|Ides of March|
|Well, it has been even longer than usual since my last post, as work and daily leave little spare time for things like this blog. Right at the beginning I did warn that it would be occasional!|
Today's date made it a good time to post an entry, two thousand and fifty-nine years to the day after the assassination of Julius Caesar - that is if you don't worry too much about the Gregorian reform of the calendar. That is a long time, but there is no sign of interest in Caesar waning. I knew that I had to write the Augustus biography as soon as I finished the one on Caesar, although it took a while for it to happen. Augustus achieved much more lasting change than his great uncle. In the book I argue that he did not distance himself from his 'father' in the way claimed by many scholars. Nor did he really act that differently or wield his power less blatantly. The world was simply very different by 30 BC that he did not face the same sort of opposition from a faction in the Senate - so many opponents were dead, a good few on Augustus' orders.
There is still a tendency to romanticize the 'Liberators' and yet the freedom they killed for was the freedom for a very small elite to monopolize power and exploit the world. For my current project I have just been re-reading Cicero's correspondence as proconsul in Cilicia in 51-50 BC and these do not show Brutus or his uncle Cato in a very good light. Brutus had loaned out large sums of money to communities and rulers in the province and wanted his money back. It's tempting to wonder whether he had over-reached himself and was short of ready money. He wanted 48% interest - four times the legal maximum - on a loan to Salamis in Cyprus. His agent on the spot had secured cavalry off the previous governor and blockaded the council of the city in their meeting-house until several starved. Brutus was blunt and very determined in his efforts to browbeat Cicero into forcing the community to pay up, and ill tempered when he only got some of his money back from other creditors. There is no trace of Shakespeare's 'noblest Roman of them all'. Cato was patronizing when he refused to back Cicero's claim for a public thanksgiving, an essential step to getting a triumph. This adherence to principle might have commanded respect, if he had not then backed the far more dubious claim of his son-in-law, the proconsul of Syria to the same honour. Perhaps the strangest thing of all is the influence both men possessed, given that neither had spectacular careers. It was an influence based far more on who they were - or who there relations by blood, marriage and adoption were - and the belief that their character, supposed integrity, and names made them important.
Caesar did far more, even before his dictatorship, and he had played the same game in cultivating a public image so that from quite an early stage in his career people thought that he was going to be important. I still find him easier to admire than his opponents, but there is always a sense with the first century BC that none of the civil wars and chaos were actually necessary. If the Senate had done its job in the first place, and individuals been less willing to shed blood to protect their own reputations and destroy those of others, then none of this need have happened. The murder of Caesar on the Ides of March was just about the only time a group acted on a principle - at least in part, for there were other reasons as well. It's such a shame that the principle itself was not a terribly edifying one, and that within months Brutus, Cassius and the others were behaving no differently from the other warlords of this era.
By the way, Barry Strauss has a new book called The Death of Caesar. The Story of History's most famous assassination which provides a detailed and lively account of the months either side of the murder.
|Waterloo: myth and reality|
|A while ago I mentioned that I was looking forward to the release of Gareth Glover's Waterloo: myth and reality from Pen & Sword. I was fortunate enough to read an early draft last year, so knew that it would be something special. Now that the book itself is available - Here is the link on amazon, but it ought to be in most decent sized bookshops - I thought that I would post some more detailed comments. There is a minor flood of Waterloo books coming out at the moment, matching the similar deluge of 1914 related material last year. I daresay that in the long run I will get most, if not all of these. Some I suspect will not have a great deal new to say about anything, although if they tell the story well they may still be entertaining. |
However, I will be most surprised if any of them surprise me as much as Waterloo: myth and reality. So much of the familiar story of the battle was shaped by the Victorians, creating a narrative that was inspiring, dramatic, and patriotic - with different versions produced by all the main nations involved. All too often these stories prove to be groundless.
The book offers a very good and very detailed account of the Hundred Days campaign in 1815, including the wider political context. Too often everyone concentrates on 15th-18th June and gives little sense of the wider problems faced by both sides. One example would be battalions of the Young Guard being sent to the Vendee and so unavailable for the campaign in Belgium. From the context we move on to a detailed discussion of the armies, their deployments, and the situation in the weeks before Napoleon attacked. All of this is vital to our understanding of the behaviour of the rival commanders. It is easy to forget that Marshal Ney only arrived on the 15th June, accompanied by a single staff officer, and then within hours found himself in charge of almost half the French army. Then we have detailed discussion of Ligny and Quatre Bras, the manoeuvres of the 17th June and Waterloo itself, as well as the Allied advance into France. All in all, this is one of the clearest and most insightful accounts of 1815 I have ever read. Time and again it presents a picture that is not quite what the Waterloo buff will be expecting.
