The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan

918836To me, it always used to seem like the Peloponnesian War was forgotten between the Greek-Persian wars in the first half of the fifth century BC and the rise of Macedonia in the late fourth century.  I now realize that I was a little naive.  The Greek Persian wars and Alexander are perennially in other forms of media, but for so many historians (not to mention philosophers and classicists) this period is both well covered by historians like Thucydides and Xenophon, and crucial for the lives and politics of philosophers like Socrates and Plato.  It was also important in the mainstream culture of the time like the plays of Euripides and Sophocles.

It’s probably the sheer scale and complexity of the war that keeps it from greater status today.  There are fascinating characters – Alcibiades, Pericles, Nicias, Lysander – but few of them are involved throughout the entire war.  Like the Thirty Years War two millennia later, the Peloponnesian War is really multiple wars joined together between two large alliances or empires.  Complicating things too is Greek politics – each state had factions of both aristocrats/oligarchs and democrats, and it’s not as easy as we may think nowadays: the most prominent democratic state Athens behaved in a more domineering way to members of its alliance than the oligarchic Sparta, turning a once voluntary alliance into an Empire.  Local disputes too make things difficult, with rival cities sometimes joining one side or the other on issues closer to home.

With a potentially unfamiliar topic that covers many decades and many twists and turns, Kagan has a writing style that strikes a good balance on detail, but can be a little short of colour (he’s not as accessible as, for example, Tom Holland).  It might even be a little dry, if the events he was covering weren’t quite so explosive.  With the historical sources being largely Athenian, for the most part we do get the war from an Athenian perspective; but I would not say this makes it especially sympathetic towards the democracy.  Their aggression towards smaller starts, their infighting and their hubris is clear and no apologies are made for it.

The war comes in roughly four phases: in the first, the legendary statesman Pericles operates a defensive strategy; in the second the Athenians go on the offensive before being beaten back and signing a peace treaty.  In the third phase, Athens embarks on a farcical invasion of Sicily, leaving it embarrassed and depleted.  In the final phase, Persia joins with Sparta and after some to-ing and fro-ing defeats Athens.  Kagan is sceptical about Pericles’ strategy but admits that the offensive approach may have been worse.  He plays up the self serving and tragicomedic elements of the decision to invade Sicily, but he also finds ways for Athens to escape until the very end.  He looks critically at the sources and tries to delve read between the lines throughout.

The book isn’t short by any means; but it is an abridged version of his original four volume history written over a few decades.  I think that gets quite heavy on the sources, and would be just as focused on Athens and the same time scale, but I found myself wanting more on the aftermath for Athens as they ran through a series of short term regimes that lashed out against perceived political enemies (including the execution of Socrates).  I also found myself curious about the second rank of Greek cities – Thebes, Corinth, Argos.  It may be a measure of how important the period was (and how well Kagan writes on it) that such a detailed book can leave me hungry for so much more information.


The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

the-prague-cemetery-u-ecoIn the Prague Cemetery, Eco creates a rambling book of tangents and bluffs, with the slimy Italian Captain Simonini, who makes a living throughout the nineteenth century hoaxing and forging his way through political movements and intelligence agencies in the nineteenth century – eventually culminating in the anti-semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  We learn all this from his diaries – confused and unreliable as they may be.

In research for the book Eco seems to have delved into all sorts of unsavoury sections of nineteenth century literature.  Some are obvious, some are more obscure, some are surprisingly mainstream (Alexandre Dumas, Disraeli).  He constantly seems to be saying “This actually happened.  Someone did this.  Someone wrote this.  People believed it.” and sometimes he lets his amazement overwhelm the story.  In this sense, he is at his best when he shows the borrowing, the twisting of old tropes for new audiences, the closed loops when a story is used to confirm itself.

He has covered conspiracies plenty of times before, but this does feel slightly different.  The stories feel grubbier.  The spectre of the Nazis, an eventually peak of anti-semitism, hangs over the book.  For me, it also called up Conrad’s Secret Agent with its murky world of spies, informers and anarchist bombs.  Fear of the Masons, Jesuits and satanists is there too.  All the lunatic fringes are present.  Although Eco does pull a surprise by largely steering away from The Dreyfus Affair.

