Sunday, 31 December 2017

Review: Caesar, by Theodore Ayrault Dodge

I first read this military history/biography of Caesar quite some time ago, and recently finished re-reading it. Dodge’s ancient histories (he’s written similar books about Alexander and Hannibal) are amongst my favourites. There’s a great level of detail, with maps and sketches of soldiers, siege equipment and so on throughout.

This is not a full-blown biography. It’s concerned almost exclusively with the military career of Caesar. Obviously there’s also some political overlap, such as when he and Pompey had a bit of a tiff, but only when that relates to the military aspect of the subject. As you would expect, the meat of the book is the Gallic and Civil Wars (the latter including sojourns in Spain, the Balkans/Greece, Alexandria and Africa) with a few side-orders (such as the swift spanking of Pharnaces II).

Th author is clearly enthusiastic about his subject, and had the opportunity to visit the theatres of Caesar’s wars. This helps him to reconcile potential conflicts in ancient sources, Caesar’s own accounts foremost amongst them, as well as providing an opportunity for maps and sketches of the landscapes upon which battles, marches, and sieges occurred. It must be said that Dodge sometimes gets a bit carried away (he really does like the three ancient generals about which he wrote) but that doesn’t stop him criticising when he feels Caesar’s been a daft sod (most of the general’s great successes are only great because he thrust himself needlessly into peril and it took significant skill to extricate himself).

Caesar’s reckless conduct gets pulled up several times, but this is far outweighed by successes achieved all over Europe. And, alongside the recklessness, audacity enabled some of the signal victories, most notably at Pharsalus, where he attacked an army twice his size.

It’s also worth remarking upon an episode that doesn’t fit the popular narrative of Caesar, namely his brutality. Specifically, killing around 430,000 Germanic people whilst the tribe was conducting peace negotiations with him. The book was written pre-WWII, and Dodge uses the term holocaust to describe Caesar’s actions (the man himself claimed the Germanic tribe was plotting to betray him so he struck pre-emptively. Dodge is not persuaded).

In addition to the history of Caesar, there is much information on the Roman army and how it had changed over the centuries, particularly from its peak in the Second Punic War. There’s also a splendid chapter near the end comparing Caesar, Alexander and Hannibal in a variety of ways.

It’s a hefty 800 pages but the text is often broken up by drawings, so it’s not quite as dense as it might appear. Overall, an engaging portrayal of one of history’s most intriguing figures.

Related books I’ve reviewed include:
The Crisis of Rome [the period shortly prior to Caesar’s, involving his uncle Marius] -


Thursday, 28 December 2017

Tales of Knights and Nitwits – Episode 1

As this is the first episode, a short preamble. The first three episodes will be released weekly, with a bit of a breather (perhaps a fortnight) after that to give me a chance to keep up. Then I’ll put up the next bunch of episodes weekly again.

Early days, so finding the tone for dialogue and the art style (I use the term ‘art’ quite wrongly) is ongoing. Any suggestions are welcome, but bear in mind I’m currently working on episodes 4-6, so even a great idea will take time to feed through.

If you like the comic, please do share it so others can find it.

Next episode

Full list of episodes


Friday, 22 December 2017

Review: Angel’s Deceit (Angelwar book 2), by AJ Grimmelhaus

I began this right after reading the first book in the trilogy, which I reviewed here.

Naturally, there are spoilers for the first book below, so I’d suggest stopping here if you haven’t read Angel’s Truth yet.

The story picks up with Tol being sent to High Mera, a kingdom of fops that has been surprisingly tardy getting its army deployed to counter the oncoming threat of demon-worshipping barbarians.

Once again he’s joined by the highly strung Katarina and her curt bodyguard Stetch, who have similar concerns about what’s going on in High Mera.

The start seemed a little slow to me, although that impression might be coloured by the fact I’d just finished the preceding book so didn’t need any time reacquainting myself with the world (when I get the third Stormlight Archives entry I might well make the opposite complaint about lack of reminders of how things stand…).

