Friday, 8 December 2017

Review: The Alexiad, by Anna Komnene

The edition I read was a Penguin Classics version, translated from Greek by ERA Sewter and revised with notes and an introduction by Peter Frankopan.

It’s a biography of the Alexius Komnenos, ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire and widely regarded as one of its best emperors. The history is written by his daughter Anna Komnene, and I think it’s the first history penned by a woman, certainly in Europe.

The biography doesn’t cover the entirety of Alexius’ life, beginning in the late 11th century with Alexius as a senior officer in the Roman army. From this point it describes him fighting rebels and himself rebelling (ostensibly to save his own life from potentially fatal court intrigues), becoming emperor and reigning for decades.

This was a particularly important shift for the Empire as it marked a (temporary) end to short-lived and rubbish emperors, with Alexius’ reign also coinciding with Robert Guiscard’s invasion of the Balkans and the First Crusade. Indeed, Alexius appears to have spent more time fighting with the Franks than the Turks.

I like the author’s writing style quite a lot. It’s more personal than most histories for obvious reasons (early on Anna Komnene refers to ‘her father’/‘my father’ an awful lot) but even when talking about others you get a sense of her character. At one point she refers to a man acting like a demi-god towards a demi-ass, and laments the decline in education thus:
‘Today it is the game of draughts that is all the rage – and other activities which contravene the law’

There is a defensive/apologetic note sometimes, with the author keen to stress that she is not biased and is being objective. There is some evidence to bear this out (she does not omit the fact that when Alexius took the throne his army looted much of Byzantium). The apologetic note slightly reminds me of the letter Machiavelli wrote to Lorenzo de Medici ahead of The Prince.

She does, however, have a penchant both for tangents and writing things out of order. Because of this, the notes are more useful in this history than perhaps any other, clarifying dates and suggesting when the author may be mistaken.

That personal aspect lends added poignancy to the description of her father’s demise which, dealing with a universal part of life, is as emotive today as it would have been when it was written nine centuries ago.

Things I dislike are relatively few. As always, endnotes are inferior to footnotes, and the translation includes a pet hate: the ‘firing’ of arrows. There are not many lacunas, save for the final few pages where they pepper the page and occasionally make it tricky to determine the meaning.

Probably clear at this point that I liked The Alexiad rather a lot. I’ve read a small number of other books that cover the period in less detail (John Julius Norwich’s excellent trilogy on Byzantium, and I’ve read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but can’t remember if he skipped Alexius [I think he covered the Komneni]). That extra context is useful but not essential for understanding the strategically difficult position the Empire was in, and the achievement of Alexius in restoring stability, prosperity and (mostly) victory to the ailing Empire.

The biography is strongly focused, as you would expect, upon the person and successes of Alexius, so other reading is not essential, and The Alexiad is well worth reading on its own.


Friday, 1 December 2017

Divisions in history

Right now, the UK is at an intriguing crossroads in its history, whereby whatever happens a very large proportion of the population will be quite cross (the middle ways of an associate membership of the EU or EFTA/EEA membership were not offered in Cameron’s renegotiation and were rejected by May, respectively).

However, whilst fringe lunatics on either side shriek and wail, and a great many in the middle would just like reason to prevail, it’s worth noting that this ideological polarisation is nothing new. And nor is it anywhere near as bad as it has been in the past.

If we go back about two and a half thousand years, there’s the Peloponnesian War. This was between democrats, led by Athens (ironic, given Athens had a maritime empire), and the oligarchs, led by Sparta. Perhaps because there aren’t overriding personalities like Hannibal and Scipio, the war is less well-known than some ancient conflicts. As well as inter-city rivalry (which is more serious than it sounds. In Greek xenos [root of xenophobia] referred to another Greek but who came from a different city [barbaros referred to a non-Greek]), there was the clash of ideals. Democracy inherently sounds better to us, but it’s worth noting the Athenians executed most of their best admirals after a successful naval battle.

Yes, you read that correctly. The admirals in question failed to retrieve Athenian bodies from the water (not an easy task) and were punished for this with death. Democracy and mob rule are not so very far apart.

Within other cities that weren’t as firmly rooted in either camp, rival factions of pro-oligarchy and pro-democracy thugs arose. Thucydides wrote of how nuance and being reasonable was seen as cowardice, and treacherous backstabbing, ambushing the enemy, was seen as the height of bravery. As well as the major battles and prolonged warfare, a huge amount of bitterness was kindled all across Greece. This was quite unusual as warfare generally is about seizing resources or trying to avenge a misfortune.

More recently, but still about a thousand years ago, Byzantium was in the throes of iconoclasm. There was a clash between traditionalist iconodules, who adored icons (sometimes too much), and iconoclasts, who wanted to smash them. Icons were venerated but sometimes to such an extent that one might be named a godparent. This reached such extremes that a backlash movement arose, intent upon destroying the icons, smashing the physical substance and restoring faith and worship to the intangible. Countless works of religious art were destroyed before, eventually, the furore died down and a sort of soft iconodule solution was reached.

Hundreds of years ago, in Italy/Germany, there was a religious and political clash between those who supported the Pope and those who supported the Holy Roman Emperor (arguably the least accurate title in history). The Guelphs supported the Pope, and the Ghibellines backed the Holy Roman Emperor.

