Post 59: Rome, Parthia and India (part 2)

In my last post, I discuss the first part of John B Grainger’s book ‘Rome, Parthia & India‘. The scene is set in the mid second century B.C, with the Roman Republic on a high following its victory over Carthage, and the old successor states of Alexander the Greats empire falling into chaos as usurpers and internal strife leaves them in a weakened state.

The rest of the story

By 130, Greek Bactria was more or less gone. The nomadic Saka and Yuezhi had invaded, pillaged the cities and forced the remaining Greeks out to the east. One of the big archeological sites here is Ai Khanoum or Alexandra-on-the-Oxus – judging by the coins present, this may not have even lasted beyond the end of the reign of Eucratides I in 145 B.C. The Indo-Greek state that survived would become locally influential on culture, but its connections with the rest of the Greek world would be largely myth and rumour and by 10 A.D it too would conquered by nomadic scythians.

Continue reading Post 59: Rome, Parthia and India (part 2)

Post 58: Rome, Parthia and India (part 1)

In many ways this book is mis-titled, but I haven’t quite decided what the replacement could be: The Decline and Fall of the Seleucid Empire fits well but the scope of the book is wider than that; the Fall of the Hellenistic World would bring in Macedonia and Bactria, but be both too grand and too narrow for this tale. The best summary is perhaps the book’s subtitle The Violent Emergence of A New World Order 150-140 B.C.

It’s another of the new releases by Pen & Sword that have flooded onto bookshelves in the last few years, mostly by new authors. John D. Grainger, however, is not a new author – he has written over two dozen books. These do cover a variety of topics, but return again and again to the late Hellenistic period – the decline of Macedonia, the wars of the Maccabees, the Aetolian League and multiple books on the Seleucids. This book attempts to put some of these apparently disparate pieces together into a single narrative, telling how the world flipped from the post-Alexander situation of domination by various Greek successor states to the era of Roman (and Parthian) domination.

There’s a lot of ground to cover and, other than Carthage, the era isn’t all that well known – so I’ve decided to split this review into two parts; the first will lay the background for the story and the second will bring these to a conclusion and discuss Grainger’s attempts to put this all together.

Continue reading Post 58: Rome, Parthia and India (part 1)

Post 52: Roman Warfare by Adrian Goldsworthy

CoverAdrian Goldsworthy has become quite popular in recent years. He has put out successful biographies of Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Anthony and Cleopatra; as well as a book on the fall of Rome. He has also branched into historical fiction with a Sharpe-like series on the Napoleonic War. In his most memorable role for me, he was in BBC’s Time Commanders – an odd game show where contestants would play famous battles in an early version of Rome Total War. A few months ago I picked up an early book of his from back in 2000.  I finally got round to reading it (I have a bit of a stack to get through) and was not disappointed.

Roman Warfare is a short book, barely two hundred pages, giving only a brief history of the Roman military. For me, in terms of my reviews, the obvious comparison would be the Bryan Ward-Perkins book (Post 34) on the fall of Rome. Both are short books on a well defined, but huge, subject with a view to updating the reader on the current academic state of things. There is however a big difference in style, BWP was forthright and opinionated while Goldsworthy stays fairly neutral in tone. He certainly does have views (including on the army’s role in the decline of Rome) but there are weaved subtly into the narrative.  It’s more of a summary than a polemic, but for this topic that suits me fine.

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Post 47: Russia by Martin Sixsmith

A 1,000 Year Chronicle of the Wild East

According to Churchill’s famous quote, Russia is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. After reading this book things are slightly clearer – at least in certain areas. Published in 2011, to accompany a BBC Radio 4 show, this book is perhaps slightly out of date now with Medvedev being sidelined again and things in Ukraine having sparked off, but the theme of the book remains applicable (if anything it is only supported by more recent events).

Martin Sixsmith is perhaps most famous at the moment for his film and book Philomena, but he started out as a BBC’s foreign correspondent in Moscow. He then had a stint in the civil service, ending in the controversial Jo Moore email scandal. Following this, he began a career as a novelist and starting to write and broadcast on Russia again, using in experience and expertise. This experience gives him a great perspective on Russia (both past, present and future) and he uses this to great advantage in the book. It largely focuses on the twentieth century and is far from taking a neutral stance on the politics of the country. However, this slant is presented in a open and accessible style (even if the material is often fairly grim) and shouldn’t put anyone off.

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Post 43: Rip It Up and Start Again by Simon Reynolds

Post Punk 1978-1984

Does this count as history? I was born shortly after this book finishes, so I’m inclined to go with ‘yes’ on that. And as another blog on wordpress says If It Happened Yesterday, It’s History. Simon Reynolds, previously the author of Energy Flash (a history of Rave) and the inventor of the term Post-Rock, takes us on a fast and very entertaining trip through new music from the first stirrings of Public Image Limited in the late seventies to the downfall of Frankie Goes To Hollywood in the mid eighties.

Continue reading Post 43: Rip It Up and Start Again by Simon Reynolds

Post 38: Gettysburg Requiem

The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates

Book CoverYet another of the slightly obscure biographies that I’ve picked up at the Last Bookshop in Oxford over the last few years; this book tells the story of William C. Oates, a confederate officer who was on the defeated side at Little Round Top in the battle of Gettysburg. He was a reasonably successful man in his own way, but in the grand scheme of things was a very minor player. However, history isn’t just about your Lincolns and your Lees (to use a Jamie Redknapp style syntax) and we can learn a lot from looking at someone like Oates; not just his role in (possibly) one of the crucial moments of the war, but also his general outlook and his life before and after the war.

