2021 in books: Roman history special (July-September)

Books

Well, here we are again. This summer has been very busy and at times, very difficult. But there were books, just not as many as I liked. I didn’t mean to take such a deep dive into Roman history in the last few months, but the first book on my list set me off down a path where the (rare) free reading time I had over the summer was largely spent in the Mediterranean past…

Ancient Rome: the rise and fall of an empire by Simon Baker (BBC Books, 2006)

Something of a primer for those new to the subject, this book nonetheless features plenty of interesting information for everyone. Originally published to accompany a BBC series, Baker moves from one period to another, with little linking these areas of focus, which can feel a little disjointed at times.

Baker devotes each chapter to one life in particular, such as Julius Caesar or Constantine. Here, we see a classic example of the Great Man theory of history, in which stories of the past are told through the prism of one man. The downside of this is that readers can be left with the feeling that these individuals were predestined for greatness, which is almost never a forgone conclusion, and indeed only a stance that one can take when looking back on a life that has long since ended.

Nowadays, I prefer books which can take into account the lives of the society in which these so-called ‘great men’ were able to rise to power. Luckily, the following titles have tried to steer more closely to the ‘bigger picture’ approach, to varying degrees of success…

Rubicon: the triumph and tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland (2003, Abacus)

This one was a welcome re-read. Rubicon is one of my favourite books on Roman history, and Holland one of my favourite historical writers. This books centres in the era Ancient Rome moved from a republic almost half a millennium old to a dictatorship, then empire under the rule of one man for the first time since their hated olden days of kings.

Interwoven into this narrative history are the letters of famous orator Cicero, accounts of the civil wars that gave rise to Augustus (Rome’s first ever First Citizen – Julius Ceasar was only ever ‘dictator for life’), the surrounding empire, wives, slaves, lovers and celebrity chefs. There’s humour and reasoning beyond the usual ‘dates & battles’ format many of us might be used to in history books.

Holland has a knack for presenting his well researched stories in an engaging manner (I have previously reviewed one of his shorter books on Atherstan of England here). However, I mainly read this book again to refresh myself of the historical circumstances in which the next book commences…

Dynasty: the rise and fall of the house of Ceasar by Tom Holland (2015, Abacus)

Rome’s shift from republic to monarchy-in-all-but-name was more piecemeal than some might think. From the pretentions of Julius Ceasar to the encroaching laws which gradually secured the long-term ambitions of Augustus, the path to a (sort of) hereditary title of Emperor, took a few generations to form. This book examines the family line from Julius to Nero. Six rulers who changed the way Rome was governed – the Julio-Claudian Dynasty.

In relating the key events, relationships and bizarre behaviour of these first emporors, Holland also shows us a reflection of the people of Rome itself. He reminds us that the outrageous rumours surrounding the Ceasars survive because that was what the public and historians of the era wanted to believe and disseminate. To some extent, he argues that the lives of the Ceasars, as we know them today through surviving sources, offers a glimpse into the psyche of the empire’s people, and fleshed out the book’s six chapters with examples of customs and lifestyles which changed alongside – or as a result of – their changed system of government.

As always, Holland wears background and humour into the classical sources, making this another riveting and informative read fom the mater of narrative history. Highly recommended.

A note on early sources

The books I am reading were all published this millenium, and rely on scant surving materials from many centuries ago. These few works (or parts thereof) are likely to represent less than 1% of the writng that was made at the time during or following the lives of the Ceasers and thir contemporaries. Can you imagine how differenty these lives would be iewed if we had a less narrow picture through which to study them?

However, it is worth mentioning at this point are three histories widely used as sources again and again for works on the Roman Empire around the time the Caesars. Despite their political or personal biases, they are fascinating reading in and of themselves. Additionally, apart from surviving correspondence written by prominent men of the time – poets and statesman alike – they remain the closest writings to the actual events being chronicled. You should check them out. They are:

  • Tacitus: Roman historian AND politian (lived 56CE-120CE). His Histories and Annals cover Emporors Tiberius to Nero, as well as the year of the four Emporors which followed Nero’s death. He pays particular attention to the invasions of Britain in the 1st century CE, possibly because his father-in-law was a prominent general serving on the island at this time, but overall considered one of the more reliable sources.
  • Suetonius: Some-time clerk for the Emporors Trajan & Hadrian and historian (lived circa 69CE-122CE). His position gave him access to various letters and documents on which he based his famous history of the first twelve Princeps of Rome, from Julius Ceasar to Domitian. However, he was likely mindful to flatter the living ruler and focus heavily on the gossip and salacious rumours about these Ceasars. So not necessarily reliable, but the parts which survive make for entertaining reading.
  • Cassius Dio: Another Roman statesman (lived circa 155CE-235CE) who wrote a huge history of Rome – in Greek – from it’s mythical foundation to the times he lived in,and published a few years before his death. The first sections are mere summaries up until around the 1st century BC, but sadly only parts of his Histories survive to our time.Dr

The restoration of Rome: barbarian pipes & imperial pretenders by Peter Heather (2013, Pan/MacMillan)

Can you tell that I’ve been on something of a Roman history jaunt? Following two books from Holland about the collapse of the Roman republic, it seemed fitting to follow up with a book on what happened next.

