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review 2018-06-04 12:10
SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome - Mary Beard

TITLE:  SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome


AUTHOR:  Mary Beard




FORMAT:  Paperback


ISBN-13:  9781631492228



Mary Beard has writen an accessible history of the rise of Rome, it's people and it's senate.  The book deals with events that are dated to 753BC, and ends in 212 BCE with Caracalla's decree extending citizenship to all free men living within the Empire.  The book deals with those in power as well as the little people, how Rome expanded its power and maintained it.  Beard deals with archaeological and well as written sources for her information.  While the book was informative, the subject matter tended to be a bit superficial and the writing style too chatty.  This might make a good introductory text if the reader is not interested in biographies of important Roman citizens.





The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy
by Adrienne Mayor


 Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization
by Richard Miles


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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-05-21 07:33
Dynasty by Tom Holland
Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland (2015-09-03) - Tom Holland;

TITLE:  Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar


AUTHOR:  Tom Holland




FORMAT:  Paperback


ISBN-13:  978-0-349-12383-7



Dynasty is the early history of the Julio-Claudian line of the Roman emperors retold as a story.  This book starts off where Rubicon ended.  This is a narrative history that seeks to entertain the reader and provide a story of what happened.  For me, it did not succeed with either endeavour.  I don’t know much more about the “what happened” than I had before reading this book (i.e. a succession of Roman Emperors that waged war on whom ever stuck their fancy and had a fancy for despotism and murdering anyone they felt like).  Nor was I entertained – I was bored and finished reading the book just to get it off my bedside table.


Holland does not attempt to put forth new scholarly conclusions, nor does he offer much analyses of complex events.  This narrative relies almost exclusively on textual evidence in Roman literature and history, with casually inserted quotes from primary textual sources without bothering to explain their source, context or (on occasion) their relevance. 


The potential storyline is strong, but Holland’s delivery manages to be weak.  The writing is tedious, ponderous, overly-flowery with a disjointed and distant narrative that manages to be more selective gossip and sensationalism than actual history.  It doesn’t help that in a 500+ page book there are only 7 incredibly long-winded chapters, which all have mafia related headings.   The author spends a ridiculous amount of ink on each emperor’s sexual proclivities and random insertions of far too much graphic sexual detail of what the author professes to be the values of the rest of the Roman citizens at the time.  He rather gleefully “spices” up the narrative of these salacious details with foul and vulgar language (apparently big boys like their potty humour too), which jarred with the tone of the rest of the text.  Apparently, Holland is under the impression that popular history books need to be excessively graphic, crude and vulgar to be interesting to readers.


The book is also rather limited in scope, dealing only with the Julio-Claudians and their enemies (i.e. upper-class associates and relatives), thus excluding almost entirely the everyday lives of ordinary Romans, any changes in the Roman economy, trade, and climate, and also excludes anything related to material culture unless it involves monuments relevant to the Julio-Claudians.


This book couldn’t decide whether it was supposed to be a popular history book (with footnotes and bibliography) or a work of historical fiction.  Despite the inclusion of a timeline, maps and family trees, this book came across as a messy hodgepodge of people with vaguely similar names (apparently ancient Romans lacked imagination when naming their children!), who are in some way related to each other, doing various despicable deeds to each other.  Talk about a dysfunctional, psychopathic family!



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review 2018-04-14 14:29
MICHELANGELO by William E Wallace
Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man and his Times - William E. Wallace

TITLE:  Michelangelo:  The Artist, The Man, and His Times


AUTHOR:  William E. Wallace




FORMAT:  Paperback


ISBN-13:  978-1-107-67369-4



From the blurb:

"Michelangelo is universally recognized to be one of the greatest artists of all time. In this vividly written biography, William E. Wallace offers a substantially new view of the artist. Not only a supremely gifted sculptor, painter, architect, and poet, Michelangelo was also an aristocrat who firmly believed in the ancient and noble origins of his family. The belief in his patrician status fueled his lifelong ambition to improve his family's financial situation and to raise the social standing of artists. Michelangelo's ambitions are evident in his writing, dress, and comportment, as well as in his ability to befriend, influence, and occasionally say "no" to popes, kings, and princes. Written from the words of Michelangelo and his contemporaries, this biography not only tells his own stories but also brings to life the culture and society of Renaissance Florence and Rome. Not since Irving Stone's novel The Agony and the Ecstasy has there been such a compelling and human portrayal of this remarkable yet credible human individual."


In this informative and fast paced biography of Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni.  We learn about his life, his family, his relationships with other artists and patrons, his friends, some of the politics occuring in Rome and Florence during his lifetime, and something of his projects and poetry. Wallace has reserarched his subject extensively and makes use of (and quotes) many of Michelangelo's personal letters.  However, Wallace doesn't not elaborate on any methods or techniques Michelangelo made use of during his many projects.  I would also have liked more detail on how Michelangelo dealt with all his commissions, assistants and actualy physicaly work.


The book includes 10 colour photographs of Michelangelo's works, but it would have been more helpful if the author had included photos of all the works discussed in the book so the reader could see what he was talking about.  The book also includes a list of all the popes during Michelangelo's lifetime, as well as a "cast of principle characters" which is useful since a great many people have the same first name.


