Book Report: Our Oriental Heritage by Will (and Ariel) Durant (1935, 1954)

Book coverWell, gentle reader, I have done it.

All right, I have not read the Durants’ The Story of Civilization series, but I have read the first volume which is a step in that direction. I bought most of the series in 2019, but I had to order this book from Ebay or Amazon. It’s got the embossed stamp of the previous owner, one R. Neil Schirke, on the title page, but the previous owner did not read it. Or so I assume, as this edition was poorly cut so that some of the pages were still wed together at the bottom–I carefully tore them when I needed to turn them, but some portions of the table of contents and index remain unseparated.

I have a bunch of little paper flags in the book, but it’s a lot, so I won’t drop them all here. Instead, I’ll parcel them out as “The Wisdom Of….” posts perhaps. Or I’ll get tired of having the volume on my desk (although I don’t have a place to put it on the Read shelves of Nogglestead with room for its fellows, so no rush).

But I will comment a bit on the Durants’ style and whatnot.

This book covers thousands of years in its almost 1100 pages. It starts out with a “book” defining what it means by civilization–basically, the structure of society and the art that comes with it which distinguish a civilization from a tribe. Then it delves into different civilizations by location and time period starting with the early Mesopotamian civilizations (Sumeria, Egypt, Assyria, Judea, Babylonia, and so on) in the near East; Indian civilizations in the Indus valley; Chinese dynasties; and then Japan (no love for Korea or Mongolia, for example, although the appropriate dynasty is covered in the book on China).

Each “book” within this volume goes through the civilizations discussed not entirely in chronological order, but rather chronological order by topics. So you have a timeline of government and/or social organization, and then you have chapters dedicated to various arts and occupations from industry to writing, philosophy, religion, poetry, sculpture, architecture, and/or painting, and sometimes you get these in sections of chapters which are themselves broken out chronologically. It makes it a little difficult to follow when the chapters discuss which artist was supported by which ruler–I admit I did not take copious notes whilst reading, and so I do not have a solid handle on some of the names and their eras.

Additionally, Durant (or Durants) is (are) Old Left. Which means you get some Marxism mixed into the book, with its attendant glorification of the proletariat (called proletariat and the working people are called proles, for real), denigration of “conservatives,” and even love given to leaders who redistribute wealth–but every time it happens, the system collapses under corruption which the authors blame on the corrupt people and not a system where corrupt people rise to the top. But it’s very subtle, and it only colors the work (red) a little.

Some of the early stuff where there isn’t documentation is a bit speculative, and the more closely that the history comes to Durant’s time, the more it is more current events reporting (and henced colored by his politics). The Durants are quite homers for every civilization–each in this book (and the start of the next) find something superlative for each civilization. Which is encouraging and engaging to read.

I’d wondered what it would be like to read a Chinese history written before the Communist revolution, and this one fits. To be honest, I don’t see a whole lot of difference, though. It talks about the Revolution, but it does not mean the Communist revolution–it means the revolution that overthrew the Manchu (Qing) dynasty, which ended in 1912. That is to say, within twenty-some years of the book’s writing. Living memory. The last imperial dynasty was closer to this book than the Clinton administration is to today (and more so true if you’re reading this in the archives and not in August of 2023). That’s an interesting perspective.

Which leads me to pop off with a couple of other footnotes of events that occur after this book is written that affects the areas the book covers:

  • India becomes independent.
  • Israel becomes a Jewish nation.

The book ends with a “book” on Japan and with a section questioning whether the United States and Japan absolutely had to go to war. Whether or not we had to, we did, and that was a long time ago. Ninety years on, and we’re looking at a new dynasty in China which might be losing its grip and a regime in the United States that might be losing its grip and might pen a piece Must the United States and China go to war? But this would be commentary on current events, not history, not even the first draft of history, but rather what concerns learned men have today and not actual events that have unfolded.

Fortunately, the further volumes in the set deal with ages in Western and European civilization, so we won’t get too much more commentary except for the Old Left flavor.

So I’m on my way, and if I read two volumes of the set per year, I’ll finish in…. 2028. Although that’s discouraging–I’m getting to the age where I wonder if I won’t finish before five years from now–it’s a project I’ve undertaken, and I’m proud to have started. I’m also excited enough about it that I’ve bored people talking about Chinese history at the only party I’ve attended in recent history. So I guess it’s for my own enjoyment and amusement. And yours, gentle reader, and you can think I’m doing it all for you if you would like.

