Goodreads Reading Challenge 10/65 – Dragonkeeper

This is also my first review for the year for the Australian Women’s Writers’ Challenge for this year. Huzzah! And I’ve almost read my second of these for the year as well. It’s not Tolkien, but it’s an excellent story with a very good female lead character. This is suitable for older children up to about 14 years, said the expert without kids. But, I did do Young Adult literature when I was at librarty school and, I have to say, it was far and away my favourite subject. Knocked cataloguing right into a cocked hat. And I loved cataloguing!

Really. I did.

Good reading, everybody :)

awwbadge_2014

- – - – - – - – - –

Dragon Keeper (Dragon Keeper, #1)Dragon Keeper by Carole Wilkinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In western literature, dragons are objects of terror that hoard treasure and breathe fire. There are exceptions, like the dragons in Ursula le Gun’s Earthsea series, and any Dungeons and Dragons player will know that there are dragons benign, and not all breathe fire. But the red fire-breather la Smaug think is usually our first picture.

So when I spotted a copy of Australian author Carole Wilkinson’s Dragonkeeper at the Goodwood library I made sure that it came home to visit. China also has a rich tradition of dragon lore that I’ve only encountered once before. It was a wonderful short story called Dragon…Ghost by M. Lucie Chin, published in the first issue of the long-defunct (but soon to be relaunched) Ares magazine.

Dragonkeeper is set in the 2nd century BC, during the Han dynasty. It tells the story of Ping, an 11-yar old girl who was sold into slavery by her parents. She is badly mistreated by her master, who is tasked with the care of the emperor’s dragons. These are also badly mistreated, and one dies. Ping eventually escapes with the last surviving dragon, Long Danzi (Long simply meaning dragon), and Hua, her pet rat. Also with them is a mysterious stone that Danzi was desperate to save. He must make the long journey to far-off Ocean to recover and Ping, with much reluctance, agrees to accompany him.

What Wilkinson has given us is a wonderfully told bildungsroman. It also sensitively explores the long effects of abuse upon Ping. She, illiterate and malnourished, is initially reluctant to escape her slavery. Though she desperately hates it, she knows no other life. The modicum of security it offers is some comfort for her. Later, when the reason for the title becomes evident, Danza reveals that he misread crucial signs because Ping is a girl.

I don’t know how well Dragonkeeper fits established Chinese dragon stories, but it is certainly evocative. Rather than roar, Chinese dragons gong. They have whiskers reminiscent of catfish and are mortally afraid of iron. Danza only communicates telepathically, so when she first hears his voice she’s not aware that she was ‘hearing’ a dragon.

It is not always an easy relationship. Given the task of looking after the dragon stone, Ping loses it to Diao, a dragon hunter. Dragon blood and organs are worth a lot of money because of their medicinal value. When Danzi learns that Ping has lost the stone, his anger is terrible;

‘Ping has failed’ he said over and over again. ‘Ping responsible for stone. Dragon stone comes first. Even before own safety.’

But Danza’s Confucian wisdom recognises Ping’s true worth, which is great indeed. She gains in confidence as the story progresses, though without bravado. Ping has to screw her courage up, which makes her the more worthy of praise.

Though it’s a book for older children, it isn’t a nice, safe book. Dragons are butchered, animal parts are sold and people die horribly. At one point, they come to a village that is suffering terribly from drought:

Fragments of their shouted conversation reached Ping on the wind.
‘…just a girl.’
‘Only Heaven…take life away.’
The woman was crying. Ping edged closer, trying to make out what it was they were talking about.
‘…a single life will be lost…’

In the end, Ping must confront her own desire for comfort and safety and make a decision. This is simply a wonderful and deservedly award winning book, suitable for readers from 10 to about 14. I’ve not read any of Carole Wilkinson’s works before. I’m looking forward very much to reading more.

View all my reviews

Goodreads Reading challenge 9/65 – ‘Britain After Rome’

On a previous trip to the UK, Shelley gave me a wonderful surprise. We were staying with friends in Manchester, and she had arranged for us to spend a couple of days at Chester. The centre of the city is extremely picturesque.

River Dee

River Dee

The centre of town is still surrounded by the Roman wall erected when the city was known as Deva.

Picture 330

The local museum had an interesting display that showed how the town changed once the Romans left. Later Anglo-Saxon settlements lay outside the old walls. Britain After Rome describes the same process across Roman Britain.