This biography is accessible, informative and makes a good introduction to the subject.




-Brunelleschi's Dome:  How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King


-Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling by Ross King




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review 2018-03-28 04:00
Part one of a superb survey of early modern Ireland
Contested Island: Ireland 1460-1630 - S.J. Connolly

From the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, as S. J. Connolly argues in the introduction to this book, Ireland experienced a profound transformation from which the contours of the modern nation emerged. This transformation, and the adaptation of the Irish people to it is the theme of this work, the first of a two-volume history of early modern Ireland. In it, he describes Ireland’s evolution over a century and a half from a fractious land of competing cultures to one in which English rule was in the ascendant.

Connolly begins with a nuanced portrait of Ireland in the late 15th century, one that challenges the clichés of declining English rule and political dependency upon the Irish lords. He argues that the descendants of the medieval English conquest were not as Gaelicized as traditionally thought, as the cultural boundaries between the Gaelic and English lands were blended rather than sharply divided. Moreover, he sees English rule expanding rather than contracting during this period, with “a mutually acceptable balance of interests” established between the English crown and the leading Irish nobility. It was during this time that the Kildares emerged as the dominant political power, a position they would hold for the next three generations. This, Connolly notes, illustrates the paradox of English power in Ireland at that time, that rule on the cheap was only possible by relying upon a powerful local magnate, yet such reliance on these “overmighty subjects” left English rule vulnerable to challenges from these figures.

It is this paradox which helps to explain why the English rulers abandoned a working governing relationship in the early 16th century, as Henry VII and his ministers, particularly Thomas Cromwell, sought to expand English control and the rule of English law. Their goal was to transform Irish nobles from autonomous lords to magnates who exercised local power on behalf of the crown. Yet Henry and his successors still proved unwilling to invest the resources necessary to achieve control. Even after the suppression of the Kildare revolt in 1535, Henry’s governors – most notably Anthony St Leger – pursued assimilation on the cheap, using a mixture of bribes and occasional force to Anglicize Ireland gradually.

Yet the Gaelic system persisted, largely because of the failure of the English to provide the resources necessary to establish a central authority necessary to make it obsolete. By the 1580s, the English government decided to adopt a new policy – colonization. Beginning with the Munster Revolt, the English confiscated land from the leading rebels and awarded it to “undertakers” – Englishmen who pledged to settle the land in return for their allocation. Unlike earlier English settlers these new transplants were Protestant, injecting a stable population of recusants into a land which until then had experienced the Reformation only superficially.

It is within this context of the growing extension of English control, coupled with the rapaciousness of English officials in dealing with Gaelic lords, that Connolly sees as critical to understanding the circumstances of Tyrone’s rebellion. He depicts Tyrone himself as a man of two worlds – Gaelic by birth, yet heavily influenced by English culture in his upbringing. Tyrone’ nine-year campaign against the English served in retrospect as the last major Gaelic effort to overthrow English rule; its defeat paved the way for its ultimate establishment throughout the island, which Connolly describes in clear yet succinct detail.

Yet the end of Tyrone’s rebellion had even more far reaching consequences. The final defeat of the Gaelic lords made the role of the Old English as a loyal alternative to the Gaels less important, and their recusancy correspondingly more so. Connolly concludes by describing the religious changes Ireland underwent in the decades that followed, and their role in shaping and changing Irish identities, with a epilogue that foreshadows the turmoil that lay ahead, turmoil for which the new Protestant ruling class was ill-prepared to face.

Well written and convincingly argued, Connolly’s book is a superb survey of the era. While particularly strong on the religious and political developments of the period, his examination leave little out, encompassing its economics, society, and culture as well. I finished the book eager for Connolly's second volume. Given that it will cover the years that are the focus of Connolly’s previous research I expect it to be an even more impressive work, creating what is certain to be the standard text on early modern Ireland for decades to come.

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review 2018-03-26 09:13
Millenium by Tom Holland
Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom - Tom Holland

TITLE:  Millennium:  The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom


AUTHOR:  Tom Holland




FORMAT:  Paperback


ISBN-13:  978-0349119724



From the blurb:

Of all the civilisations existing in the year 1000, that of Western Europe seemed the unlikeliest candidate for future greatness. Compared to the glittering empires of Byzantium or Islam, the splintered kingdoms on the edge of the Atlantic appeared impoverished, fearful and backward. But the anarchy of these years proved to be, not the portents of the end of the world, as many Christians had dreaded, but rather the birthpangs of a radically new order. MILLENNIUM is a stunning panoramic account of the two centuries on either side of the apocalyptic year 1000. This was the age of Canute, William the Conqueror and Pope Gregory VII, of Vikings, monks and serfs, of the earliest castles and the invention of knighthood, and of the primal conflict between church and state. The story of how the distinctive culture of Europe - restless, creative and dynamic - was forged from out of the convulsions of these extraordinary times is as fascinating and as momentous as any in history.


This book takes a look at European History from about 800 - 1200AD.  The subject is interesting, the writing style somewhat flowery, but personable and understandable.  This book makes a good introductory text to the time period, though obviously not a complete one, nor does it analyse everything that was going on during this time period.  The book includes the useful addition of maps and a timeline.

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