As I understand it, this book from 1971 was influential in paving the way for current scholarship that treats the period form the 3rd to 8th centuries as distinct from the earlier Classical Roman period. Brown is positive about this era finding growth and creative in place of or alongside the traditional views of decline and destruction. I’ve read more recent, and more detailed books on this – The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham stands out. This still added something for me – the short accessible format is, for want of a better word, accessible. In particular the book brings up cultural figures like Augustine and Plotinus and shows the vibrant world of religious transformation (for better or worse). There are some great pictures throughout the book that really help to make the topic anything but dry. It would sit nicely alongside Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall Of Rome, which adds a much more argumentative and pessimistic view of the era – bringing up economic and archaeological evidence that Brown brushed over. Both books are rather short introductions to what could be a very heavy debate.
Recently I read two quite different works of historical fiction by French authors, both obsessed in their own way with a kind of authenticity. In the post-modern HHhH (from 2010) the author Laurent Binet inserts himself and his writing process into a story about the assassination of Reinhardt Heydrich. Uncomfortable about straying from historical fact or even inventing dialogue with real characters, Binet will intersperse the narrative with his thoughts on his own writing and his experiences researching the book. I’m not sure whether this quirk is inventive or not; but it is wasn’t quite as well done as this the book would be unreadable. The reticence against invention leads to the characters that a flat and, although the story still has its drama, it feels like Binet could have made more of it. His interventions do add to the build up, but it’s a gimmick that I enjoyed but wouldn’t particularly care to see again. In all, I enjoyed the book as a one off; and I’m tempted to break through my usual aversion to WW2 histories and find a real book on the assassination.
In 1951’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Margeurite Yourcenar tries to strip her own personality and touch away from the writing; through detailed research and critical editing (a number of earlier attempts were scrapped entirely) she produces what reads like a real set of memoirs. This sometimes leaves the book more admirable than enjoyable but at it’s best it can be moving, especially as Hadrian deals with the death of his favourite Antinous. His internal struggles show a character with real depth, as a man who fundamentally believes that peace is the best way forward but throws himself wholeheartedly into his military role. Compared to another recent read, Julian by Gore Vidal, the emperor feels genuine and subtle; the themes seem to occur naturally from the story. It’s a very gentle work, and you can feel the time and effort that have went into it.
As far as authenticity goes, Yourcenar definitely has the better balance of research and narrative; I could probably stand for a little less realism, but I think it’s a good model for fictionalised biography. Binet self-reflects on his failure to do justice to the narrative, and in a way that deprecation makes the book work, gives it a source of humour on a grim topic. I don’t think even close to a model of how to write, but it is however a very enjoyable book.
There’s sometimes a bit of a paradox as you look closer and closer into an event or period in history. The end of the Roman empire can a great example of this – classically it was thought that the empire (and indeed civilization) came to a crashing halt under waves of barbarian invasions, but as historians have looked more closely at the years, decades and even centuries after they see all sorts of continuity. Often the same type of people were running things, often using the same methods. People living through these world changing events may not have realized they were quite so defining. Yet living standards did fall, economically things declined, the quality of items found by archaeologists drops. How do you trace a middle path that can account for both sides of the argument?
For Chris Wickham, you do it very carefully. In this book Wickham tries to summarize european history between 400 and 1000 A.D. (including the Byzantines and Islam) while constantly stressing that there is no overarching story or end point. At times this begs the question, why put it all together in one book? But Wickham does piece together certain themes throughout the book – the influence of Rome on these successor states and how they continued or broke away from the old ways of doing things.
Despite all the ambiguity, Wickham seems authoritative (on Latin Christendom at least). The range of anecdotes, analysis and information is breathtaking; and where there is nothing to go on, Wickham is explaining that as well. The painstakingly precise style means that it isn’t always an easy read, but it does feel worthwhile. It may help that my podcast listening had recently taken me to Patrick Wyman‘s podcasts, and he stresses very similar continuities.
