Favorite authors on ancient history

It’s Summer Book Week at Via Negativa. Since I’ll be gone part of the week on vacation myself, I decided it would be an ideal time to consider what constitutes the perfect summer read. I’ve enlisted the help of my family to put up posts while I’m gone, and also do a little guest-blogging.

Over the last few years, my brother Steve has been making an intensive study of ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine history, finding many parallels with our own times. Here’s his annotated list of favorite authors on (and mostly from) that period. I’ve refrained from including Amazon links, since many are available in multiple editions and translations.

In general, I prefer culling history from original sources wherever possible. This list is therefore top-heavy with the works of Greco-Roman historians, and is by no means inclusive. It is also more an author list than a book list, since I have found reading the works of the best historians, ancient and modern, to be a the most rewarding approach (also, it’s a sneaky way to slip in more than the recommended maximum of ten titles!). Included are two modern historians, J. B. Bury and Steven Runciman, whose exceptional scholarship fills in much of the gaps of Byzantine and Medieval history, owing in no small measure to their interest in subjects not popular with many other historians (witness Runciman’s works on the Sicilian Vespers and the Bulgarian Empire, for example).

Some might be disappointed that I have excluded Gibbon. While the unabridged Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is often an edifying and informative read, Gibbon’s undeniable command of his material is unfortunately surpassed both by his ego and his inept conclusions. In addition, Gibbon was an uncritical champion of empire as a benign and civilizing influence, a premise I reject without apology.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War: The first book of descriptive history, Thucydides’ masterpiece is a timely parable on the pitfalls of imperial hubris. The famous Funeral Oration of Pericles highlights the glories of Athenian society at its apogee, while Thucydides’ accounts of the ruthless Athenian subjugation of Melos and the disastrous and unwarranted invasion of Sicily highlight the follies of hegemonic overstretch.

Herodotus, The Histories: This famous work by the “Father of History�? is a must-read for its entertainment value as well as its genuine historical interest. Sandwiched between riveting accounts of Greek heroics at Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Platea in the long Greco-Persian conflict, are fascinating if improbable cultural, geographical, and faunological digressions, such as the fabled gold-digging ants of India. Also of great interest is Herodotus’ account of Achaemenid Persian history and culture.

Appian, Roman History: This lesser-read Greek historian of republican Rome is palatable to an informed modern audience because his accounts of various Roman wars of subjugation (the Iberian wars and “Mithridatic�? wars against independent Pontus, e.g.) are marked by the author’s obvious sympathy for the vanquished tribes. In addition, Appian is the only continuous source for the tumultuous period from the Gracchi to the rebellion of Spartacus, an era that saw Rome for the first time convulsed by civil war and ravaged by the despotism of Marius and Sulla. Appian shows better than any other author how Rome morphed from a republic into an autocratic empire in the space of a few generations, and lays much of the blame on Rome’s incurable love for militarism and territorial expansion.

Plutarch, Lives: Plutarch’s timeless character studies, while of dubious historical value in places, nonetheless offer priceless glimpses into the way that Romans in the 2nd century AD were apt to regard their semi-legendary past. Particularly attractive is the biography of Numa Pompilius, Rome’s second king, who made peacemaking his top priority. For his entire reign, Rome was at peace with her neighbors. Pompilius supposedly founded the College of the Fetials, a priestly caste charged with investigating the facts of any international dispute, to determine whether Rome had a grievance legitimate enough to justify going to war. Plutarch’s larger-than-life biographical sketches have been credited with helping to inspire the chivalric code.

Sallust, The Jugurthine War/The Catilinarian Conspiracy: Sallust’s two brief extant works are usually bound together and make for a quick, rewarding read, in spite of Sallust’s preachy tone. The Jugurthine War was a late first century BC conflict against a wily Numidian usurper in North Africa who dared to challenge the Roman right to dictate terms to the Africans. Rome finally captured Jugurtha and subdued his rebellion–but at a price. The two generals who secured Jugurtha’s downfall, Marius and Sulla, quarreled over receiving credit for the outcome, and became bitter rivals. Their enmity led a few years later to the awful civil wars that tore the republic asunder a generation before Julius Caesar, and led to the slaughter of thousands of Roman partisans. Sallust’s other work is one of several accounts of the celebrated conspiracy of Lucius Catiline and his confederates in the Senate, a conspiracy that was discovered by chance and exposed by Cicero. Julius Caesar himself was quite possibly one of the conspirators, or so Cato, Cicero, and the historian Appian all believed. The downfall of Catiline cemented Cicero’s reputation as the greatest statesmen of his age and, with Cato, Brutus, and Cassius, one of the last spokesmen for the old Republic.

