From Daggers to Archers to Cannon

Yesterday: Commentary on Extravagance in United States    Tomorrow: Beowulf

Twitter: @GreatBooksDude


Book: The Bubble Boys: How Mistaken Educational Ideals and Practices are Causing a Warped Social Fabric

Last week’s top ten was about great war stories.  Here I will one-up that list–if at all possible–with great histories.  History is a large category with many sub-fields.  Usually the classic histories cover a range and scope of life that eliminates the need to approach them by subcategory.  They cover politics, religion, war, money, education, and marriage and family life.  The ones that don’t cover that range are not classic, so that settles that.

10) Sallust, Catiline’s War

9) Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome

8) Sallust, The Jugurthine War

This short classic details the usurpation of Numidia by Jugurtha, a relative of the reigning princes who was granted a small share of power and who wanted a much larger one, after the fall of Carthage.  Jugurtha in many ways parallels a much later usurper, namely Hitler, in his approach to power and the method by which he seizes control of Numidia.  He claims that he has but one demand, to take a small bit of land from another, and that if that is gratified he can ensure peace.  Then he surreptitiously goes and builds up more force, meanwhile countering messengers sent to and from Rome about him by sending his own envoys to ensure that he really is after peace and is doing nothing wrong.  Then he seizes more.  More of the same.  It is not hard to imagine Winston Churchill during his Wilderness years sitting near his radio, listening to an account of the world, reading The Jugurthine War, and seeing that what Chamberlain and Baldwin were trying to deal with was no ordinary monster.  I certainly made the connection, and so did:

7) Ammianus Marcellinus, Later History of Rome (354-378 AD)

Overtaxed provinces, religious schism, and a massive and corrupt imperial bureaucracy had made the once flourishing Roman Empire into a tottering dynasty.  Eunuchs determine who shall live and who shall die by false charge and show trial.  Its most hopeful monarch, Julian the Apostate, dies young.  Wars in the East against the Parthians are unsuccessful; civil wars recur frequently.  Over a 24-year period just prior to the reign of Theodosius, the last great emperor, Ammianus Marcellinus gives us a picture of the obvious impending doom of this once mighty superpower.

6) Julius Caesar, The Gallic War

Caesar marches into Gaul to suppress revolts, successfully subdues one tribe after another, but is forced by a German invasion of the province to cross the Rhine.  He recounts how his engineers constructed a bridge, the army marched over it, did its job, marched back, and destroyed the bridge so the Germans couldn’t use it themselves.  He tells of his invasion of Britain, its initial failure, and ultimately his success in subduing the southern portion of the island, despite having his fleet wrecked by storms.  Gaul revolts again and on his return he has to chase and conquer the great chief Vercengetorix.  With direct, lucid prose, Caesar’s account is a page-turner that you MUST read.

5) Herodotus, The Histories

4) Plutarch, Parallel Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans

This collection of biographical essays compares great Greek political and military leaders to similar Roman figures, in an attempt, so we think, to justify the greatness of the Greeks in the face of an increasingly Romanized world.  Plutarch’s research is considerable, and it is clear that he drew on every major historian before him, especially Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Livy, Sallust, and Polybius.  While the effect of its argument is completely lost to the modern era, there is no doubt that the work serves a clear informative purpose, and the 48 or so lives it contains provide any reader with an extensive background in human nature, war and peace, politics, oratory, and other high-minded ideas.

3) Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

Athens and Sparta erupt into conflict over an increasing Athenian hegemony in the Greek world in the aftermath of the Persian Wars.  Within three years the great Athenian statesman Pericles dies of plague, and the Athenian democracy falls into the hands of scheming demagogues, who make disastrous mistakes in their conduct of the war.  A lasting peace treaty is signed ten years in; it quickly gives way to more conflict.  The Athenians invade Sicily against the advice of their best general, their fleet is wrecked and they are disastrously defeated, and they eventually lose this most protracted war.  Thucydides, like Caesar, had been a general in the war he documents, but unlike Caesar he was not successful, so he had spare time on his hands to compose this journalistic account.

