Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Some Recent Reads on Ancient History

Although my blog is devoted mainly to American history focused on the Gilded Age, Progressive Era, and Environment (hence my picture of Theodore Roosevelt), I do teach Western Civilization and both halves of the U.S. survey course at a local community college. Here are two recent reads from the realm of Western Civilization:

Lars Brownsworth, Lost to the West. I wanted to bolster my knowledge of Byzantine history and turned to this book largely because I enjoyed Brownsworth’s podcast series “12 Byzantine Emperors.” Most of my knowledge of Byzantine history comes from Ostrowski’s books and some articles by other historians. As he does in his podcast, Brownsworth focuses on the emperors and empresses and provides little social history. Nor does he discuss political events outside the capital in any great detail unless it directly impacted the imperial palace. I took away four main things from this book. First, the Byzantines lived in a really tough neighborhood. Over their 1100 year history the Byzantines faced a constant stream of attack from Arabs, Bulgars, Crusaders, Goths, Hungarians, Mongols, Russians, Seljuk Turks and others before the Ottoman Turks finished them off in 1453. I found it quite remarkable they lasted as long as they did considering all this pressure. Second, there was a lot of ebb and flow. By this I mean things progressed, collapsed, and progressed again. For example, at various times Byzantines were interested in the classics and valued education and at other times they could care less. At times their economy did well and at other times it did not. In other words, while we might look at the larger trend and see Byzantine history as a steady decline since the time of Justinian, they certainly had their periods of revival. Third, how much the Byzantines considered themselves Roman. Brownsworth begins with Diocletian and reminds us that no matter what the western European historians thought, the Byzantines considered themselves Romans and not Greeks or anything else. For purposes of my Western Civ class, it means I need to make a better effort to include them in the some of my discussions. Fourth, I was surprised by the enormous impact disease had on the fortunes of the Byzantine Empire. Several times plagues devastated the Byzantine empire. Like those that ripped through the Roman Empire in the 3rd Century, the ones that struck the Byzantines hit at the worst possible moment. Being at the crossroads of Europe and Asia might have had some benefit regarding trade (at least until they contracted that out to Italian merchants) but it came at the cost of increased exposure to rapidly spreading viruses.

Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way. This is a much older book first published in 1930, but revised in the 1950s and republished in the 1990s. I struggled with her tone and writing style because she sounded to me like a bloviating windbag spouting all sorts of absolute statements, such as, “as is always the case.” Once I got used to the style, it was a little more bearable. Her basic argument is that the Greeks possessed a near perfect mixture of spirit (art for example) and the mind (intellect and science) until greed during the Age of Pericles ruined it for them. Western Civilization never recovered this balance, oscillating between periods of mind dominating the spirit and vice versa. She postulates at the end of the book that the Greeks lived during a unique time and place and their perfect balance between mind and spirit may no longer be possible. This makes them all the more valuable to study. I got lots of useful tidbits out of this book on certain personalities and how to weave together politics and philosophy. The Greeks were the original renaissance men with wide ranging interests in art, business, military affairs, and science. By Greeks Hamilton basically means Athenians. The Spartans are mentioned only in passing and in mostly unfavorable terms.

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