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

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

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

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

The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters

the-sixThe Mitford sisters have become an industry.  There are over twenty nine titles concerning them and that does not count their own books- three of them were writers. Only one of them was truly a success, the instigator of the Mitford mythology: Nancy Mitford.

Laura Thompson is contributing her second book to this already crowded section of the biography shelf. The Six, The Lives of the Mitford Sisters is not a straightforward biography.  She has already written about Nancy, Life in a Cold Climate and this is her second attempt at mapping the complicated lives of these siblings only this time by psychological surveillance. 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

Karl May, 1842-1912 : Big In Germany

There was a blip on the radar screen with the 2012 centennial of his death, and a few translators have pushed through labor-of-love translations, but on the whole he is still remarkably unknown in America.   This from a man who was the largest selling author in the German language, bigger than Thomas Mann or Erich Maria Remarque, or – well, everyone, really.

So why the indifference?  It’s not as if his work is introspective dark philosophical central European doomsday jobs.  He wrote page turners.  Good page turners.  It can take a little bit to get into the spirit of the thing – we are talking a nineteenth century writer here – but once hooked, you will be hard pressed find the work anything but compelling.  He has narrative drive up the wazoo, and could teach pretty much anyone writing thrillers today a thing or two about action. Continue reading

Abul Tayyeb al Mutanabi (915-965): The Would-be Prophet

The desert knows me well,
the night and the mounted men.
The battle and the sword,
the paper and the pen.

The Wall Street Journal last Saturday did an appreciation of Firdausi, author of the Persian epic the Shahnamen Book of Kings.  He’s a well enough known name (that is to say, I’ve actually heard of him), but who is the best of the Arab poets?

Short answer is, Al-Mutanabi. Continue reading

Maria Leontievna Bochkareva (1889-1920): Womens’ Battalion of Death

The recent graduation of three women in the Marine Infantry School revives the whole women in combat issue, and invariably commentators have brought up the story of Soviet women in WWII and their military accomplishments.

There was in fact precedence from the First World War.  Not just individual women (there were several of those), but the entire First Women’s Battalion of Death.  The crew was the brainchild of a blooded veteran of the eastern front, one Maria Bochkareva.

She was a peasant woman of Novgorod with a history of unfortunate choices in men. She married at fifteen and when he became abusive, dumped him for companion number two.  He was exiled to Siberia for criminal misbehavior, she dutifully walked off to join him. And when he repeated the pattern, and became abusive, she dumped him as well and headed back west.  Besides, there was a war on and she wanted to do her bit. Continue reading

Lucy Stone (1818-1893) – By Any Other Name

Well the next thing I had to do as to join the Lucy Stone league, so that I could keep my own maiden name after matrimony.  Because a girl’s name should be Sacred, and when she uses her husbands it only sinks her identity.  And when a girl always insists on her own maiden name,  with vialents, it lets people know what she must be important some place or other.  And quite a  good place to insist on an unmarried name, is when you go to some strange hotel accompanied  by a husband. Because when a room  clerck notes that a girl with a  maiden name is in the same room with a gentleman, it starts quite a little explanation, and makes a girl feel quite promanent before everybody in the lobby.

But Dorothy said I had better be careful.    I mean, she says that most Lucy Stoners do not really worry the room clerck, because they are generally the type that are only brought to hotels om account of  matrimony.  But Dorothy  said that when Henry and I waltz in and ask for a  room with my maiden name the clerck would probably take one good look at me, and hand Henry a room in the local jail for the Man act.  

But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, Anita Loos  (all spellings utterly sic) Continue reading