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I’m Not Saying It’s The Mormons, But….

‘Mind blowing’ ancient settlements uncovered in the Amazon

It’s been a while since I’ve delved into The Book of Mormon, but one of the things I recollect from it is that it’s predicated on family that escapes from Israel before its fall to the Chaldeans who then settle in South America.

Of course, contemporary archeologists and historians discount it, partially because of the known prehistorical “record” of what archeologists have found.

So far.

(Link via Blogodidact on Facebook.)

Which reminds me: I never did finish reading The Book of Mormon. Perhaps I should dig back into it, perhaps after some of the other series/sets I’m working on.

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Don’t call us traitors: descendants of Cortés’s allies defend role in toppling Aztec empire:

When people from the Mexican state of Tlaxcala travel to other parts of the country, they are sometimes insulted as traitors by their compatriots.

Tlaxcala is Mexico’s smallest state in size, but it played an outsized role in Mexico’s early history, not least when indigenous Tlaxcalans allied with Hernán Cortés’ tiny band of invaders to bring down the Aztec empire.

Now, as Mexico marks the 500th anniversary of the fall of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán on Friday, the role of the Tlaxcalans in the conquest is being reconsidered.

Many historians argue that without the participation of the Tlaxcalans and other indigenous soldiers, Tenochtitlán might never have fallen to the Spanish.

As a reminder, the Aztecs, or Mexica, were known for child sacrifice as described in Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico by Hugh Thomas:

What was necessary, in the meantime, was a suitable appeasement of Tlaloc, the rain god. He had to be given food, precious objects, people, chlidren (small, like the little Tlalocs who were believed to wait on the chief god of that name), in a series of festivals. The children had to cry, in order to indicate to the god exactly what was required; and to achieve this, their nails were often drawn out and thrown into the lake monster Ahuitzol, who usually lived from the nails of drowned persons.

As I said, and still do, that was a culture that needed to be put down.

An interpretation of the history that doesn’t get much play because it does not conform with what the cool kids say is that the Aztec was at the end of its time anyway, with a feckless leader and surrounded by subjugated peoples chafing at the demands of the Mexica. Including some tribes who used copper instead of stone knives. If it hadn’t been the Spanish, some leader would have arisen amongst the other tribes and united enough of them to topple the Aztec Empire.

Of course, how they would have dealt with the (later) arriving Spanish is another matter to speculate.

(Link via Instapundit.)

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Things I Knew Already

I should make this a series, but I guess I would have to already know more than one thing I read on the Internet to make it so.

However, Neatorama links to a Smithsonian article called The Ill-Fated Idea to Move the Nation’s Capital to St. Louis.

Of course I knew that; I read It Happened In Lemay. The book review mentions the story in a sentence “Lemay was once considered for capital of the United States (story here).” The sentence contains a dead link.

You know, I have been getting a lot of hits lately for that book report for an obscure comb-bound history book by the editor of a defunct local newspaper (Naborhood Link News), and I could not understand it. Perhaps it was research for that article.

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I Read Somewhere…

…that the United States ordered 1.5 million Purple Heart medals as part of the preparation for an invasion of the Japanese home islands in World War II, and since we did not actually have to go forward with the invasion (due to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for those of you who went to public school), the United States did not use all of those Purple Heart medals until 2008.

I read that here (link via Sarah Hoyt overnighting on Instapundit).

But you can bet I will be dropping that into conversation a bunch.

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Brian J. Takes A Second Look At Becoming A Mormon

9,900-year-old Mexican female skeleton distinct from other early American settlers:

The analysis showed Chan Hol 3 was likely a woman, approximately 30 years old at her time of death, and lived at least 9,900 years ago. Her skull falls into a mesocephalic pattern (neither especially broad or narrow, with broad cheekbones and a flat forehead), like the three other skulls from the Tulum caves used for comparison; all Tulum cave skulls also had tooth caries, potentially indicating a higher-sugar diet. This contrasts with most of the other known American crania in a similar age range, which tend to be long and narrow, and show worn teeth (suggesting hard foods in their diet) without cavities.

Though limited by the relative lack of archeological evidence for early settlers across the Americas, the authors suggest that these cranial patterns suggest the presence of at least two morphologically different human groups living separately in Mexico during this shift from the Pleistocene to the Holocene (our current epoch).

Well, I guess that skeleton predates the Pioneering Phase by a couple thousand years, though.

