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2010-03-08
Patton and Plutarch

Over the weekend I happened to watch the 1969 movie Patton, with George C. Scott in the title role. It's a great piece of cinema, even if it plays pretty fast and loose with the history at times - for instance Montgomery parading into Messina in Sicily to find Patton already there. It didn't happen, but it is a terrific scene. The movie does play on Patton's deep knowledge of military history, and several times has him talking about Caesar, or describing a Roman triumph near the end of the film. I was very interested to read in Carlo D'Este's A Genius For War: A life of General George S. Patton (1995), that Patton was badly dyslexic, but trained his memory and could remember large parts of Plutarch's Lives - an interesting choice given their emphasis on personal achievement and glory. Even more surprising, it seems that the real Patton had quite a high pitched voice. It creates rather a different picture of his blood and guts speeches, which I tend to imagine in George C. Scott's growl. However, it make me think, and as far as I can tell I have never heard a recording of Patton speaking - unlike Montgomery or Eisenhower. Asking people since then, I have not come across anyone who can remember hearing a recording of him. I wonder if this was deliberate, and he felt the voice did not go with his image - or perhaps his frequent profanity meant that no one wanted to risk making a recording in those days. On the other hand, Julius Caesar was noted as having rather a high pitched voice. I suspect Patton himself might have liked that coincidence.


Also on the subject of generals, I recently read Mark Urban's Generals: ten British commanders who shaped the world (2005). I worked with Mark back on the old BBC Time Commanders Series, and it is always especially interesting reading a book when you know the author. His thesis is interesting, looking at the changing styles of command and relationship between government and generals in Britain, as well as the difficulties of coalition warfare. You may not agree with all of his conclusions, while the biographical sketches are necessarily brief and you could disagree with some of the nuances. I suspect someone as unorthodox as Chinese Gordon is impossible to sum up so briefly. However, it's an enjoyable and thought provoking read. Many of the issues are these days probably more relevant to military command in the USA than here in the UK. Mark Urban's books on the Peninsula War and the American War of Independence are also well worth a look.


 
2010-01-24
Rome for real & Masada on dvd

Last week I accompanied a party of MA students from the University of Newcastle on a trip to Rome. (Not too long ago I was made a Visiting Fellow at Newcastle, but since then have not actually done any visiting, so this was my first formal involvement). It's always pleasant to be in Rome, and the students were a great bunch, and between us we probably doubled the profits of several gelateria. Several of us made an excursion down to the Museum of Roman Civilization, which is in the suburbs of the city housed in a grand complex built by Mussolini, in that typically overblown fascist style. However, the main drawback is that the place closes at 2pm, which is a bit of shame if that is when you arrive. I went back the next day, playing truant from the formal programme. The collection is mostly casts of sculptures from elsewhere, but it is a good way of seeing the reliefs from Trajan's Column up close. Another nice thing to see were the casts of the Aemilius Paullus Monument from Delphi. This is also where they keep the big model of ancient Rome which crops up in so many coffee table books and documentaries. I must confess I had not released just how huge this is. Pictures to follow in a few days.


While travelling to Rome, and on a few rail journeys since then, I have been watching the old mini-series Masada on dvd. The whole things lasts about six hours - there was a much shorter version called The Antagonists out on video for a while - but I had not seen the entire thing since it was broadcast some twenty years ago. It definitely bears watching again. Obviously, given the limited detail provided by Josephus, a very high proportion is fiction, but it is done well. More to the point it was filmed largely in and around the real area, and Masada is an atmospheric spot - well worth a visit if ever you get the chance. The two leads - Peter O' Toole as a marvellously weary Flavius Silva, and Peter Strauss as Eleazar ben Yair - are excellent and the supporting cast also very good. (This was back in the days when it was normal to cast British actors as Romans. HBO's Rome largely stuck with this, but by the sound the sound of it two new films set in Second Century AD Caledonia have gone the other way and cast American actors as the Romans). I can pardon Masada's legionaries in leather lorica segmentata, and not be too worried about the defenders becoming Zealots instead of Sicarii. It has a better historical feel than most dramas set in the Roman period, some nice detail, and an enjoyable story. All in all, good viewing on or off a train!

 
2009-12-24
Antony and Cleopatra

Well, once again more than a month has passed since the last entry. During that time I have gone to Helsinki for the release of the Finnish edition of How Rome Fell/Fall of the West. A big thank you to everyone there for their hositality and enthusiasm - apart from the Finnair baggage handlers who decided to keep my luggage at the airport until I checked in for the return flight! However, the biggest news for me is that I handed in the manuscript of Antony and Cleopatra last Thursday. It's a big relief to have finished this as the last couple of years have been very busy indeed. It has been a lot of fun to write, and I think presents a very different view of both of them, but finishing off the book has not left much time for anything else. The book will be published in the UK by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in July 2010, and then in the USA by Yale University Press sometime in September or October. Those are the only dates I have so far, but there will be a Spanish edition in due course and hopefully it will appear in other languages in due course.


The book complete, I am hoping to relax a little, but also aim to do a better job of updating this blog in future. There are quite a few books I would like to mention, and I also have some thoughts on the marble head dredged up from the Rhône at Arles, which some people have identified as Julius Caesar. Now that I have actually seen the piece rather than a photograph, I am a lot less certain that it is not Caesar than I was before. So, I am aiming to discuss that and put up some pictures soon. However, for the moment, I plan to enjoy Christmas. So best wishes of the Season and a Happy New Year to all those who read this, and especially everyone who has taken the trouble to write in to the website during the year.

 
2009-11-08
Remembrance Sunday

In the Uk and Commonwealth today is Remembrance Sunday, the closest Sunday to the 11th November, when at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, an armistice finally brought an end to the First World War. I doubt I can add anything new of profound to the many thoughts expressed about this, but that does not mean that it is not a good thing to join in. As a student, I served in the RA Troop of the OUOTC, and on Remembrance Sunday we would take the 105mm Light Guns into the University Parks and fire off blank charges to mark the beginning and end of the two minutes of silence. There were usually a few former gunners there to watch us, often wearing medals from the Second World War and Korea. They had been much the age we were when they had seen active service, and lost friends and comrades. That sacrifice allowed us to go to University and grow up in a free country.


There are far better words and verses of remembrance than any I could make up, so as usual I shall turn to the Romans. At Adamklissi in Romania, there is a memorial erected by the Legions of Moesia Inferior at the beginning of the second century AD. It is badly corroded, but originally it listed the names of some 3,800 soldiers who had died in the wars on the Danube, chiefly against the Dacians. Some of the names were members of one of the first regiments of Britons raised by the Roman army. The reconstructed inscription read as follows - in memoriam fortissimorum vivorum qui pro re publica morte occuberunt - roughly, 'In memory of the very bravest of men who laid down their lives for their country.'

 
2009-10-06
Lectures in Mississippi and Kansas
Once again it has been far too long since my last posting, and this one will also be brief. Next week I shall be lecturing on the theme of How Rome Fell at Mississippi State University on Wednesday 14th October, and then at Kansas City Library on Thursday 15th October. Here is a link to further information for the Kansas City Library talk.
 

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