Archive for the 'history' Category

De Roma antiqua

September 17, 2018

I seem to be having a binge on Romans, Roman history and Latin at the moment; I had a week up on Hadrian’s Wall the other month visiting all the sites at the limes, the frontier of the Roman empire, and have just come back from travelling in Provence, where a lot of my focus was on the history of the Roman province and the sites that you can visit there. I’ve also been reading quite a lot about the subject.

At one level it is all quite astonishing: an empire built up over two thousand years ago, which endured for far longer than the British empire or the Soviet empire did, and will surely outlast the hegemony of the United States. The level of organisation and construction was amazing, given the technology of the time; the colonisation of the Sahara and bringing it into cultivation for the grain supply of Rome was an achievement which has never been equalled since those days…

The Roman history I learned at school was all about personalities and conflicts, wars and conquests and conspiracies, with little about the life of the average Roman citizen. That has been changing over recent years, through archaeological excavations and discoveries, and through newer generations of historians taking a radically different approach: Mary Beard’s SPQR was the first book out of this new approach that I read, and it was quite an eye-opener. She was not debunking all of the things I’d learned all those years ago at school, but broadening the perspective and bringing Rome to life in a different way, showing the economic and social aspects of the society. One of the most wonderful things I saw in the museum at Arles on my recent trip was a complete Roman river barge which had been recovered from the Rhone about a dozen or so years ago and meticulously preserved: it was 30 metres long, three metres wide and had a draught of two metres; it could carry tonnes of stone, as was shown in the museum. The merchantmen would have had a cooking fire on board… once you start seeing objects like this, your perspective develops quite quickly. Similarly, I’d never known that Roman traders had traded with China, and India.

When you stand inside the colossal theatre at Orange, or the amphitheatre at Arles, or – perhaps most impressive of all – stare at the Pont du Gard, you realise the scale of achievement that is perhaps only matched by the cathedrals of the Middle Ages, at which time all was in the service of God, whereas the Romans were building an empire and a civilisation for all their citizens. And so much of what was built in the Middle Ages was pillaged from Roman remains, anyway.

In these days when the UK is about to take its most disastrous political step for I can’t think how long, leaving the European Union, I find myself considering the parallels with the Roman empire: when the Romans left Britannia in the early fifth century, things fell apart pretty quickly. But in a way the EU is a similar project, a Europe-wide construction where people travel freely and work wherever they need to, just as people moved from one end of the Roman empire to another, whether officials, managers, or common legionaries. There was a common currency, a common language and civilisation, a sharing and exchange of ideas and products, and within certain limits, freedom: you had to sign up to the Roman ‘project’ as it were, and respect the emperor, but you could live as you liked and worship your own gods…

Yes, I know that there was slavery – I didn’t know, until recently, that slaves could and did own slaves – and that the Roman army was brutal in its suppression of revolts, but all armies are brutal: Rome didn’t have a monopoly. My travels and my reading have given me a lot to think about…


Alberto Angela: Empire

September 13, 2018

513gjr37JhL._AC_US218_51e2Ocif+5L._AC_US218_I bought this book from a bookshop called De Natura Rerum on my first day in Arles: a bookshop devoted to Latin, and things Roman, was too good to pass up. And it was an amazing book; I really enjoyed it and was pretty much gripped throughout.

The premise itself seems a pretty cheesy one: a journey around the Roman empire following the ownership of a one sesterce coin; it’s the kind of thing we used to be made to write essays about at school: ‘A Day in the life of a Penny’ and such tosh. But Angela does it well: the coin passes from hand to hand and travels far and wide, no respecter of social class or place in this EU of two millennia ago. You can have a similar experience in any European country examining your small change and seeing which country it was minted in… and Angela recognises that he is describing the first globalisation in history, a real precursor of the EU.

So, it’s actually an imaginative way of visiting, exploring and describing the different parts of the empire, detailing customs and practices, daily life and routines, all taking into account the latest historical and archaeological researches in many different countries.

It’s a really good read, not too heavy and yet avoiding the trivialising and chattiness so often evident in works that seek to popularise. Angelo knows where to pack in the interesting detail: for instance, he makes really good use of the Vindolanda finds – I know because I visited recently. He’s very thorough on the methods and tactics of the Roman army and how it became such a formidable fighting machine, how it controlled through intimidation and sheer ruthlessness. All very different from the personalities and battles and conflicts as I learned about them in Roman History at school over forty years ago. Clearly so much more information has been coming to light in recent research: there’s fascinating stuff on daily life, roles, emancipation, childbirth, all evidenced in case we suspect him of fantasy. Literacy was clearly widespread, especially in the towns and cities of the empire.

