Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Leo the Deacon – The History

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

Translated works of history written in earlier mediaevil times are fairly rare. One of the venues that are not often explored are the less known works of history. One of these that I like to explore, if I can find a translation, are the Byzantine histories as they are written by the only empire to survive through the Middle Ages in Europe. Completed around the year 995 is the History by Leo the Deacon. It is not a long history but it mainly covers the reign of only two Byzantine emperors in the period 963-976, which is not that long a time. Leo the Deacon does provide an prologue of the emperor before and an epilogue of the emperor after to provide a beginning and an ending although as most histories go the ending is less coherent because the author died or was otherwise unable to finish his history as he was writing about recent contemporary times. Leo the Deacon occasionally puts in some comments on what happened later to some persons to remind the reader that despite bad fortune they were able to play important roles again.

There are several things which are interesting about this history. Despite Leo living during the times of the events described he was mainly a young student in Constantinople and most things he writes about he has to base on indirect accounts. Unlike other historians with a religious education and office Leo shows very little interest in religious affairs. He aims to write a more popular type of history, the military history. Much of the history is about military campaigns and the conflicts the Byzantines were involved in against the Arabs in the south and the Bulgarians and Rus in the north, but also various internal rebellions.

What is interesting about the two particular emperors that take central place in this history is that they are caretaker emperors for the genuine emperor who is too young to lead the empire while it faces all kinds of threats. Both emperors are generals who take power to prevent intrigue and corruption at the imperial court turning everything into a mess. They are strong and capable leaders and maintain that the child-emperor is their heir to be when he becomes an adult. It probably helped that both were related to the family of the ruling dynasty so that they can claim to be part of that dynasty as well. Because of the continuous threats, either external or internal ones they spent relatively little time ruling and are mostly campaigning. As Leo mainly focuses on their campaigns the reader has little insight on how the empire manages during their absence. One can only assume the administrators behave themselves and let the government do its daily job.

While Leo the Deacon relates much of events outside of his direct knowledge, which varies in quality and detail on the accounts he has available, he provides eyewitness accounts of his own where he can add it in. In one of the later campaigns he serves in his religious capacity and he is thus able to provide a far more extensive and detailed account of what happened. It are these parts that have a more genuine quality and allows the reader to experience the events better.

The History is a fairly positive read as it relates a period in which the Byzantine Empire is able to expand and grow again after a long period of slow decline. The accuracy is not great as Leo tells a whole sequence of related events and can then return to some time in the past to tell about another sequence. Although they usually happen within the same timeframe there is no exact reference. Fortunately Leo covers a relatively short time period so the differences are not the large. The translation I read is also a research translation so it has many notes throughout the book to provide background information, corrections and explanations. I thought it was an enjoyable and interesting read. As a history it is far from perfect but considering the availability of historic works in those times it provides much information and details.

Herodianus – Crisis In Rome

Monday, February 16th, 2015

In classic histories there is a lot of variation in style and approach but in all cases they reflect the author’s position, perspective and to some extent his opinions. The number of available histories declines after 100 CE. Most historians of that time wrote about earlier times, perhaps because their age was fairly peaceful and less happened. After 180 the Roman Empire began its gradual decline and many sources about that time have become fragmented or unreliable. One of the few complete histories is the History of the Empire from the Death of Marcus by Herodianus (also called Herodian); my translated edition is called Crisis In Rome (238), which is a good description of the time, although the empire was still relatively stable compared to the times that followed after the history. Peculiar one of the few recent translations is a Dutch one, which is one of the reasons why I could not find his work earlier as I assumed I had to look at English ones.

What makes this history different is that it is the first history since Caesar’s commentaries (45 BCE) in which the author tells about the history he has witnessed himself. Herodianus makes his task harder for himself by going by to his earliest memories (ca. the year 180) while he writes things down decades later until his death shortly after the year 238. He probably talked with others but much of what is recalled are the most notable or extreme events. Another oddity in this history is that while Herodianus was born in the eastern part of the empire he lived and stayed most of his life in Rome itself. This results in a peculiar perspective of events with many details on eastern and local Roman events. Anything that takes place elsewhere he only knows from hearsay and is far less reliable.

