REVIEW: Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine

Strauss Cover Ten CaesarsSir Ronald Syme, one of the scholarly giants of 20th century Roman history, frowned on biography, he thought it led to a distortion of analysis.

One doesn’t like to argue with him, but on the other hand, most of us are not scholarly giants and find the lives of real people more interesting than  abstracted historical trends. Excluding biography treats time like distance, and scales down the people of the past, miniaturizing achievement and eccentricity alike.  Whether you accept or reject the Great Man theory of history,  you have to admit, life stories make for entertaining reading.  More to the point, they spark curiosity in students and the general public, who otherwise, may back away from history entirely.

Taken as a job lot, the Roman emperors good and bad provide a  panorama of arresting characters, and in more recent years (the shadow of Syme notwithstanding) classicists have been tip toeing back to the old biographical form.  Old in that one of the pioneering  biographical gossipers, Suetonius, writing in the second century AD gave us the initial juicy joint biography of the first twelve Caesars.  Long form essays, in fact, full of amusing stories some of which must be true, though nailing him down on specifics is a perennial headache for classical scholars, and not finished yet.

Strauss, a professor at Cornell and author of several classical works for a general audiences,  enters the field with Ten Caesars.  He repeats four of Suetonius’s twelve (Augustus, Tiberius, Nero, Vespasian), and includes Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Diocletian and Constantine.   The inclusions are more or less arbitrary, chosen he says for their strength and success (Nero who was neither strong nor successful, he admits, is stretching this selection policy a bit, but who can resist Nero?).     Another writer might choose other Caesars, but these will do nicely. Continue reading

Review: The Darkest Year: The American Home Front 1941 -1942 by William K. Klingaman

Darkest YearThe cover of Life magazine on December 8, 1941 featured a portrait of a grim faced General Douglas MacArthur.

Fast work, under the circumstances.  In 1940, the magazine had featured an almost even split of attractive women and general interest, with a few foreign military figures.  By 1942 the figures are reversed.  Virtually all military all the time and the government and a cooperative media worked to get people accustomed and even eager to the new reality that would in time see over 400,000 Americans dead on foreign fields.

The covers of Life magazine in 1940 show a more or less even split between attractive women and general interest, a few foreign military subjects.   In 1941, we begin to see stories on the American military – ski troopers, navy bombers,  cavalry men , West Point – George Patton makes the cover in July, fittingly, in color).   By 1942, it’s close to all war all the time. Continue reading

George Pullman (1833 – 1897): Review of The Edge of Anarchy

George PullmanThe Edge of Anarchy by Jack Kelly, St Martin’s Press 2019.

When George Pullman,  creator of the Pullman Porter Railway Car died in 1897, his family, worried that his enemies might do the body some mischief, had him buried under an elaborate monument involving several tons of steel and concrete.  Ambrose Bierce, always ready with a verbal stiletto, suggested that “It is clear the family in their bereavement was making sure the sonofabitch wasn’t going to get up and come back.”

What did the man have to do to warrant that level of hate?

Money, of course. Money and power. This was the gilded age, large fortunes made and a reasonable balance of power between capital and labor was still being worked out.

Continue reading

Renoir’s Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon

Renoir’s Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon

St. Martin’s Press, 2018, 381 pages

Valadon as seen by Toulouse lautrec

Valadon as seen by Toulouse lautrec

The lives of female artists have seldom been easy.  This turns out to have been painfully true of the French Post Impressionist Suzanne  Valadon, who began her life as the illegitimate daughter of a linen maid in the Limousin region of France.  Her mother, left widowed young, by a husband who was a forger, subsequently apprehended, and sentenced to hard labor, decided to move to Paris to better her lot and that of the young daughter born to her some years after her husband’s death. Fate dealt the pair a severe blow, for the year of their move was 1869-70, or the year of the Paris Commune, and the resulting rioting, and famine.  Continue reading

The Other Wilde: Jane

Jane Wilde in the 1840s

Jane Wilde in the 1840s

“My dear boy, no woman is a genius…They represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.” The Picture of Dorian Gray

When it comes to the Wilde family you never know how many surprises you are likely to come across.  Possibly one of the most unexpected ones, is the brilliance and the nationalistic fervor of Oscar’s mother Jane Wilde.