Perversely, the sheer scale and depth of the book actually helps. A look into the political procedures of one kingdom might be dry and difficult to follow; but repeated over multiple kingdoms, regions and cultures it starts to become understandable. This comparison seems to justify Wickham’s scope for the book: Why include Islamic empires? Why even include outlying regions of Europe like Ireland or Scandinavia? Because these shine light on the successor kingdoms to Rome that could otherwise be the focus of a more conventional book.
I do like a good bibliography – I’ve been interested by the books Mike Duncan has been selling as fundraisers – not necessarily to get his copy, but it’s a good prompt for what I might get myself. I recently finished Patrick Wyman’s podcast Fall of Rome and I’m looking forward to his follow up, Tides of History, that promises to cover a little more on the end of the Roman Empire and a lot more on the formation of the (early) modern world (or Europe at least). I was therefore interested to see that he has put a biography on his facebook page. For my own notes as much as anything else, I have copied the post below.
A number of folks have asked me about a bibliography. I’ll continuously update this post as I have time.
General Works – Fall of the Roman Empire:
-Chris Wickham, “Framing the Early Middle Ages”
-Guy Halsall, “Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568”
-A.H.M. Jones, “The Later Roman Empire, 284-602: A Social and Economic Study”
-Michael McCormick, “Origins of the European Economy”
-Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, “The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History”
Late Antiquity and the Fall of the Roman Empire:
–Bryan Ward-Perkins, “The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization”
-Peter Brown, “The World of Late Antiquity”
-G.W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar (eds.), “Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World”
-Guy Halsall, “Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568”
–Peter Heather, “The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians”
-Megan Hale Williams, “The Monk and the Book: Jerome and the Making of Christian Scholarship”
-Peter Brown, “The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity”
-Peter Brown, “Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD”
-Thomas Sizgorich, “Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam”
-Guido Ruggiero, “Renaissance Italy: A Social and Cultural History of the Rinascimento”
-Charles G. Nauert, “Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe”
-Brian Jeffrey Maxson, The Humanist World of Renaissance Florence
-Patrick Baker, “Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror”
-Paul D. McLean, “The Art of the Network”
-Richard Goldthwaite, “The Economy of Renaissance Florence”
-Richard Goldthwaite, “Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, 1300-1600”
-Gary Ianziti, “Writing History in Renaissance Italy”
Justinian, Natural Disasters, and the End of the Roman Empire:
-Kyle Harper, “The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire”
-Lester K. Little, “Plague and the End of Antiquity”
-John Moorhead, “Justinian”
-Peter Sarris, “Economy and Society in the Age of Justinian”
-Michael Maas (ed.), “The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian”
-M. Shane Bjornlie, “Politics and Tradition Between Rome, Ravenna, and Constantinople”
-Torsten Jacobsen, “The Gothic War: Rome’s Final Conflict in the West”
Rise of Capitalism:
-Avner Greif, “Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy”
-Christopher Dyer, “A Country Merchant, 1495-1520: Trading and Farming at the End of the Middle Ages”
-Edwin S. Hunt and James M. Murray, “A History of Business in Medieval Europe, 1200-1550”
-Martha C. Howell, “Commerce Before Capitalism in Europe, 1300-1600”
-Wendy Childs, “Trade and Shipping in the Medieval West”
-David Nicholas, “The Later Medieval City, 1300-1500”
-James M. Murray, “Bruges, Cradle of Capitalism, 1280-1390”
-Robert Duplessis, “Transitions to Capitalism in Early Modern Europe”
-Maarten Prak (ed.), “Early Modern Capitalism: Economic and Social Change in Europe, 1400-1800”
-Richard Lachmann, “Capitalists in Spite of Themselves: Elite Conflict and Economic Transition in Early Modern Europe”
-Reinhold C. Mueller, “The Venetian Money Market: Banks, Panics, and the Public Debt, 1200-1500”
-J.W. Hanson, “An Urban Geography of the Roman World BC 100 to AD 300”
-Helen Parkins (ed.), “Roman Urbanism: Beyond the Consumer City”
-Adam Rogers, “Late Roman Towns in Britain: Rethinking Change and Decline”
