The Golden Age: The Spanish Empire of Charles V by Hugh Thomas

This is a very authoritative and extensive book on the Spanish empire in the Americas during the reign of Charles V.  It is rich in detail and full of tales of the conquistadors.  There is a lot of material to cover, but Thomas moves quickly enough without skimping on depth and even finds occasional moments of humour.

The book starts rather abruptly in 1520; it is officially the second part of a trilogy but does work as a stand alone if one can accept a few seemingly arbitrary starting or finishing points.  This means that it begins after the rise of Hernan Cortes, instead centring itself on Pizarro’s conquest of Peru and the bloody infighting that followed.

The introduction of the book sets out a contrast between Charles’ possessions in America and in Europe; but the European side and Charles himself are covered less in this volume.  We do see the transatlantic interactions within the empire, but generally with the focus on America.  Charles is such an interesting figure that I might have liked to read more about him, but his stance on the colonies was always a somewhat standoffish one so the book doesn’t develop in that direction.  European events like the Reformation barely raise their head in Thomas’ narrative.

I may also have liked a slightly less character-led approach in places – it would have been nice to get a better picture of the Spanish and native cultures in themselves, as opposed to a picture limited to where they interacted.  The adventures, exploration and amoral scheming of Pizarro, Amalgro and others are interesting, shameful and occasionally impressive; and chapters on the church figures in the Spanish administration show the transition away from private fiefdoms.

The Golden Age is an enjoyable enough book, but at the same time it left me disappointed.  I wanted more from this, and struggled to really build up much of a sense of the empire.

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Sertorius and the Struggle for Spain

During the last days of Republican Rome, the battles in Spain between the rebel general Sertorius and the Roman legions of Pompey, Metellus and others are often relegated to a bit of a sideshow.  This book by Philip Matyszak puts them centre stage.

I rather like these books by Pen & Sword, they can occasionally be a bit uneven but they often cover topics that others don’t.  This is definitely on the better end of the scale.  The writing is accessible,   The maps are useful – with ones showing relief, rivers, settlements and ethnic groups – all relevant for the campaigns that follow.

The book begins with Sertorius as the focus, covering his earlier days as a Marian general and giving a sense of his character – loyal, honest and level headed.  After the return of Sulla, we see Sertorius forced out to Spain where he allies with local tribes and drives off the forces sent to remove him.

Without really delving into the politics of Rome, Matyszak shows how Sertorius could initially hold hopes of a shift in domestic politics allowing him home.  This was an interest thread, he was a Roman and presented himself as a legitimate Roman governor, but he fought alongside Spanish tribes and was linked with potential alliances to Mithradates and other enemies of Rome.  It was a thin line to walk, made possible only by continued military success.

On the military side of things, the high point was a series of brilliant victories against the young general Pompey (later to be “the Great”).  Rome however was able to resupply and replenish its armies, and Sertorius’ subordinates did not always perform as well as their leader.  Decline inevitably set in.  Matyszak sets this against the rise of Pompey, with his style marked by the memory of those defeats and his sons to later fight against Caesar in the Iberian peninsula.

This is a very readable account of Sertorius’ wars.  This topic is often skimmed over in popular histories of the late Republic, but there are plenty of wonderful details and the easy, relaxed tone of the book reminds me of Tom Holland’s Rubicon.  It probably doesn’t work as a stand alone book – too much about the politics and characters of Rome is left unsaid – but it is well worth reading if you have already enjoyed a more general history of this period.

Post 42: Science & Islam

I recently read Science & Islam by Ehsan Masood, designed to accompany a BBC television series, and decided to put out a post on it. To spoil things up front, I found the book disappointing but the topic fascinating so I began writing a huge essay on it. So huge in fact that I’ve decided to split it into a number of posts. This first one will give a general history and my thoughts on the book itself, and it should be followed by a post or two on the science behind all this (something that I think the book struggled to deal with as much as I would have liked).

The Rise of Islam

When the Arab armies came storming out of the desert into the tired Byzantine and Persian Empires, their initially success was astounding. They soon found themselves in control of a vast empire containing a mix of religions and peoples in which arabs and Islam were a minority. This shift from military expansion to administration provided a set of challenges for the Caliphate to deal with – providing food for the population, minting coins, providing a central administration and building new cities and buildings. This began a boom in science and technology that would last for centuries, but it did not start from scratch – those christians, jews and zoroastrians that had populated the land before would lend their talents to this and techniques would be brought in and translated from outside the reaches of the empire. The universal adoption of the arabic language helped this process, providing easy communication between scholars from distant lands.

Continue reading Post 42: Science & Islam