New history books (July 2012 edition)

Posted in Academia, Ancient, Books by Alex L. on September 28, 2012

History off the Book header

Scholarship of an empire

Rome book coverThere are really two narratives of the Roman empire. The first one picks up where the Iliad ends, follows the story of Aeneas until the time of the early kings of Rome, observes with admiration the Roman republic, and illustrates the glories and flaws of the Roman emperors. This is the traditional story of ancient Rome.

The second type of narrative is the academic one, which often leaves chronology by the wayside and examines the Roman empire by topic, often sociologically. Greg Woolf’s new book, Rome: An Empire’s Story, seems to be written for the niche of people who are well familiar with the first, traditional, narrative of Rome but have no knowledge of (but a desire to learn) the second, scholarly, dialogue about the empire.

Although Woolf’s writing didn’t inspire an enormous amount of enthusiasm from this reader, the most interesting chapter for me was the second one: “Empires of the Mind.” Reading this chapter made me wonder why it was that Rome apart from all other ancient empires has such a lasting existence in our world. Woolf here also discusses sociological categorization of empires and describes Rome as a conquest state, an entity dependent on political expansion for its very survival. I think such a breakdown of terms like “empire” is useful because, without further reflection, one may assume erroneously that the Roman empire was more similar to, say, the American empire than was actually the case. The United States may arguably be an imperial power but it is not a conquest state.

Other chapters deal with socioeconomic topics that have interested contemporary historians of ancient Rome.  The chapter titled “Slavery and Empire” discusses how Roman society gradually began to rely less on its own citizens for labor and military recruitment and more on slaves. Roman slavery is a really popular subject of academic research and various sub-topics abound (among them manumission, citizenship, popular revolts, gladiators, and personal identities). The nice thing about Woolf’s book is that he includes a “Further Reading” section at the end of each chapter. So if any sparks of interest fly as you make your way through Woolf’s narrative, he shows a way out to really pursue those interests.

The chapter titled “Imperial Ecology” is also interesting because it takes on an issue — the environment — that generates a lot of attention outside of academia. “Did the Roman empire decline because the Romans exploited their natural resources in an unsustainable way?” is a question that would strike a meaningful and ominous chord with most environmentally-conscious Americans today. An inquiry into the stresses caused by emerging Asian empires on the ancient Roman economy and psyche may likewise ring with familiarity for many Americans. Woolf’s conclusion, one is almost disappointed but not surprised  to learn, is that Romans didn’t pollute themselves to death. “Their imperial ecology was very different from that of the modern age.” No cautionary tale here (which, nevertheless, I appreciated for its academic honesty).

The writing style of Rome: An Empire’s Story, though, seems lazy. Too many paragraphs begin with a general (many times uninteresting) proposition in the first  sentence and then drone on to provide example after example to nail that odd point home. It’s so hard to break out of such a stiff academic structure of writing when it’s what you’re used to. (I know this myself all too well: my writing sometimes suffers from formulaic sentence and paragraph structure too.) So if you’re interested in a newly-published introduction to ancient Rome, another book may be best (maybe even The Rise of Rome: The Making of the World’s Greatest Empire, by Anthony Everitt, which was published in August).

Notable mentions

A Man and His Ship: America’s Greatest Naval Architect and His Quest to Build the S.S. United States.  Steven Ujifusa. A naval architect has to overcome personal obstacles to build the S.S. United States, a beautiful ocean liner during a time (not too long ago) when such ships were national status symbols much like skyscrapers are today.

Code Name Caesar: The Secret Hunt for U-Boat 864 During World War II. Jerome Preisler and Kenneth Sewell. As a self-proclaimed aficianado of submarine history, I was surprised that I had never heard of U-864 before. This U-boat, tasked with a desperate (and epic) mission to sail from Europe to Japan, became the target of a British sub.

A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa. Steve Kemper. Wilfred Thesiger’s great travelogue, Arabian Sands, is an all-time favorite of mine. Kemper’s work also promises to be a great adventure story about a European explorer and the desert-dwelling people he met before modernity changed their way of life.

The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows.  Brian Castner. The work of the U.S. Explosive Ordnance Disposal units in Iraq has become an iconic image of that conflict (for instance in the movie The Hurt Locker). Castner served in such a unit and really seems to let the reader into the emotional world of such work.

Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.  Rajiv Chandrasekaran. President G.W. Bush famously approved “the surge” of additional U.S. troops into Iraq that turned the tables in that conflict. Chandrasekaran examines President Obama’s later surge of troops to Afghanistan and whether that’s been successful as well.

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