The Storm Before The Storm by Mike Duncan

34184069Mike Duncan is known, among people who follow such a thing, as a history podcaster.  He paved the way for the now ubiquitous “History of …” style with his History of Rome, before moving onto covering Revolutions (so far: the English Civil War, the American, a variety of French, Haiti and South American independence). He has a dry wit and interests in politics that allow him to take the most detailed of topics, and explain them through modern analogies, jokes and good old fashioned story telling.  The Storm Before The Storm is his first outing as an author.

In it he returns to ground he covered back in the History of Rome – the downfall of the Roman Republic. But unlike other books he steers clear of Pompey, Julius Caesar or Octavian. For Duncan, it’s the earlier stages that bear more attention.  TSBTS deals with the Italian struggle for citizenship, the reformist Gracchi brothers, and ultimately the struggle for supremacy between Marius and Sulla.

This isn’t obscure by any means, but in most tellings it is left as an introduction or a few short chapters before the main story arc begins. (One of my favourite books is Rubicon by Tom Holland.  In that he get through the same period in the first 20% of the book)  But Duncan explains how the damage to the political structure was dealt in this period, with increasing deviation from the traditions and conventions (mos maiorum) that held the Republic together.  By the time Sulla is putting up proscription lists of enemies for execution, the whole thing is doomed.

Duncan’s story telling is as good as ever and re-centring the story around convention and the Italians does add something, even for readers already familiar with the story.  Even so, there is a part in between the Gracchi and the Social War where the names keep coming and going too quick to follow and the book (briefly) becomes a little dry.  The fast pace stops this becoming an issue however.  I’d definitely recommend it.  Maybe not over Rubicon as a first introduction, but it’s in the same league.  It’s less personality focus, but it may give a better picture of how the system of the Republic collapsed.

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Catullus’ Bedspread by Daisy Dunn

9780007554324The late Roman Republic is one of my favourite periods of history.  I love the main narrative of the story and the detail that we have about the characters involved.  Catallus was a poet, and not one who really got involved in politics – so he’s always been (at best) on the periphery of my reading.  This book puts him in the centre and gives a wonderful snapshot of life in Rome at the time.

The main story here is Catallus’ failed affair with Clodia Metelli, notorious patrician daughter of the Claudius family, sister of the populare Clodius and wife of the conservative Metellus Celer.  His poetry (written to her as Lesbea) starts out romantic (and filthy) and ends up bitter, angry (and filthy).  But Dunn shows that there is much more than just smut.  Catallus used his knowledge of greek poetry (particularly Callimachus) to write some very clever stuff, and challenged the convention of long, overblown epics with his personal and emotional style.  The title obviously alludes to the poet’s active sex live, but it too shows the hidden depth: focusing on “Poem 64” a take on the myth of Peleus and Thetis that includes an ornate bedspread, leading to a poem within a poem on Ariadne and Theseus.

As a character, I think Dunn’s is a fairly generous take on his character.  The obsessive jilted lover could be read in a much less charitable way, but Dunn does refrain from portraying Clodia as the sinister plotter of legend.  Catallus’ time in Rome starts around the time Clodius infiltrated the Bona Dea festival and ends with his premature death around the time of Crassus’ death at the battle of Carrhae – it’s a mere ten years.  It’s a strange reminder of how short life could be then and yet how fast things were changing.

I was not previously familiar with Catallus poetry (outside of a few famous bits of smut – Poem 16.  Although Dunn only really includes a full translation of 64, I’m impressed enough to read more and perhaps to look for the depth behind the dirt.  Beyond that the book would be enjoyable for anyone who read Tom Holland’s Rubicon and loved the setting – in a smaller scale, it brings to life a similarly vibrant Rome.

Roman Myths by Michael Grant

I have read a few of Michael Grant’s many books in the past.  They are generally okay, he is very readable and he clearly has a wide ranging knowledge of the classical world but they’re not always the most insightful or inspirational of books.  This book on roman myths from 1971 is probably the most engaging of his work that I have read so far.

Continue reading Roman Myths by Michael Grant