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.

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