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2010-11-27
Mostly books

I have been back from my trip to Australia for a month now. However, things have been busy and that is my excuse for failing to update the blog. This week I went up to Newcastle for a friend's inaugural lecture as Professor of Roman Archaeology. The week before I spent a couple of days in Lisbon doing interviews for the release of the Portuguese translation of my Fall of the West/How Rome Fell. When I was barely back from Down Under, I went up to Oxford to give a talk to the undergraduates of the Russell Society in my old College. All three have been very pleasant occasions in their different ways, but all the travelling has taken a lot of time. On the other hand, many an hour spent on trains, following on from the long flights and relaxing time on holiday in Australia, has given me a chance to do a fair bit of reading and so I thought that I would mention a few of the books.


William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal. The Fall of Delhi 1857 was recommended to me by a reader who e-mailed the website, and had anyway long been in my 'I must get round to reading that someday' list. Having finally got the chance, I have no hesitation on passing on the recommendation. It is a very good read and the author draws on many sources for the day to day life of the court and wider population of Delhi which have rarely if ever been exploited. The focus is quite narrow, and it has made me want to go and read more about some of the events and people who are treated in less detail or with a fairly broad-brush. A good history book always makes you want to read more about the period. Quite a few of the reviewers quoted on the jacket and inside note the author's often angry tone. It's always hard to tell from the selections chosen by publishers whether this was meant as compliment or not. Personally, I believe an historian should strive to be anonymous in their work, but that is a matter of taste. However, in this case, the story of the Indian Mutiny was itself so full of passion, fear and anger, that the author's mood at times almost reduces the very human - if often extremely brutal - mood of the participants. There is a danger that in condemning some of the acts and actors you make it harder to understand them. This is only a minor gripe with a excellent book.


Another enjoyble and provoking take on a familiar topic is Nick Foulkes Dancing into Battle: a social history of the Battle of Waterloo, which again I had been meaning to read for some time. Once again, it's very readable, and draws on a quite a lot of sources that have rarely been exploited. It's well worth reading if you like the period, or are simply a fan of Thackeray's Vanity Fair. For something more Australian in theme, I read and enjoyed Michael Molkentin's Fire in the Sky. The Australian Flying Corps in the First World War, which tells a less well known, but very interesting story and does it extremely well.


I have not read much new fiction recently, but did pick up Bernard Cornwell's The Fort. As expected this is a very good read, telling of an episode in the American War of Independence and featuring both a young John Moore as well as Paul Revere. Unlike his other books, there is not really a single, main hero, and instead it's a lively and vivid account of a campaign where an expedition sent up from Boston somehow managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory through some lacklustre leadership. It may not be quite what fans expect, but I don't think they will be disappointed.

 
2010-09-26
Radio interviews
For those in the USA and in the relevant areas I am appearing on a couple of radio shows to talk about Antony and Cleopatra. On Tuesday it is NPR Talk of the Nation from Boston at 2.50-3.38 EST. Then on Wednesday I'll be on the Think programme on KERA, NPR Dallas-Fort Worth around noon to one pm Central Time. After that I am off on holiday for much of October, so there may not be any more blog postings until after I get back.
 
2010-09-19
Meeting Cleopatra

Last week I went along to give a talk on the historical Antony and Cleopatra and their world to the cast of a new production of the Shakespeare play. It's quite a different prospect from going along to a university or talking to an historical society or other group of enthusiasts. For one thing you feel that you really need to put things across well to a group of people whose profession makes them rather good at standing in front of an audience and grabbing their attention. (Well, in this case, I got to sit in a chair, so at least that bit was easier). More importantly, it makes you think in a different way about history, because you need to talk in a way that will be useful to people trying to bring to life a version of that past.


Directed by Janet Suzman - who herself played Cleopatra for the RSC back in the seventies - the production has Jeffrey Kissoon playing Antony with Kim Cattrall as Cleopatra, and will open at the Liverpool Playhouse on the 8th October. Those three names on their own are quite a recommendation for the play.


I think they had already been rehearsing for a week, but this was the second day for the entire cast and there seemed to be a couple of dozen people. Rehearsals were in London, on the South Bank, and simply getting there became a challenge thanks to a tube strike. Of course, missing a sign and getting lost probably didn't help, but it all worked out and after a quick bite and a chat with Janet Suzman, I was ushered into the rehearsal stage. A few quick introductions, marred by my usual inability to remember someone's name a second after the introduction was made. Met some production people, and either Charmian or Iras, who seemed very nice and later asked some good questions, but whose name instantly vanished. (If any of my former students ever read this most will know that it takes me a good couple of months to start remembering their names). A moment later am dazzled and hopelessly star-struck when introduced to Kim Cattrall. Mutter poor joke about the thrill of getting to shake hands with Cleopatra. Then we were up and running. I don't think you can plan that sort of talk, so did my usual plunge into the middle of a topic and hope for the best.