Tacitus, The Annals/The Histories: Tacitus, Jefferson once opined, is not to be read but to be studied. This finest Roman historian is our best source of the traumatic events of the early imperial period spanning much of the first century AD. In his economical style, Tacitus describes the intrigues of Tiberius, Messalina, Nero, Galba, Otho, and many other polititicians and rulers of this turbulent period of western history.

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars: This scandalous set of biographies of Caesars from Julius to Domitian accuses most of Rome’s early despots of monstrous personal crimes. From the well-known aberrations of Nero and Caligula to the personal depravity of Tiberius and Claudius, this book is a depressing but probably fairly reliable illustration of the corrupting influence of absolute power.

Anna Comnena, The Alexiad: Anna Comnena was the daughter of the very capable Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus, whose task it was to rebuild the state after the disastrous defeat to the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert and the subsequent political turmoil. Though somewhat hagiographic, as might reasonably be expected from an adoring daughter, this is the first known work of Western history written by a woman, and is easily the most readable of the Byzantine chronicles. Aside from the endearing personal touches, this book is noteworthy for its detailed account of the use of the Byzantine secret weapon, Greek fire, and for Comnena’s lengthy discussion of the Bogomil heresy. She describes Comnenus’ efforts first to convert, and then to exterminate, the Balkan-based sect that later gave rise to the Albigensian movement in Lombardy and Languedoc.

J. B. Bury, History of the Later Empire, from the Death of Theodosius I to Justinian: John Bagnell Bury, an eminent English historian of the late 19th and early 20th century, was almost single-handedly responsible (along with Vasiliev) for restoring the image of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire, an image which (outside of the Orthodox world) had languished in opprobrium ever since Gibbon’s dismissive treatment of this greatest Medieval European state. Generally considered Bury’s most definitive work, History of the Later Empire carefully examines the history, culture, and economics of the Eastern Empire (and of neighboring states) during the fifth and sixth centuries AD. Other works by Bury carry the history forward through the reigns of Heraclius, Irene, and other noteworthy rulers until the tenth century. As a historian, Bury far surpasses Gibbon for his impartiality, attention to detail, and avoidance of ego insertion.

Steven Runciman, The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and His Reign: A more modern English historian, Steven Runciman, was one of the most erudite people ever to write history. Runciman seems to have known most of the languages of Eastern Europe, as well the classical and standard research languages, not to mention Turkish, Arabic, Armenian, and various other Middle Eastern languages. He was thus ideally positioned to write the many superb historical, cultural, and religious studies of Byzantium for which he is remembered, and of which the above-named is perhaps the best but by no means the only one worth reading. Lesser-known books of tremendous value include The Medieval Manichee (a history of heresy from the early Gnostics through the Cathars, and containing much material to be found nowhere else on less-studied heretical movements like the Paulicians), Byzantine Civilization, The Fall of Constantinople, History of the First Bulgarian Empire, and The Sicilian Vespers (a fascinating account of a Medieval intrigue between the thrones of Byzantium and Aragon to bring about the downfall of the ambitious hegemon, Charles d’Anjou). Runciman is also justly celebrated for his three-volume History of the Crusades, still considered the definitive work on the subject.

– Steve Bonta

Travel book favorites

It’s Summer Book Week at Via Negativa. Since I’ll be gone part of the week on vacation myself, I decided it would be an ideal time to consider what constitutes the perfect summer read. I’ve enlisted the help of my family to put up posts while I’m gone, and also do a little guest-blogging.

In addition to being a peace scholar, my father is a voracious reader of travel books. Almost every night before going to bed, he reads a chapter or two from whatever travel book he’s engrossed in at the moment – there’s nothing better for putting himself in the proper frame of mind for sleep, he says. Over the years he has read hundreds of the things, so I figured it would be fun to get an annotated list of his all-time favorites. Here’s what he came up with.

Some of my favorite travel books describe the social and cultural conditions of places that later break into the headlines. The fighting in Kosovo and Albania? Find out about feuding in the area a century earlier in High Albania by Edith Durham. Why were the Mujahideen in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province so successful in killing the American SEALS a few weeks ago? Read George Scott Robertson’s account about the fighting qualities of the mountain people in that particular section of the country. Why do the nomadic people of Darfur and the settled villagers fight and kill? Find clues in Michael Asher’s book on the deserts of Sudan. Not all great travel books presage later fighting, of course, though they should give a strong feeling for people and places around the world. A few favorite travel books:

Accounts about Africa

In Search of the Forty Days Road, by Michael Asher (Longman, 1984).
The Forty Days Road, the name for a semi-mythical desert track, provided a convenient excuse for Asher to buy a camel in a Khartoum market and start exploring the deserts of the Darfur region of Sudan. He had an amazing ability to fit in with the desert tribes and move around with them on his camel. The relationships of the semi-nomadic peoples with one another and with the more settled peoples of Sudan, one of the themes of the book, provide an insight into the continuing tragic situation that envelopes Darfur today. Asher’s subsequent books about the desert are effective also.

