The Trojan War by Barry Strauss

91023After reading Bettany Hughes’ meandering and detailed book on Helen of Troy, this promised to be a little more direct.  Subtitled A New History, my expectations were a book with a strong narrative backed up with more recent archaeological evidence.  Unfortunately it didn’t quite gel like that.  The narrative portions essentially feel like an inferior re-write of Homer; and the archaeology is patchy.  I understand that our evidence can be slight, but Strauss does not do as good a job as Hughes at stretching that out and forming it into a coherent book.

On the plus side, there is good context setting with the portrayal of the war as a sideline to the great civilisations of the Hittites, Assyrians and Egyptians.  But this isn’t a book on the Hittites.  It doesn’t provide a tight focus on Bronze age warfare.  It isn’t quite a book on Greek society.  It dabbles in many topics but none of them really satisfy.  Strauss touches on a lot, but this lacks the depth and detail of Bettany Hughes’ work.

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Bits of Gibbon (Vol. 1 Chap. 8)

This bit just seemed worth noting for when he covers Christianity on detail later.

But there are some remarkable instances, in which Zoroaster lays aside the prophet, assumes the legislator, and discovers a liberal concern for private and public happiness, seldom to be found among the grovelling or visionary schemes of superstition. Fasting and celibacy, the common means of purchasing the Divine favour, he condemns with abhorrence as a criminal rejection of the best gifts of Providence.

The History of the Crusades Podcast Bibliography

I’m a sucker for a bibliography so I’ve included the one from Sharyn Eastaugh‘s History of the Crusades.

Main Texts:

    • Thomas Asbridge The Crusades – The War for the Holy Land 2010
    • Christopher Tyerman God’s War – A New History of the Crusades 2006
    • Steven Runciman A History of the Crusades Vol 1-3 1951-1954
    • Jonathan Phillips Holy Warriors – A Modern History of the Crusades 2009
      Amin Maalouf The Crusades through Arab Eyes 1983

Other Texts:

      • Chronicles of the Crusades edited by Elizabeth Hallam 1989
      • The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades edited by Jonathan Riley-Smith 1995
      • Hugh Kennedy Crusader Castles 1994
      • Robert Bartlett The Making of Europe – Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950-1350 1993
      • R.H.C. Davis A History of Medieval Europe 1957
      • Friedrich Heer The Medieval World – Europe from 1100 to 1350 1962
      • Karen Armstrong Holy War – The Crusades and their impact on today’s world 1988
      • Francesco Gabrieli Arab Historians of the Crusades 1957
      • Anna Comnena The Alexiad translated by Elizabeth Dawes 2011
        Tim Severin Crusader – By horse to Jerusalem 1989
      • Thomas Asbridge The First Crusade – A New History 2004
      • Jonathan Phillips The Second Crusade – Extending the Frontiers of Christendom 2007
      • Usamah Ibn-Munqidh An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades translated by Philip Hitti 1929
      • Bernard Lewis The Assassins – A Radical Sect in Islam 1967
      • Marshall Hodgson The Secret order of Assassins – The Struggle of the Early Nizari Isma’ilis against the Islamic World 1955
      • Medieval Isma’ili History and Thought edited by Farhad Daftary 1996
      • Joshua Prawler The World of the Crusaders 1972
      • R.C. Smail Crusading Warfare 1097-1193 1956
      • Amy Kelly Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings 1950
      • Alison Weir Eleanor of Aquitaine – by the wrath of God, Queen of England 1999
      • Malcolm Cameron Lyons & D.E.P. Jackson Saladin – The Politics of Holy War 1982
      • Geoffrey Hindley Saladin – Hero of Islam 1976
      • Jack Weatherford Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World 2004
      • Piers Paul Read The Templars 1999
      • Alan Forey The Military Orders from the Twelfth to the Early Fourteenth Centuries 1992
      • Colin Morris The Papal Monarchy – The Western Church from 1050 to 1250
      • John Julius Norwich The Popes – A History 2012
      • E.R. Chamberlin The Bad Popes 1969
      • Eamon Duffy Saints and Sinners – A History of the Popes 1997

Bits of Gibbon (Vol. 1 Chap. 6)

There a footnote among the discussion of the Caledonian war of Septimius Severus.

That the Caracul of Ossian is the Caracalla of the Roman History is… not without difficulty. In the Caledonian war, the son of Severus was known only by the appellation of Antoninus; and it may seem strange that the Highland bard should describe him by a nickname, invented four years afterwards, scarcely used by the Romans till after the death of that emperor, and seldom employed by the most ancient historians.

Quite.  Almost as if Ossian was made up at a (much) later date.

The History of the Crusades podcast

This podcast by Tasmanian Sharyn Eastaugh started all the way back in 2012, following the model of Mike Duncan’s History of Rome.   Like Mike Duncan, it’s a minimalist approach – no guests, few sound effects, no dramatisations – but with an occasional dry bit of humour to tie things together.  I like this style, and I think it’s still more or less the standard for history podcasts – although 2012 could be a little more rough and ready.

