Sunday, 22 August 2021

Comparing the Penguin and Oxford editions of Polybius

Quick note: these editions are divided into large sections termed as books, so if I refer to a ‘book’ then that effectively means what most modern people mean by chapter.

It’s been over a decade since I last read Polybius, so I decided the time was right to reacquaint myself with this top chap. But, as I finished the first book, it occurred to me I had two editions and had never compared the two. So, I thought I would. And it turns out there’s actually a lot missing n one and present in another. Because I like Polybius quite a lot it seemed interesting (and maybe useful for anyone pondering which to buy) to compare and contrast the Penguin and Oxford editions of his writings.

Note: the size of each page is identical so the page guide is very useful but not a perfect comparison.


Penguin pages

Oxford pages



























































So, as the table clearly indicates the first three books and book VI are present in both editions and in roughly the same size. However, books IV and V are vastly expanded upon in the Oxford edition, and Book XII is longer there as well. On the other hand, the Penguin version has multiple books (though often small) that are totally absent from the alternative. In terms of total length (NB this is only the Polybius text not counting introductions and the like) the Penguin version comes in at 519 pages to the 459 of Oxford.

But as any history reader knows, there’s more to text than the, er, text. Penguin employs the use of footnotes, which I far prefer to the endnotes of Oxford (requiring the reader to flit from front to back and so forth). However, Oxford also has textual notes on translations from the Greek which may be helpful for some.

The Penguin edition has maps at the back, covering Iberia, the Alpine route of Hannibal, northern Italy, Italy itself (a two page map including Sicily), Carthage’s territory, northern Greece, and central and southern Greece. There’s also a diagram of a four legion camp, as described by the author, and a chronological table of events.

In the Oxford version, maps are at the front, and cover Italy, Greece (a two page map), and the Mediterranean (a two page map). There’s also a five page glossary at the back explaining Greek and Latin terms, and a chronology (at the front).

Both versions have introductions, select bibliographies, and indices.

Because I was reading the sections that each version missed I saw a little overlap (end of one edition, start of another) and the text of both conveys much the same meaning though the translations so slightly differ. Neither, I would say, is inferior to the other, however.


So, what’s missing?

With such a degree of variance I can’t give a categorical list, but I did make notes of some of the chief areas of difference, looking primarily at things I found very interesting but which were only in one translation.

A prime example would be after the end of the First Punic War when the Carthaginians had to deal with rebellious, and savage, mercenaries and were almost undone by the conflict (present at the end of book I in Oxford but not Penguin).

Greek and Macedonian affairs are a mixed bag, with the Social War and early career of Philip V of Macedon absent from Penguin, and later parts of the same king’s reign and doings in Penguin but not Oxford. Another highlight, in book VIII and only in Penguin, is the account of the Romans trying to storm Syracuse only to run into the inventions of Archimedes that would set them back into settling for a prolonged siege.

For the most part, sections absent in one edition come in large lumps, either contiguous sections (such as the end of book I in Oxford) or complete books (as per Penguin). An exception is book XII, which is fragmentary in both but has more parts present in Oxford.

So, which would I recommend? As mentioned, it’s an annoying fact that there are very good sections missing from both, probably adding perhaps 300 pages or so (collectively). I would say it is worth getting both, but if you only want one I would probably go for the Penguin version. The convenience of footnotes is a nice bonus, and it does have the Third Punic War included (to an extent). While the earlier part of Greek and Macedonian events is absent, it has more on the later doings in this sphere. But, if you have the money, time, and inclination, there’s a significant amount of text that is only present in one or the other book.


As the cunning among you will have noticed, this is very much a comparison of the two editions and not a review of the general contents (excepting the parts missing from each edition). Concisely, Polybius covers quite a lot of history, the largest section of which is devoted to the Second Punic War in which Hannibal tussled with Rome but Scipio Africanus ultimately proved victorious. The conduct of that war is included, in both versions, down to the Battle of Cannae, with more in the Penguin version. It’s an excellent source for the Second Punic War, though not as complete as Livy’s account.

It’s also quite ironic that Polybius, whose excellent work has been whittled down over the years due to only excerpts being preserved, is still being reduced even in the modern era and, while the knowledge is retained, it still struck me as something of a historic echo of a trend that sadly deprived us of his complete works.


Tuesday, 17 August 2021

Review: The Machine Stops, by EM Forster

I don’t often read short stories, especially as a stand-alone rather than part of an anthology, but I heard of this book by EM Forster some time ago and decided the time was right. There are spoilers below.

Published way back in 1909, books about future technological, social, and political developments can naturally be prone to looking rather false and even quaint. I think there’s much value in Brave New World and 1984 (far more in Animal Farm, mind) but these dystopian futures are also something of a slog to read.

