Everything is Oll Korrect!

An eclectic bibliophile's journal…

Category: history

Dante: The Story of his Life

I like to style myself a literary omnivore, but one genre I’ll admit I seldom touch is biography. I’ve read one on Robert E. Lee, and back in high school and college I read some biographies of various rock bands, but I preferred those that focused primarily on their music and secondarily on the musicians’ personal lives. A recent review, of The Printed Homer, included some biographical speculation, but ultimately one can’t really write a biography of a man about whom we know so little for certain that we’re not even sure if he was one dude or multiple dudes.

Marco Santagata stands on firmer ground in his biography of Dante Alighieri (translated from Italian by Richard Dixon), titled simply Dante: The Story of His Life, though he did run into some difficulties of his own. Typically I like to start reviews on a positive note, but any biography of Dante will have two significant problems to deal with, and though Santagata’s book is quite good overall one does need to be aware of them.

First, Dante’s life is inextricably tied up with Florentine politics. Readers of his Divine Comedy will undoubtedly have noticed how many contemporary political figures appear, and multiple works after La Vita Nuova, such as Convivio and Monarchia, at least touch on political theory or practice in some way. This means that a huge portion of Santagata’s book is spent discussing the ins and outs of Florentine political theatre and that of Italy more broadly. For those keenly interested in Italian history or who are just political junkies this won’t be a problem at all, but anyone expecting a sort of “real life novel” style of biography will find themselves skimming pages at a time of explanations of shifting alliances, ideologies, and political manoeuvring.

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The Printed Homer: A 3000 Year Publishing and Translation History of the Iliad and the Odyssey

Philip H. Young’s The Printed Homer: A 3000 Year Publishing and Translation History of the Iliad and the Odyssey is an odd book to recommend to laymen because about half of it will be useful only to a very focused class of specialists. The other half, though, is of interest to any Classicist, professional or amateur, and is enough to justify buying the whole package.

The specialist half can be dealt with very briefly. Young has compiled a comprehensive list of every known printing of Homer’s works (including those spuriously attributed to him, such as the Hymns) from the first example in 1470 to 2000. It’s an impressive undertaking and I’m sure it’s very helpful for historians who specifically study historical interest in and treatment of the Homeric texts. For laymen such as myself, though, I find it hard to imagine a plausible scenario where this part of the book might be useful.

The rest of the book, though, discusses a range of material that I found fascinating and enlightening as an introduction to the Homeric Question, how the texts were created and transmitted, and how Homer was received, interpreted, and admired from ancient Greece to modernity, as well as Young’s own defense of why Homer is worth studying. I’ll just give a sample of each chapter.…

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“A City for Sale” – Sallust’s Histories

Note: I’m continuing to repost my old Thermidor articles; this one was originally published on February 19, 2018. As usual, I’ve done only minimal editing.

When sorting through works from the Classical world, we can divide them into three broad categories of history, philosophy, and literature. The value of the latter two are plain enough; early philosophers raised questions of eternal relevance and laid the foundation for those who came later, and for the poets and dramatists, true beauty is timeless. What, though, of history? After all, history’s primary purpose is to tell us “what happened,” and we can usually get this more easily from modern historians, who can review not only the ancient historians’ works, but data from other historical documents, archaeology, etc. Obviously, if you are a historian you’ll need these early sources, but what about the lay reader?

There are, I think, three things that make ancient historians worth reading for an educated layman. First, they do cover the basic, surface-level “what happened” aspect of history. Their work is often criticised for inaccuracy, and sometimes with reason, but despite their shortcomings, biases, and lack of modern methodology, it’s worth remembering that these were intelligent men and in some cases were well aware of their own difficulties. Herodotus, for example, emphasises several times that he can only relate to the audience what he has heard, and sometimes expresses doubt about the version of events he’s been given. Plutarch says at the beginning of his biography of Theseus that, “after passing through those periods which probable reasoning can reach to and real history find a footing in, I might very well say of those that are farther off, Beyond this there is nothing but prodigies and fictions, the only inhabitants are the poets and inventors of fables.” Similarly, Livy, in the preface to Ab Urbe Condita, refers to “The traditions which have come down to us of what happened before the building of the city [of Rome], or before its building was contemplated,” which are “suitable rather to the fictions of poetry than to the genuine records of history.” Both Plutarch and Livy, then, are well aware that the events they describe of ancient history are dubious in many places and alert their readers to the fact, but ultimately decide that giving a highly uncertain account is better than no account at all.

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The Everlasting Empire

Note: This is another repost from Thermidor Magazine, originally published on December 20, 2017. As usual, it is republished here with minimal editing.

When looking at an outline of Chinese history, one of the most striking things is the longevity of China’s imperial structure, lasting from the unification of China in 221 B.C. all the way to A.D. 1912. As far as I’m aware, the only Western state to even approach this record is the Roman Empire, beginning (to use one common starting date) in 27 B.C. and not fully collapsing until 1453. Now, China was obviously not a serene empire, as dynasties certainly did rise and fall, sometimes with anarchic periods in between these the collapse of one and rise of the next. Nonetheless, each succeeding dynasty adopted the basic structure and governing ideology of its predecessor. Not until the Twentieth Century was the imperial structure  fully destroyed and left behind. How was this possible?

That’s the question Yuri Pines seeks to answer in The Everlasting Empire: The Political Culture of Ancient China and its Imperial Legacy. To start, he argues that China could  easily have broken into many smaller states, as happened in Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. He points out that during the Warring States period, which lasted 453-221 B.C., the various Chinese states were not only politically disunited but had shifted away from each other culturally, as well. At this stage China resembled post-Roman Europe, where political divisions solidified into permanent cultural division and eventually into nation states. One easy, and at one time common, answer to why this worked out differently in China is geographic, but Pines rejects this explanation. “The Chinese terrain,” he says, “crisscrossed by mountain ranges […] and huge rivers, was as conducive to the emergence of small independent polities as any other part of the world, with many regions […] easily defensible against outsiders’ attacks.”

Demographics also fail to provide a satisfactory answer to Chinese unity. Pines explains, “[N]ot only did ethnic minorities continuously occupy important pockets within so-called China proper, but also the core ‘Han’ population remained highly diverse in terms of spoken language, customs, modes of life, and even religious beliefs and pantheon.” He concludes that the answer, then, is largely ideological.

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