By its nature The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt skips over a lot of history but as an introduction to the five-millennia-long history of Egypt - up tBy its nature The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt skips over a lot of history but as an introduction to the five-millennia-long history of Egypt - up to the Roman conquest in 31 BC - Toby Wilkinson's effort excels. If you want to know the details of a particular era, the book's near-80 pages of notes and bibliography provide a rich vein to mine.
While I am familiar with the general outline of Egyptian history, every section had something new to say to me that enriched my understanding or revealed some aspect I hadn't considered or known. A few of the many examples I could list include the political unification of the Nile Valley c. 3000 BC. It began with the rise of three power centers (Tjeni, Nubt and Nekhen) and ended when Tjeni's ruler (the man we know as Narmer or Menes) conquered his rivals to inaugurate the First Dynasty. From its birth, Egypt displayed many of the stereotypical images moderns associate with it, including the absolute despotism of the pharaohs. Or there's Hatshepsut, the famous female pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty. Her rule is justly famous but she was only one in a line of powerful women who played significant roles in the government. Then there is Wilkinson's focus on the Heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten's dictatorship and fanatical monotheism, rather than on the usual emphasis on his possible role in Jewish history. (And, returning to remarkable females, it's possible that Nefertiti reigned as pharaoh for several years after his death.) Another interesting period comprised the reigns of the 25th Dynasty's pharaohs, Kushites who conquered Egypt - ironically - in a religiously motivated campaign to restore the proper worship of Amun. And as a final example, it's instructive to see the Persian and Macedonian conquests through Egyptian eyes: Wedjahorresnet, an offical who collaborated with the Persian regime and convinced Cambyses to adopt pharaonic regalia, and Sematawytefnakht, who witnessed Alexander's victory over Darius.
This is a very readable and interesting synopsis of a land and people that deserve to be better known, and comes highly recommended....more
For the interested, as I write this (5 Dec 2011), I'm also listening to an interview with Stephen Greenblatt that you can probably access at KPFK's arFor the interested, as I write this (5 Dec 2011), I'm also listening to an interview with Stephen Greenblatt that you can probably access at KPFK's archives in a day or so. _________________________________...more
UnRoman Britain argues that “Britain, although it may have been a formal part of the Roman Empire for nearly 400 years, was never fully Roman” (p. 21)UnRoman Britain argues that “Britain, although it may have been a formal part of the Roman Empire for nearly 400 years, was never fully Roman” (p. 21). Like the British in India or the Americans in Iraq, the Roman occupiers established pockets of their culture and co-opted the ruling elites but left the countryside and its people alone. Pre-Roman Celtic culture survived and re-emerged when the legions evacuated c. AD 410.
Sadly, I’ve allowed a backlog of reviews to accumulate on my desk. This book, which I read more than a year ago, is one of them. But, based on the notes I took, here are some of the points the authors make:
- Membership in tribal groups was fluid.* It’s a mistake to look at a map of pre-Roman Britain with its clearly defined tribes and imagine it reflects a late-Iron Age reality.
- After Boudicca’s revolt, Rome imposed a more traditional provincial government. It reorganized existing towns and established others along traditional Graeco-Roman lines, although the archaeological evidence indicates that few were very successful – at least compared to similar foundations in Gaul and Spain.
- The Graeco-Roman pantheon appears to have had little influence outside of urban centers and military foundations.
- While the Romans ruthlessly exploited Wales’ and Cornwall’s mineral wealth, there’s little evidence that that bounty found its way into the island’s economy.
- Not surprisingly, most of the evidence for Romanization is found in the south and east, the coasts nearest the mainland and most tightly integrated in the empirewide economy.
- “By contrast with Gaul…the British aristocracy seem…to have remained insular and uninterested in joining the imperial power structures right to the end” (p. 178).
- After the legions left, Roman culture disappears from the archaeological record – no coins, no building, no manufacturies, no villas. This can’t be attributed to the Anglo-Saxons as they didn’t arrive until after 450. The authors posit several reasons for this: (1) Rapid fragmentation into pre-Roman tribal polities. There was no self-identification as “British,” unlike Gaul or Spain, where distinct Germanic kingdoms arose. (2) There was no well-established Christian presence that might have mitigated the effects of the secular government’s disappearance. (3) As the book hopes to show, what Romanization there was, was a thin veneer, easily cast aside.