The Machine Stops, while very short (just over 12,000 words), falls into neither trap. If anything, it’s combination of being not merely easy but compelling to read and the chillingly relevant consideration of the dangers of an excessive reliance upon technology feels like it’s eminently timely.

The story is thus: mankind has become civilised, meaning we all know live underground, each individual occupying a single hexagonal chamber. The Machine summons whatever is required, and facilitates instant communication across the globe. Vashti, most content with this, is unexpectedly asked to visit by her son Kuno, who is less enamoured with the Machine than she and has even had the temerity, daring, or perhaps heretical thinking to venture outside not via an approved access point but by finding his own way.

The Machine reacted by drawing him back in, and slaying a woman he encountered on the surface. Soon, respirators, permitting surface excursions, are forbidden. The Machine begins to be worshipped.

And then fails. The Machine Stops. And everyone underground, utterly dependent on the creation of their forefathers but not understanding it at all, coddled, comfortable, lazy, compliant, dies. So too does Kuno, but in the knowledge there are surface dwellers who will live on.

The dangers of excessive technological integration with everyday lives are easy to understand. Some parents have literally let their babies starve because they were so busy playing videogames. In China, social credit is a real world hell combining state control with tracking and data managed by the power of modern technology. In the UK and elsewhere, politicians are keen to inflict so-called vaccine passports not for international travel, a common and long term approach to such things, but to permit free citizens to access essential goods and services.

I was slightly wary of reading The Machine Stops as some comparable books I’ve read have sometimes been a bit of a chore, though the subject matter was of great interest and relevance. But this is one of the best books I think I’ve ever read and if you’re remotely interested in any aspect of it then you should spend the 72 pence or so it will cost you and grab the e-book.


Saturday, 14 August 2021

Review: The Iron Circlet (Chronicles of the Black Gate Book 4), by Phil Tucker

I really enjoyed the first three books in this series, and have been looking forward to the fourth entry for a while. Naturally, spoilers abound.


We resume our adventure with Tharok on the rampage and set fair to invade the very pinnacle of the Empire, which has just ‘fallen’ in surprisingly concordant fashion to Iskra Kyferin. Meanwhile, Tiron, and his vastly diminished band of allies, manage to escape the massacre of the Ascendant’s forces but find themselves in the middle of nowhere and with precious few supplies.

One of the things I like the most about this series is the combination of internal and external struggles, and how well the storylines weave together. Perhaps the best example of this is Audsley, who goes from bookworm to demonically destructive. But is he the manipulator, or the manipulated?

The remaining forces of the Empire assemble to try and fend off the seemingly unending tide of kragh, the first of many grand battles within this book. Another aspect I like is that while the author is unafraid to have prolonged storylines he’s also not worried about snipping them off when the time is right, and we see a number of significant secondary characters meet their doom, alongside a very dramatic ending that utterly alters, in a plausible yet unexpected fashion, the nature of the conflict.

It remains a very easy to read series, with more depth added to the backstory of the world in a way that’s relevant rather than being a full-blown info-dump, so if the lore of this world is something you’re into then the revelations here add quite a bit.

I’ll probably read something else next, just for the sake of variety, but fully plan to read parts 5 and 6 fairly soon. If you haven’t read any of this series I’d strongly advocate checking it out.


Saturday, 10 July 2021

Review: A Concise History of Republican Rome, by Georgina Masson

I actually finished this a couple of weeks ago but between F1 and having the short term memory of a boiled cabbage I, er, only got around to reviewing it now.

Despite the name the book actually covers the royal period too, making it just about seven centuries of history contained within fewer than 200 pages, so the concise part of the title is entirely accurate. As might be expected, there are some periods that receive significantly more attention than others, as differing historical periods vary not only according to how interesting they are but also the availability of sources.

Although I like reading of the Punic Wars I know relatively little of the latter 2nd century BC through to Caesar’s time and the sections covering the Gracchi, Marius, Sulla, and the triumvirates were very engaging indeed, and showed a surprisingly rapid transformation of the Roman political structure (which had been absolutely rock solid during the Second Punic War). This was fascinating stuff, and I raced through it.

Probably because I was more familiar with much of the rest, I read it at a slower pace. The book’s well-suited, given its nature, to newcomers either to history or this particular (lengthy) period. Maps do not feature but there are many black and white photographs throughout. Also worth noting it’s an older book so if you go for it then second hand may be the optimal route.

This was one of many still on a literal to-read pile and I was a bit unsure how I’d like it. After a slightly slow start, the decline and fall of the republican era was very engaging indeed.