Picture 320

In the late Anglo-Saxon period, King Edgar came to Chester and, as a sign of his power, was rowed up the river Dee to St. John’s church by eight sub-kings. There are quite a number of medieval buildings, and the cathedral of St Werburgh had a fascinating quire stall that has an armrest carved like an elephant. The medieval carver, having never seen such a beast, saw fit to give it hooves.

happy reading, all.

————

Britain After RomeBritain After Rome by Robin Fleming
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Britain after Rome is the second volume of the new seven-volume Penguin History of Britain series. It updates the old nine-volume Pelican History of England, which I greatly enjoyed back in the day (and which still gather dust on my shelves).

Fleming’s introduction sets out the framework established by series editor David Carradine. The first of these are that there are no footnotes or discussions of historiography. The third is that it should appeal to, ‘general readers, undergraduates, graduate students and professional historians’.

Though Fleming doesn’t ignore written evidence, much of the evidence comes from archaeological sources, which gives the work an interesting texture. Firstly, it means that a straightforward narrative account is ruled out. Chronology and archaeology are weaved into a rich and dynamic account of the formative years of post-Roman Britain. Each chapter features extensive archaeological evidence drawn largely from burial sites.

It’s a pity that historiography isn’t discussed, because the manner in which archaeology is used to frame our view of the period is quite single-minded. Fleming argues that the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons was far less bloody than is traditionally supposed. This rests on two factors. The first is the commonality of grave goods found among Britons and Anglo-Saxons alike. This suggests a level of peaceful trade and ‘rubbing along’ that that wouldn’t occur if the two communities were constantly at war. The second is that there are few burials that suggest the kinds of violent deaths that would occur when a community resists invasion.

An unstated corollary is that accounts emphasising the terror brought by the newcomers is thus greatly exaggerated. But while it’s almost certainly true that such accounts are exaggerated, it also doesn’t follow that the process was therefore largely peaceful. Men that perish in battle will tend to be buried where they fell, and not near their settlements (though ‘non-combatant’ victims presumably will be if their compatriots continue to occupy the site afterwards).

Secondly, we often imagine that sustained conflict means large numbers of dead. Imagine a village of 50 or so Britons. Six years later, their population is down to 43 following a series of skirmishes with newcomers. That sounds like quite low levels of violence, but it’s about 14% of the population. In the titanic struggle between Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II, the Soviet population sustained enormous losses, but from 1941 to 1946 it actually fell by a slightly lesser percentage. I’m not suggesting that this imagined example represents what actually occurred. It simply illustrates that not finding many victims of violence is not necessarily a sign that the process was entirely (or even mostly) peaceful.

The opening chapter on the end of Roman power in Britain shows that the economy, structured around supplying the needs of the three legions based there was radically altered during the crises of the third century. Local pottery takes up a larger percentage of the archaeological record.it is in many ways a smaller economy, but one not so distorted so much by the needs of the military and imperial bureaucracy. Towns became smaller. But late-Roman Britain also saw larger villas that were by and large economically self-sufficient. This replicated trends on the continent.

Unlike the continent, urban life didn’t survive the end of Roman power. Roman Britain simply imploded, with virtually no help from the newcomers. The picture of rapidly decaying towns is quite haunting;

At Canterbury, the sewers started clogging up around 350, and a thick layer of silt began to form in the city’s baths and on its streets… The ruined and empty city of York…reverted back to marshland in the fifth century… By 420 Britain’s villas had been abandoned. Its towns were mostly empty, its organised industries dead, its connections with the larger Roman world severed: and all with hardly an Angle or Saxon in sight.

As Fleming reveals the decomposition of the old and composition of the new, I found at times that I grew heartily sick of yet another burial description. Yet many of these descriptions were fascinating. Naturally the Sutton Hoo descriptions rank highly. But as I worked my way through, I found that the great strengths of this book slowly revealed themselves. History is more than simply the deeds of great kings and their entourage. We get innumerable glimpses into the lives of women, herders, cheesemakers. These are people who don’t write, and thus are generally invisible in the written historical record.

