All posts filed under: Biography & Autobiography

The Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny (Daisy Dunn)

The Roman Empire gets a bad rap. This is particularly true of the members of its ruling class, who get the worse of the obvious comparison with Republican virtue, and are often viewed as placeholders and strivers orbiting around one emperor or another, offering nothing to the rest of mankind. No doubt many such existed. But we should not forget that the Empire was a very successful endeavor, especially in its early years, and success would not have been possible without at least some competent and virtuous men in the ruling class. Daisy Dunn’s The Shadow of Vesuvius profiles two such men: Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus; A.D. 23–79) and his nephew and adopted son, Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (A.D. 61–c. 113). The two men were very different, yet each strove to benefit and serve Rome, as well as to achieve great things himself, in a way our own ruling class has long since abandoned.

Tecumseh and the Prophet: The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied a Nation (Peter Cozzens)

I have always been aware of the great Shawnee Indian war chief Tecumseh. I grew up within walking distance of the site of his confederacy’s defeat, by William Henry Harrison at the Battle of Tippecanoe, and often visited the battlefield as a child. Tecumseh himself wasn’t at the battle; he was far away, trying to raise Indian allies. The battle was instead lost by his inconstant brother, Tenskwatawa, known as the Prophet, with whom Tecumseh had a fraught, but close, relationship. In this book, Peter Cozzens expertly and evocatively traces the lives of these once-famous brothers, the last of the eastern woodlands Indians of North America to mount an effective challenge to the expanding United States.

The Outlaws (Ernst von Salomon)

The Outlaws is advertised to modern readers as a memoir of the post-World War I struggles between the armed German Left and Right, between the Communists and the Freikorps. But it’s not. The Freikorps appear some; the Communists little, and often when they do, as quasi-friends of some on the Right. Rather, this is a personal memoir of Ernst von Salomon’s growing up in the 1920s, and follows his life, of which Freikorps conflict inside Germany was a small part. The book instead narrates his participation in postwar government-sponsored Freikorps fighting defending the Baltic Germans; his involvement in the assassination of Walther Rathenau, foreign minister of the Weimar Republic; and his resulting time in prison. All of these are surrounded by the introspective reflections of a right-wing German of 1930, which is what makes them interesting.

Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine (Barry Strauss)

The Roman Empire, or at least the western Roman Empire, is a history of decline, as we all know. But not linear decline, and that matters. Ten Caesars, the latest offering from the always-excellent Barry Strauss, profiles the ten most consequential Roman emperors, narrating the ups and downs of the empire they ruled. Strauss’s book is capsule history, a chapter-by-chapter summary of the profiled emperors, offering facts without many larger explicit conclusions, so there is little new here for anyone with even passing knowledge of the Empire. Think of it, then, as a refresher course.

Lord of All the Dead (Javier Cercas)

Years ago, I lived in Budapest with an elderly Hungarian relative, my grandfather’s cousin. She had lived through World War II as a young woman. One day, as we were eating lunch, she reminisced about the Russian invasion and conquest of Hungary in 1945, which she survived. She looked at me and said (in Hungarian), “Always remember, when you are grown and are a powerful man, that war is a terrible thing.” We all know this, but it is easy to forget the personal impact of war—both on soldiers and on everyone else in a society. This uneven book is a reminder of those costs, and an opportunity to ponder when they are worth paying, as civil war slouches ever closer to us.

Mine Were of Trouble (Peter Kemp)

Among the many tools of the superbly effective Left propaganda machine, one of the most effective is its control of publishing. Leftists use this to ensure that innumerable books fitting the Left narrative stay in print indefinitely, primarily for use as indoctrination tools in schools, as a glance at any modern curriculum at any grade level will show you. On the other hand, books not fitting the Left narrative disappear—never republished, expensive to buy used, and impossible to read online because of the stupidly long terms of modern copyright law. Thus, the reprinting, by Mystery Grove Publishing, of this excellent book, by an Englishman who volunteered to fight for the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, is a great service.

Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (Graham Allison)

For Americans who think that so-called liberal democracy is neither, and in any case is a dead end, successful modern societies with a different political model always intrigue. In the West, notable such are Hungary and Poland, who have effectively executed a mild and tentative turn away from the most extreme vices of liberal democracy, though there is a long way to go. Singapore, which has apparently successfully blended economic success, certain virtues, and limited democracy, offers another possible model, one with a longer track record. Unfortunately, Singapore’s example is of very limited use to a future well-run America, and this book of the thoughts of Lee Kuan Yew, who built modern Singapore, helps show why.

Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens (David Stuttard)

We live in an age lacking dynamic leadership. We are instead led, if one can call it that, by men who are clowns, feminized, or confused—or, often, by confused feminized clowns. The idea of a charismatic, ambitious, intelligent, unapologetically masculine leader has entirely vanished from our minds, in part because we see no examples among us, and in part because we are indoctrinated such men are retrograde and properly consigned to the past, and we should accept our new, apparently vat-grown, “leaders,” typically resembling some hybrid of John Kerry and Trigglypuff. Still, a heretical little voice whispers to us, pointing out that eras of human flourishing and accomplishment are always led by men of glory, and asking us, why is that?

Frederick the Second: Wonder of the World 1194-1250 (Ernst Kantorowicz)

This book defies easy characterization. It is, to be sure, a biography of the last of the great German medieval emperors, Frederick II Hohenstaufen. But it vibrates with a subdued roar under the surface. By turns it is fierce, melodramatic, evocative, pitying, and electric. Maybe, in 1927, with Germany at its nadir, Ernst Kantorowicz was trying to channel the modern age of steel and thunder, translating it through the works of a long-dead megalomaniac king into a hoped-for new era. Or maybe he aimed to wake the ancient ghost of Frederick, stirring him from his long sleep in the Kyffhäuser Mountains. Either way, Kantorowicz did see reborn the German energies he thought should be reborn. But as with most summoned spirits, the rebirth did not advantage the summoner.

Alexander the Great: His Life and His Mysterious Death (Anthony Everitt)

Different eras view Alexander III of Macedon differently. Though always honored as a hugely successful military leader and conqueror, in the ancient world, he got mixed press, seen as a blend of virtues and faults. In the Middle Ages, and really until the twentieth century, he was usually regarded as among the greatest men of history, and surrounded by myths exaggerating his accomplishments. More recently, without detracting from his military abilities, he has been classed as a killer mad for power. Anthony Everitt, British writer of slick popular histories, tries to move the needle back toward a favorable view of Alexander. But revisionist popular history is a difficult genre to pull off well, and Everitt does not succeed.