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.
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.
At 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!
I picked up this collection from my local library. It’s a series of short essays, edited by John Rich, from archaeologists and historians on cities in late antiquity (as the name would suggest). As one would expect, this essentially tracks changes in cities as the Roman empire declined. This is a mixed bag of behaviours depending on region and time period – the essays are thus divided by regions.
Generalizing is difficult, but we read about the continued prosperity of cities in Africa; the decline of the Curiales (a sort of oligarchic council) than ran the settlements, replaced by the church in Gaul and the later Byzantine governors in the Danube; the discontinuity or continuity of towns in Britain*; the use of classical art styles by the Lombards in Northern Italy.
There’s a lot of detail in here, but it still feels like its only scratching the surface. It’s not the most up to date volume (from 1992) or the most readable (more down to the number of authors across the chapters rather than a lack of quality) but it does show the variety of interesting threads that come out of this period of history.
*Something that came up in books by Francis Pryor and Neil Faulkner.
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.
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.
On a weekend away in Berlin a fortnight back (part of the reason there have been so few posts on here recently), we wandered onto Museum Island and took a walk around the Pergamon Museum. In short, it is fantastic! The early 20th century Germans seem to have just transplanted or reconstructed parts of ancient cities through the Mediterranean and Middle East. Whatever the ethics of this may be, the sheer scale of these exhibits is astonishing (the photo below shows me being dwarfed by the Ishtar Gate of Babylon).
The Pergamon Altar that the museum is actually named after is currently closed for remodelling, but the Market Gate of Miletus, the Processional Way (also from Babylon), and a room from Ottoman Aleppo impress on an epic scale. The so-called Aleppo Room has a particular poignancy, with a display outside showing the damage to the original district of the Syrian city.
Other exhibits are on a smaller scale, but displays from Assur, Sumer, and a dozen locations throughout the islamic world (in the Museum fuer Islamische Kunst in the same building) are engrossing. With each culture or location house in their own separate display, it highlights these unique cultures a lot more than other museums – where one can seem to blend into another around time and space.
I am definitely looking forward to returning in a few years for the updated and reopened Pergamon exhibit.
I recently went to a talk by Katie Tucker in a pub in Southsea/Portsmouth*. She’s the leader of a group from the University of Winchester that has potentially found the bones of King Alfred the Great. As she’s an archaeologist specializing in bones the talk was a bit short on biographical detail, but nonetheless provided a fascinating description of the investigation into and the story behind his remains and final resting place. In the aftermath of Richard III’s re-appearance this search was splashed all over tabloid front pages with lurid headlines and dubious mis-quotes. The results may not be quite as complete as that of the University of Leicester but Dr Tucker’s investigation was quite a different one with a brilliant conclusion in its own way.
When Alfred died in 899 AD, he was originally buried in the old Minster at Winchester but within a few years he had be shifted to the New Minster next door, built by his son as a dynastic church for the family. So far so good*, but the difficulties start when the Normans arrived and decided to build a new cathedral on the site. Alfred’s remains, and those of some close relatives and companions, were packed up and taken to a new abbey at Hyde on a new site. They were reburied here, although the exact position is disputed. Then in 1538 the abbey was dissolved and demolished, and in 1788 the site had a prison built on top. This is where the location of the bodies starts to get messed up – contemporary reports suggested that the bones were scattered by the building work.
Continue reading Post 41: The Search For King Alfred