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.
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
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.
Subtitled ‘A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons’, this is thankfully much more than a rehash of Arthurian myths or Anglo-Saxon aggrandisement. The veteran archaeologist looks at the period from the end of Roman rule to the Anglo-Saxon invasion and tackles parts of the popular view. In brief, through his archaeological work he finds sites with a continuity that seems to call into question the idea of a huge Saxon invasion.
There are a few problems with this argument – language being the main one; if there was such continuity in population, then why does English have so few words from its Celtic predecessors? There are also a few potential issues with the style of the book: it is short, but dry and occasionally unfocused – digressions onto anecdotes from Pryor’s early career on dig sites are enjoyable; digressions onto the history of Arthurian myth actually feel tacked on to the main thrust of the book.
Although this book certainly doesn’t tell the whole story, it is an interesting read and often thought provoking. Pryor uses his experience to offer some speculative arguments, but these feel grounded and plausible (compared to Neil Faulkner, who got a bit carried away on the same topic). I’d be keen to read his other work (I believe Britain BC offers similar arguments for the Celtic era invasions), or more books that shed light on early British history.
NB/ I believe there was a TV series of the same name in 2004; I have not yet seen it.