Thursday, July 27, 2006

Plutarch - Fall of the Roman Republic

I have to admit that I took this to Italy with me, because I quite liked the idea of sitting reading an ancient historian in some pavement café overlooking the Roman Forum, or at Ostia Antica. Call it being pretentiousness if you like, I doubt anyone really noticed. No one seems to spend as much time looking at what others are reading as I do.

Anyway, returning to Plutarch, who was one of the last of the classical Greek historians, and has been described as the “first modern biographer”. Well at least according to the blurb on the back of my penguin edition.

This version of Plutarch’s “lives” looks at the births, careers and deaths of 6 important figures in the fall of the Roman Republic, and the rise of the Empire – namely Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar and Cicero. There is a certain amount of natural overlap between the stories published here, but I understand that's because they were never intended to be collected like this, according to the Wikipedia article on Plutarch he "was not concerned with writing histories, as such, but in exploring the influence of character — good or bad — on the lives and destinies of famous men".

Each chapter has a short introduction by Robin Seager. I’ve not enough knowledge of the period to know whether his points and criticisms of Plutarch’s work are valid – I suspect that they are, after all some of the descriptions are quite superficial.

What is being examined in this book is one of the most intriguing of subjects for classical historians – why did the mighty Roman Republic become transformed into an Empire, with overall power being shifted into the hands of a single man?

Plutarch sheds some light onto the question – but he certainly views events as the consequences of individual’s desires, rather than bigger forces at work within society. The most interesting, but perhaps most exasperating chapter is that about Caesar. Plutarch would have us believe that Caesar’s desire to overthrow the Republic and install himself as supreme leader had been with him since youth, rather than seeing Caesar as being the product of a time, a place and social forces beyond his individual control.

Plutarch is easy to read though, and if you want a good introduction to the names, places and crucial events of this fascinating period of history, this is worth a look, and perhaps more accessible, though certainly less exciting as Suetonius.

Related reviews:
Tacitus - The Histories
Suetonius - The Twelve Caesars
Tom Holland - Rubicon

Michael Parenti - The Assassination of Julius Caesar.

Project Gutenberg has the works of Plutarch online for free, go here.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Paul Theroux – The Old Patagonian Express

A few months back I reviewed Paul Theroux’s book about travelling from Cairo to Cape town overland – Dark Star Safari, since I enjoyed it so much I took this much earlier book of his on holiday with me recently.

Much of what I thought about Theroux’s writing while reading the Africa book is true of this one, though he clearly has developed as a writer and commentator since the 1970s! Indeed, some of the best aspects of Theroux’s commentary is readily evident when describing his travels through central and Southern America – if anything his wit and cynicism were tougher.

The 1970s must have been an interesting time to travel in South America – the region was then, as now, an area of great interest to the USA, and its interventions in places like Chile had led to much blood being spilt. Unsurprisingly, the people that Theroux meets are very much caught up in the debates about democracy and dictatorship and one can’t help thinking that a similar trip today (from Boston in the USA to the tip of Argentina) would allow for even more debates about dictatorship and popular rule – particularly given current events in Brazil, Venezuela and Bolivia.

Sometimes I found Theroux a little to cynical and jaded though – his hated of tourists is there for everyone to see, clearly hating the few conversations he is forced to have. Though occasionally he meets someone he has great respect for. The one thing that I disliked more than anything though, was his disregard for the “locals”. This is not something I remembered from Dark Star Safari, though it seriously jars in this earlier book.

At one point he mocks a fellow traveller (a beef trader in Argentina) for only reading a comic book “Comics are for kids and illiterates” he wants to say. Later he meets a young man (though Theroux patronisingly calls him a “boy”) who has been serving on a merchant ship for two years. They discuss their travels and the sailor describes how much he disliked South Africa.
“Very pretty, but the society there is cruel. You won’t believe me, but they have signs here and there that say ‘Only for whites’ You won’t believe me…. Strange isn’t it And most of the people are black!” He reported this more in wonderment than in outrage, but he added that he did not approve.
Theroux (or rather the Theroux of the late 1970s) is mocking and patronising at this instinctive hated of racism and Apartheid. “I was encouraged that a Patagonian with no education could show such discernment” he writes.

Since racism is irrational and Apartheid was based on lies and violence, I’d be more surprised if a young man didn’t show a dislike for what he had seen in South Africa, yet Theroux falls into the trap of forgetting that a lack of book learning is not necessarily the same as ignorance.

On the whole though, such criticisms aside, Theroux is a good writer and a good companion for travel – his own instinctive dislike of imperialism and cynicism towards big business and governments places him a cut above other travel writers. I’d hate to share a train carriage with him (and no doubt he would resent my own presence) but his books are fine in my rucksack.

Related Reviews

Theroux - Riding the Iron Rooster - By Train through China
Theroux - Dark Star Safari
Theroux - The Great Railway Bazaar

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Thomas Pakenham - The Scramble for Africa

Thomas Pakenham’s monumental book (my copy weighs in at 680 pages, excluding indices etc) documents the inglorious ‘scramble’ undertaken by the European powers at the end of the 1800s. This scramble, was, in the words of Dr. Livingstone designed to bring the three C’s “Civilisation, Commerce and Christianity” to the African’s, whether they wanted them or not.

In return, the European powers were to get ample reward for their philanthropy – diamonds, mahogany, rubber and gold were among the raw materials that they hoped to suck from Africa – and Vampire like, they certainly tried to suck that continent dry.

Superior firepower and the classic tactics of divide-and rule, allowed countries like Britain to run all over the tribes and peoples of the continent. Pakenham describes the appalling way which these people were exploited – often in the name of God.

At the centre of the story is the Congo – a completely artificial country carved out of West Africa on the personal whim of King Leopold of Belgium, who invested his personal fortune into setting up a massive trading empire. The Congo made Leopold very rich indeed – the people of the Congo were turned into little more than slaves, eventually provoking outcry around the world. Though it must be said that similar tales of exploitation could be told about almost all of the colonies, whether British, German or Belgian.

Pakenham tells this complex story with ease – the lives of individuals like Livingstone or Stanley serving to illustrate the carve-up. But often these stories are lost in the complex background – the political machinations of the British parliament or the German Kaiser’s international manoeuvres. Not that this is necessary a bad thing, after all most of the individuals - Henry Stanley for instance - were little more than tools representing one bloc or the other, rather than the philantropists and great explorers that history books have led us to believe.

We hear perhaps, all to little of the African people themselves – too often their rebeillions lead to complete massacres at the hands of British, German or French machine guns. Though occasionally, as at the battle of Adowa in 1896, the natives managed to destroy an Italian army, killing more than 4000, and capturing 2000 more. However such victories were the exception rather than the rule, and one by one, the people’s of Africa fell, were destroyed by disease, or forced from their traditional ways of life and forced to work for the white invaders.

It’s fitting then, that the last chapter of this work, after documenting in great detail the takeover of Africa (done in a matter of a few decades), how quickly the post-war independence movements forced the colonials out of Africa. Though this story itself deserves a far more detailed treatment.

The debate about the legacy of colonialism is far from settled, right-wing historians and pundits will still say that while the consequences of colonial rule were brutal and unhappy, it was all done in the name of progress, no one can read Pakenham’s great book and think that anything beneficial came from the invasion of Africa. A few individuals made a huge amount of money and the people of Africa suffered monumental deprivations, a lesson we should learn perhaps for the new-colonialism currently being undertaken in the Middle East.