Travels in Ethiopia, by David Buxton (Praeger, 1967).
Buxton describes his travels to many parts of Ethiopia with sensitivity and grace. He lived in the country for three years in the 1940s; his writing and his sharp black and white photos provide a compelling picture of a very poor country with a fabulous history.

Some Great books on Asia

Hunza, Lost Kingdom of the Himalayas, by John Clark (Funk & Wagnalls, 1956).
Aside from the silly sub-title (Hunza is neither lost nor is it in the Himalayas–it’s in the Karakoram Range), Clark provides an engrossing account of his year (1950) among the villagers in an inaccessible valley of northern Pakistan. His reason for moving to Hunza? He wants to combat the advance of communism by teaching woodworking to village boys. A geology professor at Princeton with some medical training, when he isn’t working with his students, he treats villagers for various illnesses and explores the geology of the mountains. As he builds his programs, he overcomes the hostility of officialdom in Pakistan, the selfishness of the Mir who autocratically rules Hunza, and the initial suspicions of the villagers. The book is a forerunner of the Peace Corps concept by a man who is middle-aged, highly motivated, and very well trained for his tasks.

Danziger’s Travels: Beyond Forbidden Frontiers, by Jeff Danziger (Grafton Books, 1987).
Danziger is an excellent writer who exhibits a remarkable ability to talk his way past officials, endure unbelievable hardships, and whack along through fascinating places in Asia, from Turkey to China. One of the most memorable sections is his description of the war in Afghanistan against the Russians in the mid-1980s. Danziger was in Herat, watching from his hiding place as the MIGs swooped over the city dropping bombs. He had to move with the Mujahideen across the country at a strenuous pace, running up and down and up and down high mountains, striving to keep up with the fighters. Probably the best of the “following the Silk Road�? travel books, the account may lack the depth of some of the others on this list–Danziger describes his travels rather than his life in a particular area–but it’s really a great read.

My Journey to Lhasa, by Alexandra David-Neel (Harper, 1927).
David-Neel, a French woman with a life-long fascination for Tibet, became the first traveler in the 20th century to enter the forbidden city of Lhasa. Traveling with her adopted son, a young Buddhist monk, she disguised herself as an elderly Tibetan woman when they entered Tibet from southwestern China, traveled as much as possible on remote roads, let her “son�? do all the talking, avoided communities where they might be challenged, and successfully made it over the mountains and into Lhasa. It was a breath-taking journey for a woman in her 50s. Her follow-up books on Tibet, especially Magic and Mystery in Tibet, are also worth reading.

Káfirs of the Hindu-Kush, by George Scott Robertson (Lawrence & Bullen, 1900).
In the late 19th century, Robertson decided to travel from northern British India across the Indus River into the mountains of what was then called Kafirstan and is now called the Kunar Province of Afghanistan. The Kafirs, so-called because they had resisted conversion to Islam until the mid-19th century, were famed for raiding and terrorizing villages near and far and murdering the inhabitants. A few decades earlier, when the Emir of Kabul finally conquered them and converted them to Islam, they became fanatical about their new faith–but they retained the ferocity of their ways. Robertson describes both the hostilities he faced in the villages where he visited and lived and the raiding, terrorizing expeditions that his friends and neighbors carried out. Anyone who believes that Osama bin Laden may be hiding out in South Waziristan, or the other mountainous areas along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, should read this book about the special fighting culture of Kunar Province. It’s a perfect fit for the top Al-Qaeda folks.

Behind the Wall: A Journey through China, by Colin Thubron (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987).
Thubron is a fine travel writer, primarily because he learns languages before venturing out into a new country. He learned Arabic before traveling around the Middle East nearly 40 years ago, then learned Chinese before wandering around China to see how it was doing after the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. Then he learned Russian in order to travel in Siberia and the newly independent Central Asian Republics after the end of the Soviet empire. This account of China is a personal favorite, perhaps because of his honest and friendly approach to the people and places he visits.