Herodianus is not much of a traditional historian although he tries to. The reader has no idea when events take place or how certain events are related or set within the same timeframe. You have to guess it from comments or references. So for another historian Herodianus can be a frustrating source but if you are general reader you won’t be that troubled. Herodianus tells an interesting story, especially as he brings it as if he is talking about it to an audience. It is rarely longwinded with plenty of variation between battles, intrigues and politics. The reader obtains a good picture of Roman society and how the decline is setting in due to the weaknesses of the political system. Extra nice are certain details on social events and traditions which make the scenes more lively

Crisis In Rome is not one of great classic histories and this is probably why Herodianus is hardly known compared to others of his time. Although the accuracy and chronology lacks in many places it does what it intends to do: describe the events of the time and paint a pciture for the reader to learn his lessons and gain understanding of events even though the author may not be aiming for it.

Ammianus Marcellinus – The Later Roman Empire

Friday, December 12th, 2014

With the end of the (undivided) Roman Empire the tradition of the classic historians also came to an end. Ammianus Marcellinus is regarded as the last of them. In so far that his work is the most recent to survive. After him history was mostly written by churchmen who had a very different perspective or historians who presented their work in their own way. What defines the classic historian is that he does research on events, at times he questions his sources and events, he adds long speeches to historical persons at important moments and he adds plenty of digressions to provide background information on a variety of topics.

The translation that is widely available is called The Later Roman Empire (c. 390). It covers the history of the Roman Empire from the years 354 to 375.  Not much else has survived but this can be considered the most important part as it covers a period Marcellinus lived in himself. Even more important is that Marcellinus was present during certain events so certain sections can be considered autobiographic. Many of his other sources he knew or he could ask people from the region by traveling there. He thus did not have to rely much on the works of other historians for this part of his history. Of course this does not guarantee the truth as memories deteriorate over time and opinions on events can change.

This edition is an abridged version in which most of the digressions have been left out to provide a more coherent reading of the history. Some digressions have been left in to give an example and to be honest I don’t really rue their absence.

The period covered is interesting because it is a transition period. First it describes a time when the Roman Empire has gone through a period of recovery and relative stability, mostly markedly by the reign of Constantine the Great. The history starts with his descendants and there is much fighting to keep the empire secure. The second part contains events that herald in a new decline, one that will lead to a final division of the Roman Empire. Second is another transition. Christianity is on the rise, but paganism is still widely spread. Marcellinus himself is a pagan and he is more interested in prophetic events than the activities of the early Christian church. Religion is not very important in history for him. Something that will change very much in the next centuries where the religion factor will play a major role in politics and history.

What about the history itself? The coverage of events depends much on the sources available. Two events in which Marcellinus himself was present hold the most detail and largest coverage. A large part of the history is about the emperor Julian, who reigned for only 2 years (361-363). There are 3 reasons why. The first is that Marcellinus saw in Julian much good, especially compared to most of the other emperors whose rule was often cruel and random. The second is that Julian wrote memoires and these provide one of the few written sources Marcellinus has available. And third is that Julian did not really rule the empire. Most of his reign he spent on a long campaign attacking the Persian Empire, which ended in his death. Marcellinus was a lower officer in that army.

As a historian Marcellinus frequently voices his opinion. He is critical on corruption and injustice. Frequently he describes the brutal and cruel behavior of the emperors and a number of his governors, who despite their deeds rarely are punished. They only fall when an emperor dies and new ambitious men try to replace them. All these kinds of misrule seem a sign of the decline of the empire, certainly if you compare them to the early centuries when there the incidental bad ruler still had some restraint and could be brought to justice.

The Later Roman Empire is a very interesting history. With a historian describing events of his own time there is no distance to what he is writing about. Here and there he makes choices on what to provide more detailed information on and these cases give a great view on events, life and behavior. As the writer holds strong opinions he does not hesitate to voice them, which can be considered refreshing compared to other classic historians. It also gives the reader insight to the historians mind and views.

Diodorus Siculus – The Persian wars to the fall of Athens

Sunday, November 30th, 2014

There are not many famous classic historians. Once you have read the limited material available and you want to read more you get to the lesser known historians and these often cover similar periods. This is certainly the case for Diodorus Siculus who like many of the classic historians cover a great period of time. So what has survived over time is what gathers interest and also the reason for a translation. The work that has survived is that from The Persian wars to the fall of Athens (ca. 30 BC), the title for this particular translation, which covers the period from 480 to 401 BC. This is basically the end of the history by Herodotos and much of those by Thucydides and Xenophon. These three names also form the problem many contemporary historians have had with Siculus. He is actually not much of an original historian. He is a copyist, mainly using other works to compose one of his own. As a result this particular translation holds numerous sections based on the work of these three historians. I have read them all before, so why would I want to read it all again?

One reason is that neither of the three cover the full scope of the period. Each chose their own starting and ending points. So one could basically say Siculus has merged them all into a greater narrative. This actually the weakest of the four reasons to be named. The others are much more significant.

