The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Modern Library Volume 2 of 3)

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 2The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 2 by Edward Gibbon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The second volume of Modern Library’s three-volume reprint of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covers chapters 27 through 48 of the author’s vast magnum opus. Beginning with the reign of Gratian and ending with the reconquests of Heraclius in 628 A.D., Gibbons relates in detail the political, martial, social, and theological developments that saw the ultimate split of the Roman Empire, the fall of the West, and the continuance of Roman tradition in the East centered in Constantinople before glancing at the lives of the next 60 emperors of Byzantium over the next 600 years.

The deterioration of the Rome picks up with the reign of Gratian and his eventual overthrow leading to the unification of the Empire under Theodosius the Great before its finale split with the inheritance of his sons and then their successors over the next 50+ years. Throughout the era of House of Theodosius, the various barbarian tribes made inroads into the Western Empire which included two sacks of Rome itself by the Visigoths and Vandals, as the long ineffectual reign of Honorius and his successors allowed the Empire to slip out of their fingers. In the vacuum arose the genesis of future European states such as England, France, and Spain while Italy declined in population and political cohesion as the Pope began to fill not only a religious but political role.

The Eastern Emperors in Constantinople, unlike their family and colleagues in the West, were able to keep their domain intact through military force or bribes to turn away. The bureaucratic framework established by Constantine and reformed by Theodosius was used to keep the Eastern Empire thriving against barbarian incursion and Persian invasions while creating a link to the Roman past even as the eternal city fell from its greatness. Yet as the Eastern Emperors kept alive the Roman imperial tradition while continually orienting it more towards Greek cultural heritage, the internal conflicts of Christianity became a hindrance to social and imperial stability leading to rebellions of either a local or statewide nature or allowing foreign powers to invade.

This middle volume of Gibbon’s monumental work is divided in two, the first focusing on the fall of the Western Empire and the second on how the Eastern Empire survived through various struggles and for a brief time seemed on the verge of reestablishing the whole imperium. Yet throughout, Gibbon weaves not only the history of Rome but also the events of nomadic peoples as far away at China, the theological controversies within Christianity, and the numerous other treads to create a daunting, yet compete look of how Rome fell but yet continued.

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How the Irish Saved Civilization (Hinges of History #1)

How the Irish Saved CivilizationHow the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The titular question of Thomas Cahill’s first Hinges of History book is one that gets people interested in picking it up. Yet the length of How the Irish Saved Civilization brings into question on if Cahill adequately answers his own question with such a slender book that promoted becoming a bestseller.

Cahill’s focus is on the end of the Western Roman Empire and how the literary tradition, in fact literacy itself survived the end of the Roman era and begin in the new Germanic aftermath of the fall of Rome. The survival of literacy in Europe is thanks to the efforts of the newly Christianized Irish, the people not considered worth the conquest by Rome that keeps the legacy of Rome alive in Western Europe. The Irish through the missionary effort of the future St. Patrick turn from a non-literate oral society into a literate and learning center in less than a century. The proud warrior-centered culture became “warriors” for learning that attracted scholars all over Europe to learn and read at the many monasteries, but then the Irish started spread away from their island home first across the Irish Sea to Great Britain than all across Europe founding monasteries as they went to continued their tradition.

Cahill attempts to create portraits of the Irish before and after their conversion to display how their culture changed, but also how it stayed the same and influenced the Celtic Christian tradition of the British Isles. In contrast, Cahill portrayed the Roman worldview and culture including how it influenced Roman Christianity. Although both these attempts were somewhat successful, the result in the book came off as a little disjointed in cohesion. The lack of firm historical data or sources for some of Cahill’s depiction of St. Patrick, acknowledged in the book’s bibliographic sources hurts of the quality of the overall work as well.

How the Irish Saved Civilization is a nice history for the general reader, however unlike later installments of the Hinges of History series it is lacking in a quality connected structure and solid sources. Cahill should be praised in giving readers understanding in how the society of Western Europe both changed and stayed the same with the fall of Rome and the beginning of the early Middle Ages, however the quality of the book is only so-so.

