Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Historical Writing

August 2, 2011

One more note on the previous post:

It’s not fair of me to expect the same level of juicy detail from ancient history as there is (or can be) in classical or modern history; there is simply more information about the more recent periods. As far as I know the Egyptians had no analogs of the wonderfully chatty and gossipy (and unreliable) classical historians, and although they were great record-keepers there just isn’t the same sort of detail we have about more recent times. But I’ll compare anyway. Here’s the sort of thing I love, from Strange Victory , by Ernest May (which I recommend!):

Canaris was a strange character. There were many such, of course, at the center of the Third Reich, but Canaris stands out among them…. Five feet four, with prematurely white hair, he detested tall men and, above all, tall men with small ears. The loves of his life were Seppel and Sabine, two dachshunds from whom he was almost inseparable. When traveling, he would require from his staff frequent reports on their apparent emotions and their bowel movements…

…[A]other possibility is anger over encroachments in his domain by Reinhard Heydrich, the head of Himmler’s security service. Outwardly, his relationship with Heydrich was cordial; the Canarises and the Heydrichs were neighbors and dined together. But Heydrich was thought repulsive by men who had no such reaction to Himmler or Bormann. Also, he was very tall and had small ears.

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt

August 2, 2011

For years I’ve loved ancient history without really knowing much about it. I’ve never been able to keep the Babylonians and Assyrians completely straight, let alone the Akkadians, and what any of them have to do with the Sumerians (my knowledge of whom comes primarily from having seen The Mole People at an impressionable age). I’ve never been quite sure of who the Hittites and Amorites and Mittanians and Chaldeans were. Those Sumerian city states have great names like Uruk and Ur and Lagash and Eridu but (apart from Abraham’s alleged origin in Ur of the Chaldees; doubtless he left to escape the mole people) I have no idea which is which or why we should care. The comings and goings of the MInoans and Mycenaeans and Achaeans and Dorians and other proto-Greeks are a mystery to me, providing only a little background for the Iliad and Odyssey and some half-remembered Mary Renault novels.


And then there’s Egypt. Egypt is far more familiar to us American rubes than Babylonians and Assyrians and Mittanians. It’s hard not to be exposed to all sorts of things about Egypt, romantic things like pyramids and mummies and sarcophagi for cats and animal-headed gods and King Tut. Yul Brynner and Anne Baxter (“Mo-o-o-ossses…”) are deeply ingrained as my Platonic forms of Pharaoh and Pharaohess (Pharaoness? Pharessa?). But the ancient Egyptian civilization lasted for 3,000 years. That is a long time, half as long again as it’s been since it it became part of Rome until now, and apart from “Cleopatra was at the end” all that history is compressed in our collective unconscious into an undifferentiated mass of pyramids and mummies and sarcophagi for cats and animal-headed gods and King Tut and Yul Brynner and Anne Baxter.

So when I read about Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, a popular history of the entire civilization, I hied me to the library and found a copy. It serves its purpose well: I’m much clearer—well, somewhat less vague—on what the difference between the Old and Middle and New Kingdoms, and where Memphis was (and why), and who the Hyksos and the Sea People were, and even to a certain extent which king was which and which did what. I know now where the word “Pharaoh” comes from (“Per-aa,” or “Great House,” applied metonymically to its inhabitant) and why (awkwardness about what to call Hatshepsut—there was no such thing as a “Queen”). The book is easy to read, and it zips right along. If you’re looking for a summary of all of ancient Egyptian history, bearing in mind that a “summary of all of ancient Egyptian history” will necessarily be a few hundred pages, this is it.


One of the highlights (I thought) comes at the very beginning of the Egyptian kingdom. Among the artifacts of that era, now a highlight of the Egyptian Museum of Cairo (and of Adrian Veidt’s—Ozymandias’s!—office in Watchmen) is the Narmer Palette. That’s “palette” as in a thing for mixing paints, in particular cosmetics; the ur-Eqyptians apparently used them as ceremonial objects in those days, a development of sacred face painting among in nomadic cultures or some such. The Narmer palette (apparently) commemorates the very unification of the Two Kingdoms of Egypt under Narmer, Egypt’s possibly mythical first king and founder of its First Dynasty. The obverse is full of Mespotamian motifs: the king as a bull destroying a walled town, those “serpopards” whose intertwined necks frame the pigment-mixing depression. The reverse is more distinctly Egyptian, with the now-human king wearing the crown of Upper Egypt. Although to my untrained and untrustworthy eye there is still some of Mesopotamia there—the king’s calf muscles look distinctly Assyrian to me, and I wonder how much those cows at the top (proto-Hathors, apparently) owe to Mesopotamian predecessors—the Narmer palette represents the very beginning not only of the Egyptian kingdom but of Egyptian, which (again to my untrained eye) remained remarkably consistent for millennia thereafter.

