Western Civilization to 1500

WC1500Western Civilization to 1500 by Walther Kirchner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The story of Western Civilization centers in Europe but begins over 8000 years ago in Mesopotamia and Egypt and seems like a daunting task to cover in less than 300 pages even if one only goes to the end of the Middle Ages. Western Civilization to 1500 by Walther Kirchner is a survey of the rise of society from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt through the Greeks and Romans, the Middle Ages, and the beginning of the European Renaissance.

Kirchner spends less than 30 pages covering the Fertile Crescent and Egypt through 3500 years of historical development before beginning over 110 pages on Greco-Roman history and the last 130 pages are focused on the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. This division clearly denotes Kirchner’s focus on Europe in this Western Civilization survey, though one cannot fault him for this as even now knowledge of the first three and half millennia of the historical record is nothing compared to the Greco-Roman sources, yet Kirchner never even mentioned the Bronze Age collapse and possible reasons for its occurrence. The highlight of the survey is a detailed historical events of Greece and Roman, especially the decline of the Republic which was only given broad strokes in my own Western Civ and World History classes in high school and college. Yet, Kirchner’s wording seems to hint that he leaned towards the Marxist theory of history, but other wording seemed to contradict it. Because this was a study aid for college students in the early 1960s, this competing terminology is a bit jarring though understandable. While the overall survey is fantastic, Kirchner errors in some basic facts (calling Harold Godwinson a Dane instead of an Anglo-Saxon, using the term British during the Hundred Year’s War, etc.) in well-known eras for general history readers making one question some of the details in eras the reader doesn’t know much about. And Kirchner’s disparaging of “Oriental” culture through not only the word Oriental but also the use of “effeminate” gives a rather dated view of the book.

This small volume is meant to be a study aid for students and a quick reference for general readers, to which it succeeds. Even while Kirchner’s terminology in historical theory and deriding of non-European cultures shows the age of the book, the overall information makes this a good reference read for any well-read general history reader.

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Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter (Hinges of History #4)

Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks MatterSailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter by Thomas Cahill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The foundations of what we call Western culture today seemingly sprung from one place, Greece, yet that is not the entire truth. Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, the fourth volume of Thomas Cahill’s Hinges of History, examines and explains the structure of Greek society and ideas as well as the reasons why it has permeated so much of what we know of Western culture. But Cahill’s answer to why the Greeks matter is two-fold.

Over the course of 264 pages of text, Cahill looks at all the features of Greek culture that made them so different from other ancient cultures. Through the study of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Cahill examined the Greek’s view of war and honor in their grand war epic then how the same man expressed how the Greek’s expressed their feelings. The contradiction of the Homeric works is part of a larger theme that Cahill explores in Greek poetry beyond Homer, politicians and playwrights, philosophers, and artists. Throughout each chapter, Cahill examines what the Greeks did differently than anyone else as well as relate examples that many will know. Yet Cahill reveals that as time went on the Greeks own culture started to swallow itself until stabilized by the Romans who were without the Greek imagination and then merged with newly developing Christian religion that used Greek words to explain its beliefs to a wider world; this synthesis of the Greco-Roman world and Judeo-Christian tradition is what created Western thought and society that we know today.

Cahill’s analysis and themes are for the general reader very through-provoking, but even for someone not well versed in overall Greek scholarship there seems to be something missing in this book. Just in comparing previous and upcoming volumes of Cahill’s own series, this book seems really short for one covering one of the two big parts of Western Civilization. Aside from the two chapters focused around the Homeric epics, all the other chapters seemed to be less than they could be not only in examples but also in giving connections in relevance for the reader today.

For the Western society in general, the Greeks are remembered for their myths, magnificent ruins, and democracy. Thomas Cahill’s Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea does reveal that ancient Greece was more than that and why a culture millennia old matters to us today. While not perfect, this book is at least a good read for the general reader which may be what Cahill is aiming for but for those more well read it feels lacking once finished.

