The Storm Before The Storm by Mike Duncan

34184069Mike Duncan is known, among people who follow such a thing, as a history podcaster.  He paved the way for the now ubiquitous “History of …” style with his History of Rome, before moving onto covering Revolutions (so far: the English Civil War, the American, a variety of French, Haiti and South American independence). He has a dry wit and interests in politics that allow him to take the most detailed of topics, and explain them through modern analogies, jokes and good old fashioned story telling.  The Storm Before The Storm is his first outing as an author.

In it he returns to ground he covered back in the History of Rome – the downfall of the Roman Republic. But unlike other books he steers clear of Pompey, Julius Caesar or Octavian. For Duncan, it’s the earlier stages that bear more attention.  TSBTS deals with the Italian struggle for citizenship, the reformist Gracchi brothers, and ultimately the struggle for supremacy between Marius and Sulla.

This isn’t obscure by any means, but in most tellings it is left as an introduction or a few short chapters before the main story arc begins. (One of my favourite books is Rubicon by Tom Holland.  In that he get through the same period in the first 20% of the book)  But Duncan explains how the damage to the political structure was dealt in this period, with increasing deviation from the traditions and conventions (mos maiorum) that held the Republic together.  By the time Sulla is putting up proscription lists of enemies for execution, the whole thing is doomed.

Duncan’s story telling is as good as ever and re-centring the story around convention and the Italians does add something, even for readers already familiar with the story.  Even so, there is a part in between the Gracchi and the Social War where the names keep coming and going too quick to follow and the book (briefly) becomes a little dry.  The fast pace stops this becoming an issue however.  I’d definitely recommend it.  Maybe not over Rubicon as a first introduction, but it’s in the same league.  It’s less personality focus, but it may give a better picture of how the system of the Republic collapsed.

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Catullus’ Bedspread by Daisy Dunn

9780007554324The late Roman Republic is one of my favourite periods of history.  I love the main narrative of the story and the detail that we have about the characters involved.  Catallus was a poet, and not one who really got involved in politics – so he’s always been (at best) on the periphery of my reading.  This book puts him in the centre and gives a wonderful snapshot of life in Rome at the time.

The main story here is Catallus’ failed affair with Clodia Metelli, notorious patrician daughter of the Claudius family, sister of the populare Clodius and wife of the conservative Metellus Celer.  His poetry (written to her as Lesbea) starts out romantic (and filthy) and ends up bitter, angry (and filthy).  But Dunn shows that there is much more than just smut.  Catallus used his knowledge of greek poetry (particularly Callimachus) to write some very clever stuff, and challenged the convention of long, overblown epics with his personal and emotional style.  The title obviously alludes to the poet’s active sex live, but it too shows the hidden depth: focusing on “Poem 64” a take on the myth of Peleus and Thetis that includes an ornate bedspread, leading to a poem within a poem on Ariadne and Theseus.

As a character, I think Dunn’s is a fairly generous take on his character.  The obsessive jilted lover could be read in a much less charitable way, but Dunn does refrain from portraying Clodia as the sinister plotter of legend.  Catallus’ time in Rome starts around the time Clodius infiltrated the Bona Dea festival and ends with his premature death around the time of Crassus’ death at the battle of Carrhae – it’s a mere ten years.  It’s a strange reminder of how short life could be then and yet how fast things were changing.

I was not previously familiar with Catallus poetry (outside of a few famous bits of smut – Poem 16.  Although Dunn only really includes a full translation of 64, I’m impressed enough to read more and perhaps to look for the depth behind the dirt.  Beyond that the book would be enjoyable for anyone who read Tom Holland’s Rubicon and loved the setting – in a smaller scale, it brings to life a similarly vibrant Rome.

The death of Maximinus Daia

I’m not usually one for gruesome stories and gore, but when reading about Constantine, this stood out.  The pagan emperor Maximinus Daia persecuted Christians before being defeated by the more tolerant emperor Licinius (who was in turn defeated by Constantine).  After his defeat but before his death he did issue an edict of Edict of Toleration, granting Christians rights.  It didn’t do much to restore his reputation amongst them, and some gleefully recorded his slow, painful death.

