Category: history

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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The Histories

Next to Aristotle’s TopicsThe Histories may be the most vaguely titled book ever written. I suppose you can get away with that when you’re the Father of History, as Herodotus is called, and as the author of the first narrative history it’s not like there was much room for confusion at the time. Besides, while Herodotus makes the Greco-Persian Wars his ostensible subject, he’s so far-ranging that the broad title describes the work well enough.

Herodotus could also have accurately titled it “Things that Interest Me.” Though some historians will address tangential topics in the course of their books, Herodotus revels in sharing only tangentially related anecdotes, ethnography, geography, information about landmarks, and so on. For example, while discussing Croesus’s rule in Ionia, he makes sure to add that he had donated a number of things to the Delphic Oracle, and adds that much of this is still there (at least as of when he was there last), and worth seeing; it’s as though he saw himself as a combination of John Keegan and Rick Steves. Some readers may find these digressions annoying, but personally, I find them charming, and some of my favourite stories from The Histories are things that a modern historian would likely have left out. Besides, in Herodotus’s defence, much of this information does provide background information that helps the reader understand the motivations and situation of the many nations and individuals involved, directly or indirectly, in the Greco-Persian Wars.…

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Memoirs of a Service Afloat During the War Between the States

Last year, I asked my twitter followers for good books on the War Between the States, and I was promptly informed that I would (not just “might”) enjoy Memoirs of a Service Afloat During the War Between the States, written by Raphael Semmes, captain of the CSS Sumter and, later, the Alabama. Once I got my hands on a copy, I could tell right away it would be a good one because opposite the title page the publisher, Alacrity Press, had a note saying, “This book is a product of its time. Some of the terms and views expressed by the author may reflect common values and usage of his day that are contrary to modern values. They should be viewed in that context.” A trigger warning like that is something I take as a strong endorsement.

Another good sign came in the preface. Semmes explains that, though there’s a common view that historians should be as dispassionate as possible, this approach would only give “a dead history, in other words, a history devoid of the true spirit of history.” He adds, “Such a terrible war as that through which we have passed could not be comprehended by a stolid, phlegmatic writer, whose pulse did not beat quicker while he wrote.” I appreciate this attitude, partly because it makes for more interesting reading when an author is passionate, and also because I’m suspicious of historians who try too hard to be unbiased and removed from the subject. I want to know an author’s own opinions, partly because they’re valuable, since he’s presumably an expert on the topic, and because it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to be truly unbiased, so it’s best simply to be honest with one’s own thoughts so that a reader needn’t be so on-guard against subconscious slant.

Captain_Raphael_Semmes_and_First_Lieutenant_John_Kell_aboard_CSS_Alabama_1863_bw
Semmes and First Lieutenant John Kell aboard CSS Alabama, 1863
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A Defense of Virginia and the South

Portrait_of_Robert_Lewis_DabneyA while back, over at Throne and Altar, Bonald pointed out that leaving the Enlightenment framework is only the beginning of thought. Once one rejects Liberalism root, tree, and branch, and embraces the Right, the rubric for judging historical figures and events is totally different, and it’s no longer clear without further investigation who the “good guys” in a given conflict were. Progressives occasionally mock the “gotta hear both sides” attitude, but once one is on the Right it becomes necessary, even in situations where the “correct” side always seemed obvious before.

So, one comes to the War Between the States, which is a major part of Progressivism’s triumphant narrative of itself, and finds that the whole thing needs re-evaluation. That the South was in the right has, frankly, always seemed obvious to me, but there are a few different ways to arrive at this conclusion, each one varying degrees outside the Overton Window. Some examples:

  • The South was right because I’m a Southerner and always support my own people. This attitude of “my country right or wrong” is the most reactionary of all in some sense; it’s certainly the least ideological, and rests purely on natural human loyalties. It’s not very satisfying intellectually, though, and we (moderns, at least) can’t help but want to know if we’re really in the right.
  • The South was right because of States’ rights. This attempts to set aside the slavery issue and focuses on arguing that because the States were sovereign they could secede for any reason. This legalistic argument is common and, I think, basically right as far as it goes in appealing to the logos, but isn’t rhetorically effective because it doesn’t address the pathos at all and only touches on ethos in the abstract issue of law, not in the more visceral slavery issue.
  • The South was right because the Union was wrong. In other words, take the fight to the Union and argue that Abraham Lincoln and company were criminals. Thomas DiLorenzo takes this approach in The Real Lincoln, and he’s a relatively neutral source since he’s a Libertarian and neither the Union nor the Confederacy were meaningfully Libertarian governments. This argument is also correct and somewhat effective; it’s far more effective rhetorically to attack than defend, but a positive defense of the Confederacy is still lacking in this approach.

