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.

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Fire in the East by Harry Sidebottom

0718153294As far as historical fiction authors go, Harry Sidebottom has good credentials – DPhil in ancient history at Oxford, where he has continued on in a teaching role.  This knowledge definitely shows in this novel from 2008 (the first of a series called Warrior of Rome).  It is set in the 3rd century AD, not one of the most fashionable eras but a lively one nonetheless.  The empire is being (just about) ruled by a series of short-lived military emperors as pressure is put on it from both external and internal sources.  This story has an officer of barbarian/Angle origin in the Roman army, Ballista, sent east to defend a city against a huge Persian force.

The setting is very good, there’s a host of characters from various backgrounds and a ton of suitable classical references (Satyricon by Petronius is mentioned a lot).  Unfortunately for me, something doesn’t quite click – there’s plenty of plot but none of it really draws me in.  The barbarian background of Ballista feels a little unecessary.  The characters feel like they have a history, but you get the nagging feeling that that backstory might be more interesting.

Would I read more of the series?  Probably.  It did pick up as I got further into the book.  The setting and the detail that Sidebottom provides would allow be enough for me to give it another go.  One to check out from the library.

The First Crusade by Peter Frankopan

The first question that this book should pose is “Why?”.  Why do we need another history of the crusades?  What does this one add?  I had previously enjoyed Peter Frankopan’s Silk Road, he clearly has a head for both the details of politics and the big picture.  In this book he applies that talent to the role of Byzantine emperor Alexios Komnenos in the crusade.

This allows him to pick up on a couple of loose threads from the traditional story of the first crusade: why did Alexios send to the west for help?  Why and when did the Byzantine cut ties with the crusaders?  The obvious historical source for Alexios is the Alexiad, but this is written by his daughter Anna and has an pretty definite bias to it.

The answer to the first question is perhaps the more interesting: why did the Byzantines request help at that point in time?  Alexios had been in power for over a decade, and the Alexiad presents him as leading a recovery for earlier military setbacks.  The chronology is not as simple as it appears however – Alexios’ reign had military failures too and he was becoming increasingly under threat domestically.

Later in the book Alexios feels more peripheral, but Frankopan presents a case that this distance from the crusaders was in good faith.  He was unwilling to leave the capital and risk revolt there, he provided supplies readily in most cases, and where he didn’t it would have appeared futile to do so.

I don’t think this book succeeds at significantly changing the narrative of the first crusade, but it does provide a new slant and point of view.  The coverage of the campaigns in Asia Minor is particularly good.  Worth reading for anyone who thinks they are already familiar with the story of the crusades.

War On Heresy by R.I Moore

Catharism is probably the best known Medieval heresy.  It has popped up in Dan Brown and Bernard Cornwell books, and in Iron Maiden songs.  People may be familiar with the crusades against it, famous quotes like “Kill them alllet God sort them out”, and even with the general idea of dualism with a split between good and evil, spiritual and physical.  In another sense it isn’t well known at all, much of what we know comes from anti-Cathar propaganda or rebuttals.

In this book Moore looks again at the response to heresy in the medieval church and particularly the Cathars.  He finds little to hold on to where they are concerned; it seems that the idea of the heretics being an organised group with a church structure and doctrine was a construction of writers within the catholic church.  The local heretics may have had reformist motives, complaints against clerical corruption, a desire to follow the bible more literally, or a desire for greater local independence – but aspects of their behaviour was taken and fit into a stock idea of a dualist heretic but churchmen who had been reading a bit too much classical literature!

In the earlier part of the book, Moore seems very comfortable with the sources, and convincing that there was no true heretical organization.  We see reformers of various types, some integrated within the church, some not.  Later on, as the book hits the 13th century, there seems to be a bit of extrapolation, that we should continue to interpret these later events in a similar manner to the former.  This may be reasonable – it is a very subtle book, possibly too subtle for me and I will have to leave judgement to those with a greater familiarity with the era.