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Where Troy Once Stood: The Mystery of Homer’s Iliad & Odyssey Revealed

Where Troy Once Stood: The Mystery of Homer's Iliad & Odyssey RevealedWhere Troy Once Stood: The Mystery of Homer’s Iliad & Odyssey Revealed by Iman Wilkens
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The historicity of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey is the basis of Iman Wilken’s “Where Troy Once Stood”. The author’s theory that the Trojan War took place in England between Celts is both an intriguing revisionist theory as well as good material for authors looking for a good story.

The basic premise of the book is Wilken first rejecting the concise opinion that Troy as located in Anatolia, evening using ancient sources to help support his conclusion. Though Wilken’s believes the Trojan War did take place and examined Homer’s text to find Troy’s location, both by descriptions and etymology to find Troy in the Gog Magog Hills in Cambridgeshire, England. Wilken’s then places gives locations for all the combatants listed in the Iliad amongst the Celtic peoples of Western Europe from Scandinavia down to southern Spain. Based off his locations of the Iliad, Wilken’s catalogues Odysseus’ journey around the shores of Western European and throughout the Atlantic before arriving home in Spain. However, Wilken’s proposes that the Odyssey was not only a story of a warrior king, but a map for Celtic seafarers to sail for recourses in Africa and the Caribbean as well as tool for initiates into the ‘Mysteries’ of the Celtic Druids.

While this overall theory based on Homer’s epic poems is though-provoking, the overall book is undermined by how Wilken presents his material. Whatever one thinks of the theory this is a hard book to read because there is no flow from point-to-point throughout the text. Wilken’s enthusiasm for his theory is identifiable in the text mainly because he likes to insert conclusions and further theories randomly whenever something that is connected with them is presented in the text. After long periods of logical progression, Wilkens would started jumping from point-to-point before taking up his logical process again then incorporating the random points he talked about earlier into the narrative. Wilken’s never fully explains some of his conclusions or provides supporting evidence for some of his assertions, his view of who the Phoenicians were was the biggest in my mind. Finally Wilkens presents numerous maps and lists of his etymology evidence as part of his main text instead of as a large appendix, which makes the last quarter of the book a slog.

In the end the reader must judge Wilken’s theory for themselves and as stated in my introductory paragraph, it provides good story material like Clive Cussler’s “Trojan Odyssey”. However anyone who wants to read this book for either the revisionist theory or for story inspiration should keep in mind the book’s winding journey. Wilken’s published a revised edition of “Where Troy Once Stood” and maybe that edition (2009) presents the material better, however based on the chapter listings I’m doubtful. So if you’re interested in reading this book, you’ve been warned.

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The Portable Greek Historians: The Essence of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius

014015065x-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_The Portable Greek Historians: The Essence of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius by Moses I. Finley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I originally purchased this book when I started college to prepare for my Senior Oral Exam, I skimmed but didn’t really retain much of each writer’s style save perhaps Herodotus.  After thoroughly reading the excerpted selections for these four writers, I can say the my decision to skim it originally was the correct one.  If M. I. Finley, the selector of this volume, gave an accurate representation of each writer through the excerpts he chose then Herodotus and Xenophon are the best readings while Thucydides gets bogged down in speeches and Polybius in the discourse of governmental comparisons.  However if the excerpts aren’t representative of each writer than the fault is with Finley.

The Peloponessian War

0670032115-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Donald Kagan, one of the foremost scholars of Ancient Greek history, wrote a concise but thorough history of the Peloponnesian War for a general audience based off his four-volume academic masterpiece on the same subject. From the start Kagan brings the reader to the time period of the war with enough background information that someone not familiar at all with Ancient Greece will understand the circumstances of the beginning of the war from each side’s viewpoint. Throughout the work, Kagan brings in a modern military and political view to help examine decisions of either side that the ancient sources’ explain as social virtue or vice. This supplement to the ancient sources helps give a fuller view of the decisions of the Athenians, Spartans, and their respective allies. If you want to learn about Ancient Greek history beyond Marathon or Thermopylae, I fully recommend this book.

The Portable Greek Historians