- The final chapter of the book looks at Celtic Britain’s transformation into Anglo-Saxon England. A process more thorough and far quicker than Romanization despite indications that the number of Anglo-Saxon immigrants was very low (<100,000?). Again, the authors offer some reasons for this: (1) Anglo-Saxon culture was similar to Celtic, much more so than Rome’s. (2) Anglo-Saxons were infiltrating a country where ancient traditions were at a low ebb; the Romans had invaded at a high-water mark for Celtic civilization. (3) Because of the limited number of Anglo-Saxons, it’s likely they married British women (evident linguistically in Old English, which owes much to Celtic dialects, especially its syntax**, and succeeding generations were raised in a hybrid culture. (4) Roman culture was in decline, discredited. (5) And, though limited as noted above, Anglo-Saxon immigration was still far greater than Roman.
The authors don’t discount “Romanization” but argue that its influence in Britain was far less than previously thought. “Romanization” is not a myth but it was never a conscious policy of any republican or imperial government. Rome imposed a distinctive order wherever it held sway; and, in some cases, they transformed the region (Gaul & Spain), in others, the Roman veneer was swiftly thrown off (Britain).
Turning aside from the content of the book, physically, it’s an impressive volume. Russell and Laycock have provided numerous photos (many in color), drawings, maps and diagrams that illustrate British lifestyles and the paucity of Roman influences.
This is definitely a book I would recommend.
* The issue of tribal identification is a fascinating study in itself, and I would recommend Peter Heather and Walter Goffart, among others, for those interested in recent research into the matter.
In Rome: Day One, Andrea Carandini is exercised about two things. The first is arguing for the superiority of the “Western syndrome” over the “EasternIn Rome: Day One, Andrea Carandini is exercised about two things. The first is arguing for the superiority of the “Western syndrome” over the “Eastern syndrome.” The former is rooted in ancient Greece and Rome and is “a particular way of organizing life, a sacral-juridical-political-governmental model according to which the different governing bodies of the community…manage to live together by mitigating centralized power within a unique form of organization” (p. 117). The “Eastern syndrome” is “based intrinsically on cities and kingdoms and perpetually despotic in nature” (p. 118). The second matter is when Rome became a polis, a city-state in the technical sense of the word and an example of the “Western syndrome.”
Carandini’s first concern I find questionable. It’s only made explicit in the “Conclusion” of this short book, and the author sounds like a 19th century historian in his paeans to the self-evident superiority of Graeco-Roman political theory and the modern, Western European systems that developed from it. I’m not saying he doesn’t have a point to a limited extent, but – at least as it’s presented here – the argument is so simplistic and general that it borders on propaganda, and ignores the enormous amount of research and primary sources that would make mincemeat of his “syndromes.” Fortunately, you don’t need to care to enjoy the contents of this book.
The second question Carandini ponders is more germane to the book’s contents but it’s still a fine point in an academic debate that readers can ignore. Carandini comes down solidly on the side that argues Rome was a city-state from its foundation, which all agree was around 750 BC as the Romans themselves believed.* As he writes, “[t]his realization led us to conclude that the settlement of the Quirites…had endowed itself…with an urbs, a forum, a citadel (arx), and an ager, which together formed a regnum…governed by a rex and by other, secondary powers, in accordance with a sacred, juridical, and political dispensation of a constitutional character” (p. 116). In the course of proving his point, Carandini has written a marvelous book that, with a bit of the reader’s imagination, recreates Rome in its earliest days. The book has a plethora of illustrations, photos and diagrams (though none in color, alas) that take you into the lives of the city’s first citizens. My favorite is on page 98-99; an illustration of the “urban landscape of early Rome.” It’s a bucolic one of pastures, farms and copses, but scattered amongst these rural scenes are the buildings of an urban center – the Vestal sanctuary, its hut of Virgins, the Domus Regia, the fortifications on the Palatine, the Forum and the Capitolium.
If you’re at all interested in archaeology, especially Greek and Roman, then I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this work. It’s too specialized for the general reader but I would also recommend it to Roman historians/history buffs. In that same vein, I’m reminded of and would recommend The Beginnings of Rome: Italy from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars, Ca 1,000-264 BC. It’s a broader look at early Rome and its rise to pre-eminence and, to my mind, more balanced in its considerations of “what it all means.”
* The other side of the argument maintains that Rome acquired the trappings of a city-state a century later, c. 650....more
Legionaries is a light-hearted (?) look at the life and times of a Roman soldier c. AD 100, when Rome was at the height of its power and the legions w
Legionaries is a light-hearted (?) look at the life and times of a Roman soldier c. AD 100, when Rome was at the height of its power and the legions were at the height of their professionalism, couched as a guidebook about what to expect for the next 25 years of the new recruit’s life.
