Thursday, November 19, 2015

Description of the World - Part 5

Donald W. Engels, Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army (This little book has actually been quite influential. The author points out the strong limitations geometry puts on the ability of ancient armies to project power beyond sea coasts and navigable rivers. I know that his calculations and conclusions have been challenged, but I think he identifies something very true about human history. For most of the historical past, the power of princes was very much less than what it seems to have been if you go by the expanse of red or blue on the historical atlas. They used to say that Montenegro was unconquerable because an army large enough to defeat the natives would starve while an army small enough to feed itself would get beaten. But a great deal of the world was like that in antiquity and even rather later when the only way to move heavy loads was by water.)

Jonathan Hall, A History of the Archaic Greek World (The Greek dark ages are something of a mystery. For that matter, the period seems to be one of murk and retrogression for the whole ancient world, a step backwards before the leap forwards of the Axial Age. Hence my interest. Or maybe it’s just my aforementioned hankering, not entirely dissimilar to a liking for potato chips. for anything archaic.

Xenophon, Anabasis: the March Up Country, trans. Rouse (In the 19th Century, school kids began the study of Greek by reading this book just as students of Latin began with Caesar. I didn’t and probably haven’t read more than three paragraphs of the thing in the original—Harry Carroll assigned a textbook based on the Gospel According to John, presumably because he was just bored with Xenophon. This translation is by Rouse, who was also translated Homer in prose—I remember reading my sister’s copy of the Iliad.)

Caesar, The Civil War (Caesar never finished this work. The accounts of the African and Spanish campaigns are by other hands. Even the parts he wrote himself are inferior to the Gallic War, which is, no doubt, just as much a propaganda effort but come across as more objective.)

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans Benjamin Jowett (I’ve read almost as many translations of Thucydides as I have of Herodotus, but  I read Herodotus with great pleasure and Thucydides out of a sense of duty. Especially when I was a young man, I took the downfall of Athens personally. The Peloponnesian War is a profoundly depressing book even if you don’t give a damn about the Grandeur that was Greece—I don’t think my nephew John has ever entirely forgiven me for giving him a copy—but even now reading the account of the Sicilian invasion is like reliving a family tragedy for me. The dryness and penetrating intellect of the author only makes the effect more powerful. Of course I’m the guy who reacted to seeing the pits and pocks on the Elgin marbles by muttering “Fuck time!”)

Livy, The Early History of Rome (By the time I read Livy I already knew the old stories from perusing my mother’s old Latin textbooks. It’s hard for me to distinguish what I read in Livy from what I picked up from the pictures in the textbooks. This Penguin contains the first five books of the Ab Urbe Condita—from the Founding of the City, I like the old title.  The material is at best legendary. Even in the Renaissance scholars began to recognize how dubious it was as a record of what actually happened. Rene Dumezil famously considered the early history of Rome to be a reprise of Indoeuropean mythology, though he was insistent that some of the material preserved in Livy really is ancient, in particular the religious formulae.)

Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire (Reading the old histories doesn’t leave you with a clear memory of this or that emperor or barbarian chief, but you do get a sense of the texture of events. Hari Seldon without the equations.)

Arrian’s Life of Alexander (Another book I acquired long ago. Late 50s. This is a cheap pocket book, but even expensive hardbacks of this era have turned yellow and are crumbling to dust. Of course I’m 15 years older than that. Fortunately, I have a lower acid content than the paper that makes the 40s and 50s a bit of a dark ages as far as used books are concerned.)

No comments: