Sunday, April 24, 2016

Mary Beard - SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

Mary Beard's latest book is a excellent study of the Ancient Roman world. It is one that has much to offer everyone who reads it, from those who simply like history to those with an extensive knowledge of the texts that Beard discusses and the period covered. From discussing Roman sexuality to poetry; from political processes in the Roman world, to the rise of the emperors, Beard's book is informative, accessible and laced with the author's characteristic humour. Those on the left of the political spectrum will appreciate Beard's approach that argues that
for the most part the great divide in the Roman world was between the haves and the have-notes; between the tiny minority of people with substantial surplus wealth and a lifestyle somewhere on the scale between the very comfortable and extravagantly luxurious, and the vast majority of even the non-slave population, who at best had a modest amount of spare cash (for more food, for an extra room, for cheap jewellery, for simple tombstones), and at worst were destitute, jobless and homeless.
Referring to recent political movements Beard draws analogies with contemporary politics, writing that she will focus on the lives of the "99%" in particular chapters. This is a refreshing approach. All to often you can read history about Rome and conclude that this was a period when everyone but the slaves was wealthy and living a life of leisure. In actual fact, as Beard argues, the vast majority of the Roman population had to sell their labour power to survive, and they did so until they died, or became unable to work. Despite the free grain handed out for Roman citizens, there was no welfare state or pensions system. The majority worked until the end.

Children frequently failed to make it even to the age of ten, with over half dying before that birthday, though once birth and childhood had been successfully navigated, a Roman might have an age-span comparable to our's today. Beard is excellent in drawing out what this meant, for Rome, and for the women of Rome:
Simply to maintain the existing population, each woman on average would have needed to bear five or six children. In practice, that rises to something closer to nine when other factors, such as sterility and widowhood, are taken into account. It was hardly a recipe for widespread women's liberation.
The Rome in these pages is not the shiny marbled opulent capital of a relatively benign imperial power that we often get from Hollywood or novels from the period. It's a dirty, smelly, world, dominated by state violence and political confrontation. A world of hunger and poverty for many, class struggle and political tension. The Roman leadership understood this well, as illustrated by one example. During the reign of the Emperor Nero, a suggestion that all slaves should wear a uniform was rejected on the basis it would make clear precisely how many slaves there were. A piece of information that would have given everyone pause for thought.

Beard argues that there is an inherent difficulty with writing Roman history:
there is no single narrative that links, in any useful or revealing way, the story of Roman Britain with the story of Roman Africa. There are numerous microstories and different histories of different regions...But it is also because, after the establishment of one-man rule at the end of the first century BCE, for more than two hundred years there is no significant history of change at Rome.
Later she describes the Imperial period as one of a "remarkable stable structure of rule and... a remarkable stable set of problems and tensions across the whole period."

But if I had one issue that I found problematic with Mary Beard's book, it was her explanation of what the Roman Empire actually was. Undoubtedly there was stability in the Imperial period, but there must have been growing structural problems which meant that the Empire would eventually break down, or was ripe for collapse when a strong enough external force or forces arrived on the scene.

While Beard discuses in great detail what it meant to be Roman, for those who were in the Roman sphere of influence, what is lacking is clear explanation of the dynamics of Roman society. In fact, what was Roman society? What drove it forward? Was it the booty accrued from warfare? I find this an inadequate explanation. Was it the role of slavery? If so, then Beard's book doesn't really get to grips with this at all. Despite the excellent treatment of early Rome, there's nothing here that really clarifies the role of the slaves, or when Rome became a slave society. Was this a society that depended on the labour of the 99 percent? Or was it one that needed the slaves on the plantations and their mines? Was it both?

So while I enjoyed SPQR immensely and have absolutely no hesitation in recommending it to readers, there were important questions for me that weren't adequately answered.

Related Reviews

Beard - The Roman Triumph
Beard - Pompeii
Beard & Crawford - Rome in the Late Republic
Hopkins & Beard - The Colosseum

Sunday, April 17, 2016

K.M. McKinley - The Iron Ship

I almost didn't get past the first couple of paragraphs of this book after the use of the word "senescent" in the first line. Close to dismissing it as another over-written book of fantasy that needed a better editor, I decided to try a little more and ended up being sucked into what is actually a well thought our piece of fantasy, despite the occasionally over-descriptive prose.