So instead of converting, I guess I’ll just remind y’all:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

(Link via Instapundit.)

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Repeating What I Have Been Thinking

Although tied to recent news: The 1519 Project: How Early Spanish Explorers Took Down A Mass-Murdering Indigenous Cult.

Let’s take a brief recess from the 1619 Project to explore another project. Call it the “1519 Project.” A full century before The New York Times’ proposed re-dating of the American founding and 2,200 miles southwest of Jamestown, European contact sparked a native uprising against a gruesome cult of cannibalism and mass murder.

Graphically described in the 1855 book, “Makers of History: Hernando Cortez,” John S.C. Abbott paints a picture of desperation for a tiny band of Spanish soldiers and their native allies. Next year marks the 500th anniversary of the Battle of the Dismal Night, where an initially successful Cortez was nearly crushed by superior Aztec forces.

Hugh Thomas described the human sacrifice with some approval, calling them “astonishing, often splendid, and sometimes beautiful barbarities”, in his book Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico. Since then, I have been on Team Cortez.

Ignorance of history is what they teach in history classes these days.

(Link via Ace of Spades HQ.)

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Blast from the Past: Jeanette Rankin

Another interesting person I spotted in Whatever Became Of…? is Jeanette Rankin.

She was elected to Congress in 1916, and she voted against the United States declaration of war in World War I.

Districting (not re-districting) from two at-large respresentatives for the whole state to representatives representing districts led her to run for Senate and lose in 1918.

But she was re-elected in 1940, just in time to vote against the United States declaration of war in World War II. Which led to her being voted out in 1942.

When Whatever Became Of…? came out, she was an octogenarian leading protest marches against the war in Vietnam.

The book gives this tidbit:

When World War II broke out Miss Rankin again ran for Congress from the state of Montana and was elected on the Republican ticket. “I’ve always been a Republican,” she says, “for the same reason that most people are either Democrats or Republicans–because their fathers were one or the other. Frankly, I cannot see a particle of difference between the two.”

The book says she won her first election on a women’s suffrage ticket and implies the change in party was for political expediency, but the Wikipedia makes it sound a little more complicated than that.

However, the quote could be something you hear today about the uniparty in Washington, and the allegation of running as a member of the opposite party to get elected and then caucusing with your true party in office rings true as we’ve seen here locally that sort of behavior from Democrats who cannot win election as Democrats trying to get elected as Republicans (such as Jim Evans, whose declaration of his Republican bonafides kind of align with Rankin’s).

So that’s the answer to the trivia question “What U.S. Congresswoman voted against World War I and World War II?” Not that anyone will ever ask.

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Musings on From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History

Course coverI’ve mentioned over and over that I was listening to a lecture series on Chinese history. Welp, I finished it. I also read the guidebook that came with the course, and if you’re wondering if I counted it as a book on my annual list, yes, I did. The lecture series itself was many hours in the listening, and the guide book itself is over 100 pages, so of course I did.

It’s a pretty interesting set of lectures, especially since my Chinese history was somewhat lacking. I read a couple of Wikipedia entries after watching the movie Hero, and I’ve looked at tourist books about China (like this one), but I’ve not really delved into it except where it’s intersected with Mongol history. Well, there was this book. But I’ve only dabbled in Chinese history. Not that listening to a series of lectures is much more than dabbling.

But I did get some insights and found some remarkable things. Including:

  • The fact that this succession of different groups controlling different regions could all be called “Chinese” history. You’ve got, for example, Mongols, Manchus, and various other tribes from outside the Chinese homeland taking over, succeeded by other non-Han peoples running things. But scholars continue to call it “Chinese” history. It would be like calling all of ancient Near East history Babylonian history (or Iraqi, perhaps) history–you’ve got different groups coming in and controlling the region around the ancient city of Babylon, but it’s Akkadian history or Chaldean history or whatnot. There’s not quite the enforced commonality you get in “Chinese” history. One has to wonder if that’s because in the 20th and 21st centuries, there’s a single Chinese government trying to control a large territoriy comprising different tribes’ homelands and to prevent fracturing or another tribe, so to speak, assuming power.
  • A lot of the tensions you find in the modern United States have repeated themselves throughout Chinese history. The tension about how much the government should control? See also the Discourses on Salt and Iron circa 81 BC. You see cycles of governments taking power, doing some good, and then focusing on the trappings of power in the capital city and leaving the rest of the country to fall into disrepair until the government falls, and the new government does some good until it becomes decadently focused on pomp, at which point….
  • A historian’s detachment to the present day can be misplaced. Historical deaths and brutality are just a story to me, but the deaths of millions by the present regime are not. However, the lecturer treats them all the same.