I like talking about history. I really like talking about the Romans. Both of these facts will be supremely evident to anyone who has ever got trapped next to me at a party. There is also the author disease. We tend to spend a lot of time on our own thinking about a subject, and either reading in a library or typing away at the pc, so that when we actually get an audience there is no stopping us. On top of all that, it's hard not to try and give an audience the entire contents of a book.


A few minutes in and the audience is still awake. This is always a good sign. As we go people start asking questions. That's always the very best sign. Part of me has switched into lecturer mode and begins to think of this as a seminar. When someone asks a question you begin to think of suggesting they write a paper on a related theme later in the term! Another part of me keeps registering the fact that Kim Cattrall is sitting a few feet away and smiling at me. I defy any man with blood in his veins not to find that overwhelming. Now I have never seen Sex in the City - guess I am simply not the target audience - but I have seen a fair few of her films over the years. Some of it is fame, but I suspect a lot more is the charisma and magnetism which, along with great acting ability, have brought that fame. Personality, wit, intelligence, charm, the ability to perform in just the right way to win an audience - and great beauty as well - are all things which take us back to Cleopatra. Sitting there, I can readily understand Caesar and Antony being entranced. At the same time I begin to feel a bit sorry for Jeffrey Kissoon, because I am talking a lot about Mark Antony's failures and mistakes while emphasising the political skill of the last of the Ptolemies. (Good grief, have I just called Antony an overgrown schoolboy? True enough in many ways, and he was certainly fond of posturing in the gymnasium, but then that was itself such a fundamental part of Greek culture which he and many Roman aristocrats embraced with great fervour.) Turn back to his military reputation, and the lack of any real basis and talk about him as a man who maybe started to believe his own propaganda.


Politics is the real key - both to the talk itself and to the real history. Antony and Cleopatra were political creatures to their very souls. For the best part of a century the Ptolemies had relied on Roman backing to remain in power. By Cleopatra's day there was no alternative. If Caesar had not come along in 48 BC, then she would have been dead or permanently exiled at the age of twenty-one. Throughout her life Cleopatra knew that she needed active Roman support to stay in power - and more often than not that meant Roman troops on the ground within her kingdom. With a family as murderous as the Ptolemies, staying in power and staying alive were almost the same thing - witness the fate of her siblings.


Antony grew up in a Roman Republic tearing itself apart in political violence and civil war. Fulvia, his wife when Shakespeare's play begins, had already been widowed twice - Clodius murdered and Curio killing himself after losing a battle in the Civil War. Life was intensely dangerous for both Antony and Cleopatra, with violent death a very real possibility. In his case it was likely to come in riot or civil war. Cleopatra was at most risk from her own family, and their supporters within the court and wider Alexandrian aristocracy. Once they approached adulthood then even her children became potential threats. A teenage Caesarion might not be too easy to control, and anyway would be expected to marry and his wife - even if Cleopatra Selene was chosen - would be a new factor in the balance. Factions could quickly develop around either or both.


Alongside politics there was always fear. Neither Antony nor Cleopatra could ever feel fully safe. She needed Roman support, but the problem was that power in Rome kept shifting as the Republic died. She didn't choose Antony - he was given control of the eastern Mediterranean and so she had to win him over. Only in Octavian's propaganda was she ever an enemy of Rome. Instead she was a loyal ally of Rome's representative on the spot, which happened to be Antony from 41 BC onwards. Other big point to emphasise is that Rome's dominance was so great. Cleopatra just a client ruler. Egypt wealthy, but not as wealthy as all that. Her career was less about controlling events than pragmatically dealing with reality and trying to turn it to her advantage. More than anything else it was about survival.


It can only have been a lonely life. Probably the only two people she could view as equals were Caesar and then Antony. It is clear, as in the play, that she was willing to sacrifice Antony in 30 BC. He could not be saved, but Cleopatra might have been able to cut a deal for herself. She was a survivor after all, and would not have lasted as long as she did without the ability to act ruthlessly. When that failed, perhaps the closeness of the years spent with Antony seemed all the stronger. The passion of the final scenes of the play most likely were there in the real events. So at the very end there is something of the love story everyone imagines and expects. Before that there were years of politics, with a constant and dangerous struggle for power and to stay alive. (Wow, have two hours passed. Really been fun and stimulating, with the questions making me think. Then there was always that incredible smile. Oh well, back to a London of traffic jams.)