Travels in Central Asia, by �?rmin Vámbéry (Harper, 1865).
Vámbéry was one of the most intrepid travelers of modern times. A Hungarian scholar who was fluent in numerous Asian languages, he disguised himself as a Hajji who was returning from Mecca and was able to join a caravan of other returning hajjis in a journey from Tehran into what is now Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. He visited the independent Kingdoms of Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand (Russia had not conquered those areas yet), before circling back toward Europe through Herat in western Afghanistan. The King of Khiva at the time was notorious for vicious treatment of his subjects, visitors, foreign emissaries, and especially non-believers. Had Vámbéry’s disguise been challenged, he would have been quickly killed. His observations on the countries he crossed and the fabled central Asian cities he visited are riveting.

A Couple Others

Six Months in the Sandwich Islands, by Isabella Bird (Murray, 1890).
Bird was crossing the Pacific in the 1870s when her boat was unable to leave the Sandwich Islands, now the Hawaiian Islands. Forced to remain there by the circumstances, she made friends easily, lived with various people on different islands, and traveled into all sorts of remarkable natural places. She climbed massive volcanoes on the big island of Hawaii, rode horses to scenic natural places, and hiked into remote spots. A remarkable, intrepid, spirited person, her other books, particularly her A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, are also engaging reading.

High Albania, by (Mary) Edith Durham (Beacon Press, 1987 reprint of 1909 edition).
On her doctor’s orders, Durham traveled down the Adriatic for her health about 100 years ago, but she ignored the warnings of dangers and journeyed inland to visit the mountains and villages of Albania and the former Yugoslavia. During her numerous trips in the Balkans, she not only learned the languages, she also gained the trust of the people and traveled easily as a lone woman. The kindly villagers would host her at length, reluctant to see her finally move on since her very presence afforded the village a measure of protection from the intentions of enemies. Her hosts would take her almost to the top of the ridge and point the way, but they could not accompany her into the next village–due to the ever-present memories of ancient feuds. Nonetheless, her love for the Albanian people comes out clearly in this wonderful book.

—Bruce Bonta

Lament for the fisherfolk of Sri Lanka

From October 2000 to July 2001, my brother Steve was in northwest coastal Sri Lanka gathering material for a dissertation (Negombo Fishermen’s Tamil: A Case of Contact-Induced Language Change from Sri Lanka, Cornell University, 2004). He worked extensively with the inhabitants of a small, Catholic fishing village a few miles from the city of Negombo. Last night he sent the following e-mail, with permission to publish it here.

The news just gets worse and worse. It appears that most or all of the people who were my research subjects and my friends during my stay in Sri Lanka are dead. Negombo was hit quite hard, and the people whose language and lifestyle I documented lived in frail cadjun [coconut-leaf] huts within meters of the high water mark, on the sands of the beach. They knew nothing but God, family, and fishing, and have not, to my knowledge, dropped bombs on anybody or fought any wars on drugs or mass-produced pornography and land mines; yet they are all apparently dead and we remain. Not only that: I could not have gotten my status-conferring, income-enhancing Ivy League PhD without their help, whereas they got along just fine without mine – yet they are gone and I linger on, PhD and all.

Nor can I take any consolation in their being “human beings just like us,” because they aren’t like us, not at all. They have the same DNA, they have many of the same passions, to be sure. But they also have no comprehension of our wisecracking, self-absorbed cynicism; they are (though it sounds cliche to say it) blessed with a certain childlike absence of guile. They place community above all other things and choose not to trouble themselves with the world’s problems. They do not live their lives in “I can give you 15 minutes of my valuable time” mode, ever. They always treated me like a dignitary and usually insisted on preparing excellent seafood dinners, which they couldn’t afford. There was never any suggestion that they were ashamed of their humble living quarters. Their huts were always clean, and their clothing always neat. I paid to help them build a cistern of their own (an untold luxury) in the sand behind their hut. It consisted merely of a 15-foot deep hole lined with metal, but it gave them fresh water for washing and drinking for the first time, ever. I fancied that, in buying them a well – not to mention a pile of clothing and household goods I got for them right before my departure – I was repaying them in part for helping me achieve my ambition.

Now the well and the household goods, as well as the houses and inhabitants, are probably gone, along with those of tens of thousands of others like them, all alike in their poverty and simplicity, all utterly unlike us. Maybe the old, abominable racial theories are correct, in a perverse and unanticipated way, for there really do seem to be two completely different moieties of the human race: the one, perpetually lapped in comfort, snugly insulated from the brunt of mother nature (most of the time), and able and willing to unleash hellfire and bombnation on the other half at the slightest provocation, real or imagined; the other, perpetually under the yoke of the first, always fodder for the cannons, chaff for the economic downdrafts, grist for the millstones of mother nature.

Anyway, enough hyperbole. Suffice it to say, I’m really bummed about this. Call it survivor’s guilt or whatever, but there can’t be too many people out there who’ve seen their PhD subject matter obliterated.

Steve Bonta
27 December 2004