Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Lucius Procopius – The Persian Wars

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

The Persian Wars (ca. 553) by Lucius Procopius are in fact Books I & II of The History Of The Wars. I could read the whole thing first but the edition I have (by the Echo Library) has cut them into three volumes according to the subject of the books. Even though the book is short there is enough to mention for a review, and besides, I am in no hurry to read the rest. It was just a quick read I was going for.

The relevance of this history is substantial. It is written by the secretary to the greatest general of the era, Belisarius, during a period of reconquest by the Eastern Roman Empire (also known, later, as the Byzantine Empire) under the emperor Justinianus. Procopius served Belisarius throughout his career and allows the reader a eyewitness account of these times. Nevertheless, Procopius was no neutral observer so the words need to be read carefully. He could not lie outright and much can be discerned by the careful reader.

The translation provides easy readable prose. Procopius seems a good storyteller and this is what he starts with. The book deals with the wars that the Eastern Roman Empire fought with one of the incarnations of Persia (this was the second) not only during Procopius’ lifetime but also before. Procopius starts off with an introduction to Persia and describes the recent history to provide the reader a good feel and insight to the character of the Persian. There are a number of amusing anecdotes and it seems to take some fair time before the Eastern Roman Empire gets involved.

Now I need to provide some background to it all. The Eastern Roman Empire had no ambitions to venture beyond its traditional boundaries to the east. It mainly had its sights on the west to recover the territory lost after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476. During this particular period the Eastern Roman Empire was very active in the reconquest. It had no interest in Persia. Peace was preferable.

One thing that is particular about the Persian Wars is that they are mainly defensive wars. Any attack on Persian territory were feeble attempts that were not very serious. One thing that is not mentioned in the book, but rather clear if you look well at it, is that the borders with Persia are very undermanned and that the Eastern Roman Empire could hardly form an army to defend itself against incursions by Persia. The wars are in fact a series of threats (in exchange for gold), looting and burning of Roman cities in the plains in the Middle East by Persia with rarely any resistance or counteroffensive by the Eastern Roman Empire. Even more staggering seems to be that the Empire doesn’t seem to care about the destruction of cities and the loss of wealth and people. The only question that remains is why Persia did not take full advantage. It is possible Persia was already overstretched in size, had internal problems and considered the great size of the Eastern Roman Empire too dangerous in case it decided to really strike. Any aims for conquests was focuses on minor states that were either subservient to one of the two powers.

The Persian Wars is a somewhat unusual book. There is hardly any mentioned about events in the Eastern Roman Empire itself. Most of the story is focused on Persia and the wars take only place around the border areas. Procopius remains neutral about the great losses. It happened and one should not be too much troubled by it as the Persians did not really gain actual territory. I enjoyed this particular history as it has a characters of its own and does provide certain insights in those times in that region of the world.


Lives Of The Later Caesars

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

When a work is the only complete historical account of an ancient period of time, it becomes of great importance. Trouble arises when one discovers inconsistencies within the work and discrepancies with fragments and references to other historical works on the same period. The shock becomes great when the apparent historian has made up parts of his work. It is partially fiction.

Fictional elements are not that uncommon in old works of history. The very first history by Herodotos contains a lot of folklore, legends and myths. Fortunately those are fairly easy to distinguish from the facts and at least that they have been written down provides insights into the cultures and peoples outside of Greek civilization. Intentional fiction that is hard to distinguish from real history is problematic. This is the case of the Historia Augusta (c. 370), a series of biographies of Roman emperors in the style of the famous Suetonius that continues his work, covering the period 117 to 285 (the two emperors in between are probably lost). At first sight it is a collection of five authors, but modern historians have discerned that it is the work of one man whose real name is unknown. If the translator kept a true translation than even by reading it one will notice a similarity in style and tone. It is not easy to distinguish the supposedly different authors.

The most trustworthy part of the work is the first half, covering the period 117 to 222. This part is also the version that I’ve read, under the title Lives Of The Later Caesars. Only due to fragments of other works and references to known historic works this has been proven. The author has been quite lazy and sloppy as the style often changes within a biography. The real sections are distinguishable by a more coherent style that is more factual. Even so, the author rewrote some parts or even moved or copied them around. Certain sentences are repeated and the order of events are not set up in a logical way. It is done almost randomly. Fortunately it’s not that bad that it’s not readable, just expect sudden jumps to other topics before suddenly returning to an earlier topic.

