The Histories (Herodotus)

1593081022.01._sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_The Histories by Herodotus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A generation had no living memory of the greatest danger that the Greeks had ever lived through, but one man decided to change all that and gift posterity with a new genre. The Histories written by Herodotus details 80 crucial years from the rise of the Persian Empire to the defeat the remnants of Xerxes expedition and the events that led to the latter.

Using knowledge gleamed from extensive travel across the ancient world Herodotus begins his historical narrative by giving the ‘legendary’ encounters between the peoples of Europe and Asia before delving into the more ‘historical’ events that lead to Xerxes’ grand expedition. Herodotus details the history of the kingdom of Lydia that was the first to conquer populations of Greeks, those in western Anatolia, and how its great king Croesus lost his war to Cyrus the Great thus placing those same Greeks under the rule of Persia. The history of the Medes and their conquest by the Persians is related then the subsequent history of the Persian Empire until the Ionian revolt which led to the intervention of Athens and setting the stage for Darius expedition to Marathon. Intertwined with the rise of Persia was Herodotus relating the events within various Greek city-states, in particular Athens and Sparta, that contributed to the reasons for first Darius’ expedition and then to Xerxes’. Eventually his narrative would go back and forth between the two contending sides throughout the latter conflict as events unfolded throughout 480-479 BC.

The sheer volume of material that Herodotus provides is impressive and daunting for a reader to consider. Not only does he cover the political and military events, but numerous past historical and general culture aspects as well as lot of biographies and antidotal digressions that add color to the overall piece. Given that this was the first history ever written it’s hard to really criticize Herodotus—though Thucydides apparently had no problem later—but some digressions I wish Herodotus had left out or not heard at all.

The Histories by Herodotus is one of classic historical works that needs to be read by anyone who enjoys reading history. Whether or not you love the style of writing or even the topic, this book is important because it literally is the first history book.

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The Annals of Imperial Rome

0140440607.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Augustus might have established the Principate, but it was up to his successors to continue it and prevent Rome from once against descending into civil war. Tacitus in The Annals of Imperial Rome, the reigns of the Caesars from Tiberius to the death of Nero which would lead to the events in the writer’s The Histories.

The work begins with Tacitus reviewing the reign of Augustus and how Tiberius became his successor, over his more popular nephew Germanicus whose side of the family would eventual rule. Tiberius shrewdly attempts to be modest in claiming the Imperial title, but this hides his dark nature that he developed during his self-imposed exile before becoming Augustus’ heir. Under Tiberius is when the show trials and political persecutions of leading men that would begin that would become notorious under later Emperors. The middle and the very end of Tiberius’ reign, all of Gaius (Caligula)’s reign, and the first half of Claudius’ reign have been lost. Tacitus’ work picks up with how Claudius’ wife Messalina was brought down and his niece Agrippina shrewdly manipulating her way into marriage with her uncle so as to get her son, the future Nero, to become Emperor. Though the show trials and political persecutions continue, Claudius doesn’t instigate them and attempts to be lenient for those being wrongly convicted. Yet once Nero becomes an adult and Claudius’ son Britannicus still a child, Claudius’ days are numbered. Once his great-uncle and adoptive father is dead, Nero assumes the leadership and begins consolidating power including poisoning Britannicus at dinner one night. Though his mother Agrippina attempts to influence him, Nero humors her while attempting to get rid of her and finally succeeding. Though taught and tutored by the renowned Seneca, Nero has learned to rule in the guise of Tiberius yet with the ruthlessness of Gaius and soon anyone that offended him or could have been a threat to him or perceived to be by his hangers on. Though the end of Nero’s reign is missing, the trials and murders of senators were increasing in number to the point that later as mentioned in The Histories they decided to turn on Nero and proclaim Galba.

The unfortunate incompleteness of Tacitus’ work does not diminish the great historical account that it presents of early Imperial history as well as his critique of the Roman aristocracy during the reigns of Augustus’ Julio-Claudian successors. Though we know his opinions of Tiberius and Nero the best since their reigns survived the best, Tacitus critiques of those family members that did not rule were highly invaluable especially all those who in the writer’s opinion might have been more fitting successors to Augustus if not for political intrigue or bad luck. If there is a complaint with this book it is with a decision by translator Michael Grant decision to use modern military terminology in reference to Roman’s military was it, but his decision to use Roman numerals to help identify different historical actors who had the same name—a very common Roman practice—without a doubt help keep things straight. The biggest complaint that I had with Tacitus’ other works, which I had from Oxford World Classics, were non-existent with Penguin Classics and thus I encourage others towards that particular publisher.

The Annals of Imperial Rome is Tacitus’ finest work, showing the corruption of absolute power and how many choose to allow it overcome them instead of standing up to it. Although probably (at least) one-third of the work is missing, the portions we have covers how a politically stable Rome begins to slowly unravel through ever increasing fear of the most powerful man in the Empire. The end result of this is chronicles in Tacitus’ previous work.

