The Lust of Knowing by Robert Irwin

150px-for_lust_of_knowingI could have sworn that I wrote a post on Edward Said’s Orientalism last year.  Clearly I didn’t – possibly because it might court controversy, because so much has been written already on it, or because frankly I just wasn’t that familiar with Said’s source material.  I got the general thrust of the book – that Western academics, poets and politicians have misrepresented the Islamic world and used their image of it as justification for colonialism and foreign policy.

Robert Irwin is very familiar with the source material; at least for the Orientalist scholars of the title.  He begins starts this rebuttal of Said’s book by condemning his misrepresentation of these scholars.  He begins by slowly going through the history of the representation of Islam in the “West”.  In the medieval era I recognise some stories from Wonders Will Never Cease like the Vegetable Lamb or Tartary, or Ramon Llull being tempted by a woman who turns out to be disfigured by cancer and praises his piety.  Fundamentally, those medieval scholars are unfamiliar with the land, culture or religion; and as he will later point out, rather than truly seeing Muslims as “other”, they compare them to what they know: Arian heretics or Christian sects.

71ox2rjfehlAs contact was made, works were translated and writers started to travel we get the likes of Guillaume Postel – looked over by the Inquisition as more insane than heretical; with a Vatican official declaring that “though his ideas were definitely heretical ‘no one, fortunately, could possibly understand them except the author'”.  Orientalist scholars are seen as a small fringe to the mainstream, generally seen as eccentric at best.  Later, the likes of De Sacy or Hammer-Purgstall do still see Islam through the prism of their own experiences, for example seeing the Druzes as atheist revolutionaries in the Carbonari mold.  But the way Irwin presents this is relatively benign, it’s a search for a familiar reference and to understand unfamiliar cultures.  Although this had a big impact on the field of Orientalism, Irwin sees little on wider European culture.  For the most part, those who pushed for colonialism were dismissive of the scholars, and those who administered it had Greek and Roman culture as their reference rather than the work of the Orientalists.

That’s not to say that it was all sunshine and enlightenment: there are plenty of stories like “Professor Hamilton Gibb warned [James, 50s Durham lecturer]  Craig against spending time in the middle east as ‘it will corrupt your classical'”.  In Irwin’s view, the best work in the field, the work that sets its direction, was being produced by German scholars in the 19th century, or by Hungarian Jews like Goldhizer.  The British universities were moribund, and the French were mostly just following the trend.  Their views of history were also heavily informed by the cyclic rise and fall of Ibn Khaldun’s work.  Both of these are an issue for Said, who (even in corrections) saw the Germans and eastern Europeans are irrelevant.

In his chapter on the Post-war Hey Day Irwin describes carefully how Arab studies in Arab countries have lagged behind (Albert Hourani suggested that the good scholars just get jobs in the west), and so the English speaking writers continued to attempt to fill the gap. That’s not to say all Islamic scholarship has been slow – Turkey is very successful – though continuously ignored by both Said and Irwin.  He picks out politically disagreeable authors like Bernard Lewis and picks out their early work of merit: “anyone who wishes to determine Lewis’s merits as an Orientalist has to engage with (emergence of modern turkey) and other works of the sixties.”.  Or the many French orientalists who stood against French North African colonisation.  For him, Said has dismissed worthy scholars on political grounds, and ignored politically inconvenient sources.

As we get to the modern day, he tackles Said’s criticism of specialist scholars making generalist comments on parts of the Middle East outside their geographical or temporal expertise.  He justifies this by the small number of academic positions, and sheer lack of interest in the subject.  When undergraduate courses in Arabic are being closed down, and even senior positions go unfilled; it is easier for an academic to write a general piece, or claim political relevance, than it is to beg for funding for specialist topics (“Coins of the Almohads” vs “A history of the Arab Peoples”?).

Finally we reach his personal condemnation of Said.  It’s a polemic, a good polemic; he points out many of Said’s errors and Said’s poor attitude to criticism.  There is a bit of a personal attack at Said’s upbringing – wealthier and less Palestinian than later suggested – that seems unnecessary.  However, it is a pretty convincing demolition of Said’s use and understanding of the academic sources.  There’s a brief section on other “enemies”, but for the most part these are less convincing that Said and easier to dismiss (either you think the Quran is received wisdom from God, or it is not; arguments that Jews should not be studying Islam …).  Ziauddin Sardar is more interesting, but Irwin again narrows in on the detail.  Finally, he is actually quite complementary of Muhsin Mahdi – which is nice.