The author is also a fan of gossip and rumors. The phrase “some say” and “it is said that” is often used and what usually follows is pretty crazy or nasty stuff. The author likes to tell bad things about the emperors except for a few who are considered to be of exceptional status. Among the listed emperors are several who had a very bad reputation, in the style of Caligula and Nero, and one can only be baffled with how the Roman people let these things go on for many years. It was often a corrupt system that maintained itself until a certain limit was reached.

The most peculiar of this work are the biographies of several rebels who claimed the imperial title but failed. The author frequently mentions that they are quite obscure and because they had no lasting power and rebelled in far off provinces there is little known about them and that which is is doubtful. To the contrary of his own words he starts describing many details and anecdotes about them. Even more astounding is that he produces many letters by them or about them to prove the details. In one case he first writes about a vague claim which is followed by a letter that proves the claim. Instead of writing that he has a letter to prove the claim, he writes the opposite.

All in all this is an amusing work which combines historical facts with fiction. Aside from sloppiness in writing and coherency it is quite readable and enjoyable. My edition had careful notes to make clear which parts where probably fiction and which not, so it also allows the reader to recognize truth from fiction.

Fictitious histories

Saturday, August 4th, 2012

I like reading histories and a number of them I present in my blog because they were written before the time of the exact scientific historic research as we know it for the past few centuries. Before that time historians had much more limited resources. Often they used older histories which they then combined or updated and they didn’t have many ways to check what was true or not. To avoid this problem many histories thus wrote about their own times and as far as in the past as they had reliable sources or persons who could give them fairly accurate accounts.

As those historians wrote from their own perspective this meant that the histories were not very objective, at least not to the extent as we know today, although this can very per country. Nevertheless because they also wrote about their own times they write in a style that reflects their time and age. So besides reading the history one also can discover the nature of the society of the time. What does the historian consider important and in some cases he even expresses his opinion in an indirect way. One could consider this to be fiction, just as an author who writes contemporary fiction tries to tell a story based on true events. It is not just listing the facts, but also adding more dynamic and anecdotes which make it all come alive.

In some cases the histories can become fictitious, where the historian adds dialogues between important persons or speeches. Even so most historians tried to be true to the facts which allows us a good insight into those times. However there are some cases where a history was more fictitious than true. An example of this is the Augustan History (ca. 370). Supposedly it is a collection of lives of Roman emperors during the period 117-284, written by some five different historians. Extensive research lead to the conclusion that it was written by a single unknown author who didn’t want his own name attached to it. That contemporary historians also noted inconsistencies and that half of the work was made up is perhaps a reason for the author to do so. As it is the only complete history of that period it was only through matching the incomplete sources that the non-fictitious content could be extracted. Even so, this does not mean that the rest is all fake, just that some parts which seemed reliable could not be cross-checked. As I am reading this book (albeit only the more trustworthy first half of it under the name Lives Of The Later Caesars) at the moment I will discuss the details more extensively in the forthcoming review.

A large contrast to that work is a new one that I received today. This is The Chronicon (1018) by Thietmar of Merseburg, retitled as Ottonian Germany in this translation. This history covers the period 908 to 1018 of the early Holy Roman Empire. As the author lived in the latter part of the period he wrote about this is an example of a fairly accurate contemporary history. As Thietmar of Merseburg was a member of a noble family and a bishop he was also an insider of the politics of those times. Especially of the later history he himself who play a role, which means that it is not just a history, but also a partial autobiography, giving the book also a personal element.

So how do I find these peculiar histories? This particular one I found after reading the Crown Of Stars fantasy series by Kate Elliot, which takes place in an alternative Europe set in tenth century Germany. From the novels I noted the author must have researched the period well as it was described quite convincing. Next I started searching the web for interesting histories about this period that went into more detail. This I already have general histories, so I wanted something that went deeply into those times. Next it just finding the right key words when searching the web or online bookstores. I am happy with this addition to my collection, although I don’t plan to read it very soon.