-Ray Laurence, A.S. Esmonde Cleary, and Gareth Sears, “The City in the Roman West, C.250 BC-c.AD 250”
-J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman City”
-Hendrik W. Dey, “The Afterlife of the Roman City”
-John Rich, “The City in Late Antiquity”
-Michael Kulikowski, “Late Roman Spain and its Cities”
-Claudia Rapp and H.A. Drake (eds.), “The City in the Classical and Post-Classical World”
-Brogiolo, Gauthier, and Christie, “Towns and their Territories Between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages”
-Geoffrey Parker, “The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800”
-David Parrott, “The Business of War: Military Enterprise and Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe”
-FrankTallett, “War and Society in Early Modern Europe, 1495-1715”
-Adrian Bell, Anne Curry, Andy King, and David Simpkin, “The Soldier in Later Medieval England”
-Michael Mallett, “The Italian Wars, 1494-1559”
-Fritz Redlich, “The German Military Enterpriser and His Work Force: A Study in European Social and Economic History”
-’Idan Sharar, “Warriors for a Living: The Experience of the Spanish Infantry in the Italian Wars, 1494-1559”
-Maurizio Arfaioli, “The Black Bands of Giovanni”
-Jan Glete, “War and the State in Early Modern Europe: Spain, the Dutch Republic, and Sweden as Fiscal-Military States”
Eastern Roman Empire in the Fifth Century:
-Michael Maas (ed.), “The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Attila”
-Fergus Millar, “A Greek Roman Empire: Power and Belief Under Theodosius II, 408-450”
-Anthony Kaldellis, “The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome”
-Gerard Friell and Stephen Williams, “The Rome That Did Not Fall: The Survival of the East in the Fifth Century”
-Christopher Kelly, “Ruling the Later Roman Empire”
-Alan Cameron, “Barbarians and Politics at the Court of Arcadius”
-Roald Dijkstra (ed.), “East and West in the Roman Empire in the Fourth Century”
The Rise of the State:
-John Watts, “The Making of Polities: Europe, 1300-1500”
-Joseph Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of Modern States
-Hendrik Spruyt, “The Sovereign State and its Competitors: An Analysis of Systems Change”
-Thomas Ertman, “Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Early Modern Europe”
-Daniel Nexon, “The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe: Religious Conflict, Dynastic Empires, and International Change”
I’ve bolded the ones I have actually read, but I do have works by some of the other authors: Christopher Kelly, Anthony Kaldellis, Chris Wickham.
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.
In my last post, I said I had been listening to two new podcasts this month. The first was Slow Burn by Slate. The second is a show called The Fall of Rome by a podcaster called Patrick Wyman – who went into sports journalism after finishing a history PhD, but still provides a state of the art view of the end of the Western Roman empire (whatever form that may take). I’ve read plenty on Rome, what makes this different?
Well, Wyman is able to approach the topic on multiple levels, from multiple angles: not just the political fall of the empire and its military causes that went along with it, but the economic and social processes that went along with it. He’s well versed in the unresolved debates and discussions that go along with the topic – were the barbarians ethnically unified peoples or mixed bands of soldiers under particular leaders; what exactly did it mean when these armies settled? Going higher, what do we even mean by the Fall of Rome? Wyman’s own PhD topic was to show a decline in transport and communication, by showing a decline in the frequency of letters that would have been sent via travellers. And that is the level of detail that he can delve into. His grasp of the material feels reassuringly secure, but he’s open about having own take on some of the topic’s controversies.
He does make these ideas accessible through fictional biographies of invented characters – describing how these processes and changes would have appeared to those who were living through them. Some of these changes would have been gradual, but others (Britain in particular) had a short, sharp decline. I’ve tried reading various views on this area of Late Antiquity – Peter Heather, Chris Wickham, Bryan Ward-Perkins – but seeing the ideas compared and contrasted directly, Wyman presents a very plausible story. In podcasts, Mike Duncan is still probably the best narrative start to this topic but Patrick Wyman is definitely essential for anyone who wants a more detailed analytical approach to the end of Rome.
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!
