Spirit of Venice by Paul Strathern

13695441Usually books on Venice focus on the city or the state – the city itself is the obvious attraction nowadays, and the republic was run in such a way as to diminish the impact of individuals.  Here Paul Strathern consciously sets himself apart by trying to tell some of the stories of (some of) the people of Venice.  Some of the choices are obvious – Marco Polo and Casanova begin and end the book – but others are more obscure.  The Jewish scholar Leon of Modena, the condottiero Bartolomeo Colleoni, or the courtesan Veronica Franco.  They are, however, all notable people – you’re not going to find out about everyday life here.

During the book, Strathern refers to and quotes from the books of Peter Ackroyd and John Julius Norwich.  In truth, he does seem to play a very much secondary role to their books.  They (and countless others) describe the city, the architecture, the culture and the mystery that so captivates people around the world.  In this book that feels incidental to a good adventure story, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that but it feels like a shame to leave the city in the background.  There’s plenty to enjoy here, but if you only read one book on Venice I would look elsewhere.


Empires And Barbarians by Peter Heather

original_400_600Years back I bought Peter Heather’s Fall of the Roman Empire (2005).  This 2009 book complements it, by viewing the period from the Barbarian perspective.  In particular Heather is looking at the topic of migration – striking out in a middle way between the traditional view of Völkerwanderung (the movement of entire and unified ethnic groups) and the revisionist view of Elite Transfer (the movement of a small group of typically male military leaders).

Heather does well to try to piece together all sources of information – archaeological evidence, written sources, economic, occasionally linguistic, and most notably comparisons to later migrations.  The elite of the Norman conquest, and the aggressive raiding turned movement of the Boers’ Trek are called to mind, as is the forced migration of Rwanda in the nineties.  This helps break down a complex topic into something that’s easier for non-specialists to digest.  There’s even an rare bit of humour in Heather’s writing (sometimes this takes it into awkward territory – too heavy to be accessible, too populist to be academic – but I think he normally lands it correctly).

Migrations into and around the late Roman empire are well covered – with the origin of The Goths getting particular focus; then a look at the power vacuum created by the decline of The Huns’ short-lived multi-ethnic empire.  It’s quite nice to read this without the Romans being the focus.  Beyond that though, Heather does challenge pre-conceptions and has the skill to make new ideas seem obvious.  He’s open about other historians who may not agree with his line of thinking (Walter Goffart, Guy Halsall) and I have a list of further reading to widen the picture.

Unfortunately the later sections don’t fit quite as well.  The formation/migrations of the Slavs are a difficult topic – too many unknowns, and heated nationalism – Heather does present what seems like a plausible timeline from the evidence available, but it’s not exactly thrilling stuff.  By contrast, a chapter on the movements of the Vikings suffers because the conclusions are too close to the conventional narrative.  Better is the penultimate chapter when these come together to show the formation of states in northern and eastern Europe.  The overall picture he portrays is complex: different forms of migration and state building at different times, but the book is well worth reading to get the valuable detail.

Byzantium by Stephen Lawhead

9780006482512-uk-300Usually a science fiction and fantasy author, Lawhead goes with a bit of straight historical fiction here.  The fantasy style still fits as we get an action adventure romp around the ninth century with a good dose of mystical Irish Christianity.  The plot is fairly ordinary for this sort of this: inexperienced monk travels, captured by and joins Vikings, then various bits of scheming in the east.  The settings are good though, although the action does tend to skip large distances, we get a reassuringly detailed description of life in an Irish monastery, life on a small Scandinavia homestead, visiting Byzantium, and so on.

The characters and dialogue too are above par for this sort of thing.  Or the main character anyway – there’s a side line throughout of the staunchly Christian hero Aidan struggling with his faith.  This may not be to everyone’s taste, but it does add another (moral) dimension to the book above and beyond what other historical fiction authors like Bernard Cornwell or Tim Severin have done with similar stories.  It kind of cool to have a hero who does actually change in outlook gradually throughout the book.

The ending was a little unsatisfying.  Aidan fighting with his sense of Christianity in the face of suffering and corruption.  It all gets tied up in the last few pages and the epilogue, but we don’t really get to see the new found contentment – it is rather briskly narrated to us.  It’s a shame after all that (slightly depressing) self-reflection to basically just tag on a happy ending in a page of epilogue.  Again the religious element may not be to everyone’s taste (or so it appears on Goodreads), but it does add some extra depth to the character that the book would be a bit flat without.

The Military Revolution by Geoffrey Parker

51-zkaaknkl-_sx346_bo1204203200_From what I understand (initially from Patrick Wyman) this is a seminal text.  Picking up on an idea of Michael Roberts, adjusting it and responding to later criticism from the likes of Jeremy Black.  The general premise is a simple one: armies fought in one way in the 14th and 15th century and another way in the 19th century – how did the change happen?  In timing, Roberts initially suggested a period of “military revolution” between 1560 and 1660, here Parker expands that to a full three centuries (1500-1800).  Some critiques discussed at the end of the book suggest two revolutions – one at the start and one towards the end of that period, leaving out the century in the middle.

Anyway … the idea.  Gunpowder came in, it was great at knocking down walls – so new styles of fortifications developed (bastions, ravelins, trace italienne).  These forts were hard to storm (and defend) with the old small elite military, they require many men and guns.  Wars became more focused on sieges, less on battles – although battles when they did occur could be decisive.  New developments in naval warfare occurred as the use of cannon on board ship changed technology and tactics.  All of this required money, men and supplies – feeding into the admin revolutions that occurred in Tudor England, 16th Century France and elsewhere.

