a high point.  Alongside this, the success of legal writers in the 3rd century and developments in architecture would lay the groundwork for medieval Europe.  Was this the true peak of the Roman empire?  Grant admits this would have been a “gloomy place for the majority” and far from an egalitarian or democratic society, and the succession of military crises would make it hard to see the 3rd century (or even the revival under Diocletian and Constantine) as a military high point.  Yet, this period is hugely influential in the move out of the Classical world and into Medieval Christendom and I will definitely be looking for further reading on the subject.

A History of the World in 100 Objects

I’m reviewing the book of this ambitious project from Neil McGregor and the British Museum.  Throughout 2010, in 15 minute slots on BBC Radio 4, the director of the British Museum presented objects from the museum that tell the (or, possibly, a) history of humanity.  I was aware of the project at the time, but managed to miss the radio show and never quite got round to checking out the website.

The radio shows are still on the BBC website, now in the form of a podcast.  The book has a very “podcast” feel to it.  Every object is in a short self contained chapter – just the right size for a short train journey to work.  The book is clearly meant for this sort of episodic approach to reading, taken in longer doses it could appear a bit disconnected.  There is a overarching theme to the book – one of shared humanity and tolerance – but it’s not hammered home. Above all, it is a very pleasant read – even on tough topics like slavery or colonialism, McGregor strikes an optimistic and open tone.

While there are the expected big names (the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles, Sutton Hoo, the Lewis Chessmen), other items are often obscure.  They come from locations around the world (though all have now ended up in London by one route or another).  There is a reasonable sense of balance of coverage between cultures and regions around the world (obviously restricted by the collection at the Museum), and the items are loosely themed to show a commonality.  Contributions from experts are interesting, and often from an unexpected angle – Grayson Perry drafted in to comment on ancient pottery, Ian Hislop on Lutheran broadsheets.

One disappointment with the book, is that the photos included don’t come close to the descriptions that McGregor gives.  He brings these objects to life in three dimensions with all their details and changes, but this is sometimes hard to appreciate without being able to look closer or from different angles.  The website does list which objects are currently on display in the museum, and where, so I do have the chance to rectify this.  And I am very much looking forward to doing so!

Laughter in Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Explaining jokes is a sure way to remove any comedy from them.  Luckily this book is quite a serious take on Roman attitudes to humour.  Beard discusses what the Romans found funny and why, how we can identify humour in ancient sources, and what this tells us about their culture.

She admits that attempts to construct a general theory of laughter are always flawed, so there is no attempt to make one here, but there is a review of previous explanations from the time of the Romans onwards.  The humour has the same range that we might find nowadays, from the practical jokes of cruel emperors, witty one-upmanship between rivals, to reference humour and puns in the theatre.  They find bald people and monkeys hilarious, and there’s endless jokes about absent minded academics and regions of the empire.

The humour can sometimes be hard to identify, if we know there’s a joke we may find ourselves searching in vain for puns, when the comedy may be based on elements of social or political culture that simply haven’t passed down to us.  Or, of course, the joke may just be a poor one.  It’s almost impossible to tell the delivery of the jokes. Finally, casual jokes on topics like slavery or crucifixion in particular stand out as somewhat (but not entirely) alien.

Some jokes, however, don’t go out of fashion. The joke below has been recycled from the time of Augustus to Sigmund Freud and Iris Murdoch.

There came to Rome a man who looked very like the emperor.  Augustus ordered the man to be brought to him, and asked “Tell me, young man, was your mother ever at Rome?”  “No,” he said.  He then added “But my father was, often”.

Roman humour, as with so much of the culture, has been developed over the centuries into our own modern day socieities, so it’s so surprise if some of it still seems like one we’ve heard before.  This book provides some food for thought on how we can relate to ancient societies, and is probably as much of interest to fans of anthropology or psychology as fans of classical history.