Musings from Southern New Mexico

Category: reviews

Review: The Commentaries by Julius Caesar

The Commentaries

The Commentaries
The Gallic Wars and The Civil War
by Julius Caesar
Read by Charlton Griffin
13 hours, 54 minutes
Audio Connoisseur, 2009

As I often do, I took a multimedia approach to this book. When driving, I listened to the audiobook, but when able, I read the kindle version. This approach worked well in that the kindle version offered up maps that made clear some of the locations in the narrative. As well, the kindle version proffered some information I thought should have been made clear in the audiobook. I opted to review the audio version, as I did listen to it in its entirety (not skipping parts I had actually read), where I skipped parts in the kindle to which I had already listened. The original was written in the third person, where Griffin’s performance is in the first person. Also, I thought that the translator should have been named in the audio presentation as it was in the kindle version.

Beginning with a brief biography by Henry Stuart Jones, the narrator’s baritone voice gives the gravitas and dignity merited an ancient classic. It is a little surprising that so much is known about Julius Caesar. This portion gives a fair rendering of the great leader, neither praising nor damning him. I hadn’t realized before this how little I knew of Caesar.

Caesar begins with what seems a fairly small operation to subdue certain Gallic tribes that were causing trouble for other tribes designated as Friends of Rome. As he puts out one fire, he finds others around him. He describes the conditions and tactics with reasonably good detail up to the end of the first season. It seems warfare of the First Century B.C.E. was such that it only took place between Spring and Fall. In this manner of each chapter representing a year, he will break up the entire book. After the initial actions, Caesar thought it worthwhile to give some context. During pertinent parts of the book, he described the peoples of Gaul, Germany, or Britain. He went into detail of individual tribes when customs and other cultural knowledge were necessary for the reader’s understanding of motivations.

What had begun as a small regional disturbance would rapidly (rapidly for the time, that is) spread into a general uprising of the Gauls. Over the course of the series of campaigns, war would spread as far as Germany and Britain. As Caesar describes the progress of each campaign, he takes pains to acknowledge individuals and units on both sides for their courage, perseverance, or other such laudable traits. Similarly, he accuses those he deems unworthy when appropriate. Throughout the first work (The Gallic Wars), he attempts to write as a disinterested party. This lends an air of credibility to all that he writes. While he does not dwell, he does make a point to accept his own mistakes or failures. Based on this work, I would say that Caesar could be considered a great historian in his own right. The last campaigns in Gaul were competently documented as Chapter 8 by legate Aulus Hirtius after the death of Caesar.

The stunning success in Gaul gave many in Rome cause to fear Caesar’s power. At the beginning of The Civil War, Caesar describes the political situation. In this work, he does not go as far as to appear disinterested. The reader will notice hints of apologia in this portion. Here we also see that Caesar often details his own fairness and the treachery of others. As with the previous work, Caesar goes into detail about the logistics that betrays a keen understanding of long-term strategy beyond his adversaries. He does not mention the occasional genocide in the provinces during this war the way he did in Gaul. I wonder if there actually was a restraint or simply reflected how he wanted to be seen on returning to Italy. The Civil War is still a good narrative, but not as generally informative as The Gallic Wars.

The Gallic Wars and The Civil War are a surprisingly interesting read, but I think a map is very nearly necessary for complete understanding. This should be required reading in Western civilization or European history class. Only now do I appreciate the context of my favorite Shakespearean play, Julius Caesar. After I get a detailed map of First Century Europe (probably at my local ancient maps store), I will definitely read this book again.

Aside: Is it odd that the English speaking world seems to prefer the classics be presented in an English accent?

Review: A World Lit Only by Fire

A World Lit Only by Fire

A World Lit Only by Fire
The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance
Portrait of an Age
by William Manchester
366 pages
Little, Brown & Company, New York, 1993

I have recently heard the argument made more and more that the so-called Dark Ages were not that. I think this book stands against that notion. William Manchester leads the reader in a fascinating look at times that truly were the darkest of times. Romantic fiction and movies of that era tend to paint a picture of a relatively quiet life in the pleasant countryside (oftentimes, the plot involves this idyll being disturbed by highwaymen or war). Instead, the author describes a time when murder was so common as to boggle the mind of the modern reader. Indeed, the statistics the author presents from particular locales such as London lead one to wonder that there was anyone left. The puritanical ideas we impose on these times are put to bed when the reader learns that getting pregnant as a means to acquiring a husband was routine. We see not the country cottages of Kinkaid paintings, but rather mud and straw huts shared with pigs and chickens. This was a time when the man clad in rags was the social superior to the man clad in sky. In central Europe. In winter.

As the author presents stories of the conversion to Christianity among the tribes on the Continent and in the British Isles, one gets the distinct impression that this is done by barbarian chieftains with the overt intent of increasing personal power. The storyline of the progress of Christianity necessarily informs the political scene, even as barbarians cling to their more ancient superstitions. As the Church in Rome begins to exercise more and more authority, it begins to serve in the stead of a fully functioning governing body. We see where the politics of all of Europe become deeply entangled with the Papacy, including the purchase of high office. The Borgias and the Medici are only the best known among the intriguers of ecclesiastic power, but their actions echoed throughout Europe. As one not particularly interested in the Church, I thought a bit too much time was spent on the issue. But I understand that it is difficult to understand much of the period absent information on this topic.

