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

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

John Gamgee (1831-1894): The Iceman Cometh

John GamgeeDr. John Gamgee was born in Florence Italy in 1831, the son of a Scottish veterinarian who wanted his children to have a broad education. John eventually graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in London. He thrived in that field. In 1858, he founded the New Veterinary School in Edinburgh in 1858, and later the Edinburgh Veterinary Review. In 1863, he organized the first International Veterinary Congress in Hamburg Germany.

So far, so dull, unless you are interested in Victorian academic politics. A few years later, the United States government invited him to consult on the matter of lung plague and cattle fever in Texas. He lectured widely in America, promoting his novel view on the pathogenic theory of medicine. That is, that disease was transmitted by microorganisms. It was a theory for which claim he was widely ridiculed.

His so-called “rollerskate” was less controversial, but it was his explorations into the mechanics of refrigeration more that makes him interesting to the general reader. Continue reading

The Reckoning

The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe

Picador

Charles Nicholl

This biography done in the early 1990’s is an arresting variation on the little sonata usually played by Christopher Marlowe’s biographers.  Their performances are almost always tuned to the minor key of Marlowe’s early death (at 29) and the tragedy this posed to English letters.  Charles Nicholl decided to play things in a different mode altogether and the suspenseful true crime narrative he composed is jaunty and percussive instead of a dirge for a dead poet. Continue reading

Charles Rose Ellis (1771-1845): Come Sing Me Montego Bay

Stumbled across this documentary about German indentured servants in Jamaica and their descendents, which in turn led me to Charles Rose Ellis.

He was the son of James Ellis, who  in turn was grandson of Col. John Ellis who settled in Jamaica in 1665.  Charles’ father was one of the great landowners of 18th century Jamaica and very rich indeed.  James died at sea when Charles was thirteen, leaving  the young man with an estate worth £20,000 a year (Mr. Darcy, you will recall, had half that amount- but then, he didn’t have land in the Caribbean). Continue reading

Charles Louis Désiré Du Pin (1814-1868): Red Devil

If he doesn’t appear in any of the Flashman books, he should have.  Of all the outrageous soldiers of the 19th century, Du Pin is one of the most notorious and, like Flashman himself, appears to have been everywhere.

He was born at Lasgraisses in the shadows of the Pyrenees,  attended Ecole Polytechnique in Palaiseau and was enrolled as an officer in the French Army.  His first few years were uneventful, but that changed for good once he was sent to Algeria in 1842.  Made a name for himself a year later in the battle of Smalain the 1847 capture of Abd-el Kader, and featured in the panoramic painting of the event of the sort so beloved of the 19th century patriots.  (Full marks if you can make him out.)  Promoted to Major by 1851, he was off to fight in the Crimea in 1855 (French cavalry made no such nonsensical cavalry charge into any valleys of death). Four years later he was in Italy, leading a cavalry division and helping the locals break away from the Austrian Empire.   Along the way he picked up a pair of Legions d’Honneur and and some other decorations for bravery. Continue reading