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Marlborough: His Life and Times (Book One)

Marlborough: His Life and Times, Book OneMarlborough: His Life and Times, Book One by Winston S. Churchill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first Duke of Marlborough during his life and afterwards was a controversial figure that tended to be seen in a rather bad light by history until Winston S. Churchill set about to fully rehabilitate the English/British general and statesman. Marlborough: His Life and Times (Book One) contains the first two volumes of Churchill’s four volume biography of his ancestor John Churchill that cover the first 55 years of the general’s life.

The first volume of Churchill’s biography of Marlborough covers the first half of the book from the Duke’s birth to the death of William III at the beginning of the War of Spanish Succession. Events and Marlborough’s actions throughout this period colored contemporaries views of him as well as later historian’s opinions of him. Yet this was a turbulent time in English history, as politics was first dominated by Roundheads and Cavaliers before becoming Protestant and Catholics along with Tory and Whig followed by Jacobite and Anti-Jacobite. Without the deep understand that Churchill gives the actions of Marlborough would make him look wish-washy. The second volume consists of the first four years of Marlborough’s time as commander-in-chief of the Grand Alliance as well as de facto co-Prime Minister of England. Throughout this second volume of Churchill’s biography, the life of the commander-in-chief of an alliance was not easy and many of Marlborough’s military plans were frustrated by the want of will by his allies, mainly the Dutch. But it wasn’t until Marlborough marched to the aid of the Holy Roman Empire that he was able to conduct the military operations that he wanted which gave him the first great English victory on the Continent since Agincourt, yet the next year his designs were once again frustrated leading to military and political unrest amongst the Great Alliance.

Given the author’s relationship to his subject and stated purpose to readjust the historical view of his ancestor, one could expect a true glorification of Marlborough but to Churchill’s credit he did not. While Churchill does take time give the reader an understanding of the changing political environment throughout Marlborough’s life and explained his actions in relation to them. When it came to Marlborough’s military operations, Churchill is actually balanced in his approach to his ancestor’s military decisions as well as “what if” scenarios when Marlborough was frustrated in his planning. Yet Churchill savages those who did frustrate Marlborough’s planning through either over caution or plain envy.

Marlborough: His Life and Times (Book One) gives an in-depth look at the second half of the 17th century and the early part of the War of Spanish Succession through the life of John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough. Winston Churchill writes engagingly and makes a full picture of events that leaves the reader in no doubt the facts surrounding an issue. After finished Book One, you’ll be wanting to start Book Two.

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Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury

Chaucer's Tale: 1386 and the Road to CanterburyChaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury by Paul Strohm
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

I received this book via Goodreads First Reads in exchange for an honest review.

The importance of Geoffrey Chaucer on English literature cannot be measured, but if not for one bad year both Chaucer and the history of English literature could have been remembered completely differently.  Paul Strohm writes in his new book, “Chaucer’s Tale”, that if not for the rapidly changing political environment in 1386 Chaucer’s life might have not provided him the opportunity to write “The Canterbury Tales”.

Strohm begins his microbiography of Chaucer by placing the author within English society as first the son of a wine importer then a courtier and finally a bureaucrat.  Chaucer’s connects to the growing Lancastrian family through family connections while politically aligned to Richard II are discussed in connection to the position he received in London.  Chaucer’s professional career in London, along with his sideline interest in composing words into poems and tales, is discussed before he is transitioned into a Member of Parliament for the fateful 1386 Parliament.

After setting the stage, Strohm shows how Chaucer became adrift in the political storm that was just beginning in 1386 which resulted in him losing his job and home leading to a change of focus.  At this point Strohm gives a glimpse into the emerging culture of English letters in the late fourteenth century and how Chaucer approached the concept of fame before and after 1386.  Strohm then relates how Chaucer did something completely different in relation to audience and creating the spark of English literature that would continue through Shakespeare through Joyce to today.

The research that Strohm put into this book is excellent, even with the lack of sources because of the seven centuries gap.  The detailed descriptions of life in medieval London were fascinating as well as the political drama going into the background that impacted Chaucer for good and ill.  However this detail in setting background for 1386 dominates the first half of the book leaving the reader waiting for Strohm to show how 1386 resulted in Chaucer’s masterpiece.  The biggest fault of the book is that Strohm continually adds detail after detail along with supporting evidence to facts he has already proven for background while not advancing towards the central thrust of the book.