The daughter of a clergyman, very well connected (a brother became one of the most respected judges on the US bench, and an uncle Charles Ormesby was a member of the Irish Parliament) she was a young woman during the dreadful years of the Irish famine.  Her response was to take up a fiery torch for home rule, and she wrote the poem The Stricken Land in 1847. Continue reading

Henry Labouchere: The Non-Progressive Progressive

Henry du Pre Labouchere

Henry du Pre Labouchere

The history of gay rights is blotched with all sorts of setbacks and failures, one of the worst occurred in Britain in 1885.  The proximate cause was an addendum to The Criminal Law Amendment Act proposed by the MP Henry du Pre Labouchere. Originally the 1885 law was designed to  address  the problem of under age prostitution.  It raised the age of consent to sixteen and criminalized attempts to pimp young girls.

The editor of “Truth”, as well as a member of Parliament, Labouchere was a seriously rich man.  He had inherited not one but two banking fortunes, being connected to the Baring Bank founders, and he had had a chequered career.  Labouchere was a republican who detested the royal family, a liberal, almost a radical, where politics were concerned, but this ex- diplomat, financier, and semi-professional gambler turned politician, had his prejudices.  He was anti-semitic, convinced that women were,”mentally flighty” and therefore should not have the vote, and he detested homosexuality.  Continue reading

Through a Lorgnette Darkly

by Harry M. Allen, after Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt, oil on canvas, (circa 1884)

by Harry M. Allen, after Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt, oil on canvas, (circa 1884)

Not many Victorian Lords of the stage have reputations which have survived into the twenty first century.  Many of them are now forgotten, even such people as John Wilkes Booth are famous for their non thespian activities (in his case presidential assassination) but one at least deserves to be remembered: Henry Irving.

Henry, or Sir Henry as he came to be known later in life, was from Cornwall and began his career with the unfortunate surname of Brodribb.  He changed it to Irving and began acting when an uncle left him a small legacy of 100 pounds, enough to start himself in the competitive  business of acting in the mid nineteenth century. Continue reading

La Belle et la Bête – Old as Time

straparola_ritrattoI see the Disneys are dragging out Beauty and her Beast for a new iteration.  It was, of course, ever so, and long before animation and CGI

Scholarly types generally agree that the first iteration of the timeless tale came from the works of Venetian Giovanni Francesco Straparola (1480-1558), a somewhat shadowy figure who thought to follow the success of Boccaccio’s Decameron with a new collection of short stories (the Pig King is the entry in question).  As it happened, he was quite right, and his stuff sold rather well. We may assume he lived happily ever after. As one does in Italy. Continue reading

Arcadius Avellanus, born Mogyoróssy Arkád (6 February 1851 – 16 June 1935: “Scisne Latine, Barbare?”

Mogyoróssy Arkád was born in Esztergom near Budapest back in the days before exurbia blurred the line between city and country. His first language, he claimed, was Latin.

The claim is fantastic enough to seduce credulity, and some of the circumstances behind his early life suggest it might be true.

Independent details on his early life are, sadly, scarce, and gentlemen do not inquire too closely into the details of other men’s personal lives, and given what that part of the world has gone through in the years since Avellanus’ birth, confirming anything could be a challenge.

Consider the range of populations under the Hapsburg’s imperial eage. Hungarian German Slovak Slovenes, Serbs, Croats, Rumanians, all jealous of their several prerogatives, what to bring them together, particularly in matters of law and politics? Latin, of course, was language of the Church, the lingua franca of the renaissance. It lasted as the official language of the Hapsburg Empire until 1782.

Sixty nine years (the space between 1782 and his birth) was less earth changing a span in those days than now – one can imagine a traditional family keeping up the old ways, preparing its sons for whatever service the Empire might require. Continue reading

Mastro Titta (1779–1869): Er dilettante de Ponte

Mastro_TittaA slurred pronunciation of Maestro di Giustizia, or Master of Justice “The dilettante of the bridge”, the name he got from Romanesco poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, the bridge being Ponte Sant’ Angelo which connects Rome’s left bank with the Vatican. Belli also credited him as a sure cure for headache.

Titta’s real name was Giovanni Battista Bugatti. He was a short, round, amiable man who, with his wife, made his living by manufacturing, decorating, and selling umbrellas to the tourists who visited the nearby Vatican.

As jobs go, it is easily overlooked, and presumably it was neither steady enough nor profitable enough to make ends meet. At age seventeen he found a second income stream.

He was, in the years between 1796 to 1864, the Vatican’s official executioner Continue reading