Aimed at a general audience, but with some scholarship behind it, this is an interesting if difficult read and probably not one for beginners.  The conclusion of the book leaves the traditional narrative disrupted and muddied, but that’s the way history often is.  It’s worth reading for those familiar with the topic, but look elsewhere for an introduction (The Perfect Heresy by Stephen O’Shea perhaps?).

John Locke – beer tourist

John Locke

In 1683 John Locke fled into exile in Holland, after being connected to a scheme to assassinate Charles II.  While there he denied involvement or knowledge in such a plot and refused to implicate his friends.  His excuse, which amuses me, was that he was simply in Holland because he preferred the beer!  It seems pretty plausible to me.

(Unfortunately, I haven’t actually been able to find a primary source for that; it was mentioned in the introduction of my Penguin Classics’ collection of his Political Writings, and I have found mention elsewhere online.  Annoyingly many of his letters have been collected by a fellow called E.S de Beer, so google searches have been pretty difficult.  The man did seem to know his beer – as noted in this beer blog, with John Locke organising various types of British ale into categories.)

 

The City In Late Antiquity

I picked up this collection from my local library.  It’s a series of short essays, edited by John Rich, from archaeologists and historians on cities in late antiquity (as the name would suggest).  As one would expect, this essentially tracks changes in cities as the Roman empire declined.  This is a mixed bag of behaviours depending on region and time period – the essays are thus divided by regions.

Generalizing is difficult, but we read about the continued prosperity of cities in Africa; the decline of the Curiales (a sort of oligarchic council) than ran the settlements, replaced by the church in Gaul and the later Byzantine governors in the Danube; the discontinuity or continuity of towns in Britain*; the use of classical art styles by the Lombards in Northern Italy.

There’s a lot of detail in here, but it still feels like its only scratching the surface.  It’s not the most up to date volume (from 1992) or the most readable (more down to the number of authors across the chapters rather than a lack of quality) but it does show the variety of interesting threads that come out of this period of history.

*Something that came up in books by Francis Pryor and Neil Faulkner.

 

Greek and Roman Mythology on Coursera

As a spin off from my previous post, I had been doing an online learning course on Coursera, run by an Associate Professor at UPenn.  The actual tasks are fairly trivial – a series of 10 questions at the end of each section on the texts and the lectures – but the lectures were interesting and prompted me to think about of some of the classical texts I have been reading.

I’m sure none of it is new for anyone who has actually studied history, but it was nice to learn the basics about Euhemerism, functionalism, structuralism and common themes.  I would happily recommend the course to anyone else who is looking for a prompt while they read Homer, Hesiod, Virgil and others.

https://www.coursera.org/learn/mythology/

Roman Myths by Michael Grant

I have read a few of Michael Grant’s many books in the past.  They are generally okay, he is very readable and he clearly has a wide ranging knowledge of the classical world but they’re not always the most insightful or inspirational of books.  This book on roman myths from 1971 is probably the most engaging of his work that I have read so far.

Continue reading Roman Myths by Michael Grant

Trumbo by Bruce Cook

trumbo-film-tie-in-light-667x1024

The book that inspired the 2015 film starring Bryan Cranston, this biography of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was written in 1977 shortly after his death, and republished recently to include photos from the recent film.  The topic of blacklisting, McCarthy and the culture of the US at the time is potentially fascinating, but unfortunately I find this book to only sporadically show that off.

The majority of the book is about his pre-blacklist career.  It’s not uninteresting – growing up in a religious family, working in an industrial bakery to pay the bills while pursuing his writing career, finally breaking into Hollywood through reviews, short stories and novels.  Unfortunately I haven’t read them myself, but his novels seem to have been well received satire, hinting at an alternative career in the mould of Sinclair Lewis.  Scriptwriting paid the bills, however, and that was to be the main focus of Dalton Trumbo’s work.

Throughout this early career, we see Trumbo’s political views develop through his experience at the bakery, union activity, and his anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun.  Trumbo would eventually join the Communist Party – with solidarity to colleagues being a major factor.  This was radical at the time, but not as unusual as it would become – the Soviet Union were war time allies and it had over 100,000 members at its peak.