The first is that the three aforementioned historians cover the period until 480 BC and from 431 to 401 BC. There is thus a gap in Greek history for almost 50 years which basically covers the period of the hegomony of Athens in the Mediterranean. Siculus is the only surviving source to cover this period. Here I do have to mention that this is a relatively peaceful period. There are not that many events to record. Compared to the material for the other periods this period is not that extensively described as Siculus focuses mostly on military achievements. While it mentions the fall of Themistocles, the victorious general of the Persian Wars, and the rise of Pericles as Athens’ dominant figure, the latter is not as present as I had been taught in history. The cause, as mentioned is obvious, as Siculus does not seem to have any material on political developments or simply ignored them. Siculus certainly has more interest in military affairs. As he lived and wrote during the period in which powerful generals expanded Roman power and changed the republic into an empire, the interest in political affairs may be low.

The other reason what makes Siculus’ history worthwhile is that because he was a native of Sicily his history also covers the history of Sicily during that period extensively. Again he copies from another greater source, but his copy is the only one to survive. While some events are connected to other Greek events, the Greeks in Sicily and southern Italy cover a mostly independent history. The power of Rome was still limited to its near vicinity so the Greek only had to deal with each other and another power, Carthage. The Carthage presented in the fifth century BC still seems very similar to that of the third century BC when it clashed with the growing power of Rome. Siculus does not provide much background information on Carthage, but its weaknesses seem not to be so different as they were later. Either way it makes for some interesting comparisons.

The last reason why Siculus’ history is interesting to read is because he sometimes presents alternative versions to the histories of Thucydides and Xenophon. Both historians do have some colored perspective to events, either diminishing them or giving more credit or blame than where it is due. Siculus also had access to Persian histories and could thus shine some different lights on affairs. Siculus is thus not a simple copyist. At times he makes choices of what he believes to be a more accurate description.

As a historian Siculus does not venture much into digressions or orations, which makes his history easier to read than others as he keeps a tigher focus. His history thus also progresses a bit faster. His chronological accuracy is much criticized, but for the reading experience you don’t really notice it. As he shifts focus to different locations and events frequently, keeping track of what happened when is not easy.

The translation is done well, making the history easy to read. I do have to admit I abused the frequent source references in the text. I was more interested in the new or different material, so if there were paragraphs that were virtual copies from Thucydides or Xenophon I did not read them that attentatively. Even so I enjoyed this history as it shines new lights on many less known events.

Paul the Deacon – History Of The Lombards

Sunday, July 27th, 2014

The dark Middle Ages found their first renaissance in the eight century at the court of Charlemagne who gathered scholars from all over Europe to share knowledge. One of those scholars was Paul the Deacon. As most scholars he was a man of the church although that did not completely hide his barbaric origins. Paul the Deacon was of Lombard (or Langobard) origin whose people had settled in the northern half of Italy after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the early 6th century and who had been finally conquered by Charlemagne when they made a serious threat against the Pope. As a reward Charlemagne was eventually crowned Emperor.

At the court of Charlemagne Paul the Deacon was inspired to write a history of his own people which later on was title History Of The Lombards (799). Paul the Deacon based his history on a number of sources he had available at the time and wherever there was any mention of the Lombards. The quality of those sources varied greatly. Some parts were passed on mythological tales, others hearsay while others held some eyewitness accounts. As a result the sources did not provide coherent material to cover the events in which the Lombards were mentioned. In some cases only the focus was solely on a single region of the Lombardic kingdom. In others the focus seems to lie in neighbouring nations, like the Frankish kingdoms and the Eastern Roman Empire. The events actually focus on these and they are told because there is a small Lombardic elements that can be put forward. Paul the Deacon also shows little regard for editing or correcting his material. He simple tried to order the material in a way that seemed to fit. The mythological history forms an interesting sequence. It is doubtful if any of it is real. To me it was partially familiar as he seemed to have used The Gothic Wars by Procopius (recently reviewed by me) as a source. The quality of his sources is in some cases also in doubt as certain events seem to occur again some decades later. Names can be rendered differently if the authors are from different nations.