I’ve been a student of Roman history since I was a kid and saw 8 mm movies in class about the pax Romana or TV movies like Masada so the broad outlines of its military history were familiar enough but it’s fascinating to learn about the details, gleaned from close reading of the surviving histories and archaeological evidence.
The Roman army was an extraordinarily professional and modern-looking instrument of mass destruction. An aspect of legionary service Matyszak tends to downplay in passages like this (describing the aftermath of a siege):
“Ghastly things happen during the sack of a city, but a wise general will let it go on for hours, or even days, before he calls his troops back to heel – not least because there is a good chance that no one will listen to him if he tries to do it sooner.” (p. 164)
The ethically conscious part of my soul found such dismissiveness distressing and distracting.
But as a description of life in the imperial armies for the general reader, Legionaries is well written, accessible and easy to read.
Some scattered observations:
Prospective legionaries had to be “persons of good character” (to quote Sarek from ST:IV) – no criminal record – and had to carry letters of recommendation. These requirements lapsed in latter decades as the empire’s military situation deteriorated; much like a certain modern superpower that finds itself desperately fighting a number of simultaneous wars.
Even more important than a sharp sword and well oiled armor was footwear. Legionaries marched – a lot. Forty miles in 12 hours is the standard pace (in full kit).
I think it says a great deal that the prospect of serving 25 years with little expectation of promotion or wealth, brutal discipline, and mind-numbing routine looked attractive to young Roman citizens.
Romans were fiends for bureaucratic detail: “The paperwork of a legion is managed with meticulous attention surpassing that of the corn commissioners or civil bookkeeping. Orders, military duties and finances are carefully entered every day…. To prevent too many duties falling unfairly on any man, and to prevent others getting off too lightly, the duties of each man are entered in the records, as also happens when he is granted leave, and for how long.” (From Vegetius’ Military Matters 2.19)
“A legion on the march needs about 18,000 pounds of grain per day, 12,000 gallons of water, and 40,000 pounds of forage for horses, oxen and pack animals.” (p. 148)
conscribe te militem in legionibus, pervagare orbem terrarum, inveni terras externas, cognosce miros peregrinos, eviscera eos
sunt milites veteres, sunt milites audaces, non sunt milites veteres atque audaces...more
This is the kind of reference book I love to spend hours poring over, opening it at random and absorbing the information.
The authors follow Manetho'sThis is the kind of reference book I love to spend hours poring over, opening it at random and absorbing the information.
The authors follow Manetho's ancient organization of Egyptian history into 31 dynasties - from Narmer (c. 3150 BC) to Darius III (332 BC) and also the Macedonian Dynasty that ruled until Rome conquered the Nile Valley in 30 BC. Despite the fact that this schema is very artificial and arbitrary, it remains the framework upon which modern Egyptology rests and just about the only organizing principle general readers are familiar with.
Each dynastic account is divided into three sections: Historical Background, which gives a brief overview of the period; Royal Family, which attempts to unravel the complex genealogies of the Pharaohs; and Brief Lives, which lists the known members of the dynasty and their probable relationships to the kings and their roles in society.
And - no - there are no space aliens or Atlantean engineers carving the Sphinx 10,000 years ago.
Some random impressions:
One, Egypt is old! When Solon, the Athenian lawgiver and poet, visited Egypt c. 600 BC, he was as far removed from the 1st Dynasty as we are from him (i.e., c. 2500 years). The so-called New Kingdom period began 800 years before Rome was founded in (traditionally) 753 BC.
Two, while I'm astonished at how much we know about Egypt's earliest history, there's still much to learn.* For example, we have a fairly complete list of 1st and 2nd dynasty kings but we have few clues as to what they did or even how long they reigned. There's an approximate date for Narmer at 3150 BC but the only reign dates the authors felt confidant enough to give were those of the last king of the second dynasty, Khasekhemwy, 2611-2584.
Many of the "Brief Lives" entries are little more than, for example, "Khenterka Depicted as a child in the tomb of his mother, Meresankh III" or "Nysuheqat (KSon)** Owner of tomb 964 H8 at Helwan."
I would love to have a copy of this for my very own but - sadly - I must return it soon to the library so that others might learn a little bit about this fascinating civilization.
* E.g., this recent news item about the discovery of 17 "lost" pyramids.