I am really looking forward to seeing this production, having contributed in a tiny way to its development. I reckon it will be well worth it for anyone who gets the chance.


 
2010-09-16
A couple of novels

Another entry about books, but this time I would like to recommend a couple of novels set in the ancient world. As people will know from an earlier entry, a find a lot of these hard to take. Too many little things tend to be wrong from the very start, and that makes it hard for me to buy into the story and enjoy it. However, a few authors manage to create a convincing world that just feels right. One of these is Christian Cameron. I have just finished his latest novel, Killer of Men, which starts a new series set during the Persian Wars. Once again I reckon he has created a vivid picture of Greek society and attitudes, with the culture of public exercise and competition fostered by the gymnasia. I also like the strong differences between Greeks from different cities and regions. The battles are vivid, and - this admittedly is a personal point of view - his views on phalanxes and hoplites very sound. The same could be said of Tyrant: Funeral Games, the most recent installment in the Tyrant Series, set in the era of Alexander the Great and his Successors. I read that months ago, but have not got around to posting an entry on it. Christian's website.



For a Roman series, the third instalment of Harry Sidebottom's third century AD Warrior of Rome Series more than lives up to the promise of the earlier stories. Lion of the Sun begins with the capture of the Emperor Valerian by the Persian King Shapur I. The series has its tongue in cheek moments - our three main characters happen to be an Englishmen, an Irishman, and a Scotsman for instance. Having said that, this one is a bit darker than the earlier stories, so you may need to be in the right mood, but once again you can tell throughout that the author knows his stuff. It's because it is generally so convincing that it can also make you think. Personally I'd quibble about some of the formations adopted in one or two of the battles. I also have to wonder how far people consciously thought in literary stereotypes - for instance on the behvaiour of barbarians. Suspect that I am in a minority amongst Classicists in doubting the extent of this. The simple fact that a rattling good adventure story can make you think like that in the first place is tribute to its quality. Harry's website.


 
2010-09-04
Zulu Rising

I have just finished reading Ian Knight's new book Zulu Rising: The epic story of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift. The 1879 Anglo-Zulu War may still be best known to many from the Stanley Baker and Michael Caine movie Zulu and the less famous Zulu Dawn. The first is by far the better film, although the second probably made more effort to be accurate. I also have a soft spot for it as I was old enough to see it in the cinema on its release in the eighties.


This book is about the history rather than the movie versions, and as always, the truth is far more interesting. A lot is written about this brief - and in many respects minor - conflict. One of the reasons is because of the inherent drama of a clash between Queen Victoria's redcoats and a strongly indepedent and vibrant African kingdom. On top of that the Zulu army, its men disciplined, but equipped with antiquated firearms or old-fashioned shields and spears, overcame and destroyed a British force camped at the foot of the hill of Isandlwana. Then, later that same day and into the night, a tiny, and heavily outnumbered British force entrenched at the mission station at Rorke's Drift held off a strong attacking force and won eleven VCs in the process.


Anyone who has already delved into the period will already know Ian's name. He has written a lot and it is always worth reading. In many ways I think this is best thing he has ever done - and I do not say that lightly. What makes it special is the sheer depth of knowledge behind his account. Its the product of decades of study, but also of a life spent walking the ground and listening to local oral history. When he started out there were still old folk alive who had been children during the war, and plenty whose parents had spoken of being caught up in it. Back in 2008 I went on a tour of the battlefields organised by Holt's Tours and with Ian as the guide. It was excellent, because he is a terrific speaker with not simply the knowledge, but a passion for the subject. Here is a picture of Ian Knight talking to the group. In the background is Isandlwana itself, and we were standing just about where the Zulu commanders were on the day of the battle. There view was tremendous, unlike the British CO, Lt. Col. Pulleine, who would have had a very restricted view wherever he moved in and around the camp.



The great strength of the book is that it tells both sides of the story well and with sympathy. Part of that is looking at things from the Zulu perspective. Almost as important is the inclusion of the many allied troops forming part of the British forces. Some were drawn from the settler communities. Many more were from the various African peoples, who had their own reasons for fighting. Some were Zulus, others exiles or fugitives from the Zulu kingdom. Hundreds of these men fought - and at Isandlwana died - alongside the redcoats. Throughout the book there is also a strong sense of trajedy. Both sides suffered dreadful losses, and in spite of the victory at Isnadlwana the Zulus could not hope to win in the long run. The war resulted in the dismemberment of the kingdom, carved up into chiefdoms and then left to fend for itself.

 

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