From Visigoths reigning as Emporors of the Western Roman Empire, to the rise of the papacy and the empire’s ‘rebirth’ as the Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne. The story ends with Pope Innocent III cementing the Vatican as the Kingmaker of medieval Europe. It’s well written and highly informative. There are lots of battles and political double deals, with extensive notes and directions to further reading, if this isn’t enough (although I would strongly recommend Norwich’s brilliant history of the papacy, The Popes, reviewed here).

That’s it for this time, folks.

I mentioned I’d review a book about coffee in this instalment. However, although I read and enjoyed David Egger’s The Monk of Mocha this summer, it didn’t fit in with the Roman theme of this review, so I have moved my summary of that book to the next instalment.

Also next time, an actual novel! And more history, as well as books about other books! I’ll also mention a few of my favourites from this year at the end too. Until then…

2021 in books (April – June)

Books

Where does the time go?

The last few months have been incredibly busy. Live performances might still be few and far between (only one so far this year) but upcoming changes to my music therapy work have kept me in the office more than usual. I found myself lacking the energy or will to read at times, but lie most things in life, this too passed…

Here are the books I did manage to read in the last three months. They’re a bit of a mixed bag. More than ever, they made me think about other books I’ve read, some of which I have recommended below at appropriate points. Let’s dive in…

A moveable feast by Ernest Hemingway (1964, Vintage)

Hemingway’s account of his time in Paris, from around 1920-1926, was written in the last years of his life, at a distance of over three decades. It gives some insight into his method of working, at least at the time, as well as his opinions on other famous figures whom he came into contact with, including Scott F. Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach (proprietor of the famous Shakespeare & Co. bookstore on Paris’ Left Banke).

This memoir is an interesting dive into one period of the life of a man considered to be one of the Great American Novelists. It paints a strong picture of the streets and scenes of the City of Light during the so-called ‘Roaring Twenties’. However, don’t rely on it as a guide book. Almost a century on, Paris has changed, making this book of short, descriptive chapters something of a time capsule.

This book is one of many I’ve read about Paris, the ‘City of Light’. Despite their proximity to Britain and the intertwining histories of both nations, there’s so much to be learned from looking into the past of one of the UK’s closest neighbours. Other books on France and Paris which might be worth your time:

  • For a more up to date and light-hearted look at France’s wonderful capital, try Paris Revealed by Stephen Clarke. Chapters are divided by subject such as food, addrosiments, apartments and the Parisiennes themselves, all from the loving but bemused perspective of a Brit who has lived there for years (2011, Black Swan)
  • The Little Pleasures of Paris, meanwhile, is more of a small coffee-table book. Author Leslie Jonath divides the things she adores about the City of Light into four sections; one for each season. Each entry is short, but accompanied by beautifully chic illustrations by Lizzie Stewart (2016, Chronicle)
  • Jeremy Mercer’s Bedbugs and Baguettes is partly the memoirs of his time in Paris, and partly the history of where he ends up staying, the famous Left Banke bookshop Shakespeare & Co (named after the original shop, which had closed years before), as well as its colourful owner, George. One for bibliophiles (2007, Magna)
  • For a more general overview of the nation’s history, Modern France by Jonathan Fenby offers a fascinating insight into the how France got to where it is now, starting with the revolution of 1789 (2015, Simon and Schuster)

I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes (2013, Transworld)

Loaned to me by a friend, this fast-paced thriller is the debut novel of the screenwriter behind Mad Max 2, Dead Calm, Payback and From Hell, among many others. Two quotes from John Le Carre and Raymond Chandler at the preface of this book highlight Hayes’ influences in the world of espionage and detective fiction. View these alongside the many Clancy/Grisham style thrillers (which often end up being remade into the sort of film he’d write the screenplay for) and you have the measure of this novel.

Saying that, this is a good book. It’s 888 pages are divided into four parts, each of which is made up of short chapters that left me wanting to read ‘just one more’ before setting the book down for the night. Part one features a lot of flashback or scene-setting chapters that initially made me wonder exactly where this book was going. However, Hayes does a good job of tying up pretty much every thread in this novel. Very little is remains a mystery by the end of the book. If that’s something you like to see in your thrillers, give this book a go. Don’t expect a deep examination into the soul of humanity, or even genuine development of any of the side characters (or even the main protagonist narrating in first-person, for that matter). But be assured that the story is gripping.

Shylock is my name by Howard Jacobson (2016, Vintage)

Another Shakespeare adaptation, this time retelling The Merchant of Venice. Shylock is a challenging antagonist for modern audiences uncomfortable (and rightly so) with the antisemitism throughout the Bard’s original play. Jacobson won the Man Booker prize in 2010 for The Finkler Question, a novel which explores the author’s experience as a British Jew (you can read my short review for that book here), but has also written on heroes from Shakespeare’s plays. Perhaps this reimagining of Shylock was the next logical step?

