Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

Ancient History in a Summer

Update (11/27): I felt this post was a bit too unpolished, so I rewrote it elsewhere.

Over this summer I sought to brush up on my history a bit, so this time around we will take a whirlwind tour of more than half a dozen books I’ve read over the summer break. We’ll look at the rise and fall of civilizations as well as the rise and fall of religious organizations – be prepared, it may be a bumpy ride.

Let’s get the controversial-ish material out of the way first, with Worlds at War:

Worlds at War tells the story of the clash between the West (Western Europe) and the East (the Middle East) over the course of the last 2500 years. It takes a very broad overview of history, stopping at critical moments to show (largely) how the big monotheistic religions have dominated nations and caused them to start wars within and with each other over the course of their existence. Surprisingly, Judaism doesn’t show up that much until the 1800′s on – as someone who’s grown up thinking that the big religions implicitly would have a fairly equal ownership over human events, it really isn’t the case. Christianity takes hold of the West early on and very paradoxically, it looks like science and rational thought only becomes prevalent there due to religious scholars looking to explain the universe in pursuit of God more thoroughly (a good example of this is Kepler). Similarly, Islam takes hold of the East and when its hold loosens, technological progress quickens. The thesis of Worlds at War is pretty simple then: clinging to religion dogmatically ruins the rights and lives of the individuals that have to live in those societies and although ditching them leads to a very foreign feeling world, it is the quickest way to peace in an ever-changing world. The book ends somewhat ominously, however, as it’s not clear as to whether we in the West are willing to do this – for example, the recent controversy around the whole “mosque at Ground Zero” thing. However you may feel about it being “insensitive” there’s something here in America called freedom of religion, and it means that anyone of any religion can go build whatever their temple is called wherever the hell they want it. Similarly, we have the possibly-more-complex problem of whether the East is willing to accept this – without a history of having to fight for freedom and learn it themselves, the answer may be “no”. But at the same time, I often get the impression that in the West, a lot of people have forgotten what that means, so while our two worlds may be at war, they may not be that far apart.

With that said, let’s get a bit less emotional and away from the hot events of today. Scipio Africanus: Greater than Napoleon takes a look at a legendary Roman general who you likely have never heard of.

This book covers the exploits of its titular character, the Roman general Scipio Africanus. The book is a bit older (from 1926) and definitely feels a bit dated – it has a bit of the “war is glorious” feel going to it and is a little bit on the dry side compared to the other books we normally look at here. However, the material is generally pretty solid – it makes a firm case for Scipio Africanus as being a pretty badass general. He won every battle that he ever led and did so against superior enemies, defeating no less than Hannibal Barca (legendary commander who decisively won the Battle of Cannae) in the final battle at Zama. The final chapter in particular is pretty interesting: the main story is told, and now the author diverts to a discussion on what it means to be “the best general ever”. As the book’s subtitle lets us know, he dispatches Napoleon pretty early on in the discussion, and while you may not agree with his final verdict (as of this writing, I do agree with Hart’s that Scipio is first with Hannibal as a close second), the criteria for the “biggest badass of history” makes for very interesting discussions at the least. He’s clearly thought it though and is pretty convincing on the whole.

Let’s fast-forward from the Punic Wars (Scipio’s time) to the fall of the Roman Republic, where our next two books come into play. Here, we’ve got both Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic and Caesar’s Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar’s Elite Tenth Legion and the Armies of Rome.

Both books cover the fall of the Roman Republic, but in different ways: Rubicon covers the social aspects, that is, who the main players are and all the drama that goes down, while Caesar’s Legion covers the military aspects, specifically with Julius Caesar. Both books are amazing and for me were the best out of all the books covered today (with Worlds at War being a close third place). While also an older book, Caesar’s Legion does something right that I have complained about for almost every history book: maps. It gives you maps for everywhere where anything of importance occurs in the book. This is pretty hard for a book like Worlds at War to do, since it covers such a huge geographical span, but Caesar’s Legion covers almost as big a region and does a magnificent job of making sure that if the reader cares, finding out where all the critical events occur isn’t too difficult. As a war book, it’s fairly neutral – it covers the exploits of Julius Caesar’s Tenth Legion, which pretty much saw all the big battles during the fall of the Roman Republic and a few afterwards. It covers the problems that military leaders run into that the layperson (and especially people of our time) don’t immediately think of – how soldiers are paid and how they’re recruited, as well as the more obvious things such as tactics and troop types (e.g., cavalry, infantry). It’s an easy read and is highly informative.

