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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A Confucian View of History: The Book of Documents

Note: This is another old Thermidor article, originally published on October 6, 2017. As with the other reposts I’ve only done some light editing.


When beginning a study of Confucianism, the most common starting-point is the Analects of Confucius, a reasonable choice since it’s the most easily available book of the Confucian canon as well as the book most that gives us the most material from Confucius himself. When reading it, though, one quickly realises that Confucius draws a great deal of his teaching from prior sources. “A transmitter and not a maker,” he describes himself in Book VII, Chapter I of that work, “believing in and loving the ancients.” Who, then, were the ancients whose teaching he transmitted?

The sage draws from a few sources; among the most prominent is the Book of Odes, which I’ve previously discussed, a collection of poems and folk songs that fits with the emphasis the Confucians place on literature and music. The Book of Changes and Spring and Autumn Annals, respectively covering divination and history, also come up often. Finally, there’s the Book of Historical Documents, another primarily historical work. Despite having the most generic title of any book besides Aristotle’s Topics, the Documents is invaluable because it collects imperial speeches, decrees, and charges to ministers, as well as counsels given by advisers to their sovereign, many of which do appear to be contemporaneous with the reigns they describe. Exactly how many are contemporaneous is uncertain, and the ancient editors themselves indicate that the first few were later compositions by beginning them with the formula “Inquiring into antiquity, we find that…” Traditionally, much as with the other classics previously mentioned, this editorial role has been attributed to Confucius himself, and though there’s little evidence for that besides this much later tradition, his endorsement of the collection has given it a prestigious place in Chinese scholarship ever since.

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The Spring and Autumn Annals and the Gongyang Commentary

The Spring and Autumn Annals is one of Confucianism’s Five Classics, and like the Book of Documents is a work of history, in this case chronicling the history of the state of Lu, Confucius’ home state, from 722-481 B.C. However, whereas the Documents is, as the title indicates, a collection of speeches, decrees, and the like, the Annals is a chronology. It should take just one excerpt to give one an idea of the book, so from the very beginning, the first year of Duke Yin’s reign (722 B.C.):

It was the year one, in the spring, during the King’s first month.
During the third month, the Duke met up with Yifu of the state of Zhu Lou and made a pact with him at Mie.
In the summer, during the fifth month, the Earl of Zheng subdued Duan at Yan.
In the autumn, during the seventh month, the Heavenly King dispatched Zai Xuan to come bearing funerary offerings for Duke Hui’s wife, Zhongzi.
During the ninth month, a pact was made with men from the state of Song at Su.
In the winter, during the twelfth month, the Earl of Zhai arrived.
Prince Yishi died.

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New at Thermidor: Sallust and the Value of Classical History

I have a new post over at Thermidor Magazine, “Sallust and the Value of Classical History.” I have to say I’m rather fond of Classical historians; Herodotus is among my favourites of the Greeks, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives has a lot of interesting stuff, and Livy, though a bit drier, is also rewarding reading. Sallust, I think, is the most approachable of these since all three of his works together are shorter than even Herodotus’s Histories, and not even close Plutarch and Livy.

In any case, the next post on this blog will be on Plato’s Phaedo, which will go up next Tuesday. After that, we’ll see the return of the Hundred Friends series.…

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New at Thermidor: The Everlasting Empire

I have a new post over at Thermidor Magazine, a review of The Everlasting Empire:  The Political Culture of Ancient China and its Imperial Legacy, by Yuri Pines. It is, in part, a follow-up to a previous Thermidor post on the Book of Documents. Specifically, near the end of that post I suggested that it would be beneficial to examine how the Confucians acquired their status as the Chinese empire’s official orthodoxy, and this is the start of an attempt to do so.…

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New at Thermidor: The Book of Documents

I have another new post up at Thermidor Magazine, covering the Confucian classic, the Book of Documents, which includes a discussion of the Confucian approach to history, as well as a few comments on the Confucian-derived Neoreactionary slogan, “Become worthy. Accept power. Rule.”

Those wanting to read more about Confucianism may be interested in a few other articles I’ve written previously, covering the Book of Odes, Mencius, Leonard Lyall’s translation of the Analects of Confucius, and Xinzhong Yao’s Introduction to Confucianism.…

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Hiero the Tyrant and Other Treatises by Xenophon

It may be hard to tell since I didn’t really review it, but I loved Anabasis enough that I was eager to read more from Xenophon right after finishing it. He’s one of the fortunate Classical authors to have had many of his works survive to the present day, so there’s plenty to choose from. His Socratic dialogues seemed like an obvious next step, but I’ve decided to put that on hold until I finish Plato’s. In the meantime, I noticed that Robin Waterfield, who did the excellent translations for AnabasisThe Histories, and The First Philosophers, has translated a collection of his shorter works, published by Penguin Books as Hiero the Tyrant and Other Treatises.

The first work, which gives its title to the collection, is a dialogue between Hiero, the ruler of Sicilian Syracuse  from 478-467 B.C., and an advisor, Simonides, on happiness and whether a tyrant is happier than common people. On the surface, it would seem that tyrants must be, since obviously all of their appetites can easily be fulfilled. If you’ve read much didactic literature, though, you can guess that it’s not so simple, and Hiero points out several areas where tyrants are, in fact, less happy than their citizens. For example, Hiero may be able to feast daily on delicacies that commoners only get at festivals and special occasions, but, he says, “If there’s no novelty for a person in having a sumptuous and varied diet, he doesn’t fancy anything he is offered; it is the person for whom something is a rare treat who eats his fill with delight when it is served up to him.” This is why tyrants like himself often request strongly flavoured food, even though, in his own words, “for an appetite to crave that kind of food it would have to be effete and debilitated, don’t you think? I mean, you know as well as I that people who enjoy their food have no need of such contrivances.” So, a tyrant may have access to all the material comforts he desires, but soon finds no joy in them and must go on a search for ever increasing novelty.…

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