Bits of Gibbon (Vol. 1 Chap. 6)

There a footnote among the discussion of the Caledonian war of Septimius Severus.

That the Caracul of Ossian is the Caracalla of the Roman History is… not without difficulty. In the Caledonian war, the son of Severus was known only by the appellation of Antoninus; and it may seem strange that the Highland bard should describe him by a nickname, invented four years afterwards, scarcely used by the Romans till after the death of that emperor, and seldom employed by the most ancient historians.

Quite.  Almost as if Ossian was made up at a (much) later date.

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Bits of Gibbon (Vol. 1 Chap. 2)

As part of my read through The Decline & Fall, here’s a quote that sums up Roman attitudes to religion rather succinctly, but may say even more about the English Enlightenment.

The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.

 

Bits of Gibbon (Vol. 1 Ch. 1)

I’ve been reading through Edward Gibbon’s classic Decline And Fall.  It’s quite a task, and early days yet, but I came across a few lines here and there I liked and wanted to share.  The 18th century historian Gibbon has been long since been superseded by later scholarship, but he is still well worth reading for his snippy style.  I like that he offered well read, but occasionally very opinionated judgements throughout – right from chapter one, as the quote below shows.

After a war of about forty years, undertaken by the most stupid, maintained by the most dissolute, and terminated by the most timid of all the emperors, the far greater part of the island submitted to the Roman yoke.

Claudius, Nero and Domitian by the way.

The Fate of Rome by Kyle Harper

34427005There have been many reasons suggested for the end of the western Roman empire – there’s a famous list of 210 from a German historian that sometimes gets brought up on this (everything from lead in the drinking water and gout to anti-German racism). Here Kyle Harper doesn’t make those kind of sweeping statements, but he does show the impact that environmental factors may have had in the fall of the west and the decline of the east. The ideas can be summed up simply – the expansion of the empire coincided with a period of relatively good climate in the Mediterranean and beyond, before falling into trouble as the climate became harsher. The environmental boost may have led to Rome becoming a more urban and prosperous society than we might have expected given its level of technological development. This in turn placed them in a risky position where infectious disease was concerned.

Firstly, it wasn’t a great place for health in general – Harper shows that the Romans grew to smaller statures than people in the region before or after the empire, never mind elsewhere in more rural societies. It was a rich society, but not necessarily a healthy one. Secondly, it was primed for particular pandemics to strike: the Antonine Plague, a mid-third century plague and finally Justinian’s Plague. The particular diseases and situations led to different impacts – but ultimately the drop in population and the sheer sense of shock for the survivors would be difficult to deal with.

Harper doesn’t rule out the effect of the normal socio-political/great man explanations – in fact he rather skips over the actual fall of the west. He does however point out that these took place in a world defined by the environmental diseases, a world where those people and structures had to be resilient in the face of infectious disease. The idea doesn’t seem that new or complicated (and I don’t know enough of the academic history to say if it is) but Harper explains it well, going into just enough detail on epidemiology and the evidence for historical climate variation.

There are a few flaws with the book, it would really help to have a reasonable knowledge of the later Roman empire – the chronology, the people, the geography. Not too much, but the author doesn’t exactly hang around to explain who Stillicho was. In addition, some attempts in a conclusion to give a warning of our future relationship to the climate don’t read that well. I appreciate the sentiment, but it’s not really a conclusion. Finally, the following graph wound me up – a bit too much smoothing on there!

Seriously, it’s a good book – not quite as mind blowing as some reviews might suggest, but meticulously put together, well written (it made me want to read more medicine/biology – and I’ve avoided that since I was 15) and something that will surely be an influential book in the years to come.

Empires And Barbarians by Peter Heather

original_400_600Years back I bought Peter Heather’s Fall of the Roman Empire (2005).  This 2009 book complements it, by viewing the period from the Barbarian perspective.  In particular Heather is looking at the topic of migration – striking out in a middle way between the traditional view of Völkerwanderung (the movement of entire and unified ethnic groups) and the revisionist view of Elite Transfer (the movement of a small group of typically male military leaders).

Heather does well to try to piece together all sources of information – archaeological evidence, written sources, economic, occasionally linguistic, and most notably comparisons to later migrations.  The elite of the Norman conquest, and the aggressive raiding turned movement of the Boers’ Trek are called to mind, as is the forced migration of Rwanda in the nineties.  This helps break down a complex topic into something that’s easier for non-specialists to digest.  There’s even an rare bit of humour in Heather’s writing (sometimes this takes it into awkward territory – too heavy to be accessible, too populist to be academic – but I think he normally lands it correctly).

Migrations into and around the late Roman empire are well covered – with the origin of The Goths getting particular focus; then a look at the power vacuum created by the decline of The Huns’ short-lived multi-ethnic empire.  It’s quite nice to read this without the Romans being the focus.  Beyond that though, Heather does challenge pre-conceptions and has the skill to make new ideas seem obvious.  He’s open about other historians who may not agree with his line of thinking (Walter Goffart, Guy Halsall) and I have a list of further reading to widen the picture.

Unfortunately the later sections don’t fit quite as well.  The formation/migrations of the Slavs are a difficult topic – too many unknowns, and heated nationalism – Heather does present what seems like a plausible timeline from the evidence available, but it’s not exactly thrilling stuff.  By contrast, a chapter on the movements of the Vikings suffers because the conclusions are too close to the conventional narrative.  Better is the penultimate chapter when these come together to show the formation of states in northern and eastern Europe.  The overall picture he portrays is complex: different forms of migration and state building at different times, but the book is well worth reading to get the valuable detail.

Stilicho: The Vandal Who Saved Rome by Ian Hughes

12215Half Vandal.  If it matters.  Which it probably does.  In this book Ian Hughes is all about defending the Roman general’s reputation.  He’s not unreasonable about it, but there’s a lot time spent piecing together a plausible narrative from opposing sources and a generous view of the actors’ behaviour.  In that sense it’s very balanced, and Hughes does convince in showing the weak position of the Western Empire – demoralised, under-resourced, with the crucial path through Illyria to Italy in the hands of an uncaring Eastern empire.  Hughes does present Stilicho as a canny politician who identifies these weak spots and does his best to solve them.

Boosting the armies moral and fighting defensively helps the first two.  The last is difficult – first Stilicho aims at taking a leading role in both halves of the empire, then he aims at a more direct reshuffling of provinces.  Maybe some of this is later propaganda, maybe other parts are mistakes on Stilicho’s behalf.  Stilicho had his break as much through family connections as his talent, and remained more a political general than a battlefield leader.  In the end it doesn’t end well for him or the empire in the hands of less capable successors.

Ian Hughes has written a number of books on this period for Pen & Sword (I previously posted on his book Imperial Brothers, about Valentinian and Valens).  This one suffers from the same narrowness of scope as some of the others, but does do a better job of setting the background (it feels odd that the rushed introduction actually covers similar ground to Imperial Brothers itself).  It might be nice to see a longer book from Hughes, one where he doesn’t have to do that kind of recap – but on the other hand, a longer book might not allow such a focus on a single character.

The World of Late Antiquity by Peter Brown

81cc3vgzqalAs 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.

HHhH and Memoirs of Hadrian

220px-hhhh_bookcoverRecently 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.

51fbcpndyjl-_sx323_bo1204203200_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.

The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham

61blm-ko2bzl-_sx325_bo1204203200_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.

Patrick Wyman/Fall of Rome bibliography

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”

The Renaissance:
-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”

Roman Cities:
-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”

Military Revolution:
-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.