The main difficulty that Tim Whitmarsh has to deal with in his history of ancient atheism is that their gods are not the same as our Gods. As he repeatedly stresses “Greek religious culture had no sacred text, no orthodoxy, no clear sense if what was ruled in and out of the sacred sphere, and as a result it was not blasphemous to subject the nature if the gods to radical questioning.“. Throughout the many angles and sources that Whitmarsh explores it is difficult to pin point on what level they believe or disbelieve.
In many cases he looks at theomachia, tales of people battling the gods, often in fiction. For instance Pentheus in Euripides’ The Bacchae, or parts of Homer. Inevitably the gods win. It’s hard to find material written by or in favour of those who spoke or acted against the gods, but we can see indirectly through character archetypes or specific criticisms that there must have been skepticism and disbelief present in the ancient world.
Philosophy is particularly interesting; the pre-Socratic attempts to explain the world by physical theories; the Epicureans who sidelined the gods; and the Skeptics who expressed criticisms of both belief and disbelief. In general all three of these took the form of “an argument not for the non-existence of the gods but more narrowly for their limited explanatory role“, but things only get more complex as politics jumps into the issue: first with the god kings of the Hellenistic era and then with the divinely ordained expansion of the Roman empire.
Finally things get completely muddled as Christianity emerges and writers start to use atheist as a synonym for heretic (ie. those atheistic polytheists!). Still, the same names come up again and again: Euhemerus, Diagoras of Melos and various Skeptics or Epicurians. The religious tolerance that (mostly) allowed them to exist, disapproved of but free, would now disappear as politics was inextricably linked to religion; a monotheistic religion with rules and ideas set down in text too – that gave little room to manoeuvre.
This is not a straight forward book, the line between theism, atheism and agnosticism is constantly blurred; but that diversity of opinion and thought is interesting in itself. Whitmarsh shows that the scientific world of the Enlightenment was not the first time skepticism raised its head; as indeed those 18th century thinkers with their familiarity of classics would have realized. It is to the reader to make of this what he or she will, but Whitmarsh hopes it will show up modern skepticism as neither a fad nor an innovation, rather an idea with a history at least as old as the Abrahamic religions.
The 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.
I’m not usually one for gruesome stories and gore, but when reading about Constantine, this stood out. The pagan emperor Maximinus Daia persecuted Christians before being defeated by the more tolerant emperor Licinius (who was in turn defeated by Constantine). After his defeat but before his death he did issue an edict of Edict of Toleration, granting Christians rights. It didn’t do much to restore his reputation amongst them, and some gleefully recorded his slow, painful death.
From the Christian author Lactantius:
When he saw that he was trapped, Maximinus took his own life with poison. Before this, he had filled himself with food and wine, as those who think they are doing it for the last time usually do, and then he took the poison. Because of the effect of the food and drink, this did not cause the rapid death he had expected but a malign weakness similar to the plague, and his life was prolonged for a time amidst great pain. His intestines started to burn with unbearable pain, which drove him mad. For four days, he picked up dry earth with his hands and devoured it like a starving man, he beat his head against the walls and his eyes leapt from their sockets. Finally, he lost his sight and had a vision in which God judged him surrounded by servants dressed in white. He shouted like someone being tortured and claimed that he had not done it, but others. Finally, as if giving way to the pain, he began to confess to God, pleading and imploring Him to take pity on him. In this way, moaning in pain, as if he were on fire, he delivered up his pernicious spirit amidst a kind of detestable death.
I did find the article Portrait of a Persecutor by Mar Marcos an interesting defence of sorts of an unimpressive emperor. Without doubt Maximinus was below par, but we only really have some very lopsided sources to go on for quite how nasty he was. Some of the details, particularly the death are standard cliches – the similarly gruesome descriptions of Galerius’ death are similar to the death of Antiochus IV as recorded in Maccabees. Unfortunately we have to work with the sources we have, but it does make for some good reading.
As another stranger aside, it seems that some people have interpreted these descriptions to show that Maximinus had Graves’ Disease or Thyrotoxicosis. I’ll leave that one as medical diagnosis is not my strong point, even when it isn’t at a range of 1700 years.