This is a world of magic in the process of transformation. A new world of science, technology and capitalism is encroaching on the old ways. Money is driving forward new ideas that challenge the established order. Centred on a group of brothers and sisters, the novel is set in a world were historic highly-technological civilizations have vanished. Their ruins promising wealth and power to those who can understand the surviving artifacts. But it is also a world where dangerous magic lies just out of the barely controlled borders.

I was most struck by the sense of change taking place in the book. Here's a sample that captures the mood, that could have been written about characters in the French Revolution,
Guis's family was the newer sort of aristocracy, Gelbion Kressind buying the manse from a bankrupt baronet some thirty years back.... His argument, often and vehemently aired, was that there was nothing special about the old money families. They had come from nothing, so why should they sneer at those newer to high rank who had come from nothing in their turn?
In reality these new aristocrats were coming from industry and capitalism. The titular vessel is a project driven by one of the world's wealthiest individuals, but its a ship whose voyages will still take place within the magical realm dominated by the old order.

I was disappointed that the iron ship made little enough appearance in the novel, only being launched near the end. So I will have to wait for the follow up books, though hopefully they'll be edited with a touch more severity. But McKinley has created an interesting world, with well rounded characters (with some strong female roles as well as the obligatory male wizards and soldiers).

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Robert Paarlberg - Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know

This is not an anti-capitalist critique of the world's food system. In fact, in places it celebrates the successes of the system, and argues that solutions lie very much in reforming and improving existing practices. Nonetheless, for those trying to understand the problems of world agriculture, and its failings, it offers much useful information and data.

Much of Paarlberg's criticisms of the food system have been written about elsewhere. He points out the problems inherent with using too much fertilisers, too much pesticides, too many anti-biotics, as well as the limitations of a critique of capitalist agriculture that simply argues for a return to small scale farming. He notes as well the domination in certain aspects of world agriculture of a few massive corporations (four companies control 80 percent of US beef, for instance. Though he argues this does not have the impact that some suggest, for instance, quoting a US Department of Agriculture 1989 survey that there was "no significant effect on supermarket prices from increasing industry concentrations". Continuing that "Instead of controlling consumers, modern supermarkets compete with each other to attract customers by offering an ever growing array of affordable food purchase options". At best I suggest this is a naive vision of the role of supermarkets, which in the interests of maximising profit have helped distort food production and distribution, as well as consumer choice because of their large capital that can force farmers to comply.

Paarlbery believes that there must be a role for science and technology in feeding the world. He doesn't believe the problem lies with population. This means he rejects what he sees as simple solutions (such as organic only farming) pointing out that this can mean higher emissions of greenhouse gases and larger land use. But to be fair, he also understands the benefits of organic agriculture.

The problem I think is that Paarlberg's analysis doesn't begin from questioning the role of power in society and international relations. For instance, he notes that there are "food circumstances" between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, two countries occuopying the same island. The problem he suggests is governance. In "poorly goverened Haiti 45 percent of all citizens are undernourished, versus just 15 percent in the better-governed Dominican Republic". No one would suggest that governments do not matter, but to ignore the way taht Haiti has been a victim of colonialism and imperialism for the last 150 years, is to misunderstand the way that capitalism ultimately shapes the food choices that people (and governments have).

Paarlberg suggests that "eating habits worldwide will continue to converge towards common sets of practises, including an increased reliance on foods purchased at supermarkets; increased consumption of packaged and process foods...a wider range of affordable eating choices, both healthy and unhealthy... but choices available will continue to expand for nearly all. Individual diets will continue to move away from, being ones geographic or economic destiny, toward being instead a result of conscious choice."

I'd suggest that this is not a positive vision. As even Paarlberg notes this "will destroy the natural environment". But it also will not challenge the very real problems with the food system, diet and health. Because the author doesn't attempt to challenge the way that agriculture reflects the priorities of the economic system and the most powerful economies within that, he fails to grasp the limitations of a system that creates hunger and obesity in vast amounts.

Strangely much of the information in the book does imply a critique of the current system. Paarlberg is not a vicious right-winger only interested in the profits of agri-business. His book is very much an attempt to understand what is happening in the world food system and to improve things. He sees both the threat from mass hunger and mass-malnutrition as being two parts of the same coin, but in my opinion he fails to explain what is the root problem. For readers trying to understand the system this then is a book which has much information to help form your own opinion, but for ultimately it is an apology for the status quo and its conclusions are thus limited.

Related Reviews

McMahon - Feeding Frenzy
Patel - Stuffed and Starved
Bello - Food Wars

Lymbery - Farmageddon