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.
I am fascinated by what is to come. For someone who came of age imbibing the narrow, facile, weak, always-second-place conservative pieties of the late 1980s and the 1990s, the chaotic fluidity of today’s Right is something entirely new. There are no straight lines of sight; all is a jumble of splintered mirrors. In this chaos, of which Trump is only one manifestation, it is a sign of something, or rather of many things, that this self-published book by an pseudonymous author, calling for adoption of a supposed ethics of the Bronze Age, is receiving a lot of attention. And as much as I hate to admit it, or think I hate to admit it, the philosophy that runs through this book is likely to drive a lot of discourse, and action, in coming years.
Adrian Goldsworthy is primarily known for lengthy, but highly readable, volumes on Roman history, such as Augustus and The Punic Wars. He has two sidelines, in massive reference works on the Roman military, and in fiction about the Romans. All in all, he’s a busy guy, and I buy every new book he writes. This recent book is short, just two hundred pages, but aspires to offer a complete overview of Roman warfare. An ambitious goal, to be sure, successfully achieved. Still, while Roman Warfare is an excellent book, it is probably best viewed as a gateway drug to more Goldsworthy, as a way to introduce the casual reader, or students, to the fascinating world of Rome.
This is a ferociously erudite book. The author, David Gress, offers an analysis and synthesis of essentially all thought on the idea of the West, from the Greeks to the postmodernists, in a book that seems to contain more than its actual six hundred pages of small print. The amount of thought he presents is astounding. My habit is to write down interesting-sounding books to which an author refers, then buy them. I probably bought thirty books, maybe more, as a result of reading From Plato to NATO. Every portion of this book was interesting—but still, paradoxically, it left me unable to write the type of review I typically write.
How the Roman Republic ended is well known, even in these undereducated days, but all the attention focus goes to Julius Caesar. True, he was the pivot of the actual end of the Republic, but what came before and after was more important. What came after, during the long reign of Augustus, may not be as thrilling as story, but it dictated much of the later history of the West (and of the Roman East, now temporarily in thralldom). This book covers the other side of the transition, what came before—a period that nowadays is nearly forgotten, but is perhaps more critically important in what it can teach us today.
[Admin’s Note: This is a guest post by Jared, who only recently realised it’s “servandus,” not “servadus.”] The Corpus Juris Civilis was a monumental achievement. Justinian I of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire set out to collect and condense the disparate laws that had evolved in Rome, and then set them down in a coherent, authoritative text. He didn’t literally do it himself—he was the project’s executive (having imperium, at that), with the low-level work being delegated to an army of lawyers and legal scholars and clerks or what have you. The result was actually three texts: the Codex Justinianus, the Institutiones, and the Digesta, or the Digest. The Digest is, I believe, the largest—essentially an encyclopedia of Roman law, organized by topic and consisting of edited excerpts from renowned archaic jurists: Gaius, Ulpian, Julianus, Paulus, and so on.
[Admin’s Note: This is a guest post by Jared, who is most definitely not a lawyer, nor a historian.] Henry Sumner Maine was an Englishman of the High Victorian era, i.e., the late 19th century. His Popular Government, a book discussing the properties and deficiencies of broad-suffrage democracy, is often recommended by reactionaries in the vein of Mencius Moldbug. He included Popular Government in a list of three books constituting the canon of his so-called “Froude Society” (of which I am apparently a deacon). But while Maine’s work has reactionary implications, it is never polemic. Maine was a sober-minded jurist and historian. The present book, his Ancient Law, is probably his best-known work, and the one most representative of his broader oeuvre. Maine tends to be a bit of a dry writer, but he never fails to deliver on the subject matter, and the book is a pleasure to read.
To my surprise, I found this to be an extremely topical book, even though it discusses only people long dead. It bridges, or at least brings more clarity to the framework of, recent bestselling books such as Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed and Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. The former claims that the Enlightenment was a mistake and is now playing out its bitter end. The latter, conversely, claims that the Enlightenment continues to make everything better, and will do so forever. This book, twenty-five years old, makes no such claims about the future. Rather, it tells us how we got here—how and why the West abandoned the Ancient Greek focus on virtue and political participation as the prime goals of a good life. And the book addresses, without really meaning to, a current obsession of mine—to what degree is our current material prosperity, such that we not only have giant flat screen TVs, but, much more importantly, that we do not spend our days removing live Guinea worms slowly from our flesh, necessarily tied to …
How to Die, compiled from various writings of the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca by the excellent James Romm, assembles Seneca’s thoughts on death. Seneca died during the reign of the emperor Nero, in A.D. 65, having been “encouraged” by him to commit suicide. The reason for the compiling and publication of this book, presumably, is to educate moderns about how to die. It also offers an interesting view into the philosophy of the late pagan Classical world, already dying itself, although Seneca didn’t know it. This book can doubtless educate moderns, but for us, different than our predecessors, it is either valuable or dangerous, or both, depending on who is reading it and with what aim.
I think Robert Louis Wilken is fantastic, but this is the weakest book of his that I have read. It is not that it is bad, or wrong, or stupid, in any way. It is that it falls into the genre I call “capsule history,” where many short chapters cover different happenings, and only a loose framework connects the chapters. The result is that a reader can learn something, or can even learn quite a bit, but the experience is too much like reading an encyclopedia. On the other hand, the book does consistently excel in one thing—communicating the loss suffered when Islam dominated or exterminated Christianity in its lands of first flourishing, from northern Africa to Mesopotamia. And if you’re looking for a factual overview of the first thousand years of Christianity, you’ll certainly get it here.