The Histories (Tacitus)

0192839586-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_The Histories by Tacitus
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

The death of Nero begins a Roman bloodletting that Augustus had thought he had completely ended as four men will within a year claim the title Emperor. The Histories by Tacitus follows the aftermath of Nero’s death as a succession of men claimed the throne until the Flavians emerge to return the Pax Romana.

Tacitus begins his work with those who had prospered under Nero worrying for themselves while the rest of the populace celebrated and setting the stage for the eventual assassination for Galba and the rise of Otho, who the former had passed over as his chosen successor. Yet at the time of his death Galba was facing a mutiny on the German frontier that had installed Vitellius as their choice as emperor, a task that Otho took to quash and retain his own throne. The invasion of Italy by Vitellius’ legions brought war to the core of empire for the first time in almost a century and witnessed the defeat of Otho’s forces before he committed suicide. The rise of Vitellius brought Vespasian, the leader of the legions fighting the Jewish War, into the fray as he accepted the proclamation of his legions as emperor and soon found the supporters of Otho and others joining him. After the crushing defeat of his forces, Vitellius attempted to abdicate but the Guards wouldn’t let him resulting in his death by Vespasian’s soldiers. On top of civil war in Italy and the final phase of the Jewish War under Titus, a Gallo-German uprising at first claiming support for Vespasian became an invasion and rebellion that took numerous legions to suppress and the aftermath would be alluded to in Tacitus’ own Germany.

Although The Histories are incomplete, from the beginning Tacitus brings his aristocratic ideology and politics in focus early by showing only someone with political realism and firm hand on the legions can prevent civil wars and the rioting of the masses. The writing is quick-paced, going hand in hand with the rapid succession of events but Tacitus does give excellent portraits on the prime actors in this historical drama the played across the Roman world. The only thing a historian would have against Tacitus would be the twisting of the chronology to suit his own purposes. Yet like Agricola and Germany, my biggest complaint is how Oxford World Classics edition is structured with the Notes at the very end of the piece and making the reader use two bookmarks so they could go back and forth.

The Histories, the first of Tacitus’ two large scale historical works, shows the horrors of civil war and the according to Tacitus the dangers of leader who cannot control the legions and masses. Even though the we are missing over two-thirds of the overall work, the portion we have that covers the Year of Four Emperors shows the breakdown of society in vacuum of strong leadership that is important not only in that time but throughout all of history including down to our own time.

Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life

0140434887-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life by Herman Melville
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

While known today for vengeful captain chasing a white whale, Herman Melville’s writing career began with a travelogue of his adventure on the Nuku Hiva and was his most popular work during his life. Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life is a semi-autobiographical book that Melville wrote about his approximately 4 week stay that he “expanded” to 4 months in the narrative.

Melville begins his narrative when he describes the captain of the “Dolly” deciding to head to the Marqueas Islands and then events surrounding the ship’s arrival at the island as well as the actions of the French who were “taking possession” of it. Then Melville and a shipmate named Toby decide to ‘runaway’ to the valley of the Happar tribe and execute their plan when they get shore leave. Climbing the rugged cliffs of the volcanic island, they hide in the thick foliage from any searchers but realize they didn’t have enough food and soon Melville’s leg swells up slowing them down. Believing they arrived in the valley of the Happar, they make contact only to find themselves with the Typee. However the tribe embraces the two men and attempt to keep them amongst their number, but first Toby is able to ‘escape’ though Melville can’t help but think he’s been abandoned. Melville then details his experiences along amongst the cannibalistic tribe before his own escape with assistance of two other natives of the island from other tribes.

The mixture of narrative of Melville’s adventures and the anthropological elements he gives of the Typee make for an interesting paced book that is both engaging and dull. Though Melville’s lively descriptions of the events taking place are engaging, one always wonders if the event actually took place or was embellish or just frankly made up to liven up the overall tale. The addition of a sequel as an epilogue that described the fate of Toby, which at the time added credibility to Melville’s book, is a nice touch so the reader doesn’t wonder what happened to him.

Overall Typee is a nice, relatively quick book to read by one of America’s best known authors. While not as famous as Melville’s own Moby Dick, it turned out to be a better reading experience as the semi-autobiographical nature and travelogue nature gave cover for Melville to break into the narrative to relative unique things within the Typee culture.

Agricola and Germany

019953926x-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_Agricola and Germany by Tacitus
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Every one of Roman’s greatest historians began their writing career with some piece, for one such man it was a biography of his father-in-law and an ethnographic work about Germanic tribes. Agricola and Germany are the first written works by Cornelius Tacitus, which are both the shortest and the only complete pieces that he wrote.