The first so-called Holy Roman Emperor was Charlemagne, who was crowned by the Pope in Rome on Christmas Day 800AD. This was not a continuation of the (Western) Roman Empire, but in the same way that Latin was used by the Church long after the Empire fell and Russia once described Moscow as the Third Rome, the Roman Empire still loomed so large in the cultural memory that both the Pope and Charlemagne wanted to be associated with it.

Such closeness between emperor and pontiff was not always the case. Centuries later, sometimes for more political reasons than religious or philosophical ones, the Guelph and Ghibelline factions arose. Often, pro-imperial Ghibellines lived in places at risk of rising papal power, and pro-papacy Guelphs dwelt in areas at risk of waxing imperial authority (so they were frequently bound together not so much by love of the one they supported as fear of the one they did not).

And that has some relevance to the present day. Many in the UK both dislike the EU’s politics and drive to integrate, and dislike the thought of utterly going it alone. For some, it’s a question of what they dislike more, rather than what they strongly support.


Friday, 24 November 2017

Review: Game of Thrones series 5 (DVD)

Ahem, bit late this, but here’s my traditional review of the last Game of Thrones DVD set I watched. Finally got around to the fifth series. I’d heard mixed things about it, and coupled with a certain event at the end of series four (NB there will be spoilers for the fourth series after this) I was in two minds about it.

It’s also worth knowing that in some parts the TV series has now progressed beyond the books so if you want to read the plot before you watch it, you shouldn’t watch series five until you’ve read the next book.

Initially, the plot did feel a little slow. However, the unfolding of religious events in King’s Landing (which have a particular resonance now, I feel) was extremely well done, living up to the excellent storyline they formed in the books. Without the gradual build-up that plot line would not have had quite the same impact.

The increasing fatalism and horror in the North also had very good conclusions, although, again, it did start slowly.

Daenerys’ storyline remains trapped in Meereen, which is easily the most tedious part of the story. Happily, there are some bright spots which I shan’t spoil, but for the most part it’s all a bit bland.

Of all the plot lines, Arya's is the most isolated, with just one cross-over to the wider world. Fortunately, she's a charismatic character and helped by the return of an old 'friend'. Her sister, of course, continues to have a rough time of it (Game of Thrones could be subtitled "In Which Everything Goes Wrong For Sansa), but I am enjoying Sansa's very substantial character arc.

As is traditional with Game of Thrones, there is high stakes drama particularly at the end of the series, and this is no exception, with the series ending very strongly. Indeed, both episodes nine and ten have this quality, rather than (as has happened before) nine being full of bloodshed and ten mopping it up.

It might just be me, but after the fourth series (and the outcome of the Mountain bursting the Red Viper’s skull) the level of violence and sex does appear to have gone down a notch. Not for kids, of course, but not quite so harsh. I did miss Charles Dance as the menacingly magnificent Tywin Lannister.

As for extras, there are commentaries (often multiple for each episode), and other things. The commentaries, as always, vary quite a lot according to who’s chattering. In general, the later the episode the better the commentary.

The other extras include sections on new locations, as well as perhaps my favourite extra of any series so far: a look at historical inspirations for the characters and events of the programme.

Despite the prolonged gap, I’m glad I got this and rather liked it. Especially looking forward to seeing how future events unfold in the next series.


Friday, 17 November 2017

Some Art

As well as my many activities involving sitting in a chair, staring at a screen, I have a wildly different hobby of sitting in a chair, staring at a piece of paper. Not a great artist by any stretch, but I enjoy it, and I thought I’d have a crack at a few different types of drawing.

The process I use is to do a very faint pencil sketch, then go over with a darker pencil. Usually I put it through a BW filter to make it starker, although I chose to leave the first image just in pencil-and-paper form.

Some of these I previously posted on my Twitter account, MorrisF1.

Cat (and dog)

The cat mostly turned out well, although the legs are a little stumpy. It’s based on the guide in Mark Crilley’s Mastering Manga 3, which I can highly recommend. This was a lot easier than the more realistic dog tutorial in the same book, but, obviously, that took a lot longer, so swings and roundabouts. (Having mentioned it, I decided to add the dog as well).


This is based on a screenshot from the nocturnal desert region in Dragon Age: Inquisition. I wish I’d gone for a little more background detail, but am quite pleased with the sandy outline. So, not bad, but I should’ve added more stuff.


I was very much in two minds about including this. As I drew it, I liked this drawing of Triss Merigold from The Witcher 3 a lot. And then immediately afterwards I loathed it. Weirdly, I think the outline of the face (something I struggle with for ‘realistic’ faces quite a bit) looks ok, but the features just don’t seem to gel together.

France Map

Being into both history and fantasy, maps are an interesting thing to try and draw. Personally, I’m not fussed about them being included in books (details often get swallowed by the spine and the necessarily small size limits what you can show anyway) but as larger pictures I think they work well. Anyway, this is a pretty basic map. Coastline looks alright, not sure about the city symbols though. The larger collective forest in the south and the swamps in Brittany (NB I was just practising symbols, Brittany isn’t really a giant quagmire) turned out well, and were based on the WASD20 RPG map videos on Youtube. On the downside, this took quite a long time. Not as long as the reptile head with hundreds of scales, but quite a long time nevertheless.

Lion Crest

I was delighted with this. Based on William Marshal’s crest (deliberately low on detail beyond the outline), although I got the proportions a smidgen off and the paws/claws could be better, the basics worked very well. I was planning on doing another but mingling it with the style of the Lannister lion (from Game of Thrones) but then had a perhaps even more cunning plan for another lion. If that ends up working (I haven't started it yet) I'll put it up here and/or on Twitter.