Falsifying history

Friday, April 15th, 2011

In classic times (the Greek and Roman age) writing history was a popular pastime, especially if one wasn’t into poetry or plays. Histories were considered the equivalent of novels as, one has to admit, real events provide more twists and surprises than most novelists can think of. Writing a history, or a biography, was a serious business but vulnerable to the likes and dislikes of the historian. The advantage of this is that the histories have their own flavor although as time went by later historians copied a lot from earlier historians. Such things are easily noted when one is able to compare different historians writing about the same period.

Fictionalizing history, or rather, making it up, was not done. If there was fiction it was because the historian didn’t know and he would make a note about it. A prime example is the first historian Herodotos, whose world was very limited and everything happening outside the world he knew were just hearsay and legends. Nevertheless the events that took place in his own times were detailed and could be verified to an extent. If one doesn’t have a reliable source errors and mistakes happen quickly.

One of the most controversial histories from the Roman age is the Historia Augusta, a sort of continuation to The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, filling up the period until 284. There is no author known and it is not certain if the work is by one author. Some think many parts are direct copies from earlier historians whose work is lost. What is controversial about the work is that few works describing the period 100 to 284 have survived. Mostly fragments have survived of those. The exception is the Historia Augusta which was probably written or composed around 395. What is controversial about it is that parts of it that are used as proof or support of events have been verified as fake. The one who created the work made things up to create his history. So there is a problem discerning true historic facts from fake historic facts. As the counter-proof available is so limited one has to be skeptical when reading this work. Even so, it is considered to be an entertaining and interesting work, also covering rebel-emperors in its accounts.

The more trustworthy part of the Historia Augusta is the first part, covering the emperors from 117 to 222. Reason for this is that the Roman Empire was still very stable in those times so that there is more verification possible. The second part, from 222 to 284, covers a period with the Roman Empire in turmoil with a large number of emperors changing seat in a short time. For that reason the first part is available as a Penguin classic under the title Lives Of The Later Caesars and as I am still interested in reading the histories of those times I decided to purchase it, even as some parts are uncertain to be true. Even falsified there will also be a certain amount of truth in a history.

Lucius Cassius Dio – Roman History Volume 6

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Usually historical works by classic authors have some titles to cover the topic. The edition of the Roman History by Lucius Cassius Dio as published by the Echo Library, is made cheap to allow access to rare works and thus not much effort is made for the publication of the book. Although a new and nice typeset is used they take up more longer lines on the pages so they take up less space. There are no introductions, maps or glossaries, except for some footnotes that usually are related to translator notes or explaining some detail mentioned.

Of the six volumes in which the Roman History has been divided I have only bought the last as I already possessed very beautiful editions of the most complete parts, covering the period 45 to 9 BC. There are more (partially) complete books of the period until 54 BC but as I already have works by other authors on this period I haven’t decided if I want to buy them also. That this edition is currently unavailable also helps, although I know it is around.

Cassius Dio wrote a complete history from 753 BC until 229 AD but as usual most has been lost except for many fragments and the last four books, which are partially complete. Those last four books, covering the period 211 until 229, are in Volume 6 and that was the reason why I wanted to buy it, especially as Cassius Dio was a contemporary of the time. It ends in 229 because he probably died soon after that time (he was already of high age).

In contrary to what I hoped, which was a detailed account of the events of the time, it actually wasn’t as Cassius Dio spent most of his time away from Rome as governor in several provinces. Not uncommon for the great Roman historians, Cassius Dio also had a successful political career.

The history told in four rather short books is mostly from second hand hearsay and tells about the horrible reign of two young and rather twisted emperors. How they survived for several years can be seen as a mystery. Somewhat problematic in the books is that the names used by Cassius Dio are not the same as they have survived history (it was not unusual to give emperors a different nickname after they died, in East Asian culture it was also common to do so), but because of adoptions and name changes to raise the stature of emperors or their children, confusion can arise easily, especially as Cassius Dio does not stick to a single name. One can understand I had some troubles keeping focus on the story. As all the books are also incomplete this means there are parts with lacuna (small gaps) or large gaps, but most of it seems rather whole. Still, the events told seem rather more hearsay or gossip than actual historical research. This might be influenced by the high age of Cassius Dio when he wrote the last books and the fact that he lived outside Rome.

