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.

The Fate of Rome by Kyle Harper

34427005There have been many reasons suggested for the end of the western Roman empire – there’s a famous list of 210 from a German historian that sometimes gets brought up on this (everything from lead in the drinking water and gout to anti-German racism). Here Kyle Harper doesn’t make those kind of sweeping statements, but he does show the impact that environmental factors may have had in the fall of the west and the decline of the east. The ideas can be summed up simply – the expansion of the empire coincided with a period of relatively good climate in the Mediterranean and beyond, before falling into trouble as the climate became harsher. The environmental boost may have led to Rome becoming a more urban and prosperous society than we might have expected given its level of technological development. This in turn placed them in a risky position where infectious disease was concerned.

Firstly, it wasn’t a great place for health in general – Harper shows that the Romans grew to smaller statures than people in the region before or after the empire, never mind elsewhere in more rural societies. It was a rich society, but not necessarily a healthy one. Secondly, it was primed for particular pandemics to strike: the Antonine Plague, a mid-third century plague and finally Justinian’s Plague. The particular diseases and situations led to different impacts – but ultimately the drop in population and the sheer sense of shock for the survivors would be difficult to deal with.

Harper doesn’t rule out the effect of the normal socio-political/great man explanations – in fact he rather skips over the actual fall of the west. He does however point out that these took place in a world defined by the environmental diseases, a world where those people and structures had to be resilient in the face of infectious disease. The idea doesn’t seem that new or complicated (and I don’t know enough of the academic history to say if it is) but Harper explains it well, going into just enough detail on epidemiology and the evidence for historical climate variation.

There are a few flaws with the book, it would really help to have a reasonable knowledge of the later Roman empire – the chronology, the people, the geography. Not too much, but the author doesn’t exactly hang around to explain who Stillicho was. In addition, some attempts in a conclusion to give a warning of our future relationship to the climate don’t read that well. I appreciate the sentiment, but it’s not really a conclusion. Finally, the following graph wound me up – a bit too much smoothing on there!

Seriously, it’s a good book – not quite as mind blowing as some reviews might suggest, but meticulously put together, well written (it made me want to read more medicine/biology – and I’ve avoided that since I was 15) and something that will surely be an influential book in the years to come.

Helen Of Troy by Bettany Hughes

81fygycu0xlSubtitled Goddess, Princess, Whore.  This book tries to show the different sides of the infamous Greek beauty Helen of Troy – the figure of worship for many Greeks, the (possible) historical person, and the “bad role model” for women in the eyes of so many writers over the years.  To be honest I was expecting a little more focus on literature, but  the book actually mostly concentrates on archaeological findings both for Helen and the world she would have inhabited.  That turns out to be good thing, as these are the best sections of the book.

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I really liked Bettany Hughes’ book on Socrates, The Hemlock Cup, but this one (the earlier of the two) didn’t impress me in quite the same way.  At times it feels a bit muddled, with occasional travelogue introductions or personal anecdotes that don’t go anywhere or add much to the book.  Hughes’ style of many short chapters means that there’s usually a change of approach coming along shortly, but this can be a bit frustrating at points.  The narrative gets broken up constantly by digressions and details and ends up feeling a little long-winded.

Nevertheless the book is packed with detail about Mycenaean Greece.  About childhood, royal life, palaces, trade, diplomacy, war, religion.  It isn’t quite a biography of the woman herself, but it’s the next thing to it.  The discussion of symbolism feels like a good introduction – not entirely complete but that would probably require a much longer book.  In all, it’s a solid introduction but it could have been better.  The book promises a lot, but only delivers in certain areas.

SPQR by Mary Beard

513c6yrnmzl-_sx323_bo1204203200_I was a bit cautious in picking this up – Mary Beard is great on TV, interviews and in the other books I’ve read; but a 500 page general history of Rome … I’m no academic, but I’ve read a bit.  Would I be beyond this?  Thankfully no!  The familiar narrative comes up, but the greater part of the book (in both senses) has Beard questioning our knowledge and interpretation of Rome.

The narrative sections are fine: it’s not quite the storytelling flow of Tom Holland, but that’s not Beard’s style.  She is chatty and opinionated, but constantly keen to present other sides of the story, other “ways of seeing” to use a phrase that came up in her recent series Civilizations.