I found this a very readable and interesting work, even going as far as getting my wife to read it. For the reader with a reasonably high degree of familiarity with Renaissance Europe, there will be bits of interest even there. But as the time preceding the Renaissance, it is very richly informative.

Review: Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World

The author begins in the conversational style of one relating an anecdote rather than of a journalistic relaying of facts.

Where Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia causes dangerous spikes in blood pressure, this book is written in such a way that the reader finds himself bemused rather than angered. It is as if the reader has been lulled by his vantage as a mere spectator, rather than victim. Similarly, the locales involved are shown nearly as bystanders to the economic train wreck.

I appreciate the novel approach of introducing each locale almost as a travel writer. Indeed, he even coins a phrase for it: “financial disaster tourism.” He begins each chapter with a description of the local character, then proceeds to implicate its contribution to the situation. From Iceland’s peculiar gender segregation to Greece’s pervasive tax evasion to institutionalized gelding of tax collection ability in California, Lewis uses the narrative of the disinterested party to take his audience beneath overt causation and into the deeper subtext.

I have no idea how I even got this book, but I found it fascinating. Presenting the backdrop upon which this tragedy cum farce has been painted leaves the reader with a sense of how the calamity is a patchwork quilt made up of widely disparate participants, most of whom were caught completely by surprise in what should have been obvious.

Review: Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel

As I mentioned yesterday, I have finally finished the Chinese epic:

Three Kingdoms:  A Historical Novel  (三国演义)
attributed to Luo Guanzhong  (罗贯中)
Translated by Moss Roberts
1690 pages
Foreign Language Press, Beijing,1994

The pages had begun to yellow with age before I finally picked up this, the great classic of the waning years of the Han dynasty. At fourteen and a half years, this tome has held its secrets longer than any other work on my shelves.

Here begins our tale. The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus has it ever been.

The Emperor has fallen under the influence of corrupt officials.  While performing ancestral rites, the courtiers witness omens, the likes of which will become key features in the story. The Yellow Scarves Rebellion breaks out, sending the Empire into turmoil. Imperial powers are usurped by ambitious officials, leaving the Emperor a virtual prisoner. The Empire would eventually be fractured into three separate kingdoms.

The story unfolds with a Peach Garden Oath wherein three heroes pledge brotherhood. The eldest brother, Liú Bèi (刘备), is a relative of the imperial family.  His brothers would help him in the struggle to restore the Han dynasty. The third brother, Zhāng Fēi (张飞), is of fierce visage and terrible temper. While you may have seen these two depicted in paintings, you have almost certainly seen the second brother, Guān Yǔ (关羽). He is depicted with a flowing beard, carrying a great halberd known as the Green Dragon Crescent Blade. The Peach Garden Oath and the three brothers would become ubiquitous in East Asian art and literature for centuries. Liú Bèi, Sūn Quán (孙权), and Cáo Cāo (曹操), would come to found three separate kingdoms. Each (or his progeny) would eventually declare himself Emperor.

The reader is introduced to the great warriors from Lǚ Bù (吕布), to Mǎ Chāo (马超), the crafty villain in Cáo Cāo, the brilliant strategist in Zhūgě Liàng (诸葛亮), and a vast array of characters known throughout East Asia. From several vignettes, the reader can see how profoundly Eastern philosophy differs from Western philosophy. Murder, sacrifice, betrayal, loyalty, torture, humanity, and all the trappings of political intrigue are seen as the the fortunes of the three kingdoms ebb and flow.

The events depicted take place from C.E. 168 to 280. This is a true epic in the grandest sense of the word. In the forward, John S. Service describes traveling through China during the war with Japan. Therein, he finds his traveling colleagues excitedly pointing out events from Three Kingdoms, denoting the difference between this novel and Western epics. This one is real. Covering an area larger than Europe, the leaders and battles in the book reflect events and people drawn from history, rather than fantasy. I should say it it mostly not fantasy. As is to be expected of books of ancient times, an unsettling amount of superstition and wizardry mars the pages. These sojourns into astrology, and magic do not generally amount to much more than plot points, but the author does take pains to punish any skeptics or naysayers ironically. Aside from the magic, the translator informs the reader of the uncertain pedigree of the complete work. How much is historical and how much is real? We will certainly never know. Gazing back longingly at the sepia-toned days of yore is apparently an ancient and universal pastime.

The text is laced with poetry written in the centuries after the events took place, expounding on the ideals representing a mixture of Confucian and Daoist philosophy with a reverence to the past. The more I read, the more important I found it in understanding the modern Far East.

In the notes, the translator lists over one hundred major characters. For each major character, there are several minor characters. This, in addition to the number of place names gives reason for intimidation in the reader. The afterward and notes amount to an astonishing 231 pages.

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