The four books only cover a third of Volume 6. The other part is filled with fragments of the earliest books, basically covering the period 753 until 146 BC. Here it is quite clear that these fragments are no more than that. Many are just one or a few lines of which it is hard to make sense. As I’ve already read the rather complete early Roman history by Livius (see those reviews) I rather skipped the period 753 until about 287 BC as those would not tell me nothing new and the parts that I read were just too fragmentary for a nice read. There were a few larger fragments but most were very small. Some fragments were clearly copied many times as certain events that I remembered from Livius were clearly deformed in the fragment.

The period 287 until 264 BC (the start of the First Punic War, which is well described by the World History of Polybios) can be considered a gap in the Roman History. The only other source I possess is the biography of Pyrrhus (the one whose name is connected to the Pyrrhic victory), which partially involves wars against Rome. The fragments by Cassius Dio that survived are good enough to get a fair picture of what happened in this period when Rome had gained dominance over Italy and was obtaining influence over Greek who lived in the south of Italy. Even as they are fragments there is much more clarity in the story than that of the last four books. The contrast is quite clear.

After 264 BC the history becomes even more fragmentary. There is little on the First Punic War and the period until the Second Punic War. Of the latter more has survived, but with the extensive accounts by Livius and Polybios which I’ve read already I was less interested. I did read some of the early parts explaining the beginning of the war, which contained some large fragments.

The last part of the fragments, covering the period 167 until 146 BC caught my interest again as these are less wel documented, but these were too fragmentary to make much of an impression.

A lengthy review for a rather short book, but the fact that when I bought it I had no idea what it really contained made me feel like providing this information. The most interesting part, the last four books, is unfortunately somewhat confusing and as the events described are so extreme they make hardly a sensible history. They are not that easy to read. The fragments of the early books provide an interesting comparison for the histories by Livius and Polybios, but most parts are just that and lack sufficient context for a decent read. In contrast the larger fragments are very readable, compared to the last four books.

Should one read or even buy this? Only a die-hard like me perhaps, but it is not really a worthwhile addition to my collection of classic histories.

Titus Livius – Rome And Italy

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

Once again I return to ancient Roman history with Rome And Italy (c. 25 BC) by Titus Livius (or Livy in the English version), covering the books VI to X and the period 386 until 293 BC. Previously I have reviewed books I to V in The Early History Of Rome, providing the setting and circumstances of the Roman Republic until the Sack of Rome by the Gauls in 386 BC. As the sack destroyed most of the historical records, a lot of the early history originated from oral tradition. Hence, as was normal in those times, historians filled in those gaps as they saw fit to make sure the story was whole and made sense. An effect of this was that Books I-V felt more like a story than a history.

Why this lengthy reference to the review of the previous volume? It is because I will use it as a comparison to the next volume. After 386 BC records were far more available and the historian has to follow the facts and not make up things to fill the gap. This difference clearly shows in this volume. Livius regularly adds comments about his sources or expresses his doubts on the truth of the matter. Also conflicts arise. Apparently earlier historians have not been in agreement on which persons were involved in certain events and when events exactly took place. This problem was hardly around in the previous volume but arises frequently in the real history. As the rulers of Rome changed every year this makes it more troublesome because of a larger list of names that appear shortly and afterwards often quickly disappear again.

Two elements dominated the first volume: the political development of Rome and the continuous battles it fought with its neighboring cities which never lead to serious development or expansion. Outside its own region Rome did not play much of a role.

In Rome and Italy the political development is mostly done except for some finetuning. In the first volume the discussions and returing important persons hold the story together. In the second volume there are only speeches and the dialogues are gone. The historical characters become less pronounced, also because they play a less prominent role.

With the political development gone, most of the history is about warfare. After the sack Rome’s power declines which leads to instability. However, Rome achieves victories and manages to recover quickly. Even such that, unlike the first volume, it quickly starts expanding and dominating neighboring peoples. There is a greater dynamic and variation of Rome’s position in Italy. Now victories do last. Beaten peoples don’t rise up again within a few years or have doubts in supporting other peoples. Things that were not there in the first volume, where Rome’s enemies were aggressive and recovered quickly after defeats. The quick expansion goes together with internal stability and peace in it’s own region. The wars are fought far away from home.