We see the processes in which emerging royal dynasties invent for themselves genealogies to justify the concentration of economic and political power. It is kings, and the church, that have been the subject of the histories written about this period. But not even all kings, but merely the successful. We also get glimpses of the historically might-have-been-but-didn’t-happen. Archaeological evidence reveals the efforts of the kings of Brycheiniog to maintain their power into the ninth century. The crannog (a settlement build in a lake, common in Ireland) tells us that the kings had the resources and links to hire foreign workers with the expertise needed to build such a settlement, the resources to have it done, and the expectation that their efforts would be successful. Yet by 934 it disappears:

…Alfred the great was not the only extraordinary innovator in ninth-century Britain. Brycheiniog, too, had an extraordinary king, who was as interesting and inventive as Alfred the Great, and yet the Welsh king and his strategies are simply not part of the story. The kingdom and its kings have disappeared from our histories, not for lack of evidence, but because the evidence detailing their history is material, rather than textual, and because of this, historians have simply ignored it.

If you prefer historical narrative, you may find this a bit of a slog. But this is a fascinating example of archaeology revealing the lives of those historical writing usually ignore.

View all my reviews

Goodreads Challenge 2014 8/65 – The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England.

Shelley and I had the good fortune to visit Stratford-upon-Avon some years ago, and naturally we saw All The Things. It’s still quiet and gorgeous it was all delightful.

This was where he spent his childhood - his father was a glove maker.

This was where he spent his childhood – his father was a glove maker.

Anne Hathaway's Cottage

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage

Holy Trinity Church

Holy Trinity Church

We had even more good fortune when we got to visit the Globe Theatre in London on our last trip. There was no play on at the time (boo! hiss!) but it was still a marvellous visit. We did get to see a RSC production of Richard II at the Barbican though, which was brilliantly produced (and had the wonderful David Tennant as the lead – woohoo!!!!!).

2013-12-27 10.51.38

2013-12-27 11.36.30

2013-12-27 11.58.29

So the book reviewed here was a natural to get while we were at the Globe. And it was an excellent read too, though I admit my attention wandered a little at the description of clothes. But, get it and read on, Macduff, and damned be he or she that finisheth it not!

Enjoy your reading, all. I may actually write about things library soon.

– - – - – - – - – -

The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan EnglandThe Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Elizabethan England is presented as a golden age. It was the period of Shakespeare, the Armada and the voyages of Drake, Frobisher and Raleigh. The music of William Byrd and John Dowland graced court and church. And at the apex, ‘Good Queen Bess’, defender of English freedoms.

Hindsight of course it a wonderful thing and Ian Mortimer tried to show us what it was like to live there. Would we, living at that time, view it through such rosy-hued glass?

The first chapter teases out the changes in landscape that were still underway. Medieval towns were slowly. Some of these are technological. Hall-hoses begin to make way for multi-storied houses because the chimney offers multi-floor heating.

England is still very much a landscape, as opposed to a cityscape. By 1600, only five of the top 20 towns in England have more than 10 000 residents. Of these, London has 200 000 and the remaining four (Norwich, York, Bristol and Newcastle) have 10-12 000 each. Oxford and Cambridge have but 5000 each.

Yet the urban centres were growing. It was a much younger population, with just over 7% of the population older than 60. Social hierarchies from the medieval period continue, though the independent power of the great families is now much less. Social status is shown outwardly through clothing. The Sumptuary laws rigidly defined what type of cloth, what colour and so forth a person might wear. One reason that some builders and masons were able to grow wealthy was that they could not spend their money on the luxuries of their ‘betters’.

Religion set out the parameters in which conflict with other powers took place. Elizabeth’s re-assertion of the monarch as head of the church in England gave Spain a cassus bellum – the re-imposition of the Holy Catholic church. Of course, English Catholics were thought therefore to be agents of Spain and the Pope. As indeed some were. But even for those loyal to the Crown, it wasn’t a good time to be Catholic. Once could choose to be Catholic. One simply had to pay a fine for each Sunday that they did not attend a Church of England service. That weekly fine was 20 pounds per month. A farm labourer might expect a bit over one pound per year.

Geniuses are not usually singular products but are created by their environments. One reason that Shakespeare was such a great talent was that he wrote in a milieu of great talent. He had to compete with the likes of Johnson and Marlowe. It was not a period. As Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own points out, it was impossible for a woman to attain such levels of genius because there was simply no opportunity. Woman by and large don’t own property and can be beaten by their husbands for ‘disobedience’. They were still legally not far removed from chattel. Yet many proved capable of running their households when their husbands we incapacitated (or dead).