Is the lecturer pro-Communist China? Yes, but I suppose that’s either an occupational hazard or required to remain in good standing with the current government of China in case one wants to travel there for research. He calls the Long March epic and excuses a lot, including the millions dying in the Great Leap Forward, as though the bureaucratic overreporting were not a repeating motif in centralized government systems (If only Mao had known!). But Communist China is a small drop in the history of the reason, so it does not detract from the lecture series much.

So I’ll need to read more about Chinese history to cement what I heard. Also, I’ll need to read more and hear more to become more familiar with the transliteration of Chinese names and places. Listening to the lectures and reading the guide book afterward was a bit confusing as the spellings don’t match the pronunciations very well.

At any rate, worth my time, and sometimes worth going a little out of the way so I could finish a particular lecture.

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Modern Education Has Made History Full of Spoiler Alerts

The latest fad amongst the cool kids and the people who talk about the cool kids is a Netflix True Crime documentary series called Making a Murderer which not only has the cool kids in an uproar about an old murder case but

In a Washington Post piece designed to enflame the cool kids’ ire against Bad Man Scott Walker, we have this bit:

(CAUTION: Some mild spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen the show.)

Dudette. It’s a documentary. Can a documentary have spoilers?

Anything that really happened that you don’t know is a spoiler waiting to happen. The modern education system just ruins all the good surprises. Or it would if they taught history. Do they? I don’t know.

But it’s a documentary with a narrative.

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Book Report: Carolingian Chronicles translated by Bernhard Walter Scholz with Barbara Walters (1972)

Book coverThis book reads like a gritty ninth century reboot of The Gallic and Civil Wars by Julius Caesar. This volume comprises two separate primary documents contemporary to the events: The Royal Frankish Annals written by one or more unnamed sources during the reigns mostly of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious and then Nithard’s Histories which is about the civil wars amongs the Frank children of Louis the Pious.

Given that most of the Royal Frankish Annals deals with conquering Gaul and then repeatedly fighting, co-opting, and fighting some more the German tribes, you can see where I draw the parallel. The difference lies in the prose: This is official stuff written by someone other than the officials. We get a page or so of description of each year, with an outline of the campaigning against a single foe, a couple of meetings amongst the heads of the tribes either paying respect to or getting called out by the Holy Roman Emperor at annual meetings. Then the emperor goes back to Aachen. It happens mostly that way every year, so it’s repetitive, and the lack of detail for any campaign makes it all blur together.

Nithard served Charles the Bald in the civil war that followed the death of Louis the Pious, so his histories, like The Civil War of Caesar, tell a story for a contemporary audience that casts one side in a better light. Charles and Louis (not the dead one, obviously–his son) take on Lothair. Come on, with a guy named Lothair, we modern audiences would have picked him out as the bad guy even if Nithard had not chronicled how he kept breaking his promises. Spoiler alert: There aren’t many children named Lothair, so you can guess who wins.

The book is 174 pages plus end notes and index. Longer than The Life of Charlemagne, a work contemporary to it. And I’ll probably remember only a couple nuggets from it. Mostly that Lothair lost.

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Book Report: Melk Abbey by ABT DR Burkhard Ellegast OSB (2008)

Book coverThis book is a memento/guidebook to the historic Melk Abbey in Austria. Someone got to go there, and I got their book eventually, although the book is available online.

Many of these style books have a lot of photographs and a little bit of text–this book, on the other hand, has a much higher text to photo ratio, but it is an abbey that is almost 1000 years old, so there’s a lot of history to cover. The book has two parts: A detailed history of the abbey (along with some regional detail) and a second portion that goes through the public rooms of the abbey along with their images; however, this second part recovers some of the historical ground covered in the first portion of the book. When I turned the page and was back at the beginning, almost, I was daunted. But I kept through it; the self-guided tour part is the part with the best images of the abbey.

