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review 2017-03-08 02:33
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Modern Library Volume 2 of 3)
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 2 - D.J. Boorstin,Gian Battista Piranesi,Edward Gibbon,John B. Bury

The second volume of Modern Library’s three-volume reprint of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covers chapters 27 through 48 of the author’s vast magnum opus.  Beginning with the reign of Gratian and ending with the reconquests of Heraclius in 628 A.D., Gibbons relates in detail the political, martial, social, and theological developments that saw the ultimate split of the Roman Empire, the fall of the West, and the continuance of Roman tradition in the East centered in Constantinople before glancing at the lives of the next 60 emperors of Byzantium over the next 600 years.

 

The deterioration of the Rome picks up with the reign of Gratian and his eventual overthrow leading to the unification of the Empire under Theodosius the Great before its finale split with the inheritance of his sons and then their successors over the next 50+ years.  Throughout the era of House of Theodosius, the various barbarian tribes made inroads into the Western Empire which included two sacks of Rome itself by the Visigoths and Vandals, as the long ineffectual reign of Honorius and his successors allowed the Empire to slip out of their fingers.  In the vacuum arose the genesis of future European states such as England, France, and Spain while Italy declined in population and political cohesion as the Pope began to fill not only a religious but political role.

 

The Eastern Emperors in Constantinople, unlike their family and colleagues in the West, were able to keep their domain intact through military force or bribes to turn away.  The bureaucratic framework established by Constantine and reformed by Theodosius was used to keep the Eastern Empire thriving against barbarian incursion and Persian invasions while creating a link to the Roman past even as the eternal city fell from its greatness.  Yet as the Eastern Emperors kept alive the Roman imperial tradition while continually orienting it more towards Greek cultural heritage, the internal conflicts of Christianity became a hindrance to social and imperial stability leading to rebellions of either a local or statewide nature or allowing foreign powers to invade.

 

This middle volume of Gibbon’s monumental work is divided in two, the first focusing on the fall of the Western Empire and the second on how the Eastern Empire survived through various struggles and for a brief time seemed on the verge of reestablishing the whole imperium.  Yet throughout, Gibbon weaves not only the history of Rome but also the events of nomadic peoples as far away at China, the theological controversies within Christianity, and the numerous other treads to create a daunting, yet compete look of how Rome fell but yet continued.

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review 2017-01-18 16:45
A life revealed through possessions
A Woman of Two Worlds: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte - Alexandra Deutsch

Though not a household name today, in her day Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte was a celebrity thanks largely to her brief marriage to Napoleon Bonaparte's youngest brother Jérôme. Yet Elizabeth was a remarkable woman in her own right: the daughter of a wealthy Maryland merchant, she became a successful businesswoman and socialite. Though her efforts to establish the status of her son, Jérôme Napoleon, within the Bonaparte line ultimately met with failure, she nonetheless enjoyed the status that came from her association with the family and succeeded in ensuring that her son and his children were accepted as members of it.

 

As the chief curator of the Maryland Historical Society, Alexandra Deutsch is in charge of the collection of artifacts donated by Elizabeth's family to the organization after her death. Her book is not a traditional cradle-to-grave biography of Elizabeth but a detailed study of key aspects of it that uses her possessions to illustrate her interests and how she lived her life. Deutsch uses these items to tell the story of a woman of great ambition and taste who took considerable pride in her association with the Bonapartes and worked to ensure that both she and her son and grandchildren were able to live the lives due to them because of it. Ultimately this required Elizabeth to develop her own acumen as an investor and property owner, and she built up the fortune enjoyed by her son and grandchildren through prudence and good advice. It's a remarkable story that Deutsch tells well, aided throughout the book by a generous number of color photographs of Elizabeth's many possessions that illustrate her points. The result is a work that does credit to Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and her many achievements, revealing just how much one woman's possessions can tell us about the fascinating life she led.

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review 2016-11-09 02:37
The Black Count
The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (Pulitzer Prize for Biography) - Tom Reiss

The name Alexandre Dumas is well known, but before the author and his playwright son was the General.  Tom Reiss brings the little known founder of the Dumas family into the spotlight in The Black Count, a born slave of noble blood turned Republican general in the service of France.  This giant of a man both of stature in the view of his novelist son cast a long shadow since his death.

 

Born in modern Haiti as a slave to a French nobleman father, Alexandre life suddenly changed when he joined on his father’s return journey to France to take is family title.  However after years of dealing with his father behavior, Alexandre joined the French army and with the coming of the French Revolution into Republican government.  His daring feats in the field and dedication to the ideals of republicanism sent him quickly up the chain of command to General.  Continuing his lead in front style, Alexandre was sent to lead men on every front that France needed him.  But it was his feats during the Italian campaign that truly brought him his greatest fame and yet began his long cold relationship with another General, Napoleon.  After more spectacular feats in Egypt and yet more conflict with Napoleon, Alexandre decided to return to France but was then captured in southern Italy only to emerge two year later into a new France in which his desire to service his country was rejected by its new leader.  Five years after his release, Alexandre died leaving his young son bereaved.  Yet, the legendary events of his life would inspire young Alexandre with a lot of material for his epic heroes including one Edmund Dantes.

 

The Black Count is a thrilling ride following a mixed raced former slave fighting for the republican ideals of his new homeland even as radical political events shift all around him, yet Alexandre Dumas quickly became a hero to the French until his capture and release into an entirely different France that didn’t appreciate him.  Tom Reiss brought to life of a little known French Republican general that had a long lasting impact on history outside of the military and political sphere to the enjoyment of readers around the world.

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review 2016-06-04 15:57
The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld - Herbert Asbury

This is a lengthy, but interesting and often entertaining book about the history of New Orleans' underworld. The author takes us from the 17th Century up to what was, for him, the present day of the 1930s with anecdotes, data, and even newspaper reproductions to show us what life was like during the area's colorful past.

Asbury's research is impeccable, and he most certainly takes the reader with him on a journey. I found myself remembering that the 1930s were not present times and giving leeway for some of his attitudes (when dealing with history and historical documents, it's imperative to leave out the presentism).

I bought this book on a recent trip to New Orleans to serve as research for my own work, and it was a very good choice indeed.

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review 2016-05-16 15:18
A superb overview of an important conflict
The Seven Years War in Europe: 1756-1763 - Franz A.J. Szabo

When Napoleon entered Potsdam on 24 October 1806 after his forces smashed the Prussians at the battle of Jena-Auerstedt, he made it a point to visit the tomb of Frederick the Great. While there he famously told his men to doff their hats, saying, "if he were here now, he wouldn't be." After reading Franz Szabo's history of the European campaigns of the Seven Years' War, it's hard to understand why the Prussian monarch rated such respect. Szabo's detailed account of the bloody and devastating conflict serves as a powerful corrective to the Prussian king's standing as one of the great military leaders of history. In it he meticulously relates the various battles, showing time and again his flawed judgments, his undeservedly ruthless treatment of his subordinates and men, his bigoted assessments of his opponents and the errors that they spawned. Szabo also argues for a different interpretation of Frederick's opponents, especially (as befits an historian of the Austrian empire) Austria and her military, as it was only the death of the Tsarina Elizabeth in 1761 and the succession of her unabashedly Prussophile nephew Peter III that saved Frederick from a defeat that would have changed the course of European history. With this book, Szabo gives English-language readers the account of the war they have long needed, one anybody interested in the conflict should read.

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