Rome And Italy proves to be a more real history than the previous volume. While that one could be seen as a somewhat entertaining read, there is less story here and more history. The history also makes more sense but does not provide much insight with the focus on war and the greater stability. Still there are some heroic events that liven up the tale.

As a history Rome And Italy provides insight in how Rome became the dominant power in Italy and how expansion triggers new conflicts with either further expansion or loss of power. As Rome became the dominant power in Rome it would soon find a greater adversary, the city state of Carthage.

I enjoy reading Livius. His prose (or at least the translation) is easy to read although the material was somewhat drier than the previous volume. Obviously a must-read for anyone into classic history.

Mediaevil times

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

One who has read my blog posts knows by now I’m a big fan of history and particularly those written before the printing age, when history was a part of story telling and no scientific subject. Most of those posts have been about Roman history, but I also like to find records of other times and places. One of those is Chronicles (1410) by Jean Froissart, who wrote a history about the first half of the Hundred Year’s War between England and France. To be precise, his history covers the reigns of Edward III (1327-1377) and Richard II (1377-1399) of England. Death prevented him to write more.  I discovered the work recently at an online bookstore and decided to purchase it. I haven’t been much aware of European chronciles existing, except for some derelict ones  that don’t offer much of a good read. Hence I was happily surprised to find there were some successors to the Roman and Greek historians.

Titus Livius – The Early History of Rome

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Faster than I had expected I have completed The Early History of Rome (c. 25 BC) by Titus Livius (Livy for the Anglicized version). The main reason for this was not only that the story was compelling, but most of all that the translation was pretty much done in smooth modern English prose. I’ve read other works by Livius in the Dutch translation and although I enjoyed them I remember them to be more in a Latin style (from what I know of the language) than modern Dutch. If the Dutch translation had been more strict or English is simply so different that the translation creates easier prose I don’t know, but it does make this classic work more easily accessible.

The edition itself consists of Books I to V of Ab Urbe Condita (Since the Foudation of the City), which is the great history consisting of no less than 142 books by Titus Livius. These five books together are already some 400 pages in total, so it’s really a massive work. Most of the books have been lost over time, but the first ten have surprisingly survived completely. The first five books deal with the early legends of Rome until the sack by the Gauls in 386 BC. The first book deals with the early settlers, refugees from Troy, to the foundation of the city and the seven kings who would rule for a period of 250 years.  That these are legends is clear, especially with each king ruling for 30 or 40 years and often until a high age. The next four books covers a period of 120 years in much more detail and almost year by year. As I’ve already started in Book VI (first part of Rome and Italy, the next five books) it is remarkable to note that Livius states that anything written before that book was very fragmented and hardly accurate, as few consistent records survived those times, especially as Rome had no historians until 200 BC. So what Livius actually tells is that Books I-V are mostly made up history with a core of true elements.

If one has read Books II to IV one will be somewhat surprised as the books tell in detail how Rome started as a republic and gradually changed and improved their democracy. This process is very well written when you can see the development year by year. This part is hard to believe as fake.

The more unreliable parts consist of the almost continuous wars Rome fight. First to establish itself as a dominant city and later to sustain this status. There is hardly peace and the enemies are often the same. Several times it is mentioned the enemy has virtually been broken, but only a few years laters they are back at full strength. That Rome rarely obtains a decisive victory is also awkward.  Of course there are losses but the victories are far more plentier.

Overall this history is a mix of short wars, political strife and other events. The variation is exactly right so it never becomes boring. Livius adds in plenty of speeches, short and long, to create a greater feel of a story and not just a series of events. There are many great characters that stand out and create their place in time. It is no surprise these first books became so popular and survived time so well. Within the history is also a hidden theme. It is a moral theme where Livius praises the virtues and condemns the vices. The good usually prevail in the end, the bad often lose. That this does not get noted so easily is because the good and the bad are not of separate parties but are found among every party, either Roman or enemy. Although Rome is the great one overall, it is not a black and white story. Rome also has to develop and grow up and mistakes are part of it.

Although The Early History of Rome is a history it is, like in the classical tradition, also a story, to entertain the people. This history reminded me somewhat of the Histories of Herodotos, who wrote to entertain and to inform in the form of a history. Livius writes in a far more structured and concentrated way, but is also very enjoyable to read. Very much recommended.