In the end though, it could be said that both Irwin and Said miss the point.  Irwin shows that the Orientalists themselves were often misrepresented – but he steers clear of the wider view that British and French cultural attitudes to Islam allowed their later (and current) behaviour in the Middle East and North Africa.  His book aims narrowly at clearing the academic scholars, then extrapolates this into a dismissal of Said and his followers.  Where an Orientalist is undeniably involved in Imperialist projects, Irwin sees it as an outlier; Irwin’s is a very individualist approach to the topic – everyone doing their own thing for their own reasons, wider cultural trends playing a minor role.  Said may have been ambiguous in his detail – but there’s a fundamental point about the difficulty of removing politics and cultural bias from pure academia that still stands despite Irwin’s rebuttal.


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.

Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor by Paul Stephenson

8660508Yes, I have just read two biographies of Constantine very close together.  It actually works, both books have a certain focus.  And with the reliability or paucity of the source material, there are different interpretations to be set out.

Like David Potter’s book, Stephenson also takes some time to set the scene.  For Potter that was the administrative and imperial state before and after Diocletian.  For Stephenson, it is the religious state of the Roman empire in the late third century.  Where Potter was happy to sideline the topic of religion, Stephenson wants to set out his views on Constantine’s conversion: a real conversion but due to his identification of the Christian God as a pagan style victory giving god.  This is contrasted with early Christian pacifism and an army that was among the slower parts of society.  While Potter was sharp and analytical, Stephenson (although clearly knowledgeable) doesn’t build his arguments quite as tightly – they sometimes seem a bit speculative.

The book doesn’t just focus on religious issues.  The military and governmental sides are also covered, making the book perhaps more rounded that Potter’s.  One interesting discussion looks at Constantine’s development of Rome and Constantinople.  After looking at how Constantine adapted the work of his rival Maxentius in Rome, he suggests that another rival Licinius started work on Constantinople before having his contribution more successfully removed from history.  Both authors do see a similar motivation in refounding the city, as Potter described the previous use of Nicomedia as an administrative centre.  Ultimately the emperor was looking for a fresh start in his own image.

As a character both pictures of Constantine feels similar in many ways: determined, ruthless but often tolerant and morally led in decision making.  Despite twisting religion to suit his own views and ends Paul Stephenson’s Constantine feels less cynical than David Potter’s.  Stephenson does though point out the bias of our biographical sources – usually religious – and suggests that our image would change if we had accounts from other backgrounds.  This is probably the best introduction to the emperor that I have read (actually, I’d suggest Mike Duncan’s podcast), but it’s not without its odd twists and nuances – particularly some of the speculation.  Personally I preferred Potter for the better defined scope and analysis.




Constantine The Emperor by David Potter

519wcldixtl-_sx327_bo1204203200_Constantine must be among the best known Roman emperors, but it sometimes seems like there are less popular history books and historical fiction on him than I might expect.  I guess that makes sense in a way, what exciting narrative scenes exist are too wrapped up in his conversion to Christianity – not exactly a fashionable topic.  It seems hard to find writing about Constantine that isn’t really part of the larger story of the rise of Christianity or the decline of the Empire.  His great predecessor Diocletian feels even more obscure.  Maybe the story is too political, not enough scandal and sex appeal?

This book by David Potter bills itself as a biography of Constantine, but it’s more limited than that: the majority of the book sets up the role of the Emperor and his administration before and after the reforms of Diocletian.  Constantine only really comes into play after the first third, and only really gains power in the final third.  Potter looks at how Constantine conformed to and retreated from those conventions as Emperor.  The focus is there rather than his Christianity or his military exploits – though clearly both are covered as part of a general picture.  It’s an interesting take, and it does help to put his career and decisions in proper context.

David Potter paints a complex picture of Constantine.  A man whose religion and image would be carefully adjusted over time.  He is astute enough to dismiss some of the mythical stories – the failed assassination attempt by Maximian, for example – and set out our ignorance on others – the circumstances of the death of his son and exile of his wife Fausta,  As a character Constantine comes across as power hungry and ruthless, but also cautious and tolerant.  It’s a detailed and authoritative portrayal, but unfortunately one that can come across as a little dry and perhaps a little lop sided in places.



