After Mike Duncan’s superb History of Rome, do we really need another podcast about Romans? Obviously more than a few people think so, by the way that this series, by La Trobe University in Australia has rocketed up the iTunes charts. In fairness, the show itself has a different format and tone – it’s much more biographical in focus and is presented as an interview between the host, Matt Smith, and a lecturer at the university, Dr Rhiannon Evans. Pieces of the interviews are then put together to tell the story and discuss any interesting points that crop up.
Back in August, I wrote a post on Peter Adamson’s podcast series The History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps). You can find more in depth thoughts in that post but, to be brief, I liked it a lot. It was clear, fun with an approachable structure that moved forward and built on what had gone before (both in philosophy and in the in-jokes). Adamson, a university professor, created the show in collaboration with the Leverhulme Trust and had on an array of academic guests to talk over the topics in detail.
The first section involved the greats of Greek philosophy – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It also covered many of their predecessors (this is “without any gaps” after all) with such big names as Thales of Miletus and Pythagoras. So where do we go next? Well, in his Late Antiquity section we begin with more Greek philosophers (including more household names) before moving on to the dominance of Plato and Aristotle in neo-Platonism, and finally the early Christian church.
As you may have noticed from this blog, I listen to a decent amount of podcasts. One of my favourites is Robin Pierson’s History of Byzantium. I was pleased to find that they recently had on a special guest, one of my favourite history writers, Tom Holland. As the podcast had reached a handy stopping point just after Islam had exploded onto the world stage, it was a perfect chance to begin trying to shed some light on the origins and early stages of the religion and the arab invasion. The author of a recent book on the subject aimed at a popular audience, Holland was an ideal choice to start things off.
I am in the middle of reading An Ice Cream War by William Boyd, and came to notice a bit of an anniversary. It’s now hundred years since the Battle of Tanga, otherwise known as the Battle of the Bees.
Adrian 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.
My last attempt to familiarize myself with Greek myths didn’t go too well. Robert Grave’s book on the topic was written in a rather affected style and contained interpretations and footnotes that could best be described as a bit mental. After a bit of a break, I recently made a new attempt with Paul Vincent’s Myths and History of Greece and Rome podcast.
It’s not a bad idea for a topic, and I can picture a series that works to tell the stories dramatically while dropping out now and then to explain them. How should we interpret these myths? How do they relate to other aspects of ancient Greek culture? How did they change over time? What impact have they had since? It would be fascinating to hear answers to these, preferably while staying well away from Robert Grave’s mushroom hallucination trip. It was disappointing then to find this series a bit ‘no thrills’.
This is my fiftieth post on this blog. I’d wondered if I should do anything special here, but in the end have decided to just note a couple of small things. Firstly, the History of England podcast is going on to a (hopefully brief) hiatus. It has been one of my favourite podcasts for a few years now with its mix of amateur dramatic, sheds and the ladybird book of Kings and Queens. However, David Crowther has been doing it more or less non-stop for four years and has decided to break until early next year to help keep things fresh. Here is the relevant post from his facebook group.
A few weeks ago I posted a review of the book Science & Islam by Ethan Masood, a tie in with a BBC series from about five years ago. I felt that the book was a bit of a let down, but loved the topic and wanted to read more on it. As a follow up I then wrote a post giving a bit more detail on the Islamic contributions to Mathematics. I wouldn’t pretend that I’m a better writer than Masood, but I wanted to focus a bit more on some of the techniques and details of the work than he did. I do have a scientific background, but I don’t want to make this into a science blog so I’m attempted to strike a bit of an awkward line between the history and the science. With that introduction/disclaimer out of the way – here’s a short summary of the Islamic world’s contribution to Astronomy.
Looking at it now, Mathematics may be the headline grabbing topic for the Islamic golden age but Astronomy (and its unfortunate and misguided relative Astrology) were at least as important. Not only did they provide the motivation for a lot of the work in mathematics and physics, but they also did a lot of very underrated work in moving the topic forward from its ancient roots towards the early heliocentric model of Copernicus. Islamic scholars invented technologies like the astrolabe, published tables of data that later scientists would draw on, and worked out a lot of the mathematical difficulties for the later models. Unfortunately, the political and educational system in the Islamic world meant that they weren’t fully able to capitalize on this; the wonderful observatories were only ever short term institutions and the whole thing stagnated around the turn of the sixteenth century.
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.
This is yet another in the History of X mould – the name happens to be flipped around to Egyptian History, so I guess its already breaking that formula, but how will it stand up against its predecessors? On first glance things look good – the presenter Dominic Perry is actually a graduate student in Egyptian history. As much as I love David Crowther’s ‘man in a shed’ amateurism on History of England podcast, Egyptian history is an area with so many conspiracy theories, myths and general nonsense that it is reassuring to have someone who can give a modern academic view. It’s also great to have someone with access to and experience of materials and locations that wouldn’t be possible for the amateur podcaster.
I should say at this point that I’ve struggled with Egyptian history in the past. Even recently, I attempted to read Toby Wilkinson’s epic history of Egypt but balked halfway through in the face of incomprehensible names and a seemingly never ending succession of kings that we know little about. That’s the potential problem with such a show, the kingdoms of Egypt lasted for so long and the culture changed so much over that time – pacing things correctly can be difficult.
Previously I was barely able to get a handle on things before a new king or god or style of temple would pop up and blow everything out of the water. With this said, it is very much to Dominic Perry’s credit that he has managed to bring me along with him. The show does move quickly, but things are well placed with a special focus on new concepts as they arrive. This is balanced well, with episodes often split between a narrative and another topic (for example, women or the economy).