It is not easy to read the History Of The Lombards. The prose is not bad and reasonably readable although at some points it can get repetitive. The problem lies in the varying quality and the lack of a coherent narrative as the focus shifts randomly and there is no timeline to hold onto. One has little idea of the time that passes except from mentions of the time kings and dukes have ruled when they die. The prose does maintain a steady level despite the varying quality of the sources so that is probably where the hand of the author can be seen. Paul the Deacon adds little of his own. There is an interesting chapter in which he recounts his own family history. It shows that even oral history can quickly become poor. Much of the narrative holds little credibility. Despite being a man of the church Paul the Deacon does not seem to doubt somewhat unnatural occurrences or perhaps the church in these days still held many pagan influences as it had not grown to the power or would later become. The Pope was still in competition with the Patriarch of Constantinople and his influence very limited as the Eastern Roman Empire held great influence in Italy. One reason why this work is interesting because the Pope in those days was trying to become independent and his later alliance with Charlemagne would be the starting point of the rise of the power of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately we do not get to see this last stage in Christian history. Paul the Deacon died while he had only written to the times of his youth. We don’t get a first person account of Lombardic history until the conquest of Charlemagne. The history ends in about 744 CE. I have to add this is not uncommon among early historians whose works are often incomplete due to their death, even though they sometimes lived until high age.

The History Of The Lombards is an interesting works as it fills in certain gaps in the history of Europe in the Early Middles Ages between 550 and 750 CE. Paul the Deacon makes use of certain sources that are now lost but also of still existing sources. The history might not be very coherent or orderly but it does provide a collection of episodes and events that gives insight into the society of Southern Europe in those times.


Lucius Procopius – The Gothic Wars

Monday, June 30th, 2014

I conclude The History Of The Wars  by Lucius Procopius with Books V & VI which described The Gothic Wars (ca. 553). Unfortunately I discovered that The Gothic Wars do not consist of 2 books like the previous two Wars but of four, of which Book VIII only exists in a fragmentary form. Of Book VII there is no affordable translation available, so I will have to do with an incomplete collection of the events.

The Gothic Wars is a bit misleading name. It recounts the war that the Eastern Roman Empire fought against the Ostrogothic kingdom that finished the Western Roman Empire in 476. The setting is thus Italy where the Goths only form the ruling class and society is still very much Roman in nature and character. The reconquest of Italy by the Eastern Roman Empire is possibly an essential event that allowed for the survival of Roman society and culture in Italy and the Pope in Rome gradually gaining ascendancy as the central power of the Catholic Church, as the Goths, and later the Langobards, were Arians, and this protected them against a possible dominant influence. But I am getting ahead here of the narrative. This book is only about the first campaign in Italy by the Eastern Roman Empire.

The difference between the first two Wars is that in each War the central figure, the general Belisarius, is more present. In the first Persian Wars he was only barely present during the events and in the Vandalic Wars he was only there initially and the successes could hardly be assigned to him and more to his commanding officers. In The Gothic Wars he is all present and here I finally had the feeling his fame was given credit. Warfare in the later days of the Roman Empire was far from the effective military machine of its early days so it is nice to see some tactical creativity.

More than the previous Wars, as Belisarius is more present, Procopius is able to provide an accurate narrative of the events as he was the personal secretary to Belisarius. There is much more detail and far less digressions than before. The previous Wars were more chaotic in nature. This war is more focused and there are more peculiarities to be noticed. This is not the place to discuss them as they are the interesting things to explore when reading this history. Procopius remains a fairly neutral observer. He does not judge although he sometimes expresses sadness or worries regarding the actions of certain persons. So his commentary remains of a mild nature. In general he is never negative or overly positive.

Despite that The Gothic Wars ends abruptly as there have been written more books there is a sort of conclusion of the first part of the campaign and some events of the second part which in some cases remain somewhat in the open. There the war turns a bit more chaotic again so one could say we get to see the better and more interesting part of the war.

The quality of the narrative in this final volume is the best of the series as we get a true eyewitness account of someone who was in the middle of the events. It is a well written history and there are few of those in those days at the start of the Middle Ages. Later histories were mostly written by members of the church and their histories have a very religious perspective, giving more focus to religious events, something that Procopius barely has attention for. It is perhaps one of the shortcomings of the histories of Procopius as they focus on martial events and only political events directly related to these are remarked upon. There is no complete picture as most historians are wont to provide for. However, this remains a very interesting read.


Lucius Procopius – The Vandalic Wars

Sunday, June 8th, 2014

A return to books of history brings me to The Vandal Wars (ca. 553) by Lucius Procopius are in fact Books III & IV of The History Of The Wars. This is a history of the military activities of the Eastern Roman Empire, or rather the Byzantine Empire, during the reign of Emperor Justinian, who attempted to recover the Roman Empire after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

Procopius organized his history not by year but by subject so that he could tell a more coherent history as the Eastern Roman Empire was engaging in many activities. This setup also allows him to start each wars-sequence with a story of the background. In the case of the Vandal Wars he recounts where the Vandals came from and how they ended up in modern day Tunisia where they created a kingdom that in size was very reminiscent of ancient Carthage. Their capital actually was a new version of that actual city. His history thus actually covers a period from about 400 to 550 CE with the greater part taking covering the last 20 years of that period. His long introduction is thus also interesting as a source of the history of that period.