One think I particularly appreciated was the ease and helpfulness with which he draws parallels between specific aspects of life in Roman times and nowadays. And I also learned just how far Romans had got via their traders, doing business as far afield as China – for silks – and India.

Although I read the French version of this book, I did discover that it has been published in English as The Reach of Rome if anyone feels moved to hunt down a copy. I really recommend it.

Back home

September 11, 2018

The blog has been quiet for the last two weeks because I have been on my travels, to the south of France. When I’m away, I usually hatch a few ideas for new posts, so the following topics are likely to appear over the coming weeks: thoughts about the Romans, and about their empire something on Latin; reflections on photography – I came back with about 600 pictures! Reading, teaching, travelling, good English, the internet, sex in literature, the joys of teaching… it’s good to get away but it’s also good to be home, and I’m looking forward to getting back to writing.

Watch this space.


August favourites #27: memoir

August 27, 2018

51MLFDfWnnL._AC_US218_41yGjAW6xRL._AC_US218_I read very little biography, and even less autobiography, and I’m not sure whether this is actually one, or more of a memoir, although, since it covers so much of the writer’s adult life, it feels like an autobiography to me. There are many books detailing many writers’ experiences in the Gulag – the network of forced labour camps that covered various areas of the old Soviet Union and existed for the punishment of a wide range of crimes. From the 1930s onwards, sentences of five to ten years were common, and, depending on where the camp was, survival was often unlikely: conditions in the Arctic Circle, building the White Sea Canal, or out in the mines of the Far East were truly horrendous. Yevgenia Ginsburg’s story (Into The Whirlwind, and Within the Whirlwind) is similar to that of many. She tells it clearly, straightforwardly and in detail; it’s a very moving story, particularly in the humanity she depicts amid all the horrors. It’s long and it’s gruelling; I’ve read it twice, and it’s a tribute to human survival and decency for me. I’m not sure it’s possible for us in the West really to understand why and how such things came to happen…

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

Jeremy Black: Mapping Shakespeare

August 22, 2018

51g9Yxn9jjL._AC_US218_A combination of Shakespeare and my enthusiasm for mapping and cartography is likely to be a sure-fire winner with me… and so I really enjoyed this book.

It’s a good deal more than a coffee-table book. Written by a historian, and gathering together a wonderful collection of old maps, organised thematically around Shakespeare’s times and his work, it is a delight. Black’s commentary and analysis is detailed and carefully written, and fully linked to a vast range of geographical references in Shakespeare’s plays. Some countries, especially his own, the dramatist was knowledgeable about and accurate, others he was rather more cavalier about, such as giving Bohemia, one of the most landlocked nations in Europe, a coastline, as he does in The Winter’s Tale, for instance. And some places he knew almost nothing about – such as China and Japan, reflecting the relative state of knowledge in his times – and so they do not get more than passing references, if that…

Shakespeare was as un-PC as some are in our own times, and far less likely to be challenged: Moors, Turks and Africans were a short-hand for exoticism, sometimes barbarity and cruelty (consider their presentation in Othello and Titus Andronicus; Spaniards and Italians were a by-word for scheming, plotting and politics (in the underhand, Machiavellian – another Italian! – sense). Look at the national stereotypes revealed in Portia’s listing of her suitors in The Merchant of Venice.

As the book’s scope broadened, I sometimes felt that the links with Shakespeare became a little more tenuous, but overall I got a very good picture of how the world was seen, known and interpreted in Shakespeare’s time, and his and his audience’s responses to it.

20-21 August 1968: Time to Remember

August 20, 2018

Today just a brief pause to remember fifty years ago, when the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia. Millions alive today have no idea what any of those three entities were. I can still recall my father, on his way to work at seven in the morning, putting his head round the door and telling me, ‘The Russians invaded Czechoslovakia’.

So, let us remember Josef Skvorecky and Milan Kundera, writers who had to leave their homeland in order to be published, and others like Ivan Klima andBohumil Hrabal who stayed behind. And the playwright Vaclav Havel who survived it all to become president of a free country many years later. In memory of Jan Palach, who took his life in protest. And of all the brave people who wanted to build their own version of a socialist society all those years ago.