At times the book can be funny, at times it can be interesting; but at other points it is difficult – it’s not just that it gets quite dry; but that it is an unpleasant read.  Some of these movements, some of these writings, feel lost in history and it’s easy to wish they would stay there.  Perhaps there’s a more general point than that, Eco’s russian agent Rachovsky (a real historical figure, most of them are in this book) sets out his case that his government don’t care for the truth of not of Simonini’s anti semitic rambling, they want to provide an enemy, a distraction.  People need someone to hate, and it is in the interests of the powerful to find groups to demonize.  Despite this gloom, I enjoyed it – it feels like one of Eco’s most purposeful books.

Citizens by Simon Schama

18370354716_2I think there are a few ways one can approach the French Revolution.  One is a biographical focus on the main characters – Schama does not do this, although he does cover Lafayette and Talleyrand in some detail.  Another is to deal with it thematically – Schama does not do this, although he deals with themes as and when they show up in the narrative.  Another still is do give a blow by blow account of the Revolution – this, for me, is what Schama does (the book is even subtitled ‘A Chronicle of the French Revolution‘).

It isn’t a light book.  Schama’s background leads him to show a particular focus on art.  The work of Jacques-Louis David is ever present.  And this pads out the book to an extreme length with detailed descriptions of the art and culture of the Ancien Regime and the Revolution.  The benefit of this is that one gets a feel for the atmosphere, the motives and the aesthetics of the participants.  The downside is that this isn’t necessarily an easy introduction to the topic – with action dispersed among lengthy commentaries on art. particularly in the early part of the book.  Some institutions just seem to pop up, while others are given solid explanations.

Another uneasy thing here for an introduction is Schama’s judgement on the Revolution.  He thinks it was a lot of violence, horror and disruption to very little benefit.  He might reluctantly admit that the focus on rights changed the direction of post-Revolutionary France, but it had little positive material benefit.  With all this focus on the personal loss and violence of the period 1789 to 1794, he doesn’t actually spent that long on the longer term effects of the revolution.  Never mind the revolutions of 1848, 1830 or Napoleon, he doesn’t even get to the Directory.

For all that, Schama does write very well and the sections on art and culture add something different, more visual, to the history of the revolution.  Maybe it doesn’t stand alone as an unbiased record, but there’s so much to the period that it would be hard to find a book of substance that does.  Perhaps, as Schama is currently on TV reworking an old Kenneth Clark BBC series, this could be thought of in similar terms as The French Revolution: A Personal View.


The Lust of Knowing by Robert Irwin

150px-for_lust_of_knowingI could have sworn that I wrote a post on Edward Said’s Orientalism last year.  Clearly I didn’t – possibly because it might court controversy, because so much has been written already on it, or because frankly I just wasn’t that familiar with Said’s source material.  I got the general thrust of the book – that Western academics, poets and politicians have misrepresented the Islamic world and used their image of it as justification for colonialism and foreign policy.

Robert Irwin is very familiar with the source material; at least for the Orientalist scholars of the title.  He begins starts this rebuttal of Said’s book by condemning his misrepresentation of these scholars.  He begins by slowly going through the history of the representation of Islam in the “West”.  In the medieval era I recognise some stories from Wonders Will Never Cease like the Vegetable Lamb or Tartary, or Ramon Llull being tempted by a woman who turns out to be disfigured by cancer and praises his piety.  Fundamentally, those medieval scholars are unfamiliar with the land, culture or religion; and as he will later point out, rather than truly seeing Muslims as “other”, they compare them to what they know: Arian heretics or Christian sects.

71ox2rjfehlAs contact was made, works were translated and writers started to travel we get the likes of Guillaume Postel – looked over by the Inquisition as more insane than heretical; with a Vatican official declaring that “though his ideas were definitely heretical ‘no one, fortunately, could possibly understand them except the author'”.  Orientalist scholars are seen as a small fringe to the mainstream, generally seen as eccentric at best.  Later, the likes of De Sacy or Hammer-Purgstall do still see Islam through the prism of their own experiences, for example seeing the Druzes as atheist revolutionaries in the Carbonari mold.  But the way Irwin presents this is relatively benign, it’s a search for a familiar reference and to understand unfamiliar cultures.  Although this had a big impact on the field of Orientalism, Irwin sees little on wider European culture.  For the most part, those who pushed for colonialism were dismissive of the scholars, and those who administered it had Greek and Roman culture as their reference rather than the work of the Orientalists.

That’s not to say that it was all sunshine and enlightenment: there are plenty of stories like “Professor Hamilton Gibb warned [James, 50s Durham lecturer]  Craig against spending time in the middle east as ‘it will corrupt your classical'”.  In Irwin’s view, the best work in the field, the work that sets its direction, was being produced by German scholars in the 19th century, or by Hungarian Jews like Goldhizer.  The British universities were moribund, and the French were mostly just following the trend.  Their views of history were also heavily informed by the cyclic rise and fall of Ibn Khaldun’s work.  Both of these are an issue for Said, who (even in corrections) saw the Germans and eastern Europeans are irrelevant.

In his chapter on the Post-war Hey Day Irwin describes carefully how Arab studies in Arab countries have lagged behind (Albert Hourani suggested that the good scholars just get jobs in the west), and so the English speaking writers continued to attempt to fill the gap. That’s not to say all Islamic scholarship has been slow – Turkey is very successful – though continuously ignored by both Said and Irwin.  He picks out politically disagreeable authors like Bernard Lewis and picks out their early work of merit: “anyone who wishes to determine Lewis’s merits as an Orientalist has to engage with (emergence of modern turkey) and other works of the sixties.”.  Or the many French orientalists who stood against French North African colonisation.  For him, Said has dismissed worthy scholars on political grounds, and ignored politically inconvenient sources.

As we get to the modern day, he tackles Said’s criticism of specialist scholars making generalist comments on parts of the Middle East outside their geographical or temporal expertise.  He justifies this by the small number of academic positions, and sheer lack of interest in the subject.  When undergraduate courses in Arabic are being closed down, and even senior positions go unfilled; it is easier for an academic to write a general piece, or claim political relevance, than it is to beg for funding for specialist topics (“Coins of the Almohads” vs “A history of the Arab Peoples”?).

Finally we reach his personal condemnation of Said.  It’s a polemic, a good polemic; he points out many of Said’s errors and Said’s poor attitude to criticism.  There is a bit of a personal attack at Said’s upbringing – wealthier and less Palestinian than later suggested – that seems unnecessary.  However, it is a pretty convincing demolition of Said’s use and understanding of the academic sources.  There’s a brief section on other “enemies”, but for the most part these are less convincing that Said and easier to dismiss (either you think the Quran is received wisdom from God, or it is not; arguments that Jews should not be studying Islam …).  Ziauddin Sardar is more interesting, but Irwin again narrows in on the detail.  Finally, he is actually quite complementary of Muhsin Mahdi – which is nice.

In the end though, it could be said that both Irwin and Said miss the point.  Irwin shows that the Orientalists themselves were often misrepresented – but he steers clear of the wider view that British and French cultural attitudes to Islam allowed their later (and current) behaviour in the Middle East and North Africa.  His book aims narrowly at clearing the academic scholars, then extrapolates this into a dismissal of Said and his followers.  Where an Orientalist is undeniably involved in Imperialist projects, Irwin sees it as an outlier; Irwin’s is a very individualist approach to the topic – everyone doing their own thing for their own reasons, wider cultural trends playing a minor role.  Said may have been ambiguous in his detail – but there’s a fundamental point about the difficulty of removing politics and cultural bias from pure academia that still stands despite Irwin’s rebuttal.


February in podcasts

This month, i have been mostly reading Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery (try doing that in the voice of Jesse from the Fast Show).  There are so many tangents and odd bits of history in there that I could spend as long on Wikipedia as I spent reading the book.  Podcasts help, I can read them while walking (without bumping into things). This month I caught up on Italian Unification and learned about Alexandre Dumas three times.  I also tried the remastered When Diplomacy Fails.

Zack Twamley of When Diplomacy Fails does like his big projects.  In fact he tweeted this the other day;

The Korean War: 48/48 written, 13/48 recorded.
1956: 28/33 written, 2/33 recorded.
Poland Is Not Yet Lost: 40/100? written, 0 recorded.

