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.

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.

And The Weak Suffer What They Must? by Yanis Varoufakis

27384105Yanis Varoufakis was the Greek Minister of Finance for five months in 2015,  for the left wing anti-austerity party Syriza, before resigning over the result of a referendum on a further financial bailout (he was against).  More than that, he was and is a successful academic economist.  He had already thrown his oar into the EU debt crisis with what he called A Modest Proposal, co-written with a former British Labour party MP and an American ecnomist.  That proposal appears in the appendix of this book.  While he was writing up a popular account of the crisis and his proposal, he suddenly found himself elected and playing a much more active role in the proceedings.

With all that in mind, this is hardly an unbiased account, and Varoufakis does plenty of the dramatics and grandstanding that he is known for.  At times in the book he presents himself as naive and well-meaning, but you feel he would have to be impossibly so (and completely unaware of the history he describes in the book).  Aside from this dis-ingenuousness, he is a very compelling writer.  The topic is dry but his graphic style of writing makes it exciting – for instance, he describes Greece’s series of debts and forced loans as “fiscal waterboarding”.  It is over the topic, but he’s a passionate man.

He starts, after a childhood story, with an explanation of the Nixon Shock and Bretton Woods.  Both of which were new to me.  From there he builds a picture of inter-country finance and the problems with currency exchange (more interesting than it sounds).  He then traces the history of the Euro through the antagonism and scheming between the French and German governments, and between the German government and the Bundesbank.  There are plenty of broad brush statements, which would be an interesting discussion in and of themselves – for example, suggesting that the removal of powers from democratic organisations to technocratic ones is the cause of our current poor crop of politicians.

With the ongoing news of Trump’s economic moves against Turkey, one thing that stood out was that all this financial “co-operation” so often read like war by other means.  The author plays up to this, of course, taking his title from Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War.  It was a bit depressing to read about the open anger and plans to “punish” countries as an example to others.  I know these are generalisations and there are factions and factions within the EU and within national governments.  Varoufakis is very much on one side of the argument and I kept thinking that it would be interesting to read a book from the other point of view; but perhaps it wouldn’t.  Varoufakis is a very, very good writer.

Dream of Reason by Anthony Gottlieb

9780141983844Subtitled A History of Philosophy From The Greeks To The Renaissance.  In terms of the range and the content, I guess this was what I should have expected: a history of the western canon skimming quickly past the periods and regions of marginal interest (ie. medieval times and the Arabic world).  This is fine but I did enjoy Peter Adamson‘s Without Any Gaps podcast where he has been filling in the detail skipped by more conventional histories (like this).

For the majority of the book Gottlieb looks at the Pre-socratic philosophers, then the trio of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.  He gives biographical details (where he can) and brief introductions to their thought.  It is a short book and these introductions don’t necessarily have the most depth, but I think he strikes a good balance of accessibility and not watering down the ideas to absurdity.  He’s clear, concise and often very enjoyable to read.  Later thinkers from the Stoic, Epicurean and Sceptic get useful but less involved treatment, but afterwards the book feels patchy.  The likes of Augustine, Boethius, Plotinus, Aquinas, Bacon feel more like a tacked on epilogue.

With all this speed and selectivity (going somewhere that may become apparent in the rest of the planned trilogy), some topics and styles are dealt with better than others.  The most vivid parts of the book are with the reasoned but aphoristic pre-socratics; the least with perhaps the more mystical elements.  It’s a solid introduction – certainly not complete in who it covers, and occasionally how (George Steiner in the Observer complained about a lack of analysis into why this sort of thinking developed).  It feels like Gottlieb would rather show how an idea or way of thinking is useful (even abstractly) – regularly connecting philosophy to other topics – and it feels like his coverage is weighted because of this.

The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper (Volume 1)

This was definitely a book to have read after Donald Kagan’s work on the Peloponnesian War.  Popper attacks the ‘historicism’ and totalitarian elements within Plato’s work.  This involves a certain amount of biographical speculation about the Greek philosopher and his teacher Socrates.  We know that there was a struggle between the populist democrats and the exclusive aristocrats in Athens (as in many other Greek cities), and that Plato had an aristocratic background and many aristocratic connections.  For Popper, Plato over the course of his career changed from the democratic, compassionate views that he had learned from Socrates back to the aristocratic authoritarianism he was brought up in, and brought in some lessons from Sparta with it.

For Popper the philosopher king that Plato proposes in the Republic is a method to arrest change and promote stability at any cost, to establish and keep a hierarchical system that Plato sees himself at the top of.  In seeing history as a constant process of decline from an earlier, better, tribal society, he tries to reconstruct that society and reverse the course of history.  I’m still to read part two, but as Popper presents it this does seem to mirror the historical theories of Marxism and Nazism (history as a process of racial decline).

It’s not even handed – it’s not meant to be.  Popper wrote this during the war, when he was in little mood for compromise.  If you are willing to go with some of his assumptions about Plato’s motivations, this is a compelling book.  But despite any regrets he may have had on tone, the core idea of the book is interesting.  The same ideas and criticism have come up elsewhere in my recent reading but not quite with the same focus and force (Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism; Black Mass by John Gray targeting modern neo-liberals).  Karl Popper is a very good writer, you just have to beware of being swept along by his polemic and missing some of the holes in it.

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.

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.

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.

Campaigns of Alexander

As part of a self-improving attempt to actually read ancient historical sources (albeit translated into English), I read Appian‘s Campaigns of Alexander recently.  Given some of the dry stuff out there, I was surprised at how well it stood up.  It reads like the more narrative end of modern military history.  It would be pushing it to compare it to historical fiction, but there is elements of that.

I also listened to Jamie Redfern‘s A History of Alexander podcast for some commentary on the source.   Originally from 2011-2012, it’s probably in the first wave of podcast inspired by Mike Duncan’s History of Rome.  As with many of these, initially the production can be a little rough but it settles down (I think there’s even a remastered version that I somehow missed).

There were some nice comparisons of the sources (Appian being his favourite) and discussions where things may have been obscure, as well as the occasional bit of humour.  Actually, with the most exciting scenes quoted on the podcast it almost worked as an audiobook alternative.

What else is there to add?  The story of Alexander is a classic.  There are battles, intrigue, a clash of cultures.  In either form, it’s very enjoyable.