Halidon Hill: A Dramatic Sketch from Scottish History by Sir Walter Scott

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a quick read of a closet drama with its main moral of prioritizing something bigger than yourself. In this case, it is putting aside a bloody revenge feud between two Scots in order that they might fight together against the English. Gordon, the younger man, wants to kill Swinton, the aged and wise knight since Swinton killed his father. However, Swinton did this in order to revenge the death of his sons at the hand of Gordon’s father. Gordon is mocked by some of the leaders of the Scottish forces as bowing down to the man who killed his father, yet the two soldiers join together and are more honorable than the leaders in the end. The pacing of the story was excellent and I enjoyed reading it.

Lives of the Caesars by Suetonius

Lives of the CaesarsMy rating: 3 of 5 stars

An enjoyable book that I have to say I started skimming through after about 130 pages. It is definitely a good reference and will find a place on my shelf. At times it felt like People Magazine, but that also made these emperors more human. While the veracity of the stories is debatable, it is a contemporary reference that bears consideration.

I enjoyed reading that many of the emperors were multilingual, e.g. Tiberius who read and wrote poetry in Latin and Greek and was well-versed in mythology (70-71, p. 132). Gaius Caesar (“Caligula”) quoted Homer to visiting kings: “Let there be one Lord, one King!” (Caligula 22, p. 146). The line referenced is from the Iliad (2:204). I pulled down my Greek & Latin edition of the Iliad and found the line right there. So very cool.

Having just finished Mary Beard’s SPQR, I was acquainted with many of the personalities mentioned, which helped immensely. I wouldn’t come at this book without having had one or more introductions to the history of the early Roman Empire.

SPQR by Mary Beard

SPQR: A History of Ancient RomeMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mary Beard writes an engaging, fun and accessible history of Rome from its “founding” in 753 BCE up to 212 CE, the year that the emperor Caracalla made every free inhabitant of the empire a Roman citizen. The prologue drew me in immediately. The book reads like a set of introductory classics lectures by a professor who knows her material and can effectively communicate it to a diverse audience. There is something in this book for everyone. The “Further Reading” section at the end (pp. 537-562) is worth the price of entry by itself.

I enjoy that she sprinkles in Latin with translations throughout the text. She also goes into the etymologies of many words, sometimes clinically (e.g. “candidate”, p. 32), and sometimes with gusto (e.g. aborigine, p. 78). She covers not only the overarching themes or battles, but also delves into the daily life of people throughout the Republic and empire. Rich and poor, powerful and slave, urban and provincial, Latin and Greek, and so on, all make an appearance.

Mary Beard brings history, archaeology, political science, economics, psychology, literary studies, and many other tools to her work and this makes the book very enjoyable and useful. I thoroughly enjoyed her incorporating the works and backgrounds of so many writers of history, literature and poetry. Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Livy, Cicero, both Plinys, and so many more make appearances in the text. One phrase that stuck with me was from Tacitus summing up “the Roman imperial project: ‘they create desolation and call it peace’, ‘solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant’” (p. 516).

Many of the problems that Romans faced are still present today: risks of falling into debt, power focused on small class of wealthy individuals, corruption, manufacturing “the other” and demonizing them, double standards of morality, etc. The Roman project does not provide solutions to these problems but it is good to engage with them to see how humans have addressed them in the past and what we can try to do today.

The Destruction of Troy: Being the Sequel of the Iliad by Tryphiodorus (J. Merrick, transl.)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A beautiful edition of Tryphiodorus’s tale of the destruction of Troy with an in-depth introduction, English translation by Merrick with copious notes, and the original Greek text with a Latin translation below it. The story follows the sack of Troy from just before the Trojan horse to when the Greek forces leave Troy for the last time.

Tryphiodorus’s tale starts out slow but builds as we get into the poem. It is not Homer, but he tells a tale that if you know the story, you will enjoy his telling. And there are moments when it shines. The description of the Trojan horse, how it is brought into the city and Helen’s attempt to get the Greeks hiding inside to give themselves away are exciting and beautifully sketched. Tryphiodorus gives moving and chilling descriptions of the joyous celebration of the Trojans at the Greek “departure” and then the violence that flowed through the streets as the sack was at its height.