Tacitus’ first work was a biography of his father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who was the governor of Britain and the man who completed the conquest of the rest of the island before it was abandoned by the emperor Domitian after he recalled Agricola and most likely poisoned him. The biography not only covered the life of Agricola but also was a history of the Roman conquest of Britain climaxed by the life of the piece’s hero. While Agricola focused mostly one man’s career, Tacitus did give brief ethnographic descriptions of the tribes of Britain which was just a small precursor of his Germany. This short work focused on all the Germanic tribes from the east bank of the Rhine to the shores of the North and Baltic Seas in the north to the Danube to the south and as far as rumor took them to the east. Building upon the work of others and using some of the information he gathered while stationed near the border, Tacitus draws an image of various tribes comparing them to the Romans in unique turn of phrases that shows their barbarianism to Roman civilization but greater freedom compared to Tacitus’ imperial audience.

Though there are some issues with Tacitus’ writing, most of the issues I had with this book is with the decisions made in putting this Oxford World’s Classics edition together. Namely it was the decision to put the Notes section after both pieces of writing. Because of this, one had to have a figure or bookmark in either Agricola or Germany and another in the Notes section. It became tiresome to go back and forth, which made keeping things straight hard to do and the main reason why I rate this book as low as I did.

Before the Annals and the Histories were written, Tacitus began his writing with a biography of his father-in-law and Roman’s northern barbarian neighbors. These early works show the style that Tacitus would perfect for his history of the first century Caesars that dramatically changed the culture of Roman.

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation

BeowulfBeowulf by Unknown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The oldest epic poem in English follows the feats of its titular protagonist over the course of days and years that made him a legend among his clan, friends, and even enemies. Beowulf was most likely orally transmitted before finally be written down several centuries later by an unknown Christian hand in Old English that today is readily accessible thanks to the translation by Seamus Heaney.

The epic tale of Beowulf begins in the mead hall of King Hrothgar of the Danes which is attacked by the monster Grendel for years. Beowulf, upon hearing of Hrothgar’s plight, gathers fourteen companions and sails from Geatland to the land of the Danes. Hrothgar welcomes the Geats and feasts them, attracting the attention of Grendel who attacks. One of the Geats is killed before the monster and Beowulf battle hand-to-hand which ends with Beowulf ripping off Grendel’s arm. The monster flees and bleeds out in the swamp-like lair shared with his mother. Grendel’s mother attacks the mead hall looking for revenge and kills one of Hrothgar’s long-time friends. Beowulf, his companions, Hrothgar, and others ride to the lair and Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother with a giant’s sword. After another feast, the Geats return home and fifty years later, Beowulf is King when a dragon guarding a hoard of treasure is awakened by a thief and goes on a rampage. Beowulf and younger chosen companions go to face the fiery serpent, but all but one of his companions flees after the King goes to face the foe. However, the one young warrior who stays is able to help the old King defeat the dragon though he his mortally wounded. It is this young warrior who supervises the dying Beowulf’s last wishes.

This is just a rough summary of a 3000 line poem that not only deals with Beowulf’s deeds but also the warrior culture and surprisingly the political insightfulness that many secondary characters talk about throughout the poem. The poem begins and ends with funerals with warrior kings giving look at pagan worldview even as the unknown Christian poet tried to his best to hide it with references to Christian religiosity. Although some say that any translation deprived the poem of the Old English rhyme and rhythm, the evolution of English in the thousand years since the poem was first put down in words means that unless one reads the original with a dictionary on hand, this poem would not be read. Heaney’s translation gives the poem its original epicness while also allowing present day readers a chance to “hear” the story in their own language thus giving it new life.

Beowulf is one of the many epic poems that have influenced storytelling over the centuries. Yet with its Scandinavian pagan oral roots and Christian authorship it is also a melding of two traditions that seem at odds yet together still create a power tale. Unlike some high school or college course force students to read the Old England or so-so translated excerpts from the poem, Seamus Heaney’s book gives the reader something that will keep their attention and greatly entertain.

Gilgamesh: A New English Version

GilgameshGilgamesh: A New English Version by Stephen Mitchell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Almost 4800 years after his reign in the city of Uruk, Gilgamesh is still remembered not only in his native land but now around the world even though his native language is long forgotten. In Stephen Mitchell’s English verse translation of Gilgamesh, the story of the demigod’s calming friendship with Enkidu and his quest to avoid his mortality.

The tale of Gilgamesh is not just about the king of Uruk, it is the tale of Enkidu and his civilizing by Shamhat, the friendship between Enkidu and Gilgamesh as well as their adventures, and finally the death of Enkidu that sends Gilgamesh in his vain search to stop death by asking the one man whom the gods made immortal. Yet while several aspects of Gilgamesh are similar to later tales of Greek and Germanic origin, there are clear differences as well especially when it comes to Gilgamesh expressing his fear in the face of very dangers and ends with accepting his own mortality in the end.

Unfortunately, the story of Gilgamesh that we have is not as complete as it was 4000 years ago. Several sections are fragmentary which Mitchell had to work around to make the book read well and keeping true to the narrative; in this he did a wonderful job. Yet, in a book that has around 300 pages only 123 covers the epic itself which while not dishonest is surprising about how short the tale is and how much analysis Mitchell provides the reader before and notes after.

Gilgamesh: A New English Version is a fantastic book both in the tale of the heroic demigod king and the translation done by Stephen Mitchell.

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