Parker does go beyond Europe.  The Ottomans had the technology, but were unable or unwilling to bring in the tactical changes required.  Native Americans and Africans found the new fortifications impossible to deal with with their own ways of warfare (even when they did have access to guns).  India soon caught up and the Marathas gave the British a tough struggle.  China and Japan however had already or quickly adjusted to gunpowder and new fortifications, and were never really put to the test by europeans.

Much of the book is essentially a series of facts, stories and pieces of evidence supporting or related to this topic.  This being the popular end of Parker’s work, this doesn’t get too focused.  In fact, it’s a bit of a mish mash of stuff.  But for the non-specialist (like me!) there are interesting stuff.  If I had to pick one, the unarmed but diplomatically protected Red Seal Ships of Japan were fascinating.  The last chapter puts things together and discusses place and development of the idea within the field of history.

True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

s-l300I don’t know a huge amount about Australian history.  I do know about Ned Kelly and his suit of armour.  I’d reckon most people do – although I did see an amazon review where someone puzzled about the cold opening featuring a robot in 19th century Australia.  Parts of this book were eye opening – the poverty, the anti-catholic discrimination, the corruption, the petty criminals and pettier judges.  Mostly in the first half of the book; the better half of the book.  Carey is a good writer, and the offers a brilliantly grim and detailed look at Kelly’s childhood (if you can call it that).  Unfortunately, as the book approaches the climax Carey switches from Kelly’s view to newspaper excerpts, and the drama starts to have more gaps in it (understandably, as Kelly doesn’t have to sit and write).  It relegates what could be a very good book into merely quite good.  Carey’s writing is good throughout but it is strange (and disappointing) how the momentum actually drops as the story ramps up the stakes.

As a postscript – there is apparently a film of this coming out soon.  That could be actually be quite good.  Russell Crowe as the veteran bushranger Harry Power is potentially very good (I would actually pick the point that the book started declining as the point where Harry Power stopped being in it).

Stilicho: The Vandal Who Saved Rome by Ian Hughes

12215Half Vandal.  If it matters.  Which it probably does.  In this book Ian Hughes is all about defending the Roman general’s reputation.  He’s not unreasonable about it, but there’s a lot time spent piecing together a plausible narrative from opposing sources and a generous view of the actors’ behaviour.  In that sense it’s very balanced, and Hughes does convince in showing the weak position of the Western Empire – demoralised, under-resourced, with the crucial path through Illyria to Italy in the hands of an uncaring Eastern empire.  Hughes does present Stilicho as a canny politician who identifies these weak spots and does his best to solve them.

Boosting the armies moral and fighting defensively helps the first two.  The last is difficult – first Stilicho aims at taking a leading role in both halves of the empire, then he aims at a more direct reshuffling of provinces.  Maybe some of this is later propaganda, maybe other parts are mistakes on Stilicho’s behalf.  Stilicho had his break as much through family connections as his talent, and remained more a political general than a battlefield leader.  In the end it doesn’t end well for him or the empire in the hands of less capable successors.

Ian Hughes has written a number of books on this period for Pen & Sword (I previously posted on his book Imperial Brothers, about Valentinian and Valens).  This one suffers from the same narrowness of scope as some of the others, but does do a better job of setting the background (it feels odd that the rushed introduction actually covers similar ground to Imperial Brothers itself).  It might be nice to see a longer book from Hughes, one where he doesn’t have to do that kind of recap – but on the other hand, a longer book might not allow such a focus on a single character.

August in podcasts: History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps

This month I have been mostly listening to Peter Adamson’s podcast History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps.  I have posted on this before, when I first started, and Adamson was still on Greek thinkers.  Since then the podcast has powered on, through the Islamic world, through Medieval Christendom (reaching the end of the 14th century recently, at episode 300).  Side series covering India, the Byzantines and pre-colonial Africa are also ongoing.

I’m not up to date on all that.  I listened to the show until the 12th century and then realised I had got lost about the universals and the forms of logic.  This month I borrowed Anthony Kenny’s A New History of Western Philosophy from the library – the second volume on the Medieval stuff and I’ve been working through.


Kenny writes clearly with just enough conciseness and just enough general interest to get the basic concepts across.  Adamson presents a lot of context and some difficult ideas through running jokes and analogies – Buster Keaton, The Marx Brothers, his non-existent sister and a giraffe called Hiawatha all feature regularly.  I won’t pretend to have mastered Aquinas, but I’ve enjoyed both of these anyway, and repeated listening after some extra-curricular reading seems to be the way forward.

Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd

2301649Humblebragging: I started reading this book on holiday in Venice, but only managed to finish it at home – so I did a lot of after the fact realization about the titbits of information in this book.  In a way, that’s fine – it’s a very good book for picking up things about Venice but not in a systematic way.  It’s far from a guide book.  Peter Ackroyd describes the history and culture of the city in thematic chapter that never quite fit within chronology or location.  But that is a good encouragement for actually seeing the city: Ackroyd uses his themes to suggest concepts one should look out for – stylised depictions of the sea, contrasts between public display and private parsimony, references in names and art.  It encourages you to just get lost and see what you see, rather than looking to tick off the boxes.

I understand that this was based on a TV show and I think that explains some of the uneven-ness; the mix of too much detail and not enough; the structure that jumps around.  It’s not quite guidebook, not quite history, not quite travelogue (in fact for something based on a TV show, I might have expected more personal input from Ackroyd).  It is rather good though at portraying that sense of magic that Venice has.  It’s not without an ethical side, the author does describe the issues that tourism has had on the city, and that’s in a pre-Air B&B world.