Sunday, November 22, 2015

Description of the World - Part 7

Second Shelf

Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (I infer from the price stamp that I bought this copy at the Yale Co-op around 1972. The first edition of the book was published in ’39. It was written in the Hitlerzeit and read by me in the first Nixon administration. My image of Augustus was formed by these optics. I was ready to believe that the man was an unpleasant political operator rather than a wise pater patriae. Maybe that’s why I was puzzled by the rather sympathetic version of Augustus in the I Claudius TV series.)

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 3 vols. (The books are rubberstamped THIS IS THE PROPERTY OF JAMES HARRISON—I made the stamp in a junior high printshop. I know I read Gibbon at about that time because i remember suggesting that Mr. Masters, my 9th grade world history teacher, should assign parts of it to the class. He let me know that wasn’t very practical. I blame Gibbon for giving me a life-long tendency to write periodic sentences.)

Alan K. Bowman, Egypt after the Pharaohs  332BC-AD642 (I had forgotten this book. Of course Hellenistic Egypt is hardly an obscure topic, at least compared to the Despotate of Epirus, but there’s a tradition of looking at everything after Alexander as second class—you know you’ve come to the end of the history of Greece when you encounter the fold-out map of Alexander’s campaigns. I was brought up on this version. I recall a cartoon in an old world history textbook, perhaps the one from Mr Master’s class so long ago, that showed the sun setting on the steps of a Greek temple. The steps were labelled Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, Herodotus, etc. The date was identified as 332 BC. I’ve traversed a great many pages getting away from this late 19th Century commonplace.

Erich Gruen, The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome (Titus Quinctius Flamininus, having vanquished the Macedonians at the Battle of Cynoscephalae (Dog’s Head) proclaimed the liberty of the Greek cities to an applauding audience at the Isthmian Games in Corinth 196 BC. That used to be a famous event: indeed, it was featured in The Great Events by Famous Historians, a 20 volume compendium of mostly Victorian-era narratives I acquired for 25 cents a throw from an old Jewish guy who sold used furniture and had no use for books not written in Yiddish. Of course the liberty of the cities didn’t last very long. The Romans sacked and utterly destroyed Corinth fifty years later. The empire certainly wasn’t an unalloyed disaster for the Greeks—the Roman ruling class identified so much with Greek culture than their great antiquary Varro even tried to sell the claim that Latin is, properly understood, a dialect of Greek and various prominent Greeks gave themselves Latin first names—Claudius Ptolemy, for example.. The unity of the classical world under the empire was rather like the unity of the “free world” in the high cold war—Gruen’s book is about the ambiguities and adjustments of the situation.)

Hans Delbrück, Warfare in Antiquity (My college Greek teacher, Harry Carroll, used to cite Delbrück to debunk the traditional versions of ancient battles, especially the inflated estimates of how many troops were involved. When I finally ran across a copy of the first volume of his main work many years later, I acquired and read it even though I was no longer particularly interested in military history or still offended, as I think I was at 18, to discover that Xerxes probably didn’t lead a million men over the Hellespont. It’s rather like drinking a glass of chocolate milk on principle, not because you like it but simply because when you did like it, you couldn’t get any.) 

Plutarch’s Lives
, Dryden translation (I was thinking about this book the other day. I had the fantasy of reading some of the lives to young teenagers, well, young male teenagers, on the theory that they would identify with the heroic or rascally ancients. I expect the late 17th Century English would defeat the project. You’d also have to interpolate an awful lot of footnotes. Still, it would be an interesting experiment, and I continue to believe that reading books not written in the last twenty minutes has a certain value. Or maybe the better subjects for the trial would be adults. “Even if they can barely talk or understand what you’re saying, it’s worthwhile to read, speak, and sing with your thirty year olds…”)

Arthus D. Kahn, The Education of Julius Caesar (Speaking of ancient lives. Because of the sheer wear and tear involved in military and political life in the pre-modern era, conquering was mostly a young man’s game. Caesar was an exception. He was in his 40s when he began the conquest of Gaul and in his 50s when he crossed the Rubicon. That doesn’t seem particularly old to us, but we don’t spend our nights in tents and our days riding from battlefield to battlefield through rain and snow. Caesar himself seems to have worried about running out of time—it wasn’t just Plutarch who compared Caesar with Alexander and Alexander had conquered the world before Caesar won his first consulship. The upside of peaking late is that it gives you a long education, hence the theme of this book. The book makes a point of Caesar’s interest in Epicureanism. Venus was the ancestor of the Julian clan, the alma Venus Lucretius invoked in the first two lines of de rerum natura. Caesar’s obvious intelligence and literary skill wasn’t news to me, but Kahn’s book alerted me to his connection with the circle of the Epicureans.)

Jacob Burckhardt, The Age of Constantine the Great (Burckhardt’s Renaissance book is much better known, and I certainly remember it better. In fact, the sole reason I’m sure that I actually read this volume is the presence of underlinings and marginal notes. That doesn’t mean I took nothing away from the book, though. As I’ve frequently said—assuming I’m not inadvertently stealing this line as well—the advantage of a faulty memory is that it makes it possible to commit plagiarism with a clear conscience.)

Chris Wikham, The Inheritance of Rome (Taking late antiquity serious, which means with respect, is one thing. From Burckhart and Adolph Harnack to Peter Brown and co. some remarkable intellects have focused on that era. It’s a bit harder to pay the same kind of attention to Gregory of Tours as you do to Augustine, however, because, no matter how you slice it, the Dark Ages were genuinely dark in many ways, at least in Western Europe. The successors to the empire tried to keep the political and cultural traditions alive—the monks knew their Virgil and the knights were milites in the Latin of the chronicles. If their civilization was a dying reverberation, it died very, very slowly.)

Note: Why I call this catalog a description of the world: between the microcosm that is a human person and the macrocosm that is the entirely of things, there is also a mesocosm or rather a series of mesocosms: human civilization, the culture of your society, the Internet, your library.

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