He does seem to manage the time better nowadays.  When I first listened to him, I found him sounding drained and tired towards the end of his Thirty Years War series.  Now, I’m working through the big project from last year – celebrating five years of the show by remastering his early episodes.  It’s actually rather good – he has removed bits that didn’t work (horrific Russian accents) and revised his opinion when he feels necessary.  Some introductions add a nice personal touch too.  The topics as ever are the selling point – a quick zip through the Spanish American War or the War of Polish Succession in a few half hour episodes quickly informs without being a commitment.

The Italian Unification podcast has also been running for almost five years; but less consistently – life commitments have meant that the pass has slowed to just five shows in the last two years, as it creeps towards the finish.  There is one more episode to go, and the topic was brilliantly relevant for the early parts of Prague Cemetery – Garibaldi, Cavour and the battle for a unified Italy.  Officially by “Talking History” (mostly Benjamin Ashwell – his brother Adam seems to have faded away from the project as it has overrun), it has polished up since I posted on its early episodes, I now like the production of the show.  It’s the content that really shines, there’s a pacy narrative, but still with plenty of detail (every time I have a question they seem to pre-emptively answer it).  I’m looking forward to it ending, but I’m also looking forward to any new projects that emerge (if they find the time).

Finally, I returned to Land of Desire for a series of episodes on three generations of Alexandre Dumas.  I still find the tone of the show a bit uneven.  The exasperation at Napoleon’s resentment of Dumas (grandpère?) worked but the show occasionally hinted at a more general criticism of racism in 19th century France, and I was disappointed to find that never emerged (especially as the treatment of anti-semitism in her Dreyfus podcast was rather good).  I’ve been spoilt by Mike Duncan’s Haitian Revolution, so that the colonial relations seemed slightly shallow in comparison.  The two more famous Dumas were interesting enough in their way, but never going to be quite as exciting a narrative.  I still don’t love this podcast, but some of the topics are good – I think I’ll be dipping in and out of this one for a while.


The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

I recently read Wonders Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin and very much enjoyed it.  One of the most striking tales from it (possibly second only to the one about the housebreaker and the tortoise) is that of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary.  I’m now reading Irwin’s history of Orientalist scholarship, The Lust of Knowing, and the story reoccurs.  Thus I feel compelled to share this strange idea with anyone who hasn’t heard it.

220px-vegetable_lamb_28lee2c_188729In medieval tales, the Vegetable Lamb or Scythian Lamb or Barometz is a plant-animal hybrid that lives in central Asia, or Russia, or perhaps the Black Sea area near Persia.  It consists of a lamb that is rooted to the earth by a umbilical cord like stem.  The lamb can flex this stem such that is can eat grass in the immediate circle around it, but is prevented from moving beyond that and must then either starve or drop off the plant as a ripened sheep (sources seem divided as to which one; or perhaps just generally confused).


The story really came to public attention in the fourteenth century with the tales of Sir John Mandeville (whoever he may have actually been) and the travelogues of various friars.  As late as 1683, a German doctor called Engelbert Kaempfer would search for the lamb in Persia, before reasonably deciding that it was a myth, possibly due to some local farming practices.

Wikipedia quotes some priceless poetry on the topic:

E’en round the Pole the flames of love aspire,
And icy bosoms feel the secret fire,
Cradled in snow, and fanned by Arctic air,
Shines, gentle borametz, thy golden hair
Rooted in earth, each cloven foot descends,
And round and round her flexile neck she bends,
Crops the grey coral moss, and hoary thyme,
Or laps with rosy tongue the melting rime;
Eyes with mute tenderness her distant dam,
And seems to bleat – a vegetable lamb

Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden

For in his path he sees a monstrous birth,
The Borametz arises from the earth
Upon a stalk is fixed a living brute,
A rooted plant bears quadruped for fruit,
…It is an animal that sleeps by day
And wakes at night, though rooted in the ground,
To feed on grass within its reach around

Demetrius De La Croix, Connubia Florum, Latino Carmine Demonstrata

Back in reality, the legend seems to be perhaps rooted (!) in an old Jewish text, or perhaps a misunderstanding of cotton fibres or even due to a furry looking Asian fern – Cibotium barometz.  Answers may also be available for the Barnacle Goose (or Bernacle), but there’s only so much of this I can take in one sitting.


