December 15, 2006


Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy (Public Lives A look at biography books, December 16 at 12:00 pm and at 8:05 pm, C-SPAN2)

Description: In Adrian Goldsworthy's biography of Julius Caesar he chronicles the Ancient Rome ruler's life from birth to assassination. At an event hosted by the University of Virginia Bookstore in Charlottesville, the author details Caear's successes and failures as a politician and discusses his involvement with the wives of his two main political rivals.

There are also podcasts with the author here. I just finished the book which is fabulous.

The Dawn of the West: a review of Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian by Robin Lane Fox (Adrian Goldsworthy, Washington Post)

Greek and Latin may long since have lost their central place in Western education, but the influence of the classical world on our own culture remains very strong. It's there in language and law, and far more vividly present in ideas and ways of thinking about the world. Both the name and concept of democracy came from the Greeks (even if in practice ancient democracies varied massively from each other and their modern counterparts). A century ago, people were fond of comparing the British Empire to that of Rome, and nowadays it is common to look at America in the same way. The great Greek historian Thucydides would have been delighted but not surprised by such analogies; when he chronicled the struggle between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century B.C., he claimed that the events he described would be "repeated in much the same way in the future."

In reality, the parallels are rarely so neat, and all too often people twist the past to confirm their own preconceptions. The Nazis used the writings of Roman authors such as Tacitus to bolster their ideological claims about the inherent moral and martial superiority of the German race. That was an extreme case -- at one point, Himmler even tried to seize the oldest manuscript of one of Tacitus's books -- but even today, commentators with different political backgrounds will often draw radically opposing conclusions from the same episode in Greek or Roman history.

We need to understand the past on its own terms before trying to draw any lessons from it, and for this and other reasons, Robin Lane Fox's splendid The Classical World is to be especially welcomed. Lane Fox, who teaches at Oxford, is that rarest of writers: a distinguished academic who is willing and able to address a general audience. This latest book presents a survey of Greek and Roman culture over some 900 years, beginning with the era of Homer and ending with the rule of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. It is not a narrative history -- events such as the Peloponnesian War or Alexander the Great's campaigns are skimmed over -- but the discussion has a chronological framework, ensuring that we are not presented with a simplistic view of unchanging attitudes and beliefs.

This is a big book, but the subject is truly vast. In spite of this scope, the book's pace never slackens, and it remains readable throughout.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 15, 2006 12:01 AM

Of course the book will be read in its turn.

The Goldsworthry review distorts the connection bewtween Tacitus and the Nazis, however. It is implied that the Nazis were admirers of Rome. This is false, and no sudent of either Nazism or Tacitus should have made the mistake.

What the Nazis picked up on was not the history of Rome, which they dispised, but the Roman history of Germany, whih which they identified.

Tacitus' description of Germany and its culture fit neatly into the Nazi self-image of military virtue and with the Fuhrerprinzip around which they tried, to their destruction, to organize.

Posted by: Lou Gots at December 15, 2006 12:08 PM

the trappings, not least the fasces.

Posted by: oj at December 15, 2006 12:44 PM