Now, all three of these typically come with a disclaimer that, though the Confederate States had the authority to secede from the Union, abolishing slavery was a good outcome of the war. However, this approach is ultimately rather weak; for most people, slavery seems so evil on a visceral level that it’s near-impossible to set aside. Besides, I’ve been on the Right long enough that I can smell a concession to modern sensibilities, and this has just that distinctive odour. These positions peek outside the Overton Window, maybe even open it up and smell the rose bushes outside, but are careful not to venture too far.

Some politically incorrect positions prompt stronger reactions than others. To reject republicanism and embrace monarchism is to leap out the Overton Window with a running start, but to most observers it just comes across as eccentric. Some positions, though, are more like turning back toward the Overton Window hurling a Molotov Cocktail right at the feet of those inside. Today, we have just such a rhetorical arsonist in Robert Lewis Dabney, with his 1867 book A Defense of Virginia and the South, and the fuel for this cocktail is not even necessarily agreeing with, but simply giving a fair hearing at all to this thesis:

There is nothing inherently wrong with slavery.

Now, Dabney presents a wide range of arguments across nine chapters, so I’m going to take the simplest approach and go through the book chapter-by-chapter. As I generally do, I’ll quote heavily and let Dabney do most of the arguing for himself, and content myself with providing some context and commentary; in other words, this won’t be a full analysis and criticism, but more of an introductory sketch of Dabney’s position.…

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Klemens von Metternich’s Memoirs

This is another book that I wasn’t aware of until I stumbled on it in a used bookstore. I was surprised that memoirs by Klemens von Metternich wouldn’t be more talked-about since he’s such a respected figure among the Right, and I went into the book with high expectations, thinking it would be something like a more focused version of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy.

Now, the book is titled The Autobiography: 1773-1815, but it’s not really an autobiography, since Metternich says very little about his personal life, especially once he begins his diplomatic career. It’s not a history, either, as he says explicitly a few times. I called it a memoir above because it’s mostly a collection of anecdotes, conversations, and commentary on events Metternich was involved in. It’s a bit odd stylistically, but perhaps that’s to be expected; Metternich didn’t publish this himself, and doesn’t seem to have intended for all of it to be published. Rather, it’s a collection of three works edited together by his son, Prince Richard Metternich. Two of them blend together seamlessly, but the third, On the History of the Alliances, does stick out noticeably, and is a more traditional historical narrative of the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1813-15, though still focusing on the events Metternich personally took part in and avoiding well-known explanations of the battles and broader history.

So, those looking for a self-revealing memoir will be disappointed, since Metternich isn’t self-revealing at all, as will those looking for in-depth diplomatic history or theory. However, the book is still worth reading because one does get a fascinating sketch of some of the most influential people of the era by a man who seemed to know everyone of importance. For example, early in his career Metternich met and got along very well with Emperor Alexander of Russia, who requested that he be sent to St. Petersburg as Austria’s ambassador. When Metternich was sent to France instead, the Emperor took some offense. Metternich says, “The Emperor Alexander did not allow of any graduations in the behaviour of another, because he knew none in his own political conduct, as he was always going backwards and forwards from one extreme to another, in the most opposite directions; he therefore suspected me of being altogether on the side of France and of nourishing great prejudices against Russia.”…

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The First World War in Colour

WWI_4

Dan Carlin, in an episode of his Hardcore History podcast, called history from Herodotus onward the “colour era” of history, compared to the “black and white” era before Herodotus. The difference comes down to one of style – ancient histories were often little more than chronologies, with some propagandizing, but had relatively little characterisation or storytelling. From Herodotus onward, though, historians began treating their subjects in a more narrative style, which makes their subjects feel more “alive” to the audience.

Some historians are very good at this. Last year, for example, I gave Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets credit for his novelistic writing style, even if it was a bit overdone at times. In my reading, most popular historians do at least make an attempt to avoid getting bogged down in plain facts, figures, and abstractions, to give readers an idea of what the events they describe were like for the people who actually experienced them.

Nonetheless, history often is difficult to imagine for those of us who had no part in the events, especially for the distant past. I think I’m safe in speculating that there’s more interest in relatively recent events like the Second World War than earlier eras because, besides being more obviously relevant, there’s a lot more supplementary material. I can see many photographs and even film of the Second World War, and even listen to speeches by, say, Franklin Roosevelt or Sir Winston Churchill. This is even more true for still more recent history.