I read this book before I read The Great Wall, and both of them have shaken my self-confidence in my knowledge of history. For although I’m probably better versed in history than most people, it’s a very localized and very high level knowledge of history. I know a bit about English history, I know a bit about American history, I know a bit about Roman history, and I know a bit about European history, at least names and countries after about 1600. But this book goes into detail about the smaller fiefdoms of Austria in the dark ages, and I don’t know anything. It’s a bit humbling (which means my knowledge is a mere half byte at this point–four bits in this paragraph, you see–it’s computer humor). But one of the things I’m really feeling acutely this year is the difference between reading widely and reading deeply–that is, to have a fine-grained knowledge of something very specific such as Austrian history 1000-1500 AD versus the overview I have, which is some specifics but large blank spaces in regional timelines. I’m still opting for broad knowledge, but sometimes books like this strike me with how little I actually know.

At any rate, for a glossy little paperback, the book does have some rather nice images of the interior of the abbey once we get to the self-guided tour part. For example, here’s the library:

I looked at it and thought I have almost as many books. Of course, I really don’t have almost that many books, and certainly not that many old books.

Also, in case you’d like some nightmare fodder, here’s a valued monstrance:

That is an elaborate tree sculpture designed to hold the purported jawbone of a saint. Which it does. I don’t mean to be dismissive of Catholic thought and the importance of saints, but the whole medieval relic worship thing. Ew.

The book was a little longer to get through than I’d hoped, and the most I got out of it was the knowledge that I don’t know much about Austrian history.

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The Source of My Sinophilia

Book coverAll right, so here’s the story:

A couple of months ago, the dojo where I study changed its policy and allowed students who attain a certain rank to wear a red gi and students who attain a higher rank a black gi (I already wear a black gi because I’m in a class that studies weapons and other forms of martial arts, so this policy doesn’t affect me). One of the other students mentioned to me that they reminded him of a film where a bunch of guys in red gis said, “Sho ’nuff” a lot. He wasn’t sure of the film, but I looked it up: The Last Dragon. When I looked it up, the videocassette was available on eBay for like $40. Now it looks like there’s a new 30th anniversary Blu-Ray and on Amazon Prime.

How topical is this? The film was grounds for a newscaster’s firing in St. Louis just a week and a half ago.

So although I didn’t see The Last Dragon, I started picking up old martial arts videocassettes at the local thrift stores and grocery stores. I got a bunch of Bruce Lee films and a couple of Jet Li films, including Romeo Must Die (which I keep calling Romeo Is Bleeding because I must have seen them relatively close together back in the day), Black Mask, and Hero.Book cover

So Hero is basically a Chinese propaganda film that reinforces the individual’s place under the government. In the film, Jet Li’s character tells the story of how he defeated three assassins who’d tried to kill the emperor, and he brings their weapons before the emperor. Because he fears assassins, the emperor does not allow strangers closer than a hundred paces to him, but as the Hero tells the story, the emperor bids him to advance until Li is close enough to attack him–he was an assassin all along! But he doesn’t attack the emperor. Instead, he allows himself to be killed because he realizes the emperor is trying to end the civil wars plaguing China by uniting “Our Land” (that’s the English translation; in the original Chinese, it is “Everything Under Heaven”). So there’s some revisioning of the story as the tale goes along. It’s an interesting movie, a bit heavy on the wire-work for my taste, but I learned it’s from an actual incident. The story of Jing Ke.

You see, at the end of the Warring States period, the leader of Qin, one of the aforementioned states, was on the march, conquering his neighbors to re-unite China, but he was under constant assassination attempts. Jing Ke knew he had to do something radical to get close to the future emperor (spoiler alert!), so he went to Fan Wuji, a Qin general who’d fallen out of favor, and convinced him that, in order for Jing to get close to the Qin king, he’d like Fan Wuji to commit suicide so Jing could bring the king Fan’s severed head. And Fan Wuji agreed. That’s some hard core hatred right there.

At any rate, the attempt failed, but as I clicked through on some Wikipedia entries, I realized I didn’t know very much about Chinese history at all. Not that I know much pre-Nation-State history of Europe, as I’m coming to learn, but nothing about China.

So I’ve borrowed a couple of books from the library, and I’ve started to listen to the Great Courses/Teaching Company history of China I bought a couple weeks ago.

Now, I can tell the Tang from the Zhou dynasties, the latter from the former Han, and how a former prisoner guard went on to topple the aforementioned Qin empire after some of his prisoners escaped while under his charge. It’s very interesting, and I’m telling the interesting stories I find to everyone.

As some of you longtime readers know, I go in spurts with the historical reading. The Chinese history has surpassed my recent readings into Roman history, and I’ve so far avoided stuffing my bookshelves with unread volumes on the subject, unlike when I got very interested in Aztec history after reading this book or Mongolian history after reading this book. Of course, that is subject to change.