Oates was born in Alabama in 1835 to a poor farming family, and had a bit of a wild life as a young man (and, to be honest, as an adult). He nearly killed a man in a drunken brawl and ran off to be a drifter in Florida, before being found by his younger brother John and returning to become a local lawyer. In many ways, he wasn’t a particularly likeable character (to put it mildly) – hot tempered, racist, sexist and arrogant – but he was also smart and determined. When the Civil War broke out, he joined the 15th Alabama in the Confederate army and rose through the ranks. He was talented as an officer, if occasionally a bit too opinionated or headstrong to reach the level he felt he deserved.

Continue reading Post 38: Gettysburg Requiem

Post 36: Agincourt by Juliet Barker

AgincourtAgain with the poor timing: I’ve just finished reading Agincourt by Juliet Barker and was considering whether I can be bothered holding on until Saint Crispin’s Day (25th October) before I post this – obviously not. And so this post is coming out exactly 599 years after some point in the middle of the Siege of Harfleur. This book covers that as well but it’s not quite as dramatic, is it? Anyway … I thought I’d write up a bit of a review of this book, and its follow up Conquest. These books come well recommended, with Bernard Cornwell quotes on the cover and much praise from other reviewers and historians.

I feel somewhat out of place to then say that I found these books disappointing. There’s so many positives in them – they are tightly written, cover the story with an expert eye from the grand scheme to the small details, contain some wonderful anecdotes*, characters and events, and are placed at a level that should be perfect with me (not too scholarly but assuming a certain level of background knowledge for their off hand references to Lollards or Richard II’s usurpation). However, I find these positives backfire and much of this detail is delivered flatly in a tone and pace that remains unswerving whether it is covering the peak of the battle of Agincourt or the production of cloth in the pre-war preparations. I know this is unfair, it’s a very well researched book and it never strays in irrelevancy, but it just doesn’t spark into life for me when it should.

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Post 35: Tor! The Story of German Football

CoverSometimes I don’t think this blog through well enough. I read this book months ago and reviewing it would have obviously sat perfectly with the world cup final that helped to mark the current dominance of German football, but alas – here it is, a few months later, just as attentions are focused on the new Premier League season.

Anyway … this sporting history written by the German journalist Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger is aimed at a non-German audience. People who won’t necessarily know the ins and outs of football in that country. It does not however act as a cultural, social or political history of Germany and would be next to useless as a tourist guide. There are many other books which do this for other countries, Morbo by Phil Ball, Brilliant Orange by David Winner – and it generally works rather well; but Ulrich H-L sets his stall out bluntly and immediately, he’s here to talk about football and you should look elsewhere for a tour guide.

Once that’s out of the way, the fascinating story of German football begins. It has sometimes had the image of an efficient and professional machine that lumbers along steamrolling the opposition in a dour way (largely because of the 80’s, which we’ll come to later). The truth couldn’t be further from that for the early days of German football; it was very much a regional and amateur sport. The Bundesliga didn’t come about until 1963 and even the 1954 World Cup winning team was made up of amateurs. Other nations had also been resistant to professionalism at the start of the twentieth century, but it is pretty shocking to find Germany still in that state fifty years later. Of course, that wasn’t the only problem – it’s hard to ignore the wars and dramatic political changes that Germany took part in during the first half of the twentieth century.

Continue reading Post 35: Tor! The Story of German Football

Post 34: The Fall of Rome by Bryan Ward-Perkins

There have been many, many books on the end of the western Roman empire; do we really need another? According to Bryan Ward-Perkins we do. He asserts that many recent historians, in their quest to re-examine the so called “barbarian” cultures of the Germanic invaders, have went too far and lost sight of the idea that the fall of Rome was a bad thing that severely impacted the lives of the (former) Roman citizens. He quotes various academics in articles portraying the invasions as a peaceful restructuring of the empire or a gentle transition period.

Personally, having stuck mostly to popular history, it seems like BWP is overstated the prevalence of this and that this may be a little bit of a straw man for him to argue against (any scholars out there in WordPress-land willing to share their own views on this?) but, despite these disagreements, he remains complementary and respectful of these historians so I’m willing to go along with him. I’ll come back to this overview and his conclusions at the end of my post, but for now I will cover his attempts to briefly explain and his idea of the empire declining and ending primarily due to violent invasion.

Continue reading Post 34: The Fall of Rome by Bryan Ward-Perkins

Post 32: The Rise of Rome

The Making of the World’s Greatest Empire

In this book, one of my favourites of recent years, Anthony Everitt covers the early days of Rome, both fact and fiction, in a light conversational style. The title suggests a certain symmetry with Gibbon’s Decline and Fall but this work is nowhere near as weighty (or radical). There is a bit of symmetry however in the timeline; it goes from Rome’s earliest days to the end of the Republic – not quite to the start of Gibbon but perhaps close enough to show the authors intentions. It is the early Republic however that gets the most focus. For me this is a highlight as I’ve read plenty on the likes of Pompey and Caesar, but the earlier days with mythical figures like Coriolanus or Cincinnatius often seem to be neglected. His previous books had typically been biographies – Cicero, Augustus, Hadrian – and this one does keep an enjoyable focus on characters even if there’s very little to go on. It’s not that the wider social factors are neglected, but Everitt seems to understand that a focus on individual personalities and anecdotes can help draw the reader deeper into history. This love of characters and myths is tempered by plenty of caveats and disclaimers about the reliability of these early Roman myths but, being from a literary background, Everitt is happy to run through these stories nonetheless.

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