So, I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking about the First World War, and at this point descriptions of trench warfare have a visceral feel to me; I can imagine myself in the position of the soldiers on the Western Front. I get the same gut reaction, though, to Vietnam’s jungle warfare, even though I’ve spent far less time studying that conflict, because I’ve seen it in colour photographs; this still doesn’t get across the experience, obviously, but it’s much more of a “hook,” so to speak, into the subject. Yes, many photographs exist of the Great War, but colour photography has at least as much more punch to it than black-and-white photos as black-and-white photos have more than painting.

That’s changed somewhat, though, because I just recently learned that colour photographs of the First World War do exist, about 4,500 of them. That’s not a lot, relatively speaking, but I only know about them at all because I stumbled on a collection of them in a used bookstore, The First World War in Colour, by Peter Walther.

Here’s one example, taken during the Battle of the Marne:

WWI_1

When I first saw this, the first thing I noticed was actually the uniforms – every history of the war mentions how the French soldiers’ red pants made them easy for the Germans to spot, and now that I see them, well – no kidding.

Of course, this also just looks like a regular scene of men out camping. These men aren’t just figures in a table of troop numbers, they look like anyone I could meet today. The colour quality isn’t great, but it’s not a great deal worse than some of the commercial cameras used for a lot of my family’s photographs from well within living memory.

Speaking of uniforms that make the soldier easy to spot for the enemy:

WWI_2

That’s a Zouave unit; needless to say, like the main French force, they changed their uniform design fairly quickly.

Now, because of the unwieldy equipment needed and the time-consuming process of just taking these photos, there was no way to capture an ongoing battle. So, there are many images of ruins and landscapes, and all the photos of people were staged. Subjects may have been limited, but I do like the almost pedestrian quality of some of these. For example, this image of some German POWs with hand-made instruments:

WWI_3

One limitation I do find disappointing, though, is that the majority of these images are French. There are some photos of British forces and a few of the Germans, but almost nothing from the Eastern Front or elsewhere. This seems to have been because most of the colour photographers  were French, but it would’ve been nice to have seen more of the many other armies involved in the war. I also could have gone without the photos of amputated limbs.

In any case, I’m very glad to have the book, and if you have any interest in the First World War or the history of war photography, it’s definitely worth checking out.…

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Mohammed & Charlemagne Revisited (75 Books – XLVIII)

When reviewing Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets, I mentioned that although it’s a good book and well worth reading, Jones did not go into a lot of detail, but focused on the big picture and a handful of people and dramatic events. Those who enjoy getting into the nitty-gritty of archaeology, academic studies, and the like, though, will appreciate this book on medieval history, Emmet Scott’s Mohammed & Charlemagne Revisited.

Scott examines the question of what, exactly, terminated Classical, Roman civilisation. Though the fall of the Western Roman Empire is typically dated at 474, it’s not clear when Classical civilisation gave way to what we would recognise as Medieval Europe. The standard view has been that it was a slow decline into the Dark Ages brought about by the Barbarian invasions in the centuries leading up to 474 or so, but Scott defends and updates a theory put forward by Henri Pirenne in his 1937 book Mohammed & Charlemagne, that Classical Civilisation continued until it was quickly destroyed by the Moslem conquests in the early-mid Seventh Century.

Scott spends much of the book examining archaeological evidence that indicates that recognisably Roman architecture and lifestyles continued throughout most of what had been Roman lands up to the Moslem invasions of the Near East, North Africa, and Spain. Rather than destroying Latin culture, the Germanic barbarian invaders had apparently been largely absorbed into it. This is why, for example, Spanish, French, and other Romance languages have little trace of Germanic syntax, whereas English, from one of the few places where Classical civilisation was undone by invading barbarians, is a Germanic language.

Now, the Arabs are often credited with preserving much of Greek philosophy and learning, but Scott demonstrates that men in the so-called “Dark Ages” actually were familiar with the Classics. They were only lost in Europe after the Arab conquest of Egypt, which was the major source of papyrus that Western scribes used, and Arab piracy and slave-raiding made much of the Mediterranean effectively uninhabitable and inhospitable to trade. Scott writes, “even the short periods of official peace [from Arab wars of conquest] were disturbed by the ‘unofficial’ activities of privateers and slave-traders. For centuries, Muslim pirates based in North Africa made large parts of the Mediterranean shore-line uninhabitable, and it is estimated that between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries alone they captured and enslaved something in excess of a million Europeans.”