But I’m enjoying this recent binge based loosely on a reference to a 30-year-old C movie. It’s funny how much of my reading and learning comes from something small like that.

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Book Report: The Saltville Massacre by Thomas D. Mays (1995)

Book coverThis book might make it look as though I have undergone the fundamental shift (mentioned here) about shifting my focus from reading about classical Greece and Rome to the American Civil War. However, although it might be a sign, it might also only be a sign that I was looking for something short and informative to read on the road. Which I did; I read this in a single sitting during one of my four hour nights at the dojo.

This book focuses on a single campaign/battle, the Saltville Massacre, and describes the events leading up to it, the battle itself including maps of all the major assaults, and the aftermath. It also includes numerous sidebars with short biographies of the officers on both sides. The book is a part of a series, of course.

The Saltville Massacre was an attack on Saltville, Virginia, by a Federal/Union army trying to wrest or destroy the saltworks there. The town and works were defended by a small group of Confederate soldiers and a small group of militia. The Union forces advanced and then stalled and tried to take some ridges but failed. After they withdrew, the Confederates took to the battlefield and killed any wounded black soldiers they found; additionally, a local irregular went into a hospital to settle a personal feud and to kill a couple more wounded blacks. The irregular, Champ Ferguson, was one of two Confederates hung for war crimes.

At any rate, as I said, it was short and informative. If one chooses to study in depth, one becomes used to the conventions of military science books and reading them becomes easier. The battle reminds me a bit of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, the local Civil War battle, but since I live within sight of that battlefield, I try to work it into a lot of conversations. Another thing that struck me was the bridge between classical warfare and modern mobile warfare. Although much of the fighting is assaults on defensive positions, the book does include one mention of offering battle–that is, lining up and trying to get the other army to come out and meet you. I haven’t studied that much military science, but that does seem to have fallen quite out of favor for obvious reasons.

I don’t remember where I got this book; however, I’ll keep my mind out for others in the series and others of the kind. They’re quick reads and informative, and cumulatively they’ll make me smarter on military science and history.

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Book Report: This Was Cicero by H. J. Haskell (1942)

Book coverThis book is nominally a biography of Marcus Tullius Cicero, but in reality, it’s a history of the fall of the Roman republic wherein Cicero sometimes makes appearances. I guess the author was working from a lot of Cicero’s letters (as do so many historians from Plutarch on), so he focused on Cicero. But there are huge stretches of the book where Cicero is not mentioned at all, including the first couple of chapters.

The author is a Marxist, of course. He refers often to the proletariat in Rome; he defends Catiline because Catiline was in favor of redistributing the wealth; he name-checks the poor oppressed Sacco and Vanzetti; he touches upon themes and books mentioned in Books That Changed America (namely, conservative opposition to public schools and The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 by Alfred T. Mahan referring to either Pompey or Caesar’s understanding of naval transport of armies); and he often equates good with progressivism/Marxism and bad/corruption/know-nothing aristocracy with “conservatives.” But he’s an early twentieth century Marxist, so it’s lacking in the invective you get in later works.

As I mentioned, the author spends a lot of time talking about things other than Cicero, and he spends a lot of time equating the lives of Roman citizens in Cicero’s lifetime to different periods in history, including seventeenth century England and modern (~1940) America. The comparisons are probably too facile, especially when trying to equate the political groups of the period to modern equivalents (which boils down mostly to Tories/Republicans/Old Senate Factions = bad, Democrats/Redistributionists/Caesar and anyone shaking up the order to make it fairer for the proletariat = good). However:

This is still a pretty good book to read. It is pretty in-depth coverage of Roman history during Cicero’s lifetime, which includes the First Triumvirate and the Second Triumvirate and the Civil War from a different perspective than Julius Caesar. It’s the story of one man with hopes of a restoration of the Constitution that never comes and the slow, continued dissolution of the ideal of the Roman Republic from an ideal state that probably never existed to the seeds of empire based on strong, charismatic men with armies ruling.

It also provides a good deal of context for Cicero’s orations and his other works, including the historical details of why and when the pieces were written. Reading a collection of Cicero’s words will get you a little context, but this book fills in all the gaps.

The author does not paint a flattering picture of Cicero, though. The subject of the book, when he appears, is presented as vacillating, vain, vainglorious, and too much in love with his own oratory. Also, Cicero, in this book, seems to think his words alone could counter armed insurrections of various stripes. A tale with modern parallels.