2) Livy, History of Rome

From its origins Rome was a force to be reckoned with; their initial population was reinforced by abducting and raping the Sabine women, and in the subsequent half-century they began their conquest of the Latin tribes surrounding the city.  Initially founded as a monarchy, corruption led to the establishment of a republic in the early 6th Century BC.  Politics was carried on by nobles until the plebeians seceded due to backbreaking economic conditions, exacerbated by time spent away from their farms on campaign; then the two worked together.  They withstood an invasion of Gauls, then subdued the remainder of Italy; as a rising world power they competed with Carthage, whose military genius Hannibal invaded them as well.  Surviving this lengthy challenge, the Romans turned their eyes to the east and relieved a distressed Greece from the shackles of Macedonian power politics.  Though only 35 of the initial 120 books (chapters) are extant, Livy’s masterpiece is a marvelous achievement.

1b) Winston Churchill, History of the English-Speaking Peoples

From prehistory to Caesar’s invasion, through the times of King Arthur (no doubt a real historical figure!), the invasions of the Angles and the Saxons, the Norman Conquest, the early monarchy, the Crusades, King John and the establishment of the Magna Carta, to the Hundred Years War and the Wars of the Roses, the establishment of the Tudor dynasty, colonization of the New World and India, the English Civil War, Restoration, the Glorious Revolution, the French and Indian War (Seven Years War), the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the rise of American power, the Civil War, and ultimately the Boer War and the establishment of democracy in Australia, this book provides the complete story of England’s dominance as a world power, as told by its most dynamic modern figure.  Churchill’s prose, as we all know, carries an air of conviction and triumph.  More intriguing is his background as the son of an American heiress and a British noble, thus giving him the ability to write with a dispassionate eye an account of the American Civil War which is second-to-none.

What is not so clear is why, after starting the book in 1936, it took him until the mid-1950s to finish it.  What else of importance could he have possibly been doing???? (though I substantially disagree with the claim that history is merely a “fascinating read”, because what history does is it provides pictures of human nature, which acts the same under similar conditions, even if the specific circumstances have changed)

1a) Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

My all-time favorite book, this tome (or two tomes, as it may be) carries us from the height of the Roman Empire in 180 AD through the change of its capital to Constantinople, the repeated sacks of Rome in the 400s, the always-tottering Byzantine Empire, and the rediscovery of the classical past in the Renaissance, despite the continuing assault on the ruins of the city.  This is the most complete book ever written: it covers the lives of all the Emperors, many of their wives and families, their major generals, and attempted usurpers; wars on the Parthian border, in North Africa, in the Germanic and Eastern European barbaric areas, in England, and civil wars; church history, including the history of nearly a dozen major heresies and the synods which met to resolve theological disputes; architectural history and the layout of cities; literary history, especially the decline of poetry and historical work; the rise of Islam; and legal history, especially as it pertains to the Justinian Code.  Gibbon’s majestic prose is awe-inspiring, though his use of the rhetorical keyword “insensibly” is at times overdone.  Heavily footnoted, too, the footnotes often include Gibbon’s own inserted judgments.  A MUST-READ and easily the greatest work ever written, by the smartest man who ever lived.  Next to me.  Hahahaha.


2 thoughts on “From Daggers to Archers to Cannon

  1. Howdy, i prefer the republic to the empire. I’ve read all of livy. I’ve meant to read sallusts cataline; Ialso wrote something on jugurtha, primarily, the story is filled with racist or rather steriotypical charactorization of north african history steriotypes, and culturally, how kind n africa was to the romans. I also read everything by Jacob Burkhardte. I am also reading polybius and have words on that book, and the athenian constitution

    • I think you might want to re-read these. I don’t know if you have any friends who also read them, but I can build a course to guide a group of you through classical history and/or political theory and/or economics because I think you’re missing some things.

      For example, the North Africans were actually white. So to even imply racism in Roman accounts is just plain inaccurate. And beyond that the Romans were not racists. Later societies have been prone to racial prejudice, but the Romans were not and to label them as such is unfair to them.

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