As for the fate of the Classics in Moslem lands, Scott is not impressed by their supposed respect for learning. He points out that many of the scholars active in Moslem countries were not themselves Moslem, but Christians and Jews living under Moslem rule. Furthermore, while they did preserve and foster a good deal of science, they were only interested in fields with practical applications, like medicine or physics. Scott is very harsh in his judgement, writing, “the very fact that knowledge has to plead its usefulness in order to be permitted to survive at all speaks volumes in itself. Is not this an infallible mark of barbarism? And we should note that even the utilitarian learning which the earliest Caliphs fostered was soon to be snuffed out under the weight of an Islamic theocracy (promulgated by Al-Ghazali in the eleventh century) which regarded the very concept of scientific laws as an affront to Allah and an infringement of his freedom to act.”

Scott does a fine job presenting all of his evidence in an approachable manner, without ever dumbing-down or oversimplifying things for a popular audience. If you’ve any interest at all in this period of history, I’d highly recommend checking it out.…

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The Plantagenets (75 Books – XLIV)

Doing some reading and writing on Dante has piqued my interest in Medieval history in general, so while looking for a new e-book I picked up (er, downloaded) Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets, which I remember hearing good things about. Even those who don’t know much about the history of the Middle Ages will recognise many of the kings and queens Jones discusses – Richard the Lionheart, John, Edward Longshanks, and Eleanor of Aquitaine are some of the most famous people in European history.

Jones’s writing style is more novelistic than, say, Christopher Clark’s Iron Kingdom or most other histories that I’ve read this year. That is, he focuses on the personalities of the kings and other figures he discusses, especially on the most dramatic events of their reigns, and never goes into much detail on battles, economic matters, and the like. It’s still a fine introduction, I think, and I never felt like he was dumbing down or oversimplifying the topic, but he’s clearly writing for a general audience and not for historians or even, necessarily, fans of history. So, people looking for a good story will be satisfied, people looking for an in-depth analysis of Plantagenet rule may not be.

He also occasionally engages in a “must have” type of narrative. For example, speaking of Henry II’s relationship with Thomas Becket, he writes, “[Henry] was known to ride into the chancellor’s dinner hall, jump from his horse, and sit down to eat. The experience must have grated on Becket as much as it amused the king.” It probably did grate on Becket, but this phrasing tells me that Jones probably doesn’t have a source of him saying so, so it’s speculation phrased as though it’s a fact. This isn’t a major problem, but is a nuisance for those who like their histories to stick as closely to established facts as possible.

The dramatic presentation and relative lack of details aside, though, there is enough material to detect some general trends in English history during this time. Famously, the Magna Charta was signed during King John’s rule, and the origins of parliamentary rule were laid over the next several reigns. However, the nobility only began to really assert itself through parliament in reaction to the worst kings of the dynasty. So, would parliamentary rule have developed in England at all if, say, Richard had lived longer and had an heir, meaning that John never became king? What if John, Henry III, and Edward II had just been wiser and more willing to compromise?

In any case, The Plantagenets serves as a good, readable introduction to a period of history that most people don’t know enough about. If you’ve any interest in the topic and don’t mind a novelistic presentation, check it out.…

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The Monarchia Controversy (75 Books – XL)

After finishing Dante’s Monarchia, I decided to look for some of the various commentaries and related works that editor Prue Shaw referred to in my Cambridge University Press edition. Several of these aren’t easily available, at least not in English, but I did find The Monarchia Controversy, edited by Anthony Cassell and published by the Catholic University of America Press. This includes Monarchia, Guido Vernani’s Refutation of the “Monarchia” Composed by Dante, and Pope John XXII’s bull Si fratrum, as well as Cassell’s own introduction and annotations.

Starting from the end of the book, Si fratrum is the document that sparked the controversy around the relationship between the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor and whether one was subordinate to the other, though this controversy had been brewing for many years. It’s nice to have, then, for historical interest, but at only four pages it doesn’t develop any arguments, but simply proclaims that the pope is the legitimate ruler of the Empire when the office of emperor is vacant, and that it is his prerogative to approve of the election of the next emperor.

Guido Vernani’s Refutation is also relatively short, under thirty pages, and of mixed quality. Some of his arguments are disingenuous, as Cassell points out fairly often in his introduction and annotations. Also, while Dante kept a neutral tone throughout most of his work and portrayed himself as almost a third-party to the disputes, Vernani is sometimes outright abusive. Before introducing one of his last arguments, for example, he writes, “Here the wretch [Dante] reached the heights of his delirium: as he raised his mouth to heaven, his tongue lolled along the ground.” There’s nothing wrong with a polemical tone, and Dante isn’t subtle in calling some of his opponents sons of Satan, but in works dealing mostly in formal logic, theology, and history, this sort of attack stands out as mean-spirited and unworthy of formal debate.