The Darkening Age by Catherine Nixey

I’m not usually up to date on my literary pursuits, but this one feels almost contemporary.  In September last year The Darkening Age came out to some discussion and argument.  Nixey, brought up as a strict Catholic, sees herself as balancing a wrong – that the image of early Christianity is all love, hope and charity; where the reality could be violent, perverse and oppressive.  To this end, the book obviously opens with the destruction by Christians of a pagan temple in Palmyra – playing it off against more recent religious extremists.  It’s not subtle, nor is it meant to be, but at times it comes across as rather slippery – it sometimes feels like a long succession of straw men, cherry picking and incomplete information.

35450727At it’s best, Nixey gives likely semi-fictionalized descriptions of Christian atrocities and madness, and these do cover interesting snippets of history.  The graphic descriptions of the destruction of the beautiful temple of Serapis (and its library), and the mob killing of the philosopher Hypatia are gruesome and vibrant.  The abbot Shenoute’s housebreaking is shocking.  And the story of St Anthony and his demons is just weird.  Unfortunately, when Nixey tries to generalize the book feels shallow.  Her chapter on the exaggeration of Christian martyrdom adds little beyond what Gibbon suggested in the 18th century.

The book also feels rather shallow when it comes to the Pagans that Nixey would defend.  Having recently read Tim Whitmarsh’s Battling The Gods, the classical world seems very one dimensional religiously and intellectually in The Darkening Age.  We switch between the first, third and sixth centuries at the drop of a hat; between Gaul, Egypt and Constantinople; between Stoics, Epicureans and Neo-Platonists.  The old fashioned moralist end of Rome is ignored in favour of the Libertine end (Catullus’ sex life rather than Juvenal’s homophobic rants).  Their rejection of some foreign cults (Manichees or the Druids) brushed aside for their incorporation of others (Isis or Mithras).  There is little on why Pagan polytheism really differed in behaviour from monotheistic Christianity (something that was a particular stand out in Whitmarsh’s book).

I understand it’s a different sort of book – but frankly, I’m not sure that it is that novel to suggest that early Christianity could be strict and fanatical.  That image is so ingrained within fiction (for example, Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods or many Bernard Cornwell books) and other history books that I don’t really need a lopsided polemic to open my mind to it.  In this polemic parts of the book start to feel a bit tone deaf – a step back to the “Dark Ages” that so many late antique scholars and early medievalists have worked to enlighten; a focus on the lurid literary sources of religious propaganda, with very little input from archaeology beyond a few shocking examples of statue defacement.

Despite many caveats (“Not all Christians …”) and some exciting story telling, it either doesn’t convince or feels trivial.  The main problem is not so much that she mis-represents Christianity, but that in doing so her version of Paganism feels so passive and one dimensional.  Robin Lane Fox’s book Pagans and Christians is getting on a bit now; but I found such a vibrant portrait of late paganism in that, and such a balanced view of the different relations between the religions, that I can only recommend wading through that instead!


Wonder Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin

32919654The quote from The Guardian on the back of the book compared it to a mix of AS Byatt and Terry Pratchett.  Perhaps, but I’d throw in Hilary Mantel and Umberto Eco.  There’s something in the mix of the realist portrayal of medieval life blending with constant surrealist tangents.  What they really meant though was that the book will reward multiple readings, it is enjoyable first time round but there are so many allusions and references that you can come back again and again.

Irwin starts his book with Anthony Woodville dying at the Battle of Towton before being resurrected with an unfortunate tendency to see the dead walking.  The book then follows the real life Anthony Woodville’s path through the Wars of the Roses: switching sides to the Yorkists, temporary exile, a court favourite under Edward IV, before quickly falling out of favour under Richard III.  Along the way, he battles the Bastard of Burgandy in a two day duel and delves into his literary interests – translating works into English and even having them printed by William Caxton.

As a bibliophile and as a medieval man, Woodville explores the world through stories and rumours.  And so Irwin uses these throughout – as characters meet they share stories, and these tales shift and change as their context changes.  Thus the tone of the book swings wildly: with a very funny story about housebreakers using  tortoises with candles mounted on their backs, alongside darker, almost tragic material.  Familiar stories like Appointment in Samarra show up too – I’m sure there would be even more, if my mythology knowledge was on a par with Irwin’s!