The Fall of Rome by Peter Heather

51wyaq06g3l-_sx320_bo1204203200_This was one of the first proper history books I bought, back in 2007.  Fresh from Robert Harris‘ Cicero first novel and Tom Holland’s Rubicon, I overreached.  It’s a fascinating, interesting, well written book, but it is a lot more academic than either of those.  I enjoyed it, but being unfamiliar with the details of the debate on the end of Rome I didn’t really get the most out of Heather’s arguments.  More recently, I read his The Restoration of Rome and found it to be a much lighter book than my memories of this.  Inspired by this and my improved understanding of Rome in the intervening decade, I decided to return to The Fall of Rome.

Peter Heather has the same stylish way with words that he showed in the more recent book ( one quote that stood out: “Clovis, in particular, seems to have enjoyed the merry crack of axe on skull”) but the popular analogies don’t come quite as frequent or quite as broad.  This is a much more serious book, which tries to set out a middle ground between the ideas that Rome either fell entirely because of internal decline, or that it collapsed solely due to the external force of the invading barbarians.  As he states near the start, no one seriously takes either opinion so a middle opinion was always inevitable; but he does have some points to make about the exact role that the Huns played in the process.

In Heather’s opinion the western movement of the Huns sparked the movements of other peoples, and it was these that caused the real damage to the empire.  There had been similarly fierce nomads before – the Sarmatians in the first century BC – but this did not have the knock on effect because the Germanic tribes that bordered Rome were too small and localized to have the same impact.  In the face of Roman power large confederations of tribes formed and united into even bigger ones.  Once these were forced to move, real trouble was unleashed.

The book covers both this argument and the surrounding history with some skill.  It’s not overly populist, but Heather uses anecdote and colour where appropriate.  On the other hand, he compares the archaeological record against established ideas and offers conservative and plausible figures on numbers.  I’m glad I returned to the book, and even after my intervening decade of reading about Rome felt that I  was reading a unique and valuable account of the topic.


Pax Romana by Adrian Goldsworthy

25930989I once read the criticism of Adrian Goldsworthy that he has a tendency to just report facts and evidence without adding much in the way of interpretation or conclusion.  And that is sort of true of this book, but like Philip Parker’s The Empire Stops Here it covers such an area and such a time period that it is hard to criticise the book for lacking a grand conclusion.

The two books actually cover some similar ground but Goldsworthy records some of the attitudes and experiences of the Roman empire (both as the Republic and fully fledged empire), while Parker seemed more concerned by the physical geography of the empire.  There’s nothing hugely new, but it’s a well written summary of how the Romans operated – economically, their laws, their taxes – and how parts of the empire were integrated in so successfully.  There’s not much narrative, and some material is a little dry, but the explanations are clear and well written.  His comparison of banditry to car crashes does linger in the mind – an ever present danger, but one that would easily be risked by most people.

The author largely suspends judgement on the morality or success of the empire, but does describe the brutality of Roman repression and that a push for security (as opposed to prosperity) was the main driving factor of the empire’s operation.  It’s not exactly a damning condemnation of the empire, but neither is it much of an endorsement.  It’s not state of the art academia, but Adrian Goldsworthy has written an interesting and relatively accessible book on a wide ranging and often complex topic.


Genghis Khan by Frank McLynn

genghis khan.jpgFirst off, I enjoyed Frank McLynn’s biography of Marcus Aurelius when I read it a few years ago.  He occasionally felt a bit bias towards his own opinions, and there was quite a lot of tangential material; but it was a full and detailed biography of the man.  This 2015 profile of Genghis Khan keeps the details but drops some of the more out there tangents.

We go right from Genghis/Temujin’s birth on the steppes of Mongolian, beyond his death, to the division of his empire into four on the death of his grandson Kublai Khan.  McLynn feels authoritative and familiar with the material; in all aspects – military, social, political.  The Mongols and Genghis can be a complex topic.  There is a contrast between the nomadic warriors and the ease they settle into the use of Chinese style bureaucracy; between the paranoid cruelty of Genghis (even early on) and his religious tolerance.  McLynn does catch this, but often he is telling rather than showing.

At times though, I got lost in the sheer scale and speed of Mongol expansion, along with the horrifying death toll.  A more focused approach may have presented these with a bit more skill, rather than the epic one volume history given here.  McLynn doesn’t get bogged down in too much ethical judgement of the conquest, but as a reader it is hard not to have to pause at points.

