Becoming Roman by Greg Woolf

The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul

179679The last time I read a book that focused on Roman (or pre-Roman) Gaul, it was the rather disappointing and very confused The Ancient Paths by Graham Robb.  This book, thankfully, isn’t that one.  Woolf’s book from 1998 is an much more academic argument against the concept of “Romanization”, that happens to give a pretty decent description of the changes in Gaul as it settled into the Roman Empire.

In brief, Woolf argues for a more open interpretation of Roman identity.  It was possible to be Roman and have humanitas, and also to have a provincial identity.  There were new towns, there Roman colonists, but Roman additions came bit by bit – a temple here, some road layout there.  The religion altered but retained some local character (within acceptable Roman limits).  Local tastes changed, but so did local produce and the trends did not mirror Italian trends.

It’s not always an easy read, there’s as much pottery in here as you’d expect.  More than that though, it’s nuance and subtlety that requires some attention – the balance difference between urban and rural (Woolf might suggest that this is sometimes overstated), the difference between the busy Mediterranean coast and the marginal Breton peninsula.  There aren’t many sweeping statements here.  There also isn’t all that much theory on identity or empire, which is fine with me.  I enjoyed it, definitely on the academic side but not inaccessible for a non-specialist with an interest.

The Holy Roman Empire by Peter H Wilson

Subtitled A Thousand Years of Europe’s History, this impressive but difficult work does pack a millennium and quite a bit of detail into seven hundred or so pages.  When I was younger, dazzled by Medieval Total War, I quite fancied the idea of a single volume history of the HRE.  Later I realized that that could be a quite hefty prospect (like the dry and extensive The Dutch Republic by Jonathan Israel), but then this book came out – and superficially seemed to be promising that.  Hopes were raised by the easy going cover, blurb and subtitle.

51fcnp9kqvl._sx322_bo1204203200_They were then scattered by the restaurant-tasting-menu style table of contents.  Single word chapter titles like Association and Governance for chapters spanning seventy pages.  No sub-divisions listed here.  And indeed some of the chapters are heavy going – particularly the opening ones on ideology and the relationship between church and state.  Sorting the history thematically means that each chapter crosses back and forth between that thousand years of history in a baffling way unless you are familiar with the events and characters of the empire.

Some later chapters do flow more chronologically, but even they rely on a lot of pre-existing knowledge.  Major events are brushed over in a few words, new people appear without introductions.  The ending tacks on a short bit on the legacy that verges between the interesting (changing views amid the rise of 19th century nationalism) and the unfortunately outdated (lessons to be learned in EU comparisons).  To give these topics the attention needed would really be a whole other book, so it feels like an inessential finale.

To say some positives about it – Wilson clearly has a great command of the material, and doesn’t lower his level for the reader.  By taking the focus away from the great men of history and from material culture, he really gets to deal with things on the level of ideas, justice, identity.  He gets to deal with mis-conceptions about the weakness of the empire or the push and pull of (de)centralisation.  It’s fascinating, in a very involved sort of way

PS. It’s page 2 before Wilson uses the Voltaire quote, if you were wondering (as I was).

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin

2166088In her introduction, Judith Herrin sets out the aim of this book: to convey the idea of Byzantium (what it was and why it is worth paying attention to) to the general public (or more specifically, more builders who were working near her office).  I don’t think it’s true to say that there’s isn’t a popular account of Byzantium.  John Julius Norwich wrote a very good one – a chronological narrative that races along at pace (especially if you get the condensed version).  Herrin takes a different approach, setting things into thematic (no pun intended) chapters which loosely follow the timeline.

This actually makes it a lot easier to get your head round this society, how it differed from classical Rome or the western medieval world, and how it changed over time.  The chapters are filled with anecdotes and odd bits of information that really helped to provide colour alongside the broader streams.  The jumble of facts can occasionally be a little awkward, leaping from one idea to another and shifting back and forth in time.  It is all in there though.  That makes this a nice introduction to the continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire – one where you can pick up the political organization, the religious life, the well developed education system – all in a brief three hundred pages.

Compared to John Julius Norwich, there’s a lack of drama.  He plays well with the military campaigns, the plotting, and the politics.  This buries it among the rest of the information.  His chronology keeps track of the broader story better.  Both have their place however, and right now I probably prefer Herrin’s book as an introduction.

Bits of Gibbon (Vol. 1 Chap. 13)

When Britain was thus dismembered from the empire its importance was sensibly felt and its loss sincerely lamented.  The Romans celebrated, and perhaps magnified, the extent of that noble island, provided on every side with convenient harbours; the temperature of the climate, and the fertility of the soil, alike adapted for the production of corn or of vines; the valuable minerals with which it abounded; its rich pastures covered with innumerable flocks, and its woods free with wild beasts or venomous serpents.  Above all, they regretted the large amount of the revenue of Britain, whilst they confessed that such a province well deserved to become the seat of an independent monarchy.

In this passage, Gibbon seems to get a bit carried away with some of the panegyrics written after the recovery of Britain from the rebellion of Carausius.  He occasionally has a tendency to get a little bit patriotic and play up his home in a way that jars with the rest of the narrative.

It’s a good thing everyone has stopped over-estimating the importance of Britain!

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.

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.

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.

 

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.