In the past I have blogged about the authors' series The Waterloo Archive which present so many previously unknown primary sources for these months. This is his first narrative history and his knowledge of this vast source material shines through at every stage. The sheer quantity of information contained in these pages is astonishing, and I am pretty sure that I will go back again and again.
One interesting feature associated more with magazine format is the use of boxed text to discuss particular problems or controversies. So for instance, we have features on such varied questions as the Duchess of Richmond's Ball, the veracity of Mercer of the Royal Horse Artillery's famous and oft-quoted account, and even the story that Marshal Ney survived the firing squad and escaped to the USA. In every case the evidence is assessed with great care and a balanced judgement made - sometimes to admit that we cannot say either way. One particularly interesting example looks at Wellington's army on the 15th June, listing the position of each major unit, when they received orders to march and when they moved. This sort of analysis is far more useful that some of the more wild conspiracy theories to circulate in recent years. One thing that is abundantly clear from this book is the extent to which Napoleon, Wellington and Blucher all made mistakes and errors of judgement, had problems transmitting orders and getting their troops where they were supposed to be, and that really it was more a question of who coped best in all this chaos rather than flawless commanders outwitting the opposition with a master plan which held together from the start. None of this should surprise us, especially when we remember how hastily organised all the three armies were - and how multi-national they were in Wellington's case. Although there were plenty of veterans around on all sides, there were also a lot of inexperienced men - or men inexperienced at that level of command. Friction rather than duplicity is the key to understanding the campaign.
I have no hesitation in recommending this book to anyone who wants to know more about Waterloo, with the bicentenary due next year. It is also good for reminding us that this was the culmination of what was a World War, even THE Great War for the people who lived through it. In proportion to populations, the devastation it caused was on a par with the conflicts of the twentieth century.
If you are already an enthusiast for the period, then I have no doubt that you will find this a challenging and fresh portrayal of 1815. I suspect that you will also find it highly convincing. The truth is far more interesting than the myth, for it has just as much drama and the greater ring of truth.
As for me, for the moment I am working on the sixth novel, and so my mind is still focused more on 1811!
|The fifth novel in the series is also due for release on 14th August. This one is called Run them ashore and is set in Andalusia culminating in the Battle of Barrosa in 1811. Here is the link to its page on amazon.co.uk |
As with Augustus, I shall add a new page to the website with more detail about the latest story.
Later in August, All in Scarlet Uniform> will be released in paperback and here is the link
|Augustus due out in August|
|My biography of Augustus will be released next month. Here in the UK, Weidenfeld and Nicolson will release Augustus: from revolutionary to emperor on the 14th August & here is a link to it on amazon.co.uk|
In the USA Yale University Press will release it as Augustus: first emperor of Rome on the 26th August & here is the link to amazon.com
There is also an audio cd in the USA and a kindle version in the UK. (I do not yet know whether there will also be a kindle version in the US).
Nearer the time, I will add a new page to the website with more information about the book.
|Today is the one hundred and ninety-ninth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Obviously next year will see bigger commemorations of the event, and for those who are interested it is well worth keeping an eye on the website of Waterloo 200|
Just as last Autumn there was a deluge of books about 1914 and the start of the Great War, the end of this year will see a flurry of books about 1815 and the Hundred Days. I suspect that they will be a very mixed bag, some good, some not really saying anything new, but at least telling the story well, and a few indifferent. One that will be well worth getting is Gareth Glover, Waterloo: Myth and Reality published by Pen&Sword on the 30th September 2014. I was lucky enough to read an early draft of this, and there is a huge amount that is new and often surprising, which is as you would expect from the editor of the Waterloo Archive series, which currently runs to five volumes.
More recently I have read and enjoyed a couple of books focusing on the Battle of Quatre Bras, fought on the 16th June. The first was Mike Robinson, The Battle of Quatre Bras 1815(Pen&Sword 2009), which covers the whole action from the Allied perspective, and then Erwin Muilwijk, Quatre Bras, Perponcher's gamble (Sovereign House Books, 2013) which deals specifically with the Netherlanders. I am looking forward to Andrew Field, Prelude to Waterloo. Quatre Bras, the French perspective (Pen&Sword, 30th July 2014), which should complement these nicely. The same author's Waterloo - the French perspective was very good.
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