In addition to the familiar main cast there are several new characters, some of which are known to established figures and some of whom are entirely new. I particularly liked Vixen, Tol’s childhood friend (I have a fondness for gruff characters).

As expected, the writing style is easy to read and quite moreish, describing the fantastical world without falling into the trap of labouring the point at the expense of the story. For the most part, the plot feels simpler than the first, but there are a number of excellent late twists that work very well.

I do think a dash more pace in the first half of the book would’ve helped speed things along.

All in all, an enjoyable read and good sequel to Angel’s Truth. I’m looking forward to seeing how things conclude in the final entry in the trilogy.


Friday, 15 December 2017

Books of the Year

In 2017 I read a reasonable number of books, mostly history with a dollop of fantasy in there too. This is a quick rundown of some of my favourites, with links to full reviews.

I’m rather fond of Livy and have been rationing his works (just one to go now) for some time. Rome and Italy tells of the city’s recovery after sack by the Gauls and its rise to supremacy in Italy, fighting powerful rivals like the Samnites and Tarentines. I was pretty unfamiliar with this period of history but several individuals really stuck in my mind; Titus Manlius Torquatus, Marcus Valerius Corvus, Lucius Papirius Cursor, and Quintus Fabius Maximus (the ancestor of the Cunctator) to name a few. As always with Livy, well worth reading.

Written almost two thousand years ago, this tale about terrorism, bloodshed, fanaticism, factions and tragedy in Jerusalem and beyond is, at times, heart-rending. Whilst Josephus can be full of himself, he also tells the story very well, from the surprisingly heroic early years of Herod (damned good king, if you ignore the punitive taxation and child murder) to the bitter infighting amongst the Jews which did more harm to themselves than the Romans. Not a cheery tale, but one well told.

This book is the antithesis of an Alexander biography in that it leaves one feeling better than a king of England (Alexander, of course, making others pale in his shadow). John’s laundry list of major flaws, ranging from starving prisoners to death, betraying his father and brother, and generally being both despicable and incompetent, is depicted in unorthodox manner by having two separate timelines (one before and one right after a certain event early in his reign). Despite that unusual approach, it’s an engaging read (although Englishmen be warned, it does contain quite a lot of losing to the French).

This is very much outside my usual area of reading, being an old book written right after World War One. Although written for children, it’s the most adult (in a mature sense) children’s book you’ll ever read, complete with numerous pictures and photographs (an airship’s giant shadow alongside a racing steam train stands out). It’s a fantastic read, although probably not easy to get hold of.

Although historical, this is my first book about Ancient Egypt. It’s written as a literal journey through the Egypt of 1250 BC, which works very well indeed as that path follows the Nile (crucial, of course, to Egypt’s economy and culture). The journey also allows a natural progression through history as burial sites are passed along the way. Very informative and easy to read.

My most recent read, written about nine centuries ago by the daughter of Emperor Alexius Komnenus about her father. The author’s own character leaps out from the pages and her style has a great deal of charm (although you will need the notes as keeping things in order was not her top priority). Her father’s reign also coincided with dramatic events in history, most notably Robert Guiscard’s invasion of the Balkans and the First Crusade.

Despite waiting for the third Stormlight Archives book for a while, I haven’t had time to read it. Indeed, only got a couple of fantasy stories (both e-books) to add to the history above.

The first book in the series, also entitled The Emperor’s Edge, is an engaging steampunk fantasy packed with interesting characters, strong dialogue, and a fairly tight cast which helps enable good development of the key players. Steampunk isn’t my usual fare, but always felt immersed reading this, and plan to get the sequel sometime soon.

The last fantasy I read was Angel’s Truth, the first entry in the Angelwar Trilogy. It begins the story of a conspiracy to destroy the religious foundation of a second world, in order to weaken the civilised parts and enable demon-worshipping barbarians to overwhelm them. Tol Kraven, a slightly murdery youthful monk in training, is dispatched by his abbot to try and warn the Church. There’s a nice element of uncertainty regarding his allies and foes in the first half of the book, and a good lick of pace to the story. (I’m currently reading the sequel).


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.