James Wellard: The Great Sahara

August 11, 2018

51-uNw-CF8L._AC_US218_I’ve read a good number of accounts of travel through the Sahara Desert, but hadn’t come across very much at all concerning he history of the region until I found this in a second-hand bookshop in Edinburgh recently and snapped it up for that very reason. There are so many myths and inaccuracies about the desert that have been perpetuated because of our West-centred perspective on everything; no surprise there, then…

The Sahara region was well-populated and inhabited in prehistoric times. I learned rather more about the Carthaginians and their influence than I had in my Roman history course at school, and I was also astonished to discover the extent of Roman achievements in North Africa, which was, after all, their backyard as well as their bread-basket. The efficiency of the Roman army allowed a single legion to pacify and control vast areas for several centuries; Roman engineering focused on attempts to capture, retain and usefully use, the little rainfall which fell, and with a good measure of success. There are still whole towns and cities in ruins, preserved under the sands, unknown, unexplored and unexcavated, such was the extent of Roman penetration, unparalleled since. Nothing has been as well managed since the Arab invaders of the seventh century swept in…

Wellard is very detailed on the slave trade which existed for centuries, but it is evident that there is little detail or information available between the end of Roman occupation and the eighteenth century, when Europeans began to take an imperialist interest in the continent again. Surprisingly, he places little confidence in Arab travellers such as Ibn Battutah and Leo Africanus, who have quite a lot to say. Western interests began with exploration and a fascination with reaching the fabled city of Timbuktu, which usually proved (i) a disappointment and (ii) fatal…

The book dated from the 1960s, and at times the prejudices of those times show; the author has a fairly jaundiced picture to paint of contemporary Arab life, religion, sexuality and poverty; sadly Western interference and colonialism means there is a certain amount of truth in some of his observations; local geography, and social and religious attitudes also contribute. But what came across most strongly to me was the uniqueness of the Roman civilising enterprise, which even the French in their control of most of the region for a century or more came nowhere near matching.

The author – of whom I’d never heard before – is evidently well-travelled and highly knowledgeable about the entire region, and provides an excellent (though now dated) and annotated bibliography; it’s a pity that the end-wrapper map is so cursory and the only one in the book…

August favourites #9: history books

August 9, 2018

I read a lot of history, partly to make up for giving up my study of it after O level, and partly because I feel that understanding the present and then trying to imagine a better future world depend on understanding the past. There are three historians currently writing whose work I respect immensely. Eamon Duffy writes carefully and thoughtfully about the Reformation in England, and what was lost during those turbulent times, and his detailed picture of Catholic England goes some way to countering the strident Protestant accounts that had corruption and idolatry at the heart of it all; it was far more complicated than that, as were the political and social reasons for the English Reformation. Then there is Diarmaid MacCulloch, a historian of religion, the scope of whose work astonishes me: a three-thousand year history of Christianity which I shall shortly go back to, and a weighty tome on the entire European Reformation, covering two centuries, as well as some excellent TV programmes on religion. Finally, and I think I will name him as my favourite, is Norman Davies, a scholar whose work on the history of Poland has earned him a mighty reputation even in that country. He has written the only complete history in English of that nation, as well as histories of more specific episodes such as the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, the Polish-Soviet war of 1920 and various others. That’s before you turn to his history of Europe, and his history of the Atlantic Isles.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

Frank Trentmann: Empire of Things

July 28, 2018

41dDMxF43uL._AC_US218_I have to say that, whilst this book made very interesting reading, it was also quite hard going, partly because of the vast wealth of detail and examples Trentmann uses, and also because the subject is so all-encompassing it meant that it was often hard to follow a particular thread clearly and coherently: the whole felt a little shapeless at times. But our obsession with stuff, and acquiring more and more of it, is a rather more complex issue than I had imagined. In early modern times there had been various sumptuary laws restricting conspicuous consumption on religious and moral grounds.

Trentmann notes a post-Second World War shift to a focus on creating wants, as he looks at what we prize and value, and why that should be. Over centuries we have moved from producing what we need – self-sufficiency and survival – to selling our labour for cash in order to buy things, and this clearly led to the development and manipulation of demand. The shift from rural to urban living was responsible for creating the ambience for higher consumption by reducing opportunities for self-provisioning. Ownership and consumption of stuff gradually became part of how people defined and saw themselves.

