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Category: Classical History

Book Review: The Battle of Salamis (Barry Strauss)

Barry Strauss is a master of the “you are there” style of popular historical writing. His books are accessible and gripping narratives about discrete historical episodes, including Spartacus, the Trojan War, and the death of Caesar. I’m a fan, of course. I’ve read most of his books, and I’m working on finishing the rest. “The Battle of Salamis” was the first popular book written by Strauss, and it well deserves the praise often heaped on it.

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Book Review: Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline (Montesquieu)

In more educated times, “Considerations” was a famous book, regarded as the progenitor of modern “decline and fall” analyses. Broad in sweep but short in length, Montesquieu sketches characteristics of Roman society from its beginnings through its (Byzantine) end. His goal is to find the main elements of Rome’s growth and decline and the lessons for modern man.

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Book Review: Republics Ancient & Modern, Vol. 1: The Ancien Régime in Classical Greece (Paul Rahe)

In a sense, this is an introductory work. Not a work for beginners, but a work introducing the reader to Rahe’s broader conception of modern political economy, as it relates to the Classical world. I haven’t yet read the two subsequent volumes, which continue the plan outlined in this book, of contrasting and comparing the American project to its progenitors. Rahe also writes to refute certain ideas of other scholars, his debates with whom are extensively footnoted (such as the Communist classicist M.I. Finley). But even though it’s part of a larger whole, this book stands on its own, and its points are fascinating contrasts to the facile and largely wrong view of Classical Greece that most people have.

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Book Review: 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Eric Cline)

“1177 B.C.” is a worthwhile book, but it fails to deliver on its promises. It is an uncomfortable blend of academic treatise and popular history, and it suffers from this split personality. And it suffers from aiming high, promising to explain how Mediterranean Bronze Age societies collapsed together in short order and how that relates to today, and striking low, concluding that we don’t know why, admitting that they may not have collapsed in short order or together (and definitely not in 1177 B.C. altogether) and failing to convince the reader that there is any relevancy for today, though straining to do so. On the other hand, for those interested in the period, there are many fascinating facts—so long as you aren’t really looking for a coherent overarching narrative, this book will be very welcome.

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Book Review: Hypatia of Alexandria (Maria Dzielska)

In today’s popular culture, Hypatia, the woman philosopher/mathematician of the Fifth Century A.D., is a caricature with little or no grounding in reality. For example, in the 2009 film “Agora,” she is portrayed as the youthful originator of heliocentrism, killed by ignorant Christians opposed to science, who for good measure burn down the famous Library of Alexandria, of which Hypatia was Librarian. None of this is true in any way, of course, although it fits the modern liberal desire to contemptuously dismiss Christians and Christianity and to assign historical importance based on identity, rather than accomplishment.

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Book Review: SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Mary Beard)

“SPQR” is proof that it’s possible to write something interesting where thousands of books have gone before. The author, Mary Beard, an English classicist, has managed to write a compelling book covering most of Roman history, with enough detail to give the reader, whether new to Roman history or already well-versed, a complete picture, and enough color to give the reader reason to remember that detail.

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Book Review: The Trojan War: A New History (Barry Strauss)

“The Trojan War” is an interesting contrast to some of Barry Strauss’s other works. As always, Strauss is extremely readable and offers fresh insight and analysis. In this book, however, he has to fill in historical gaps to a much greater degree. We know a lot more about Salamis, Caesar and Spartacus, some of the subjects of his other books, than we know about the Trojan War, which we know about from exactly two sources: mythic poetry, mostly Homer, and archaeology.

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Book Review: Politics in the Ancient World (M.I. Finley)

“Politics In The Ancient World” is a short work, a compilation and modification of a series of lectures given in 1980 by the Communist classicist M. I. Finley. Each lecture is a chapter, and while each chapter explores a different area of Greek and Roman politics, they are linked within an over-arching theme. The book’s audience is professional historians; you can be an amateur and appreciate it, but you will be immediately and totally lost if you are not already fairly well versed in classical history.

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Book Review: The Spirit of Early Christian Thought (Robert Louis Wilken)

This book is not a polemic or a book of apologetics; it is instead an exposition of what early Church theologians thought about important topics in Christian belief, and how those thoughts evolved and grew. If you think all theology is merely empty wind or arguments about angels dancing on the head of a pin, this is not the book for you. But if you want to know how early Christians developed their thought about the Trinity, or theological views on Christ being simultaneously fully human and fully divine, or how they viewed faith through the prism of reason, this is the book for you.

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Book Review: The Death of Caesar
(Barry Strauss)

“The Death of Caesar” is Barry Strauss’s latest work on the politics and warfare of the Classical World. Strauss is perhaps today’s most prominent author writing histories of this type—highly readable, not too lengthy, cogent analyses that are designed for the general modern reader. Among other topics, Strauss has covered the Trojan War, Salamis, Spartacus, and now Caesar. This is actually the second book in which Strauss has focused on Caesar—“Masters Of Command” includes the life Caesar as one of its three foci, and “The Death of Caesar” focuses on, unsurprisingly, his death.

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