The story begins with the founding of Rome and ends with Caracalla, just before the crisis of the third century – possibly beyond the high point, but before the decline really hits.  Is the book about the unstoppable rise of Rome and the associated imperial conquests?  Not exactly.  Mary Beard would see their conquests as brutal, but of their time.  She would see its rise as impressive, but not inevitable.

In the end, she doesn’t look for lessons in Rome: what they did right (and they did plenty) or what they did wrong (and they did plenty of that too).  She just looks for a humanity, a real human experience that connects their world to ours; and as far as can be done, she succeeds in bringing it to life.

Babylon by Paul Krizwaczek

Sometimes I just don’t gel with a book.  This is an interesting account of the history of ancient Mesopotamia from the formation of early cities through the Sumerians, Akkadians and Assyrians to the arrival of the Persians.  There is a mix of history, myth, culture and occasional attempts to make this contemporary (generally through Saddam Hussein references).  It touches on many different sources and interpretations, and all in a very readable way.

However, some of the modern analogies are forced, and conclusions on early developments towards civilization don’t quite convince (it’s probably impossible to do so many different cultures over so many centuries justice in just 270 pages).   Despite these faults, it’s an expert story teller giving the story of an often patchy period of history in an often unexpected way, and there was a lot to love about this book.  I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of monuments and artefacts (many of which are on display in Berlin).

My problem – I’m not that familiar with the time period and as a beginner I think I would have preferred a straight forward military/political account.  I cannot really appreciate commentaries on Sargon of Akkad or the Assyrians in II Kings, or even the story of Gilgamesh, as much as I’d like without knowing the narrative!  Babylon is by no means bad – I have a much greater sense of the culture of the region than I did before, but I can’t help feeling slightly disappointed.

Britain AD by Francis Pryor

41jz6dej8wl-_sx326_bo1204203200_Subtitled ‘A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons’, this is thankfully much more than a rehash of Arthurian myths or Anglo-Saxon aggrandisement.  The veteran archaeologist looks at the period from the end of Roman rule to the Anglo-Saxon invasion and tackles parts of the popular view.  In brief, through his archaeological work he finds sites with a continuity that seems to call into question the idea of a huge Saxon invasion.

There are a few problems with this argument – language being the main one; if there was such continuity in population, then why does English have so few words from its Celtic predecessors?  There are also a few potential issues with the style of the book: it is short, but dry and occasionally unfocused – digressions onto anecdotes from Pryor’s early career on dig sites are enjoyable; digressions onto the history of Arthurian myth actually feel tacked on to the main thrust of the book.

Although this book certainly doesn’t tell the whole story, it is an interesting read and often thought provoking.  Pryor uses his experience to offer some speculative arguments, but these feel grounded and plausible (compared to Neil Faulkner, who got a bit carried away on the same topic).  I’d be keen to read his other work (I believe Britain BC offers similar arguments for the Celtic era invasions), or more books that shed light on early British history.

NB/ I believe there was a TV series of the same name in 2004; I have not yet seen it.

Decline and Fall of Roman Britain by Neil Faulkner

As I often do, I skipped the preface to this book and went straight into the main text.  Because of that, it was only about half way through that I realised Neil Faulkner was a Marxist – all the references to class war finally started to make sense.

In this book, actually charting the whole history of the Romans in Britain, this approach has advantages and disadvantages.  Roman society was undeniably full of inequality and, in an otherwise dry book, Faulkner does succeed in bringing that to life.  His descriptions of the settlements, showing the disparity in wealth, are bolstered by plenty of archaeological evidence.  His explanation of the effects of Diocletian’s economic reforms is much more vivid that I’d thought the history of taxation could be.

On the downside, his conclusion, that the end of Roman Britain would let a peasant revolt kick out the landlords and live a brief but ideal agrarian society before the Saxon warlords moved in, comes across as far fetched and lacking any real basis to back it up.  His descriptions of the Roman empire outside of Britain are short and one-sided, mostly existing to show either Britain’s role in the empire or the inequality in the system.

I’m not as well read on Roman Britain as I should be, but this stands as an interesting if occasionally uneven take on that particular fringe of the Empire.  Worth reading, but perhaps best balanced with an alternative point of view.