Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Give Me Back My Legions!

July 11, 2017

Harry Turtledove usually writes alternate-history novels, but Give Me Back My Legions! (2009) deals with real history. The title echoes the words of the Roman Emperor Augustus when he learned of the disastrous defeat of his forces in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (a/k/a Teutoburg Wald) in Germany in AD 9.

As in his other fiction, Turtledove tells the story from the viewpoints of various characters, mainly the Roman general  Publius Quinctilius Varus and Arminius (Hermann), his German opponent. The writer produces the kind of historical fiction I like best; he sticks closely to the known facts, inventing as little as possible. For Turtledove fans, and for fans of ancient European history, this book deserves a reading.




The Economics of Sex

October 13, 2016

Great video from the Austin Institute.

King Arthur as he might have been

August 11, 2016

This summer I’ve been reading Canadian author Jack Whyte’s historical novel series A Dream of Eagles (The Camulod Chronicles in the USA), a retelling of the King Arthur stories. Whyte treats the story as sober history, placing Arthur in the chaos of Britain after the Romans left, and avoiding much of the later portrayal of the Camelot of the High Middle Ages.

Whyte’s characters are true heroes: possessors of the old Roman virtues, fierce in battle yet very human. Being cheap, I’ve lucked out so far and found library copies of the first eight electronic books. Just now I’ve bought the ninth and final one; I suppose I owe the author that much revenue at least.

Hard-wired for religious belief?

February 19, 2016

Based on the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans (chapter 1), and also based on observation, I’ve long believed that we humans come by our belief in God or the gods as part of our “wiring.” A new book challenges that belief. In Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World (Cambridge), Tim Whitmarsh argues that both theism and atheism have venerable pasts.

In one way this is nothing new. We’ve known for a long time that some of the ancient Greek philosophers did not believe in the gods. And religious faith seems to remain the default setting among the vast majority of humans. But if Whitmarsh is right, we cannot oversell that conclusion; the truth could be more complex than I, for one, have believed. (Isn’t it usually that way?)

And those on the other side of the aisle might need to adjust their rhetoric too. Atheists often picture religious belief as a product of early stages in human evolution, with atheism winning ground every day until all enlightened people will eventually disbelieve in the divine. The presence of atheists in the ancient world shows that model as too simplistic.

That’s all I’ll say because I haven’t read the book. A good summary of it appears on the University of Cambridge web site.

Pre-historical fiction

February 8, 2016

I’m reading Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson (2013), an author best known for his Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Blue Mars, Green Mars). Shaman describes the life of a hunter-gatherer band of early humans through the eyes of Loon, a young boy who trains to become a shaman. I’ve read one or two of the Mars Trilogy, also Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, and so far I’ve enjoyed this one best.

Robinson writes leisurely, descriptive prose that moves the story slowly. He creates a sense of the land where the humans live, and he describes plausible habits of language and culture. One example: Robinson shows Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon humans living on the same land and sharing a complex relationship. The Cro-Magnons naturally call themselves People, and they call the Neanderthal Old Ones or Lunkheads. The two races sometimes visit one another’s camps, and at least once in the novel some People help out an injured Old One. But if the Old Ones catch you alone in the woods, they might kill you and eat you.

Manhunt: the 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer

January 23, 2016

I’m reading this book by James L Swanson (HarperCollins, 2006) that focuses entirely on the search for John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated Abraham Lincoln. A new edition, maybe just a reissue, came out in 2012 under the title Chasing Lincoln’s Killer.

A couple of impressions: first, I had not realized how deeply the search for the conspirators cut into Americans’ civil liberties. The authorities arrested dozens of people, broke into houses, and did all kinds of things that would not pass muster today. Also, if Booth had not broken his leg I think he would have gotten away.

Color photos from World War I

January 17, 2016

From the UK Daily Mail.

What happened when slaves and free men were shipwrecked together

January 7, 2016

A fascinating story from The Economist.

Gates of Fire

December 26, 2015

I just finished Gates of Fire by Stephen Pressfield (Doubleday, 1998), a fictional treatment of the battle of Thermopylae. Of course it’s fiction, but I think Pressfield understands the military virtues held by the Spartans. It’s a good read.

Happy birthday, Dr. Johnson

September 18, 2015

Some of Johnson’s acerbic wit. He did not like Scotland.

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