The characters in the book are fantastic too.  Not necessarily deep, but certainly memorable.  The scheming alchemist George Ripley, the Machiavellian constable John Tiptoft (known as “butcher of England”) and the mysterious writer Thomas Malory all particularly caught my imagination.  Irwin conjures a strange sort of world – rich and detailed yet shallow and mysterious; a last flourishing of romance before the modern world begins to kick in.  It’s imaginative, bizarre and (in truth) at points I wasn’t really sure what on earth was going on; but that just will just spur me to read it again – it’s that sort of book.


Latro in the Mist by Gene Wolfe

51-hmkcphel-_sx322_bo1204203200_Gene Wolfe is best known as an author of science fiction and fantasy, and there is an element of the fantastical to this set of novels set in ancient Greece.  The Latro of the title is a mercenary (probably Roman) who fought for the Persians at the Battle of Plataea, where he suffered a head wound and developed severe amnesia.  A helpful doctor gave him some scrolls and a writing implement and from there on he writes down his experiences, so that he can remind himself of them as the memory fades.  It is the story in these scrolls that we read.

If that isn’t enough of a gimmick, Latro also seems to have developed the ability to interact with gods and ghosts.  Thankfully the book is far more than this twist.  For me where the book shines is the feeling of being immersed into ancient greece – not so much the places (Latro tends not to get too descriptive in his writing) but the people, who they are, how they interact, what they believe.  From a historical perspective, it is great fun seeing Latro meet the likes of the poet Pindar, the Spartan general Pausanias and the Athenian politician Thermistocles.

As ever Wolfe loves playing with the concept of an unreliable narrator and there are some twists and turns that will have you leafing back through the book to check for any hints you missed.  Personally I’m very much looking forward to re-reading these soon.  For all that, it is far from a cartoonish book, the characters and the setting feel subtle and realistic.  It’s gentle, enjoyable, engrossing, confusing, shocking and challenging at the same time.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.


Battling The Gods by Tim Whitmarsh

4fec67c0-c5cf-4e87-838c-7c330bae3192img400The main difficulty that Tim Whitmarsh has to deal with in his history of ancient atheism is that their gods are not the same as our Gods.  As he repeatedly stresses “Greek religious culture had no sacred text, no orthodoxy, no clear sense if what was ruled in and out of the sacred sphere, and as a result it was not blasphemous to subject the nature if the gods to radical questioning.“.  Throughout the many angles and sources that Whitmarsh explores it is difficult to pin point on what level they believe or disbelieve.

In many cases he looks at theomachia, tales of people battling the gods, often in fiction.  For instance Pentheus in Euripides’ The Bacchae, or parts of Homer.  Inevitably the gods win.  It’s hard to find material written by or in favour of those who spoke or acted against the gods, but we can see indirectly through character archetypes or specific criticisms that there must have been skepticism and disbelief present in the ancient world.

Philosophy is particularly interesting; the pre-Socratic attempts to explain the world by physical theories; the Epicureans who sidelined the gods; and the Skeptics who expressed criticisms of both belief and disbelief.  In general all three of these took the form of “an argument not for the non-existence of the gods but more narrowly for their limited explanatory role“, but things only get more complex as politics jumps into the issue: first with the god kings of the Hellenistic era and then with the divinely ordained expansion of the Roman empire.

Finally things get completely muddled as Christianity emerges and writers start to use atheist as a synonym for heretic (ie. those atheistic polytheists!).  Still, the same names come up again and again: Euhemerus, Diagoras of Melos and various Skeptics or Epicurians.  The religious tolerance that (mostly) allowed them to exist, disapproved of but free, would now disappear as politics was inextricably linked to religion; a monotheistic religion with rules and ideas set down in text too – that gave little room to manoeuvre.

This is not a straight forward book, the line between theism, atheism and agnosticism is constantly blurred; but that diversity of opinion and thought is interesting in itself.  Whitmarsh shows that the scientific world of the Enlightenment was not the first time skepticism raised its head; as indeed those 18th century thinkers with their familiarity of classics would have realized.  It is to the reader to make of this what he or she will, but Whitmarsh hopes it will show up modern skepticism as neither a fad nor an innovation, rather an idea with a history at least as old as the Abrahamic religions.