Rubicon is a bit of a deeper book but I feel has the greater payoff, being the best book of the lot. For me, it actually was also a bit of a depressing book, as it lays out in gory detail how freedom fell in Rome. It also doesn’t hold back – it tells us what the Romans considered “freedom” to be and how its a bit different than our conception of freedom. Long story short – it’s closer to what we call “freedom of opportunity”, where anyone technically could rise up from the lower classes based on merit and be rich/famous/powerful but in reality the odds of this happening are vanishingly low. It also lays out the ideologies of the various key players, how they get subjugated once Caesar shows up, and how they cope with the contradictions of living under a dictator while proclaiming to be for freedom. It also shows how a once-free society can transition to that of a dictatorship/monarchy – slowly kick out all the pro-freedom people, reward all the pro-dictatorship people, and if the mood is right (a bit arbitrary admittedly) it will stick. It’s a bit depressing, but if a dictatorship is the “will of the people”, then what can you do?

Our next two books require us to fast-forward once again. Here we’ve got a book I read actually a long time ago but never properly reviewed, and a new one to complement it: The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History, and Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization.

Both books take a look at the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the rise of the Eastern Roman Empire (a.k.a. the Byzantine Empire). The first book largely focuses on the fall of the Western Roman Empire and makes the case that it was preventable – that if the Emperor Justinian would have simply granted more religious and cultural freedom to the neighboring “barbarian” tribes, then they wouldn’t have become angry and invaded (in fact, they would have become citizens and defended it from other intruders). The latter book largely focuses on the Byzantine Empire but makes the contrasting case – that Roman culture was so dogmatic and so xenophobic that there’s no way that either Justinian would have accepted foreign religions/cultures or the Roman people would have accepted it. For the first book, this argument is the crux of the book. For the second book, it isn’t – it’s just a short chapter on Justinian, and it largely focuses on how the very survival of the Byzantine Empire allowed it to preserve critical historical works that the Western Roman Empire loses during its gradual downfall. Both books are interesting, but I believe that the latter book makes a stronger case and that for me, the Byzantine Empire is just a bit more interesting than the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

With all the Roman history out of the way, let’s fast-forward again to 1066, when the ever-so-critical Battle of Hastings was fought. In this battle, the Normans scored a decisive victory over the Anglo-Saxons and forever changed British history – and world history along with it. However, despite being such an important battle, lots of questions loom over the battle, mostly lots of “who knew what, when” and “why did person X make this decision” kind of questions. The appropriately titled The Enigma of Hastings seeks to address these questions, letting us know all the answers that are currently available and what prevents us from knowing more about them.

While not as interesting as Scipio Africanus, this book is still great for those interested in the particulars of the Hastings battle. While it eventually brings the reader up to speed on the battle, it really assumes you already know about it. For that, I’d recommend the amazing episode of Hardcore History entitled The What-Ifs of 1066, which does a wonderful job of conveying both the particulars of the battle and all the little places where any variation in how things actually turned out would have large repercussions on history as we know it today. As such, while The Enigma of Hastings is great for expert audiences, it goes into what it likely too much depth for the average reader – most will be more than satisfied with the much-more-accessibleThe What-Ifs of 1066 (which is also a fraction of the price).

Finally, let’s wrap up our summer reading tour with a look more on the Eastern side of things, with Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.

Genghis Khan seeks to dispel the negative preconceptions about the Mongolian people through newly discovered information (largely discovered by accident, interestingly enough). It runs through the dramatic lives of primarily Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan, and their very different leadership styles.  It gives a great insight into how the people of the Steppe plains live, and how their culture was so very different from our own. It’s a great book, especially for those of us from the West, who are completely unfamiliar with how a huge chunk of the East operates. Note this is different from the “East” that Worlds at War discusses, which is the Middle East, and what we traditionally know to be “the East”, namely China. There’s a bit of overlap, as Kublai’s exploits lead him to dominate China and forever change their history – interestingly, there’s another one of those critical turning points in history here surrounding the Kamikaze). Regardless, the story is well-told and a great read.

So for those needing some interesting history books to read, there’s nearly a dozen that cover a good range of history and are all pretty interesting reads. I may be a bit “historied out” for now, but it was certainly worth it – the world is still a bit of a shaky place, but with all this new historical knowledge under my belt, it’s for very different reasons. We will definitely have to return to some of these topics in greater detail at a later point as well, as all of these books provoke a number of deep and interesting discussions.