** There's an interesting chart listing the various titles used throughout Egyptian history. "KSon" refers to a sa-nesu, a King's Son, most often just what it implies - the biological offspring of the Pharaoh - but it could also be an honorific and has been found associated with royal granddaughters....more
Like What the Koran Really Says: Language, Text and Commentary, The Hidden Origins of Islam is a collection of essays written by scholars who have subLike What the Koran Really Says: Language, Text and Commentary, The Hidden Origins of Islam is a collection of essays written by scholars who have subjected the source texts of Islam to the same critical examination that Christian and Jewish texts have endured. As well, some of these authors have marshaled recent (and, in some cases, not so recent) archaeological and numismatic evidence to reconstruct the Middle East of the 7th and 8th centuries (Christian era) with surprising results. The general reader be warned: Some of these papers are written for the specialist and are largely meaningless to a dilettante like myself. Other essays are accessible, however, and offer a fascinating glimpse at a radical reinterpretation of the accepted history of Islam’s first three centuries.
The synopsis I offer below is primarily based on the most reader-friendly essays:
“The Early History of Islam, Following Inscriptional and Numismatic Testimony,” Volker Popp “A Personal Look at Some Aspects of the History of Koranic Criticism in the 19th and 20th Centuries,” Ibn Warraq “Syrian and Arabian Christianity and the Qur’ān,” Karl-Heinz Ohlig
Islam, as we understand the word – i.e., a distinctive religion based upon a revelation vouchsafed to a Meccan merchant named Muhammad in the first decades of the 7th century AD that called for a return to the pure worship of a transcendent, unitary God – is the product of a radical revisionist program instigated by `Abd al-Malik, the Umayyad ruler from AD 685-705.* This rewriting of history rivals the one undertaken by Josiah (and subsequent post-Exile priests) in regard to Israelite history (if true), and its lay in the political and religious history of the region.
In the religious sphere, ever since Constantine had made Christianity the state religion, the Roman Empire had been troubled by controversies over the nature and role of Jesus Christ. Was he fully human? Was he fully divine? Both? Was he a man inspired by the Holy Spirit (& thus “son of God” only in a figurative sense)? Was he God incarnate? What is the meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection? And other questions, which stoked a vibrant cauldron of intellectual ferment. It also created a volatile political situation that weakened Roman control over its Middle Eastern provinces and Egypt in the 6th century. The Sassanians, successors to the Parthians and masters of eastern Iraq and Iran, took advantage of Constantinople’s troubles to evict the Byzantines and rule the region for the next 30 years or so. In 622, in a culmination of a remarkable Roman recovery, Heraclius (610-641) inflicted a catastrophic defeat on the Persians, who were forced to retreat. The empire, however, was unable to restore direct control over its former provinces, with the exception of token garrisons in the more important religious and population centers like Jerusalem and Alexandria. Heraclius was forced to rely on Christianized Arabs, who had been filtering up from Arabia proper over the previous centuries, to maintain order (dynasties like the Lakhmids and Ghassanids). Unfortunately, from the Byzantine POV, many of these Arabs were heretics – Monophysites or worse.
These religious divides, coupled with a growing sense of a distinctively Arab political identity, had grown so wide by `Abd al-Malik’s day that he could break entirely with Constantinople and establish an Arabic empire. The succeeding Abbasid rulers (from whose scholars we get our first written sources for Islamic history and religion) continued the historical rewrite that enshrined Mecca as the holy city of the new religion and created (out of whole cloth) the figure of Muhammad (until then, as these papers argue, the words “muhammad” (“praiseworthy”) and “rasul” (“prophet”) had referred to Jesus).
I do not have the background to competently assess how solid these researchers’ footing is. I think they do make a good case that the received history needs significant reinterpretation – it did not happen the way Muslims and non-Muslims have believed (at least since the 9th century AD). Whether or not it happened along the lines presented in the three essays I summarized above is the open question. Not every author in The Hidden Origins of Islam would whole-heartedly agree with these papers (cf., “Pre-Islamic Arabic – Koranic Arabic – Classical Arabic: A Continuum?”, Pierre Larcher). But the point is that Islamic studies deserve the same level of scholarly investigation that Christian and Jewish studies have received, and that when such tools are used, a clearer understanding of the social, political and intellectual histories of the era becomes possible.
As these are essays, it should not come as a surprise that full arguments cannot be made but all of these essays have very complete notes, and some have bibliographies nearly as long as the paper they accompany for anyone interested in pursuing further research.
I found this book fascinating not only for the particular history it recounts but also for its illustration of how fragile historical memory is, and how easy it is to erase and to change.
Recommended cautiously to amateur historians.
* For simplicity, any dates referenced in this review are AD....more