Ultimately, I don’t have the reference points for Genghis and the history of the East that I do for Marcus Aurelius and Rome.  This was quite a dry read throughout much of the book, and I found myself having to struggle against the temptation to skim read.  By the time the Mongols were pushing into Europe I was a little more comfortable, but it isn’t as easy introduction to the Mongols.


Crimes of Elagabalus by Martijn Icks

According to the author Neil Gaiman: “Heliogabolus was just a weird kid with a thing about animals and big dicks.”   As summaries go, this may not be far off – he’s that strange a character.  Elagabalus (officially Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus) was emperor for for years, starting at the age of fourteen.  In that time, he mostly concerned himself with religious matters – he had been brought up to be the priest of a Syrian sun god called Elagabal.  As emperor he continued in this role and promoted the sun god as the highest of the gods.  He was also, mostly famously, accused of shocking acts of decadence and sexual behaviour.  In the end, he was assassinated by guards and replaced by his cousin at the age of eighteen.

In this book, Icks starts by reviewing the historical sources and Elagabalus’ probable life.  Although the sources are heavily biased and reports of scandalous behaviour has to be taken with a pinch of salt, the emperor was unpopular enough to be killed after a short reign despite the lack of any military, natural or economic disasters.  The religious element too is exaggerated, despite stories to the contrary it does not seem that Elagabalus was planning on turning monotheist – but the religious reforms seem like the most likely source of discontent.

In the context of the 3rd century, Elagabalus could seem like a step in the transition from the Principate to Constantine – the shift of focus on to the Syrian sun god (Sol Invictus) was later carried out more successfully by Aurelian and certainly helped the later transition to Christianity under Constantine.  In fact, the religious changes seem more of a false start than a stepping stone, and only add to the feeling of a character ‘out of time’.

Much of the second half of this book is taken up with reviews of literature and historigraphy in the centuries after, right up to the modern day.  There is a transition from medieval and early modern works that treat the emperor as a generic decadent tyrant, to twentieth century works that play with his gender and sexuality.  Both of these have something to them, depending on which sources you wish to use – the stories give a lot of scope: five marriages including a vestal virgin; marrying a chariot driver who he referred to as his husband; killing guests by smothering them with rose petals; selling himself as a prostitute; harnessing naked women to his chariot; attempting to have his genitalia surgically changed.  Among all the myths and interpretations the one that actually sits best for me is Elagabalus as the young, insecure emperor – bullied by his mother and grandmother, not quite mature enough for his role.

In the end, despite the lurid tales he’s a somewhat peripheral figure in Roman history and even in the art and literature it has inspired.  Despite the number of works covered in this book, they are all relatively obscure – he may or may not have been a unique personality among the emperors of Rome, but he is far from the infamy of Nero or Caligula – and even Commodus has Gladiator.  Perhaps his story is just a bit too odd to make great fiction?


The Empire Stops Here by Philip Parker

Subtitled A Journey Along The Frontiers of the Roman World.  Author Philip Parker describes the borders of the Roman Empire region by region, giving detailed descriptions of Roman settlements and the history associated with the region.  The initial chapters focusing on the Britannia and Germania are a bit of a blur of forts and long drawn out wars with raiders.  Further east and round the Mediterranean, however, things improved as Parker describes the clash of cultures and changing Roman military fortunes 51ymhrzutkl-_sy344_bo1204203200_with great colour.

Unfortunately I’d hoped for more of a travelogue in the style of William Dalrymple or Tim Mackintosh-Smith.  Parker has clearly viewed most of the remains himself, it shows in the vividness of his descriptions, but the few tales of modern travel that he tells add wonderful texture to the historical detail – being prevented entering a Bavarian forest by 21st century “barbarians” with hunting rifles, for examples.  It feels like a little bit of a missed opportunity.

There are various themes running through the book, archaeological evidence of religious changes reoccurs  – particularly the personal mystery cults, like Mithras or Isis, popular in the third century.  On the whole however, it can feel a little bit mixed up.  You could definitely learn a lot about the later Roman empire here, but it’s far from conventional in order.

Overall there is a grand sense of scale.  The photographs included in the book are beautiful and the detailed geographical descriptions bring the sheer size and variety of the empire into focus.  The sites that I am familiar with are there – the remnants of Roman Cologne, the Saxon Shore defenses on the south coast of England – and they are almost as impressive on page as they were in reality.  The sites that I have not visited (most it, to be honest!) are just moved further up my internal list of holiday ideas.


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