I enjoyed the book and learned a bunch from it. It’s not without its flaws–politics aside, it does give the subject a bit of short shrift and it has a tendency to draw back from a point in time to provide historical context which gives the reader a bit of whiplash–but informative none the less.


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Book Report: The Gallic and Civil Wars by Julius Caesar (2006 ed)

Book coverAs I mentioned, I got this book at the end of December with a Christmas gift card from ABC Books, who were having a half off sale on Folio Society books at the time, which is why I ended up with such a la-di-da edition. But Folio books are pretty handsome editions with heavyweight paper for the pages and a box to keep the dust off the top. I won’t join Folio Society and pay its prices for these books, but when I see them in the wild relatively inexpensive, I might pick them up if they’re something I want to read.

And I wanted to read this book after reading Last Seen in Massilia which takes place during the Civil War.

This book collects not only Caesar’s commentary on the Gallic War and the Civil War, but also the African War and the Spanish War (which were essentially extensions of the Civil War but with Pompey’s sons.

I’ll spare you the complete history lesson, but I will tell you what I learned about Roman warfare in the process:

  • With every campaign, Caesar informs the reader that he has secured a source of corn. This is no mere battlefield heroics tale; Caesar emphasizes the importance of logistics throughout, and the choice of camp sites for their access to food, water, and forage are continuously emphasized.
  • The amount of engineering and digging involved in soldiering in the Roman era took me a little by surprise. Whenever camping, the soldiers fortify their camp, and if they’re going to stay a while, they dig a lot of trenches and build earthen walls. To say nothing about the Battle of Alesia.
  • The Civil War has a different tone than the The Gallic War. The history of his campaigns in Gaul have the flavor of writing for history; the Civil War account has more of the feel of a contemporary political tract, where he’s justifying what’s going on for current readers, not history.
  • Caesar proves awful forgiving at times, allowing those whom he defeats to retain their lives and some of their privileges. This might have been prudent politically and strategically, as it allowed opponents to know that surrender did not mean death. It probably shortened many sieges. This contrasts with the Mongols, who drove refuges from captured towns before them to terrorize their next victims.

At any rate, it’s a pretty easy read even though it took me almost two months; as you know, I’ve been reading some other unrelated things alongside it. The translation seems pretty contemporary, and the narrative moves along, although I could have used a couple more maps sprinkled in the text to keep the movements straighter in my head. Also, I admit letting a large number of the names of the participants and places wash over me a bit.

I read a lot of these heady tomes, and I’m reading them, for the most part, and not studying them. I’m not highlighting or taking notes to write a paper on them. Perhaps that makes me less of a student than I should be, but the aggregation of the things I read builds connections between them so I am pretty sure I’m getting smarter as I do. But this isn’t the place for a detailed analysis of the Roman impact on Egyptian politics or the Egyptian impact on Roman politics in the first century BC, nor is it really my interest. Sorry, Googlers.

Also, note: This book was (mostly) written by Julius Caesar. Before the new Testament. Caesar is, you know, Caesar. A figure of such import to history that rulers bore his title two millennia later (that’s the Russian Tzars, as a reminder). There’s something inherently cool in my mind about reading his books. I’ll probably feel the same way about reading Thucydides and Plutarch once I really get into this Greek-Roman History rabbit hole.

I recommend it. It looks like you can get this edition for about $40 on the Internet, but the Kindle versions are cheaper.

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Book Report: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Book coverThis book is a souvenir from Monticello. Not my souvenir, as I’ve never been. I probably got this particular book in a collection of thin books for a buck from the Friends of the Springfield-Greene County Library book sale. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but these little packs remind me of the varied grab bags I’ve gotten in the past where remaindered comic books were bagged at three for a buck, and you could only see the front of one and the back of another, so it was pretty much a crapshoot or where ten packs of record singles fresh from juke boxes were bundled ten for two bucks and you could only, again, see the ones in the front and the back. That’s what you get with the bundles of thin books at the book sale, a bundle of poetry chapbooks, souvenir books, or free pamphlet-sized books for a buck. I buy them and read them because they’re quick, and they count for a whole book on my annual quest for the magical reading century mark (which I’ve missed for a couple years’ running now, but I’m well on my way this year so far.