We are products of our time, and so the things that we take for granted in the west are integral to our makeup. Access to clean water, decent health care and goodly quantities of nutritious food are things that many on the planet still have no access to. This is a wonderfully written examination of a fascinating period. If you have particular interests you can concentrate on some chapters and skip others. But it’s really worth reading all the way through. It is no doubt an era that I’d not want to live in permanently. But should The Doctor happen by with the TARDIS, I’ll make sure that I have this book with me.

I am aware, of course, that The Doctor would be wary of stepping foot here again, lest Elizabeth divorce him. With an axe.

View all my reviews

Goodreads Challenge 3/65 – ‘The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation’

This is a review that I did some earlier in the year and forgot to share here.Was the end of Roman power in the West a cataclysmic event? The prevailing trend has been ‘I think not’ but Bryan Ward-Perkins begs to differ. Lots of archaeological evidence which is fascinating. To me, anyway.

Ward Perkins is weakest on why he thinks the empire collapsed in the west, though to be fair he was trying to sum up the various of reasons that have been proposed over the years. One of the points he makes about the impact of its collapse is that the archaeological evidence seems to point to the end of a relatively sophisticated consumer economy. I’ve seen this article doing the rounds that is pessimistic about the longevity of our modern consumer economy.

It’s tricky making too many parallels between our era and that of the late Roman empire. But one possible parallel is that, in the western empire, wealthy landowners were less and less willing to cough up funds to maintain the empire (which mostly meant paying the army). But it was the existence of the Roman state that that make the a relatively complex economy possible. As a result, the burden fell on the curial and lower classes. In the end, the Germanic kings seemed to be as good an alternative.

Happy reading, everyone!

- – - – - – - – - – -

The Fall of Rome And the End of CivilizationThe Fall of Rome And the End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Western Roman Empire collapsed by 476. Beset by Germanic tribes from without and economic stagnation within, it was the culmination of a process that began nearly a century earlier with the annihilation of a Roman army at Adrianople.

Or did it? Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity sparked an influential school of thought suggesting a gentler transition into the post-Roman world. In essence, ‘late antiquity’ is seen as a distinct cultural phenomenon that differed profoundly from classical antiquity. Though Roman state power was ended, and though there were certainly sieges and battles, the period witnessed a convergence between Romans and non-Romans into new cultural units. Regionalism, a process in train since the third century, led to a growth of economic self-sufficiency based on the large villa and a decline in the importance of many cities. Christianity, which replaced the state-sponsored paganism of the classical period, also provided parallel structures that took over some of the functions of the state. While there is certainly not a universal consensus amongst scholars about how and why this process unfolded, those influenced by Brown’s work emphasise the gradual and relatively peaceful nature of the transition.

Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome argues that the end of Roman state power in the west shoul be seen in catastrophic terms. He examines archaeological evidence to suggest that the collapse of Roman power had a profound negative effect on the lives of many of its citizens and led to a collapse in living standards. It was profoundly unpleasant for many of those who lived through the process. After a re-statement of the transformation thesis, Ward-Perkins examines some of the evidence that suggests how disruptive this process was. In the Life of Severinus, we see a Roman province attacked time and again. Not that he argues that the Romans were ‘the good guys’ in this process. The massacre of the families of Gothic soldiers in North Italy after the execution of Stilicho certainly made Alaric more determined to wrest a settlement for his people from the Roman state.

There then follows a section on the road to Imperial collapse, and this is by far the weakest part of the book. In particular, the question of why the west collapsed whilst the west did not is treated in a rather cursory manner. To be fair, the focus of the book is to argue about the impact of the event, rather than why it occurred. Where Ward-Perkins is really engaging is his discussion of the late Roman economy. The decline of pottery distribution in Britain, the changing pattern of urban settlement in North African towns and the changes in building from stone to wood all point to a diminution of living standards amongst the general population.

The Roman state allowed the development of a quite sophisticated economy. The evidence suggests that, while there was certainly an extraordinary concentration of wealth within the Roman elite, broad sections of the population also benefitted. The removal of this state led to an extraordinarily rapid end of urban civilisation in Britain. Roman urban settlements were by and large abandoned in toto within 20 years of Roman troops leaving the province.
This might not be the best place to begin if you are looking at the late Roman Empire in the west for the first time. There is little narrative to put events into context. At times it steers close to polemic, but it is certainly engaging.

View all my reviews

Goodreads Challenge 7/65 – C.J. Ransom’s ‘Revelation’

Historical fiction writers have a very difficult road it seems to me. On the one hand they need to be historically authentic. Dialogue that feels completely modern will feel out of place. On the other hand, the reader shouldn’t be overburdened with anachronism.