From the Christian author Lactantius:

When he saw that he was trapped, Maximinus took his own life with poison. Before this, he had filled himself with food and wine, as those who think they are doing it for the last time usually do, and then he took the poison.  Because of the effect of the food and drink, this did not cause the rapid death he had expected but a malign weakness similar to the plague, and his life was prolonged for a time amidst great pain.  His intestines started to burn with unbearable pain, which drove him mad. For four days, he picked up dry earth with his hands and devoured it like a starving man, he beat his head against the walls and his eyes leapt from their sockets.  Finally, he lost his sight and had a vision in which God judged him surrounded by servants dressed in white.  He shouted like someone being tortured and claimed that he had not done it, but others.  Finally, as if giving way to the pain, he began to confess to God, pleading and imploring Him to take pity on him.  In this way, moaning in pain, as if he were on fire, he delivered up his pernicious spirit amidst a kind of detestable death.

I did find the article Portrait of a Persecutor by Mar Marcos an interesting defence of sorts of an unimpressive emperor.  Without doubt Maximinus was below par, but we only really have some very lopsided sources to go on for quite how nasty he was.  Some of the details, particularly the death are standard cliches – the similarly gruesome descriptions of Galerius’ death are similar to the death of Antiochus IV as recorded in Maccabees.  Unfortunately we have to work with the sources we have, but it does make for some good reading.

As another stranger aside, it seems that some people have interpreted these descriptions to show that Maximinus had Graves’ Disease or Thyrotoxicosis.  I’ll leave that one as medical diagnosis is not my strong point, even when it isn’t at a range of 1700 years.

 

Taken At The Flood by Robin Waterfield

21517671Way back at the start of this blog, I read and reviewed his book Dividing the Spoils.  In that he charted the growth of the successor kingdoms to the empire of Alexander the Great.  I guess this book covers the fall of one of those kingdoms, Macedonia.  More than that, it covers the end of hellenistic Greece.  Ultimately though, it’s a book about Roman imperialism.  Waterfield is open about this from the preface, he believes Rome’s conquest was deliberate, cynical and self serving: no accidental empire or well meaning peace keeping.

I believe that the Romans were more aggressive imperialists in this period than used to be commonly held before the first edition of Harris’s War and Imperialism in Republican Rome in 1979—that they did not go to war only when they were truly threatened (though they might pretend they were), nor were they dragged into entanglement with the east by accident or a series of accidents (Gruen, simplified), nor were their eastern wars purely the result of factors systemic to the Mediterranean world of the time (Eckstein, simplified).

Don’t worry – this is no polemic.  Waterfield offers a fairly balanced account of Rome’s policy in Greece from the First Illyrian war in 229BC to the Achaean War in 146BC.  In brief, we find Rome challenging the existing hegemony of the Macedonian and Seleucid kings.  The Greeks get to know the Romans, finding them greedy and brutal.  The Romans get to know the Greeks, finding them an extravagant but tempting influence.  The Roman attitude shifts from the soft approach (the greek loving Titus Quinctus Flamininus who “liberated” the cities from the Macedonians), to the hard (the looting of Lucius Aemilius Paullus).  Finally, after almost a century of dividing and conquering, the kingdom of Macedonia fell and the Romans squashed any chance of other Greek states taking its place.

The book has had its share of criticism.  Waterfield presents Rome as unusually brutal, but doesn’t really explain how their hegemony and coercion differs from the coercion of states closer to home.  When Rome goes to war it’s belligerent, when Macedonia does it’s the done thing for a Hellenistic king.  The Roman destruction of Corinth was shocking, but so was Alexander the Great’s destruction of Thebes.  On the plus side, this is a period of history that often gets missed over in favour of the second and third punic wars during the same period.  Just like Dividing The Spoils, Waterfield writes accessibly and brings to life the main characters and sources.  Correctly balanced or not, the insights into the Roman methods of “remote control” are fascinating.  The wars with Carthage are still going to be the best place to start with second century Rome, but this is well worth reading for a look beyond that.

Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor by Paul Stephenson

8660508Yes, I have just read two biographies of Constantine very close together.  It actually works, both books have a certain focus.  And with the reliability or paucity of the source material, there are different interpretations to be set out.