After the war the clampdown on communism began, and after being named as a party member pressure was put on Trumbo to reveal other members and testify on communist propaganda in Hollywood.  Trumbo (and others) stayed silent and fought this pressure on the grounds of the first amendment, but were convicted of Contempt of Congress.  After a year in jail, Trumbo moved to Mexico and resumed writing under pseudonyms and through proxies.  During this time, he won an Oscar for writing The Brave One under the name Robert Rich, and also wrote the award winning film Roman Holiday.

Finally in 1960, he was openly credited on the films Spartacus and Exodus – breaking the blacklist and showing the threats of reprisals to be hollow.  He went on to write many more films, including Executive Action and Papillon, as well as directing an adaption of his novel Johnny Got His Gun.  His health decline and he died in 1976.

The book covers this later period with plenty of interviews, both with Trumbo and with his contemporaries, and discussion on Trumbo’s role and reaction to the blacklist.  As with the book as a whole, there is definitely enough there to interest the reader and spark further reading; but at times it feels a bit shallow.  A wider discussion of Hollywood practice or US politics is hinted at, but absent.

At times too, the character of Dalton Trumbo feels flat – for instance, he was apparently a witty (but occasionally caustic) man but, a few anecdotes aside, this doesn’t come across.  He was a family man, but this is told to us rather than shown.  A longer book may have had room for something more in depth, but this is a good introduction on a character that could have been forgotten.

Crimes of Elagabalus by Martijn Icks

According to the author Neil Gaiman: “Heliogabolus was just a weird kid with a thing about animals and big dicks.”   As summaries go, this may not be far off – he’s that strange a character.  Elagabalus (officially Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus) was emperor for for years, starting at the age of fourteen.  In that time, he mostly concerned himself with religious matters – he had been brought up to be the priest of a Syrian sun god called Elagabal.  As emperor he continued in this role and promoted the sun god as the highest of the gods.  He was also, mostly famously, accused of shocking acts of decadence and sexual behaviour.  In the end, he was assassinated by guards and replaced by his cousin at the age of eighteen.

In this book, Icks starts by reviewing the historical sources and Elagabalus’ probable life.  Although the sources are heavily biased and reports of scandalous behaviour has to be taken with a pinch of salt, the emperor was unpopular enough to be killed after a short reign despite the lack of any military, natural or economic disasters.  The religious element too is exaggerated, despite stories to the contrary it does not seem that Elagabalus was planning on turning monotheist – but the religious reforms seem like the most likely source of discontent.

In the context of the 3rd century, Elagabalus could seem like a step in the transition from the Principate to Constantine – the shift of focus on to the Syrian sun god (Sol Invictus) was later carried out more successfully by Aurelian and certainly helped the later transition to Christianity under Constantine.  In fact, the religious changes seem more of a false start than a stepping stone, and only add to the feeling of a character ‘out of time’.

Much of the second half of this book is taken up with reviews of literature and historigraphy in the centuries after, right up to the modern day.  There is a transition from medieval and early modern works that treat the emperor as a generic decadent tyrant, to twentieth century works that play with his gender and sexuality.  Both of these have something to them, depending on which sources you wish to use – the stories give a lot of scope: five marriages including a vestal virgin; marrying a chariot driver who he referred to as his husband; killing guests by smothering them with rose petals; selling himself as a prostitute; harnessing naked women to his chariot; attempting to have his genitalia surgically changed.  Among all the myths and interpretations the one that actually sits best for me is Elagabalus as the young, insecure emperor – bullied by his mother and grandmother, not quite mature enough for his role.

In the end, despite the lurid tales he’s a somewhat peripheral figure in Roman history and even in the art and literature it has inspired.  Despite the number of works covered in this book, they are all relatively obscure – he may or may not have been a unique personality among the emperors of Rome, but he is far from the infamy of Nero or Caligula – and even Commodus has Gladiator.  Perhaps his story is just a bit too odd to make great fiction?