At any rate, this book has text describing the house, grounds, and gardens of Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia accompanied by color photos and diagrams and maps. It’s a tidy little book, something to help guide yourself around the joint and to remember your trip.

Or to make you want to go. Like I do now.

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As The Proud Owner Of A Halberd, I Concur

I’ve always said that the halberd is the Swiss army knife of weapons. You’ve got an unarmored peasant side, an armored enemy side, and a mounted enemy point. agrees in an article that explores the overlooked history of the polearm:

Most of these poleaxes, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries, had a spike on the top which allowed them to be potent thrusting weapons as well as being able to attack in both directions (axe or hammer on one side and a hammer or spike on the other). The presence of a spike(s) (or a fluke as it is sometimes called), hammer head and/or an axe head on the same weapons creates problems in classifying these weapons. A single poleaxe may combine the crushing power of the warhammer, the cleaving power of the long-handled (Danish) axe, and the thrusting capability of the spear.

I concur, mainly because it gives me an excuse to re-run this image of a boy and his best friend:

Does anyone else remember the IMAO Peace Gallery? Even IMAO doesn’t.

Michael Williams quips:

Don’t bring a longsword to a poleaxe fight.

I shan’t.

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Book Report: Devil’s Pool: A History of Big Cedar Lodge by Charlie Farmer (1995)

Book coverWe spent a couple of days down at Big Cedar Lodge, a resort on Table Rock Lake owned by the Bass Pro Shops people, and the gift store had this book. I’m always interested in very localized history offerings, and this book is hyper localized. Whereas Webster Park: 1892-1992, Elm Ave., Heart of Webster, and North Webster: A Photograpic History of a Black Community, this book chronicles two houses.

Well, a little more than that.

The book starts out with allusions to the Devil’s Pool and its legends, including the story of an Osage named Wah ‘Kon Tah. The section covering this early history of the region is quite nebulous and abstract, as it would have to be. It’s also a bit of an elegy for the beauty of untamed wilderness versus the predations of man who builds stuff on it and ruins it.

The book gets historical when the land is purchased by a pair of fellows, a Worman and a Simmons, who build homes on it for country retreats during Great Depression I. The book looks at the men and their wives for a while and then goes into the sale and transfer of the property until it becomes the Devil’s Pool Dude Ranch in the 1940s. The book includes a number of first hand accounts from those years, but in the 1960s the owner sells it to a man who dies shortly thereafter in an automobile accident. In 1979, a fellow buys it from the Army Corps of Engineers and tries to turn it into a time-share property, but that doesn’t survive. Then the fellow behind Bass Pro Shops bought it and turned it into the excellent resort it is today, which includes some time shares on the property.

So it’s fittingly a short book: although the landscape has been there a while, there’s not a lot of history to report on the property except that people have moved through it. The author plays up the stories of strange apparitions and ghost stuff tarts it up a bit, where some people think that perhaps Mrs. Worman whose ashes were scattered on the property (although she did not die there) might lead to her haunting it. The structure of the book is not straight ahead in timelines, either–sometimes a person is mentioned and gives some account of his or her time there, so it goes beyond where the character was introduced, and after he or she is done speaking, we go back to the time period where he or she is introduced. That could have been smoothed out.

This piece ultimately reads as a for-hire piece, a sort of white paper for the lodge itself. Which is okay, but it’s not a grand historical document.

And let’s be honest: The one bit of history I’d like to know about is what happened to the purchasers of the time share from the 1980s when the Bass Pro people bought it. Because I just bought a time share in it, and I was assured by the 20 year old sales closer guy that we’re covered in the case of the company reorganizing. And I don’t believe him.

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Old 880 Honored by the United States Mint

The new $100 bills, as reimagined by Old 880:

For the past few years, the Federal Reserve has been preparing to introduce a redesigned hundred-dollar bill into circulation. It will have a Liberty Bell that changes color, a new hidden message on Ben Franklin’s collar, and tiny 3-D images that move when you tilt the bill this way or that. But delay has followed delay. And now again: The New Yorker has learned that another production snafu has taken place at one of the country’s two currency factories, according to a document from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

The cause of the latest blunder is something known as “mashing,” according to Darlene Anderson, a spokeswoman for the bureau. When too much ink is applied to the paper, the lines of the artwork aren’t as crisp as they should be, like when a kid tries to carefully color inside the lines—using watercolors and a fat paintbrush.

Old 880, as you might remember, was a bad counterfeiter of $1 bills.

(Link via Instapundit.)

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