But this isn’t a perfect book. Reading it is a great first step in understanding Egyptian history, but all those kings still blur together. To some extent, I suppose that’s unavoidable—there were a lot of them, after all, and really I don’t know that there is always much to distinguish them. But Wilkinson’s (I hate to say it) somewhat cliched writing doesn’t really help. There are too many “brilliant demonstrations of the unite-and-rule concept” and “brilliant flashes of inspiration” and “brilliant but simple expedients.” I’m sure there is precious little that can really be said about any individual, king or otherwise, especially given Egyptian kings’ perennial habit of erasing all record of their predecessors, but I would desperately like more indivuating details, and anecdotes.

And I’d also like to know more about the Egyptian religion (or should that be religions?). Gods and priests and temples obviously permeate Egyptian history and life, but really all I can say I got from the book is that there were a confusingly large number of gods, whose cults were more or less important in various cities. How did those cults develop, and split and merge, and relate to each other in general? How did perceptions of the gods and details of their cults change over time? What did all those priests do all day, anyway?

So, definite thumbs up, but I am left wanting more. Which is certainly better than left wanting less—

So if she weighs the same as a duck…

February 1, 2010

She does look very calm about it. From yesterday’s Boston Globe, here’s an article by economist Peter Leeson arguing that medieval trial by ordeal was really not so bad. The article is notable for its complete lack of anything resembling evidence, but there is a little—very little, but more than none—in Leeson’s academic paper here. I think the most interesting bit of that is the contention that men and women were treated differently: men, typically with lower body fat and hence more likely to sink when tossed in a pond, were more likely than women to be given an ordeal by cold water, in which sinking was interpreted innocence.

The basic theory (tarted up with equations in the paper) is that (i) people who actually believed in the efficacy of ordeals would submit to them only if they were indeed innocent, confessing or settling or running away if they were guilty, and that (ii) the priests who ran the ordeal process would rig the results in favor of the innocent accused. I’m not sure the first point would apply to capital cases, much more common then than now, given that a guilty person, presumably already condemned in God’s eyes, would have little reason not take his chances on the ordeal. And as for the second point, well, I am not convinced that medieval priests were universally known even then for their honesty and incorruptibility.

A couple of years ago Leeson wrote a book about economics and pirate democracy that I keep meaning to read. I hope it’s a bit more convincing than this…

Ron Paul, Proud Confederate

December 26, 2007

Holy crap! I knew Ron Paul was a loony, but I had thought it was in an endearing libertarian way. It turns out he thinks that Abraham Lincoln was wrong to start the Civil War and that a policy of “gradual emancipation” would have been preferable. That is wrong in so many different ways I hardly know what to say. See the first link above for some details (which barely scratch the surface, but still).

Now I am an actual Southerner. I can’t abide the word “Civil” any more than any other Southerner (*). I talk about “The War of Northern Aggression” and “The Recent Unpleasantness between the Sections.” But the line that the evil Yankees started the thing as a war of economic imperialism just doesn’t hold up in light of even a quick survey of the history. I’ll go even further: the Southern aristocratic culture was evil and had to be destroyed. It would have been nice to have done it without killing 600,000 people and devastating the South, but the Fire-Eaters just couldn’t wait for that.

Oh, one other point: I have heard it argued that the war could not possibly have been about slavery–very few of the southerners actually fighting owned slaves (or at least many slaves), and very few of the northerners really cared (including Grant himself, at least at first!)–or abstract concepts like States’ Rights and Preserving the Union. That misses a simple but important point: the reasons the soldiers were fighting do not necessarily have anything to do with the reasons the war started. Shelby Foote put it well:

For all the talk of States Rights and the Union, men volunteered for much the same reasons on both sides: in search of glory or excitement, or from fear of being thought afraid, but mostly because it was the thing to do.

Oh, and Ron Paul is pretty screwy on economics too. The gold standard??? I suppose that is consistent with being an antebellum southerner…

(*) Bullwinkle reference