On the whole, C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake series just about hits the sweet spot. This is my review of the third in the series. Each are stand-alone pieces but if you’ve not read anything in this series I’d still begin with Dissolution.

Fantasy writers have similar concerns. If you want to read an excellent discussion on style and fantasy, get your hands on a copy of Ursula le Guin’s From Elfenland to Poughkeepsie. I think a lot of her insights can also be applied to historical writing.

Speaking of fantasy literature, my only fantasy for the year seems to have been The Hobbit and a Terry Pratchett that I’ve yet to finish. Quelle horreur!

Happy reading, folks.

- – - – - – - – - – -

Revelation (Matthew Shardlake, #4)Revelation by C.J. Sansom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is the spring of 1543. Henry VI seeks Catherine Parr as his sixth wife. Matthew Shardlake is promoted to Serjeant at the Court of Requests thanks to Archbishop Cranmer. Cranmer and the reformist faction at court meanwhile follow Henry’s pursuit of Catherine with interest as she is known to have reformist sympathies. Radical lay preachers prophecy the coming of the Apocalypse, and Bishop Bonnor in London seeks to rid England of them with a new round of heresy trials.

A serial killer’s victims are murdered to fulfil the vision of Revelation 16, in which angels pour onto earth the seven vials of God’s wrath. Each killing is more gruesome than the last. Meanwhile, a young man incarcerated in the Bedlam Asylum will be burned as a heretic unless Shardlake can uncover what has unhinged his mind.

This is the darkest of the Shardlake novels so far. As fear casts its shadow across England, so too shadows fall across friendships. Matthew and Guy, Barak and Tamasin are estranged as trust fails and tragedy strikes. But author C. J. Sansom is increasingly comfortable in his chosen milieu. In general, he conveys the flavour of Tudor England without resorting to anachronism. Occasionally a piece of dialogue feels out of place, such as Matthew’s ‘Back to square one’ when his investigation runs up a blind alley. The notion of a serial killer in Tudor England may sound unconvincing but the unfolding sequence is handled skilfully.

The plot perhaps rambles along rather too much for some tastes, but for me it it’s an important part of the immersion. It’s a mild antidote to the prevailing gloom that stops Revelation from becoming a piece of Tudor noir. It’s perfect reading wither you’re on the train to work or curled up on a comfy couch with a fine wine. I’m looking forward to Heartstone very much indeed.

View all my reviews

Goodreads Challenge 6/65 – Roman Centurions

A thin little book that I finished on the way to work. Including in the challenge feels like cheating, but it’s a read book. So there!. I borrowed this from our local library (actually, they borrowed it from another local library for me). I was interested in the dress and organisation of a centurion from the 5th century, and bingo! It was on the final plate. Just a bit of detail for my book.

I must say that I really like the One Library service that the South Australian Public Library Network provides. A member at Unley, so far this year my loans have come from:

Mount Gambier
Roxby Downs (this one)
Mount Barker (twice)
Salisbury (I think also twice)
Burnside

Plus a couple from my local. And I’ve returned them on time. All of them. Actually, one may have been a day late. As we all know of course, we librarians are the worst at returning stuff on time. Mostly.

Anyway, enjoy your reading folks. There is some fiction to come. And more Roman stuff. Sorry about that.

Roman Centurions 31 BC-AD 500: The Classical and Late EmpireRoman Centurions 31 BC-AD 500: The Classical and Late Empire by Raffaele D’Amato
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is concise summary of the evidence available on what was the backbone of the Roman beyond the dissolution of the Empire in the West. It covers organisation, career progression, pay, equipment and clothing.

The thing that is striking is that, despite the tremendous changes within the Roman Military over the 500+ years covered, the role and status of the centurion remained remarkably stable. They were very well paid indeed: often as much as 15 times the salary of a legionary. But while they shared the risks of their men, they were also responsible for their men’s performance on and off the battlefield. A perceived dereliction of duty could mean death.

There were a several important distinctions that marked a centurion, but the one that characterised the whole period was the vine staff. This was a mark of office and it could be used to discipline their men. It was fascinating to see the evolutions in its shape. One illustration shows a staff peeking out from behind a shield, its shape a lotus.