As you may have read previously, I had mixed feelings about The Finkler Question, and this novel leaves me with a similar feeling of dissatisfaction. It’s an interesting concept and a good story with lovely, funny moments in it, but overall, it felt like it wasn’t quite good enough. Fans of Jacobson will love this book, but it’s not high on my list of recommendations.

England’s forgotten past by Richard Tames (2010, Thames & Hudson)

The full title of this small (185 pages), fact-filled book is almost a chapter in itself: England’s forgotten past: the unsung heroes & heroines, valiant Kings, great battles & other generally overlooked episodes in our nation’s glorious history. It’s eight chapters are subdivided further, with various ‘fact boxes’ and illustrations along the way. As well as bringing lesser known characters and events from English history to light, Tames also sets the record straight on some common misconceptions. Worth a read for the casual history fan, although it’s brevity might make one feel as if they are reading a collection of factoids, such as those published by the BBC factual/comedy quiz QI (or Quite Interesting, to give the show’s full title).

Publisher Thames & Hudson have a wealth of interesting titles which, similarly to England’s Forgotten Past, offer brief glimpses into less well-examined areas of history. Of those I have read (and there several more on my ‘to buy list), personal favourites include:

  • Shakespeare’s London on 5 Groats a Day, also by Tames (2018), looks at the alehouses and streetlife of London during the Bard’s lifetime. Taking in everyone from “courtiers to cut-throats” and of course, the dramatists and actors who were Shakespeare’s colleagues and contemporaries, we get the interesting perspective of medieval history from street level
  • Histories of Nations: how their identities were forged (Ed. Peter Furtado, 2012) features contributions from numerous writers, usually focusing on one small facet of a country’s history and how it helped create, or reflects, the nation we might recognise today
  • The Great Cities in History (Ed. John Jules Norwich, 2009) is another brilliant collection of short essays by various writers. Divided into four parts (ancient, medieval, early modern & modern), each chapter focuses on a city in its heyday, from Thebes in the Golden Age of Egypt to present day Shanghai as “China’s Super-City”
  • Finally, History Day By Day (Peter Furtado, 2019) is a collection of quotes from history for every day of the year. The 366 voices compiled range from Joan of Arc to JFK, and Galileo to Gandhi, bringing history to life through the words of those who lived it

The algebraist by Iain M. Banks (2004, Orbit)

Banks was well known for holding down two slightly different fiction writing careers: ‘regular’ fiction such as debut novel The Wasp Factory as Iain Banks, and science fiction with the middle initial ‘M’. Most of his sci-fi output was his epic & complex Culture series. But this novel is one of his few standalone sci-fi stories.

Having read most of the Culture novels, I knew roughly what to expect and everything which makes that series so popular is present here, except for artificial intelligence (which is illegal in this story). Instead we get a very descriptive sort-of thriller inside a space opera, centered around varying species of life: the “quick”, who’ve only been round for mere thousands of years such as us, and the “slow” – jellyfish-like creatures inhabiting gas giants and almost as old as the galaxy itself. If you can get on board with that concept and the speculation which comes with it, then you’ll probably enjoy this book. I can see similarities between this and I Am Pilgrim, although this sci-fi novel has considerably longer chapters and isn’t quite as quick a read.

So there we are for now. As always, get in touch with your own thoughts and recommendations for future reading. I’ve had some great book chats with a few folk since I started cataloguing my ‘fun reading’ and my list of books to read is getting longer every week.

I’m already into the books which will be featured next time. Expect music, history, travel and an extraordinary adventure in search of a good coffee…

Hareshaw Lin & coins in trees

Poetry & Writing

At the weekend, we went up to Hareshaw Lin in Bellingham for a walk. It was lovely exploring this northwestern corner of Northumberland, following the short walk (less than two miles), along the ruins of a former iron foundry on the North River Tyne, to a waterfall (the Lin, in Old English). On our route, we noticed something unusual…

A tree stump (and fallen trunk, behind) with hundreds of coins inserted into the bark

Hundreds of coins inserted into the small slits of the bark of fallen trees. I noticed it in a few sidelong tree stumps, but it was most obvious on this large fallen tree and nearby stump (see above). I have no idea why this tradition started, but some of the coins look very well weathered, and I expect have been there for several years.

The waterfall itself was beautiful, a small oasis of it’s own within the woods (see below). Several younger people were diving into the pool at it’s base. Judging by how long it took them to resurface after diving, it must be quite deep in it’s centre, although there appears to be a lip of rocks around the pool’s circumference.

Hareshaw Lin – the word ‘Lin’ means ‘Waterfall’ in Old English

The foundry appears to have been washed away by a flood in the early years of the 20th century, and several more rocks swept downstream in a further flood in the 1960’s. The large stones which remain (many were taken to be used for local buildings) jut out the water to create numerous miniature weirs alongside our walking route. It’s a lovely spot, but was rather busy when we went, possibly because people see it as a good outdoor location in these socially distant times. Still, there are many worse ways to spend a Saturday afternoon…