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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The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Modern Library Volume 1 of 3)

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1 by Edward Gibbon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first volume of Modern Library’s three-volume reprint of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covers the first 26 chapters of the author’s epic historical work. Beginning with the death of Domitian and ending with Theodosius I’s treaty with the Goths and early reign, Gibbon’s spans nearly 300 years of political, social, and religious history on how the great empire of antiquity slowly began to fade from the its greatest heights.

The history of the decline of Rome actually begins by showing the nearly century long period of rule of the “Five Good Emperors” as Gibbon shows the growth of absolute power of the Principate was governed by able and intelligent men. With succession of Commodus Gibbon illustrated what the power of the Principate would do for an individual who was a corrupt and tyrannical ruler. Gibbon’s then examines the political and military fallout of the death of Commodus with the declaration of five emperors in less than a year and rise of the Severan dynasty by conquest. Gibbon reveals underlining causes of era of the ‘Barracks Emperors’ and what historians call, “the Crisis of the Third Century”.

With the ascension of Diocletian and through him the rise of the House of Constantine, Gibbon explores the political and bureaucratic reforms began and developed that would eventually divide the empire in his view. After Constantine’s rise to sole emperor, Gibbon then delves into the early history of Christianity before its adoption by the founder of Constantinople. Beginning with Constantine, the last half of this particular volume as the history and theological developments of Christianity as a central narrative as one of the contributing factors of the decline of the Roman Empire.

Although the description above might make one pause at starting the heavy work, Gibbon’s style and prose make history come alive with every word and gives the reader a sense of the grand scale of historical forces while not overwhelming them. While every reader will have their own verdict on if Gibbon’s arguments and interruptions of history are correct, each avid history lover will find this opening volume of Gibbon’s magnum opus an engaging beginning in examining how one of the foundation stones of Western Civilization came to its political end while passing on its laws and culture to Europe.

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Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus (Hinges of History #3)

Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After JesusDesire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus by Thomas Cahill

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The hinge in history that has been the central pillar of Western civilization is not a cultural change nor a particular people but one man, Jesus of Nazareth. Thomas Cahill explores the developments of thought before and after Jesus in Desire of the Everlasting Hills through the lens of Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures, his mother Mary, Paul, Luke, Early Christians, and John to reveal how one life both continued and changed the progression of Western thought.

Over the course of 320 pages, Thomas Cahill focused on Jesus of Nazareth as the central figure in the West. However from the outset Cahill makes it clear that the role of Jesus is how others perceived him both during his life and after his time on Earth. While following Jesus during his ministry, Cahill highlighted the essential Jewishness of Jesus’ message and how some considered his message unrealistic while others found hope. After Jesus’ time on Earth, a phrase I must use since Cahill does not state one way or another on the event of the Resurrection save mentioning it, the essence of his divinity was shaped by Paul’s Jewish perspective, Luke’s gentile perspective, and John the Evangelist’s intimate perspective. Cahill’s conclusion is that while Jesus is central to the West, the West as a whole has essentially ignored his teachings but a small few due resulting in the slow but development of the ideas that define Western civilization.

While Cahill’s analysis and themes are a thought provoking read, I did have some serious issues. The first is the same as in his previous book, The Gift of the Jews, which is in some of Cahill’s interpretation and subsequent logical construction of his evidence whether through scripture or an analysis of non-Biblical sources to weave his thesis. The second is partially related and that is Cahill tries to weave a middle course between Jesus as man and Jesus as divine without really take a stand either way. While objectivity can be commended, the book read as a Christian trying too hard to look discuss Jesus from a secular point of view.

Regardless of one’s view of Jesus of Nazareth, no one can deny that he is the central figure of West. Thomas Cahill attempts to bring forth Jesus through the view of those around him and how they interpreted his life and teachings. While Desire of the Everlasting Hills is not a perfect book, it is thought-provoking in viewing Jesus of Nazareth back in the first century AD and into today’s increasing secular society.

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The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (Hinges of History #2)

The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and FeelsThe Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels by Thomas Cahill

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The moment, or hinge, in history that a changed occurred to allow Western civilization possible is the primary focus of Thomas Cahill’s The Gifts of the Jews. Over the course of less than 304 pages and the scope of two millennia of Jewish history from its birth with Abraham to their return from exile, Cahill examines the evolving birth of a new worldview that was entirely different from what had been thought before.

The focus of Cahill’s book is the beginning of Western civilization, which to him is a change in mindset on how to view the world and the reason was the Jews. Before getting to Abraham however, Cahill looked to what had come before, the “cyclical” worldview and culture of Sumer in which he went out of. With this in mind, Cahill emphasizes how big a step Abraham’s journey at God’s direction was. Then throughout the course of the book, Cahill examines step-by-step the development of the “processive” worldview that the Jews were exhibiting for the first time from successive revelations of God and the development of individuality in language and philosophy, but most importantly the role of justice in society.

Cahill’s argument is very compelling, as was his discussions on the Epic of Gilgamesh and the various Biblical individuals and their actions. Yet the problem I have with this book is with some of Cahill’s interpretation and subsequent logical construction of his evidence whether through scripture or an analysis of non-Biblical sources to weave his thesis. For example some of the evidence Cahill uses to date the Exodus is erroneous by misinterpretation of both Biblical and non-Biblical sources, yet that is only of several examples I could have given.

Yet while Cahill’s interpretations aren’t the best part of this book, his argument that the Jews brought forth a new worldview that would lead to Western civilization is compelling. Because of that, The Gifts of the Jews is worth a close read as it describes the first and most significant hinge of historical change.

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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

The Portable Greek Historians: The Essence of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, PolybiusThe 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.

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The Peloponessian War

The Peloponnesian WarThe 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.

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