Apart from numerous references there is a lot of excellent archaeological information, including fragments of a leg greave. As you would expect, funerary monuments also feature prominently. Finally, the plate illustrations are first-class. I was pleased to see that the 5th century centurion in the final plate was based on the wonderful mosaics at Santa Maria Maggiore (perhaps my favourite church in Rome).

A thin volume for the price but an excellent reference. I wouldn’t recommend the kindle version unless you’re reading on a tablet because the illustrations add so much.

View all my reviews

Goodreads Challenge 5/65 – Barbarians

Another Goodreads review – this time Terry Jones and Alan Ereira’s Barbarians. I’m planning a novel set in the late Roman Empire, so this year’s challenge will have a lot of Roman stuff. Apologies for those of you uninterested in things Roman. Blame Goscinny and Uderzo. It’s all their fault. Also, while I seem to be crawling along with my reading, it’s the reviewing that’s taking the time. I will try to speed up, or at least not go on so much.

Enjoy your reading, folks!

Terry Jones' BarbariansTerry Jones’ Barbarians by Terry Jones
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Barbarians is a revisionist retelling of Rome’s relationship with the peoples it came into contact with, that the Romans called ‘barbarians’. It seeks to show that these peoples were not ‘barbaric’ in the way that we understand the term today.

Jones and Ereira have not so much written a history as a sustained polemic. It begins by listing the things that we associate with Roman greatness: roads, laws, the Julian calendar. Also listed is the chariot. Unfortunately, I never got to study Latin at school, but no-one that I know with an interest in the period would consider the chariot as something peculiarly Roman. They going on to (correctly) talk about Caesar’s encounter with chariots during his two invasions of Britain. He noted that they were sturdy and aggressively driven. But here they are almost elevated to the status of a wonder weapon. This is ironic because the Romans were unfamiliar with the chariot as a weapon of war because they went out of use as a weapon of war elsewhere hundreds of years earlier. They were good for moving men swiftly to battle, but an effective weapon of war they were not.

This is doubly ironic because the information about their use comes to us from Caesar. Yet Caesar is derided as an unreliable chronicler of the Gauls because he described the elk as a creature that slept standing because their legs have no joints (a story he got from the Germans). It’s true that Caesar is not someone to take at his word. Why do so here?

There is lots of distinctly wobbly interpretations. They describe the quite sophisticated laws of the Celts, and note that Roman and Celtic law served different societies. No argument there. But Roman law was not based around paterfamilias, though it was an important component of it. It was largely to regulate property relations, though, like the Celts, there were also many laws that regulated socio-political functions. It’s doubtful that Archimedes’s mirror that could burn ships was actually deployed. The issue is not so much that the mirror couldn’t be built, but that it would likely be ineffective against a target that moves.

It’s also unlikely that Rome set back civilisation hundreds and hundreds of years because of the inventions that it effectively quashed. It’s true that the Romans did not make use of the many inventions that came out of the Greek world in the second and first centuries BC (and they list some of these). But the rulers of Rome, like the rulers of societies around then, made their wealth from exploiting slave labour. At the height of its power, some historians estimate that for every Athenian citizen there were three slaves (of course this doesn’t count women and foreigners). The inventions that they laud might have taken off at some point, but it’s likely that there would need to have been social upheaval within those societies for those devices to replace slave labour, rather than being a supplement.

It might seem from the above that this book isn’t worth reading, but this isn’t the case. I would say that the faults that they ascribe to the Romans are true. But they weren’t exclusive to the Romans. The Romans succeeded, and the others did not. Because there is much that they get right that often isn’t told. The dynamism of the middle-late Republic and early Empire was based on its success. Economic growth in the ancient world tended to be extrinsic rather than intrinsic. That is, your economy grew fastest by nick stuff from someone else. For Rome, military triumphs brought treasure and slaves into the economy. Once the Empire stopped expanding, inflation took hold. By the fifth century the city stopped being the administrative and economic focus for the elites, which doomed the state as the burden of tax shifted downwards.

This is not so much a history as a sustained polemic. Rome is cudgelled for killing cultural diversity, yet the end of the West is surely at least in part the result of different socio-cultural milieus going their own way? This book may annoy, but it remains thought provoking, and that surely was its purpose. In one sense, it’s a survey of all the peoples of the Mediterranean and Near East. No, the Romans were not universally good guys. But other peoples were not either. Some of Rome’s heritage is surely worthwhile. I am still in awe when I visit Bath or the Pantheon.

View all my reviews