Like David Potter’s book, Stephenson also takes some time to set the scene.  For Potter that was the administrative and imperial state before and after Diocletian.  For Stephenson, it is the religious state of the Roman empire in the late third century.  Where Potter was happy to sideline the topic of religion, Stephenson wants to set out his views on Constantine’s conversion: a real conversion but due to his identification of the Christian God as a pagan style victory giving god.  This is contrasted with early Christian pacifism and an army that was among the slower parts of society.  While Potter was sharp and analytical, Stephenson (although clearly knowledgeable) doesn’t build his arguments quite as tightly – they sometimes seem a bit speculative.

The book doesn’t just focus on religious issues.  The military and governmental sides are also covered, making the book perhaps more rounded that Potter’s.  One interesting discussion looks at Constantine’s development of Rome and Constantinople.  After looking at how Constantine adapted the work of his rival Maxentius in Rome, he suggests that another rival Licinius started work on Constantinople before having his contribution more successfully removed from history.  Both authors do see a similar motivation in refounding the city, as Potter described the previous use of Nicomedia as an administrative centre.  Ultimately the emperor was looking for a fresh start in his own image.

As a character both pictures of Constantine feels similar in many ways: determined, ruthless but often tolerant and morally led in decision making.  Despite twisting religion to suit his own views and ends Paul Stephenson’s Constantine feels less cynical than David Potter’s.  Stephenson does though point out the bias of our biographical sources – usually religious – and suggests that our image would change if we had accounts from other backgrounds.  This is probably the best introduction to the emperor that I have read (actually, I’d suggest Mike Duncan’s podcast), but it’s not without its odd twists and nuances – particularly some of the speculation.  Personally I preferred Potter for the better defined scope and analysis.

 

 

Emsworth Bishop Slayer

We were watching Inside The Factory on BBC iPlayer (watching Gregg Wallace amble around a production line is a guilty pleasure).  They were explaining the popularity of oysters in Britain in the nineteenth century and their subsequent decline.  The event that really sparked that decline was a banquet at Winchester in 1902, where guests became ill with typhoid and four people died, including the Dean of Winchester Cathedral.  What really caught my attention was the source of the oysters – Emsworth in Hampshire.

Emsworth is a pretty little town just five minutes up the road from where I work.  It’s quite pretty, with a nice harbour and some good walking routes into the nearby countryside.  There are also some particularly good pubs and restaurants.  This dark past suddenly made sense.  One of those pubs, the Blue Bell Inn, teamed up with a Portsmouth brewery, Staggeringly Good, to make an Oyster Stout called Bishop Slayer.

bishop-slayer-oyster-stout

Some of the proceeds from the beer go to  project called the Solent Oyster Restoration Project, which is slowly reintroducing oysters to the Solent (as you might guess from the name).  Before the early twentieth century oyster scare and more recent pollution, the Solent was europe’s biggest oyster growing region and the aim is to make it so again – with a goal of five million oyster in five years.  Whatever your thoughts are on the subject of fish and beer, that has to be a good outcome.

 

Constantine The Emperor by David Potter

519wcldixtl-_sx327_bo1204203200_Constantine must be among the best known Roman emperors, but it sometimes seems like there are less popular history books and historical fiction on him than I might expect.  I guess that makes sense in a way, what exciting narrative scenes exist are too wrapped up in his conversion to Christianity – not exactly a fashionable topic.  It seems hard to find writing about Constantine that isn’t really part of the larger story of the rise of Christianity or the decline of the Empire.  His great predecessor Diocletian feels even more obscure.  Maybe the story is too political, not enough scandal and sex appeal?

This book by David Potter bills itself as a biography of Constantine, but it’s more limited than that: the majority of the book sets up the role of the Emperor and his administration before and after the reforms of Diocletian.  Constantine only really comes into play after the first third, and only really gains power in the final third.  Potter looks at how Constantine conformed to and retreated from those conventions as Emperor.  The focus is there rather than his Christianity or his military exploits – though clearly both are covered as part of a general picture.  It’s an interesting take, and it does help to put his career and decisions in proper context.

David Potter paints a complex picture of Constantine.  A man whose religion and image would be carefully adjusted over time.  He is astute enough to dismiss some of the mythical stories – the failed assassination attempt by Maximian, for example – and set out our ignorance on others – the circumstances of the death of his son and exile of his wife Fausta,  As a character Constantine comes across as power hungry and ruthless, but also cautious and tolerant.  It’s a detailed and authoritative portrayal, but unfortunately one that can come across as a little dry and perhaps a little lop sided in places.