Capture.PNGSome running jokes about the ever present Peter the Hermit or Crusading knights descended from water fairies add a comforting familiarity.  The material comes largely from classic popular accounts (Steven Runciman, Thomas Asbridge, Jonathan Phillips) which Eastaugh quotes from throughout (there’s also a handy list on her website) but other sources give the story from the Islamic side (Amin Maalouf is a very popular one).

Like many of the Crusades themselves, the early episodes are affected by equipment issues – poor quality recording equipment that leaves the volume lower than one would like.  But stick with it and things do get progressively better.  The content is good from the first episode anyway.  The website is smooth and well presented (though I can see a few older websites out there – so that presumably improved over time too).

I like the podcast as a whole.  I have listened to the 107 episodes (probably about twenty minutes each) on the Middle Eastern Crusades, and I’m looking forward to continuing on to her additional series on the Cathars and the Baltic Crusades.  The latter especially is a topic I don’t know much about.  There’s not too much analysis in the show, but I like the storytelling – combining the accounts of various weightier sources.  The main podcast is free, but she does offer bonus episodes via her Patreon page.  I definitely think this is worth checking out.

Bits of Gibbon (Vol. 1 Chap. 2)

As part of my read through The Decline & Fall, here’s a quote that sums up Roman attitudes to religion rather succinctly, but may say even more about the English Enlightenment.

The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.

 

Venice by Jan Morris

41ygbzxrwul-_sx315_bo1204203200_This is a strange book in a temporal sense.  Morris originally wrote in 1960 and returned to revise it in the seventies and eighties.  My (library) edition is from the early nineties.  As Morris describes the people, places and behaviours of Venice, it isn’t clear what is from when.  This gives a feeling of a city that is both timeless and in perpetual decline.  There are plenty of details but many feel quaint and out of date – whether they are or not.  But despite it feeling easy to get lost in them, those details are well written and often entertaining.  Morris, like so many, clearly has a passion for the city (and I can see why).

Really, there’s a theme here about the death of local societies.  Morris describes elderly women who have visited the same green grocers that their family has used for generations.  That wasn’t in evidence when I visited, and (from other readings) it would seem to have died out – but that isn’t unique to Venice.  Perhaps the magical world of Venice just seems to amplify the processes that happen elsewhere.  Specifically to the city itself, my favourite chapter was one two thirds of the way through that discussed proposed futures for the city – kept as a museum of sorts, turned into a hive of craft industry or demolished as a futurist stunt.

She loses me slightly in the last third of the book, which offers a look at the decline of and the sights of the other islands of the lagoon.  Islands like Murano and Burano should be interesting, and there are good anecdotes sprinkled throughout, but I found the whole section a bit of a dreary end to the book.  On the whole though, I like the book.  I’m not entirely sure what it is meant to be: not history, not a guidebook, not exactly a travel journal – but it does conjure up a certain image of the city.

Bits of Gibbon (Vol. 1 Ch. 1)

I’ve been reading through Edward Gibbon’s classic Decline And Fall.  It’s quite a task, and early days yet, but I came across a few lines here and there I liked and wanted to share.  The 18th century historian Gibbon has been long since been superseded by later scholarship, but he is still well worth reading for his snippy style.  I like that he offered well read, but occasionally very opinionated judgements throughout – right from chapter one, as the quote below shows.

After a war of about forty years, undertaken by the most stupid, maintained by the most dissolute, and terminated by the most timid of all the emperors, the far greater part of the island submitted to the Roman yoke.

Claudius, Nero and Domitian by the way.

Tigress of Forli by Elizabeth Lev

51ryt11phflI’ve been reading a bit of Italian history recently.  Partly inspired by a trip to Venice, partly just because the patchwork renaissance world of advanced, somewhat independent city states intrigues me.  Maybe I’ve played too much Europa Universalis, but those strategy video games kept coming to mind here.  Caterina Sforza was born the daughter of the powerful Duke of Milan, but married a member of an up and coming papal family, and found herself helping him to govern the small towns of Forli and Imola.  In an Italy increasingly under the sway of major powers, this would be playing the game on quite a difficult mode,

Girolamo Riario, the husband, was erratic and got himself involved in the Pazzi conspiracy against the Medici.  His uncle Pope Sixtus IV eventually passed away and Caterina (although pregnant) jumped into the news by occupying parts of Rome to push for a beneficial result in the papal election.  Neither of these were particularly successful and Riario soon found himself assassinated, and Caterina besieged by enemies.  She would again show a ruthless side by taking an aggressive line in the face of enemies holding her children hostage (there’s a famous quotation “here I have what’s needed to make others”).  She would rule the towns for more than another decade, with another two marriages (her choices this time) before being defeated and captured by the infamous Cesare Borgia.

This book by art historian Elizabeth Lev tells that story very well.  The writing generally flows very well.  An exciting tale of an independent woman in the world of the Medicis and the Borgias.  There are however small touches in the writing that I didn’t like – there was a tendency to suggest what Caterina may have been thinking, and to repeatedly point out that she was a strong woman (telling rather than showing).  She also can’t resist going into (what feels like) unnecessary detail on some artworks of the time.  The main plot is good enough to make up for those minor issues.