15 June 2010

Ex libris

I have been doing a lot of reading this summer in between taking long naps and walking the silly dog. I keep meaning to leave posts on all the books that I have read or listened to but this is the first one. First, what I read last semester, that is from January to May.

For school I read the usual stuff on Medieval Warfare, all done before.

For the Migrations in history class the only book I assigned was Man and Microbes: Disease and Plagues in History and Modern Times by Arno Karlen. I found the book packed with lots of scary information. In fact after reading it you wonder why any humans managed to survive the Neolithic Revolution, much less the Bubonic Plague of the 14th century. The plague, btw, gets only passing mention because there are so many other diseases fighting for attention in Karlen's pages. The class Aryan supremacist found it delightful. I may not assign it again.

I listened to The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. A staggering work to keep straight with one battle and disaster after another. Yet Thucydides always interlaces his narrative with well considered assessments of the politics and emotions involved. Perhaps he does this too much. Since he is the only source for so much of this era we have nothing to check him against. He started the practice of making up speeches for the main actors feeling this was the best way to summarize what they thought - or probably thought - in the author's opinion. At bottom though it is a tale of a society tearing itself apart for reasons that are still hard to fathom. I lost a lot of respect for V D Hanson who has an expert's knowledge of this era (I read his War Like No Other last semester) and yet found only reinforcement for his view that we should go into Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Iran. Thucydides paints a horrifying portrait of the original and never to be forgotten case of 'imperial over reach' and Hanson doesn't even see the irony.

Also read Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire: The Sasanian-Parthian Confederacy and the Arab Conquest of Iran by Parvaneh Pourshariati. It is rare for a book to really impress me but this one knocked my socks off. It is simply brilliant. It is a major piece of revisionist history covering the entire make-up, meaning, and fate of the Sasanian Empire. It sees the empire as a condominium of the Persian ruling family and the great Parthian dynasts that has been poorly understood. When that condominium fell apart under the pressure of both the Long War with the Roman Empire and the centralizing efforts of the Persian emperor the empire fell apart. And then the Arabs showed up. One of the major points of revisionism that Pourshariati pushes is that Muhammad was still alive when the Muslim conquest of Iraq began. I'll deal with that in a later post on Crone and Cook's Hagarism. The two books are both brilliant, show a masterful command of languages and sources, and call for major readjustments to our understanding of Near Eastern history. Both may also be completely wrong. Scholarly books intended for specialists they are a challenge but if you can handle them you will be a better person for having read them.

Soldiers and Ghosts by J E Lendon is another book on warfare during the Greek and Roman periods but one that totally rethinks the subject. Some parts of it, like his theory that most Hellenic warfare was based squarely on attitudes inculcated by the Iliad, I found unconvincing, but other parts of it helped me to revisualize the ancient battlefield in ways that will be useful.

I followed that up with a quick read on Gutenberg.org of Xenophon's The Cavalry General. It is a manual for how to recruit, train and lead a force of cavalry back in the days when it all seemed to be so new, the late 5th century BC. A fascinating and helpful view of the cavalry commander and his men and mounts.

That's all for the moment. More when I come back.

Labels: , ,


At 16 June, 2010 22:45, Anonymous Maire said...

Black Death and the Athenian Plague have figured in my MA summer class, including the two texts you mentioned! But I'm finally reading The Historian. I'm about halfway through -- vampires are cool.

At 23 June, 2010 11:17, Blogger Clemens said...

I started reading the Historian. It was interesting but I got bogged down in it. It was a brand new hard back and the spine fell apart before I got to that point - a commentary on the shoddiness of book production these days.

But I like Vampires, especially when they are tied into Balkan history. Maybe I should try it again.


Post a Comment

<< Home