That said, Vernani does raise some valid points. For example, he argues, quite reasonably, that only Christ could realistically have all of the virtues that Dante attributes to his vision of the universal monarch. He also points out that Dante’s interpretation of Roman history, with its heroism, nobility, and miracles, is very different from one of Dante’s own sources, St. Augustine, as well as several other authorities, who portray these same events in a very negative light.

I only skimmed through the Monarchia itself, but it seems readable enough. Of course, I’m not competent to judge the accuracy of one translation over another.

Over half the book is composed of Cassell’s annotations and his 100-page introduction, which is about three times longer than Prue Shaw’s in the CUP edition. Whether it’s three times more valuable depends on how much depth you want; both give an outline and some historical context, but Cassell goes into much more depth, especially on the reaction to Dante’s work, which Shaw only briefly mentions, and in analysing the method and substance of both Dante’s and Vernani’s arguments. This is all interesting to students of Medieval or philosophical history, but much of it isn’t really necessary to understanding either author. The annotations, which unfortunately are endnotes rather than footnotes, are also more thorough in Cassell’s edition, though not by a wide margin.

Now, I highly recommend reading Dante’s Monarchia, but which edition to read depends largely on what you’re interested in getting. If you just want the Monarchia itself with just enough additional explanation to understand the context and have a starting point for further study, then Shaw’s is perfect. If you’re interested in Medieval intellectual history and would like something more thorough, then Cassell’s is worth the extra cost – it’s fairly expensive new (over $70), but finding used copies isn’t difficult.…

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Robert E. Lee (75 Books – XXX)

Ever since I first took an interest in history back in middle or high school, I’ve occasionally gone to the local library or bookstore and there confirm something that is, unfortunately, unsurprising: most American’s aren’t interested. A look at the shelves would turn up a few things on Greece or Rome, maybe the Cold War or China, and if you wanted to know about, say, the unification of Italy, you’re totally out of luck.

There are, however, a few exceptions. It’s easy to find Americans knowledgeable and passionate about the Kennedy assassination, and the Second World War certainly receives plenty of attention, to the extent that back when the History Channel had any history at all it was basically the “World War II Channel.” The one other major event of broad interest, especially in the South, is the War Between the States, and deservedly so, since this was such a pivotal moment in the American narrative. However, I don’t know as much about the events and people involved as I probably should, beyond what I remember from high school (which was, fortunately, better than many high school history courses) and Thomas DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln.

Of course, one problem with all history books is determining which historians are trustworthy. One can have a passionate but reasonable argument about, say, who bears responsibility for starting the First World War; suggesting that Abraham Lincoln was less than a saintly martyr or more than a despicable tyrant, well, those are fightin’ words in many quarters. I don’t really expect authors to be completely free of bias; in fact, I generally trust those who are open about their opinions more than those who claim a distant objectivity. My general approach, then, is going to be to read a small handful of well-known modern historians, provided they don’t go full retard on whatever their ideological opinions are, but to stick primarily to primary sources when I can.

So, to begin this project, I read Noah Andre Trudeau’s biography Robert E. Lee. This is a fairly short (214 pages) overview of Lee’s life, with most of the book focusing on the war years; unsurprisingly, it’s about as much military history as biography. While I don’t value strict disinterestedness as much as many readers do, I do think that Trudeau does a good job treating his subject even-handedly; he obviously respects Lee, but avoids hagiography. He also avoids editorialising on the causes of the war or who was right or wrong. Rather, he focuses on what Lee himself said and did. In this, it reminds me of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, which I read recently, and which also avoided the temptation to signal ideological approval or disapproval (with a few exceptions), but instead approached the subject like a craftsman evaluating a peer’s work.

The book is short and straightforward, more of a sketch than a portrait, so those who have already read a good deal about the war or Lee himself can probably safely skip it, but it does serve as a decent introduction to the topic. That’s fine with me, of course, since this is basically an appetiser for the main course. Next, I’ll read Shelby Foote’s popular three-volume history to get an overview of the war as a whole, then I’ll try to stick to primary sources. I do have a recommendation for Raphael Semmes’s memoir. Of course, I’ll also continue to read other things between books on this subject.…

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