“Chaucer’s Tale” shows how a minor individual in the political landscape of medieval England became a literary giant that is better remember than the kings, lords, and gentlemen of his time.  Paul Strohm shows Chaucer’s radically new idea that spawned “The Canterbury Tales” and jumped started English literature, however he takes his time to get to the point while over describing the background of life and events leading to the fateful Parliament of 1386 and the consequences of it.

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The Princes in the Tower

The Princes in the TowerThe Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have read Alison Weir before, her biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her overview history of The Wars of the Roses, and have found her enjoyable.  However, I was disappointed less than 30 pages into this book and it never improved.  I read Princes in the Tower to contrast a biography of Richard III by Paul Murray Kendall, unfortunately instead of well thought out case for Richard III has the murderer of the Princes, I got Sir Thomas More 2.0 and arch villain of Shakespeare.

I give credit to Weir for the information written in Chapters 18-19 & 21 relating to the events that occurred after Bosworth and the discovery of the skeletons that are most likely the Princes and medical exams performed on them.  This later part of the book, save for Chapter 20 which will be written about below, is it’s redeeming quality.

However, the rest of the book just made me clinch my jaw and bare through the essential retelling of More with interesting Weir inventions.  One of the reasons can be found in Chapter 20 about Sir James Tyrell’s confession about murdering the Princes, a confession that wasn’t published.  Weir stated that because Tyrell had held positions under Henry VII, the first Tudor believed that the confession would implicate him in the Princes’ murder.  However, Weir also states that Henry VII’s “interviewers” also questioned John Dighton about Tyrell’s story and he confirmed it, why is this significant? Dighton was one of the two men Tyrell hired to murder the Princes.  Dighton was then let go while Tyrell, who had been arrested in relation to another conspiracy, was executed and afterwards Henry VII told his top officials he knew what happened to Edward V and his brother.  If Henry VII was so concerned about a confession given by someone he had given appointments to, why was Dighton who Henry VII never rewarded allowed to walk away instead of signing a confession have it published before being executed and while keeping Tyrell separate to his own fate?

Weir hoped readers wouldn’t catch the problems of her arguments, but this one example shows why I gave this book the rating I did.

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Richard the Third

Richard the ThirdRichard the Third by Paul Murray Kendall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Paul Murray Kendall’s Richard the Third is a readable biographical introduction of the last Plantagenet King of England that for many only comes to mind as the sinister hunchback of Shakespeare. Even though over 50 years worth of research has outdated some of Kendall’s evidence, his overall body of work gives the reader a truer glimpse of Richard the man than from Richard the arch villain. From the outset, Kendall informs his reader of personal interpretations he has made from evidence through the use of starred (*) references within the text with explanations in the Notes after the main body of text. Kendall does tackle the death of the Princes in the first Appendix as he feels a discussion within the text itself would not be proper, which given the subject seems to be the correct course. Although Kendall believes that Richard was not responsible for the death of his nephews, in fact believing the evidence points to the Duke of Buckingham as instigator if not actual culprit, but Kendall does acknowledge that Richard might have in some way acquiesced and ultimately believed he was at fault through taking the throne. In the second appendix Kendall gives a historiography surrounding Richard of over the centuries until the publication of his book, which he hopes to be a moderate addition instead of “revisionist.” Although the writing and pace are a little dated, Kendall’s book is a fine introduction to Richard the man.

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Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English

Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the EnglishEmpress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English by Marjorie Chibnall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had heard of The Anarchy before reading this book, and I knew the cliffnotes version of the battle between Stephen and Matilda for the English Crown.  However it wasn’t until I read The Empress Matilda that I got a fuller view of the conflict and the woman who was central to the conflict.

Marjorie Chibnall used impressive research to write an easy to read biography of the mother of the Plantagenet dynasty, who for a time was also the crowned Empress(-consort) of the Holy Roman Empire.  Chibnall’s attempted to give the reader a full view of Matilda and her actions, though soon speculation is offered due to the lack of sources surrounding a particular event Chibnall does does offer evidence based on previously presented sources.

Overall this is an good biography and I recommend it.

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