Possibly the best thing of the volume I read were the notes. They were detailed, exciting, full of material explaining the text, issues surrounding the events and the creation of the text, etc. In one example, the note on p. 96 discusses the controversy of whether Odysseus strangled and killed Anticlus while they hid in the Trojan horse. Tryphiodorus story says that’s what happened and he was backed up by the texts of Ovid and others. However, other scholars, such as Spondanus (Jean de Sponde), have said that Odysseus just kept his hand over his mouth while Helen called out. Such discussions in the notes made this book come even more alive, as though it were a lecture in and of itself. Perhaps that’s how learning progressed among scholars at that time. It still works today. For me, this book was truly an enjoyable experience.

Arithmetical Books from the Invention of Printing to the Present Time by Augustus De Morgan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fascinating read that is much more than a traditional bibliographic tome. I came upon it via David Eugene Smith’s Rara Arithmetica (1908). Smith’s book referenced the work of De Morgan and I always wanted to read it. The volume I have (1970) includes a reprint of the original Rara Arithmetica, along with its 1939 addenda and a full reprint of Augustus De Morgan’s Arithmetical Books from the Invention of Printing to the Present Time (1847), the book I’m reviewing here.

De Morgan’s book is filled not only with bibliographic detail of each volume, but also insights into the history of the book, the author or the times. This is the same format that Smith would follow 60 plus years later. But, I feel that De Morgan has longer entries and had a little more fun with them. One example is Gaspar Lax’s Arithmetica Speculativa (1515). De Morgan writes that it’s a very obtuse description of 250 pages with no example of a number higher than 100. He jokes that that must be how high the author could count (pp. 11-12 original, 590-591 in my volume). Another less cheeky example is of Valentine Menher de Kempten’s “Practicque pour brievement apprendre à Cifrer…” (1565). He notes that this volume as well as other French works from the time period use the terms septante and nonante for 70 and 90 (p. 23 original, 602 in my volume). In most contemporary French-speaking countries, we use soixante-dix and quatre-vingt-dix (60+10 and 4 20’s + 10). In Belgium, however, they do use these two terms for those numbers. Kempten’s book was published in Antwerp. I’m such a geek for loving this little bit of trivia!

One interesting quirk that drove me nuts at first was that De Morgan spelled out the date for his entries. So, instead of 1515, he’d write “fifteen fifteen”. But, the author addressed it and it makes total sense (pp. x-xi, 561-562 in my volume). He said it’s easier to proofread as well as to not accidentally transpose digits, something that is quite possible when dates abound in volumes like these.

The Shield of Achilles by W.H. Auden

The Shield of AchillesMy rating: 3 of 5 stars

I came to this collection of W. H. Auden’s poetry through the title poem. I was so taken aback with its interspersing of a Homeric scene with a gritty, realistic view of our current times. I knew I had to get this collection. On the whole, I enjoyed it, though “The Shield of Achilles” and “Epitaph for the Unknown Soldier” are the only ones that really moved me.

The collection is broken up into three parts: “Bucolics”, “In Sunshine and in Shade” and “Horae Canonicae.” I didn’t enjoy the first section. It didn’t grab me, though there was nothing wrong with it. I was looking forward to the third section, as a riff off the liturgical hours. I was hoping for something that was soothing or even something that ran counter to the concept of the hours, critiquing the concept. I didn’t find it, but again, that’s just how it impacted me.

The second section was the best of the three and contained the two poems I mentioned above. The most impactful part of “The Shield of Achilles” was this stanza:

A ragged urchin aimless and alone
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept
Or one could weep because another wept.

Simply put, wow. Published on its own in 1952 and as part of this collection in 1955, it was a profound comment on society. More than 70 years later, it still rings true and has much to teach us.

In “Epitaph for the Unknown Soldier,” Auden has another potent commentary, this time compressed into just one sentence split over two lines. Instantly, I thought about the wars our leaders have started.

To save your world you asked this man to die:
Would this man, could he see you now, ask why?