What makes this history different from The Persian Wars is that the great general Belisarius has a strong presence here with Procopius himself present as his secretary. Most of what is written is thus actually an almost eyewitness account or else from trusted sources.

Oddly enough Belisarius is not that much present in the story although he is credited with much of the success. Reality however shows that the Vandals had been enjoying a fairly luxurious life and lived mostly by raiding. They were there rather Romanized barbarians, more feared than actually countered by the weakened structures in the Mediterranean. The Byzantine campaign is rather poor in setup. It is a set of lucky circumstances which allow them to make the right choices and obtain quick and easy victories. Despite the name Vandal Wars this is far from a great war. The Byzantines managed to maintain the upper hand and despite internal intrigue and some poor governors a number of capable commanders prevent the Vandals to regain their strength and crush them permanently.

The recovery of the empire is thus not so much a matter of competence but a matter of luck. The region itself is rather weak and the feared opponent is not that terrible. The conqueror itself shows plenty of weaknesses so it is no surprise that it was easily conquered by the expansion of the Islam a century later.

Procopius himself provides no analysis or comments on the problematic events of the wars. In this he is thus neutral. He recounts the facts, whether they are good or bad. The reader has to judge them. There are two views to be opinionated here. Either he his blind to the many shortcomings of his society or he lets the reader decide on that. In that light it is somewhat hard to find the voice of the author in this work. I like to read these contemporary works because they usually express the mores and the wiles of the society of those times. It is hard to do so here although one can comment that Procopius is simply used to these kind of affairs and that it is not that unordinary.

The Vandal Wars provides the reader with a number of interesting insights in the events of those times and also gives some cultural details on the Vandals and the way they fight their wars with a mixture of barbarian and romanized behavior. The reader is also provided with their background and history so this work is more than a simple history on a number of events. This all makes this work quite interesting and as it is not a very long work it is a relative easy read.


A dive into history

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

I take the field of literature in a broad sense. As I have mentioned before I like to read books from earlier times which are often not truly novels but relatively contemporary narrations of historic events. As they are written in the times they author lived in he writes from his own cultural and social perspective which gives each of these narratives a unique feeling.

These days many webshops provide the option to create wishlist. Here you can store items you don’t want to buy yet, usually because they are of lesser priority or because they are too expensive and you want to wait for an acceptable discount. Recently I decided to clean up one of my wishlists a bit as I realized many had been in there so long they wouldn’t get a serious discount soon and that I have been buying cheap books for such a long time now that its not that bad to buy some books for a more regular price.

The batch that I have purchased covers a wide range: Books XI to XIV of the Library (30 BC) by Diodorus Siculus. It is the only work that covers the period of Greek history between the rise of Athens and Sparta after their victory over the Persian Empire in 480 BC and the conflict that would mark the decline of Greek power in 431 BC. The books continue until 401 BC, but for that period contemporary historic works have survived and Diodorus Siculus uses these much as source. In a way the work by John Zonaras is similar. Books XII and XIII of The Epitome Of Histories (1134) covers Roman history between the years 218 and 395, which also lack suitable sources. More contemporary is History Of The Lombards ( 799) by Paul the Deacon, who lived in Italy in the eight century. The man who conquered the Lombards was Charlemagne. A combined book I bought contained two biographies: The Life Of Charlemagne (836) by Einhard and Charlemagne (887) by Notker the Stammer, of which the first is more famous as Einhard was knew Charlemagne personally. Next follow several books from the later Middle Ages: The Orkneyinga Saga (ca. 1200), a history of the Orkney Islands around they years 1000 and earlier. No author is known. The same is the case for Njal’s Saga (ca. 128o), which provides detailed stories of life in Iceland. And finally are two chronicles of the Crusades: The First is narrated by Ralph of Caen in the Gesta Tancredi (1118), which describes the Norman participation, and The Chronicle Of The Third Crusade (1222), written by multiple authors and thus not clearly attributable, in which the most powerful rulers of that time joined in like Frederick Barbarossa of Germany and Richard the Lion Heart of England. Both narratives are eyewitness accounts of these events.

It is a grand set of works. They are of course not on top of my read list but regularly I am much in the mood to pick something like this up for a different kind of read.