Quite early on I felt any reference to Marx’ analysis of labour and production was lacking, and when Trentmann did turn to Marx he was rather simplistic, dismissive even, in his treatment, though it is true that the latter was – as far as he got – more interested in production than consumption; nevertheless Marx’ analysis of changing labour relations over time fits in well with the development of greater consumption, and capitalism in general, I think.

Far more data is available from the nineteenth century onwards, with the growth of the ‘science’ of economics, so the book largely concentrated on the time from then, rather than comprehending the last five centuries as the book’s blurb suggests. However, Trentmann’s debunking of various myths about consumption, and his tracing of a process which can be seen to have developed slowly over centuries, is interesting. For instance, labour-saving devices actually led to the invention of new chores, and the adopting of higher standards and expectations as people became more competitive. And then there are the tricks and deceits of multinationals involved in the marketing of ‘heritage’ through so-called ‘farmers’ markets’ and ‘local’ food – yet another pricey brand, in the end. In the end, it is all about re-cycling money: higher wages and more leisure time = more goods can be sold, whatever they are; now, the opportunity for profit is even greater as the emphasis on selling services rather than goods, develops.

Home ownership led to the idea of individual rooms, either for specific activities or individuals, and thence the need for things to fill them. Increasingly, statistics demonstrate that the affluent society is about ordinary rather than conspicuous consumption. Concomitant is the necessary growth of consumer debt to sustain it all, and also the growth of public squalor as private affluence increases, and we are told that we prefer to have more of our ‘own’ money to spend on things…

More insidious is the position of the intellectual elite’s self-proclaimed position as guardians of ‘civilisation’, attacking mass consumption and seeing the masses themselves as spoilt children, permanent adolescents caught up in the cult of self.

Why do people imagine they need all this stuff? Perhaps to make up for the increasing dullness and pressure of the routine of work? In the end, self-fulfilment through stuff… Consumption itself takes time as well as money, contributing to the feelings of stress, so we are time-poor but have lots of things instead. Pope John Paul II spoke eloquently about the loss of balance between spiritual and material values.

Most interesting to me: Trautmann’s analysis of how and why Eastern Europe failed in terms of satisfying its consumers. Overall, not a book I’d recommend as a casual read; I’m glad I bought it and read it but felt it lacked political bite: issues are presented, but no solutions offered. And clearly we cannot go on like this.

Note to editors: mid-Atlantic production values for books can lead to nonsense: what on earth is ‘Scottish whiskey’ (sic) for heaven’s sake?

The Red Atlas

July 28, 2018

61SEUp0waVL._AC_US218_For anyone who, like me, is fascinated by maps and atlases, and cartography in general, this book is utterly fascinating. In short, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the full extent of its in-depth cartography has been revealed: astonishingly detailed maps of many countries, often with far more detail than official maps made by those countries themselves. Maps are often very large-scale, with specific buildings labelled, width and construction of roads, railways and bridges noted, and lots more. All of this in a well-produced volume, copiously illustrated with examples, and a carefully-written text analysing the history and development of Soviet cartography.

Much of the mapping was highly secret and reserved for military use only; bowdlerised versions of maps of the Soviet Union itself were made available for civilian use where necessary. This is no surprise: all countries do this, including the UK, whose official Ordnance Survey maps have blank spaces where strategic military assets are located, as proved by comparison with Soviet mapping in this very book. It’s the extent, the detail that astonishes about the Soviet enterprise.

This huge enterprise got me thinking, and my conclusion is surely blindingly obvious: the Cyrillic alphabet. Think about it. When the Nazis invaded Poland – to take one example – they used Polish maps from the country’s Army Geographical Institute, often overprinted in German with the legend ‘only for service use’. And that’s all they needed to do, for whatever country they invaded, except the Soviet Union. For if a map and its legend is in the Roman alphabet, then the place names are instantly legible, and all you need is a translation of the legend.

This doesn’t work if you’re a Russian: all those maps, all those place names are in an alien alphabet; if you tried to overprint everything on a Western map, you’d have an illegible piece of paper. So you start from scratch, using all available Western maps and your spy network and aerial and satellite photography and you re-create all those maps, in the Cyrillic alphabet, with names phonetically transliterated so that your one day invading or occupying troops know where they are… a colossal enterprise but achievable with the resources of the state behind it. And you do it properly, thoroughly. Surely the US military have done something similar with mapping of Russia.

A wonderful book. And perhaps I got rather more from looking at the gorgeous maps than the average Western reader in that, although I cannot understand Russian, I can ‘read’ i.e. transliterate it.

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