Genghis Khan: The man who conquered the world – Frank McLynn

They reckoned that each person needed five horses to live well, which meant that a family of five would need twenty-five riding horses and four to six pack horses. A ger containing five people that had more than ten horses was considered rich. A horse was valued as being equal to five head of cattle or six sheep or goats. A two year-old counted as half a horse and a yearling as one-quarter. The Mongols used mainly mares, as these were more docile and yielded the vital milk for making koumiss. If short for food, they had a technique for making an incision in the animals vein, drinking the blood, and then sealing up the wound.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Genghis. He always seemed like a man who did not understand the word no, who simply did not know how to give up, who would take what he wanted, preferably when he wanted, but if not, he would come back later and take it. Apart from the basic knowledge, one of my earliest experiences of Genghis was in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, not a classic historical study, but a film that did make me think about figures of the past that I would love to meet if I had the chance.
Next up was Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series, a fictional series of Genghis’s life, although largely based on fact, it gave me a much broader understanding of Genghis, although from what I remember, and correct me if I’m wrong Conn, painted him in an entirely flattering light.
But I heard rumours, I saw odd excerpts of his more dastardly actions, the mass killings and destruction of cities, he was, they claimed, terrible. A cruel despot who sated his blood lust with an orgy of death.

The Man Who Conquered The World is a detailed, richly painted narrative of Genghis’s life. From his early days of Temujin to the ruler of the biggest empire in the world.
The sheer number  of names to remember means as a casual reader it can be difficult to keep up, there is a list of names at the beginning, and although I started flicking back to it at first, I soon gave up and lost myself in the endless stream of people, going back only occasionally if someone popped up who seemed of interest.

If you can put up with his tendency to use elaborate terms when more simple ones would suffice, which irritated me a lot more than I thought it would, McLynn’s book contains an abundance of information, set down in an informative if not mostly entertaining way.  He details the sources of his information, pointing out where they are likely to be accurate or biased and the reasons for this, and where there is no information available, his assumptions seem well founded and reasonable.

Genghis took a fractured nomadic people and united them into an unstoppable war machine that conquered and subsumed entire populations, separating the artists from everyone else, but absorbing the existing administration into the Mongol whole. The initial struggle to besiege Chinese cities was remedied by learning from and incorporating Chinese siege tactics and machines into the Mongol arsenal. From the beginning, his inclination to promote based on merit rather than heritage set him apart from the other Khans, including his childhood friend Jamuga, and also built him up an incredible group of generals and leaders, as well as administrators and vassals.

Chinqai’s administrative genius was twofold. First, he had to solve problems caused by the Mongol’s ignorance of sedentary populations. The Mongols were nomads and warriors and had no one trained for the task of administration. Nor were they linguists, and in their raw state they knew nothing of a money economy. They therefore had to depend on literate, multilingual members of the very nations they had conquered. Like the British in the nineteenth century, they had to rule vast numbers with a tiny bureaucratic force and like them depended on quislings and converts to the Mongol vision of global conquest 

After his ascendancy to Genghis Khan, Genghis built his empire on reward, knowing if he kept his army and his subjects in booty they were less likely to rebel or scheme against him. It was the main reason for the ever increasing expansion, and the main reason why, at times he massacred populations, it removed the risk of attack once his army had moved on, deeper into what was at the time, enemy territory, and also reduced the administrative burden on the relatively small native Mongol population. Cold? yes, Calculated? Certainly, but here was a man whose vision was black and white, there was little room for grey, and if there was, it wasn’t tolerated for long.

For me, perhaps the greatest achievement of Genghis was the promotion of the those who showed talent, regardless of where they came from. He was a great reader of men, and had no racial or religious prejudice. Effectively delegating the conquest of China to his favourite general Muqali, while taking his sons to conquer central Asia and the middle east, and sending Subedei and Jebe on a great raid that introduced Europe to the Mongols.

Subedei may have been the master strategist but there is no reason to dissent from the view that Jebe was ‘probably the greatest cavalry general in the history of the world’. Eight hundred years later the scale of his achievement with Subedei on their great raid is still astonishing. In three years the two captains and their men rode 5,500 miles – history’s longest cavalry raid – won seven major battles (always against superior numbers) and several minor engagements and skirmishes, sacked scores of cities and revealed the world of Russia and eastern Europe to Genghis. Subedei made sure that this would be no evanescent achievement by leaving behind him a whole cadre of spies and secret agents who would keep the Mongols informed of all future developments in the West.

These generals were given great power and responsibility by Genghis, and although he could be paranoid and capricious, he rewarded handsomely those who served him well. There were times when some were rewarded perhaps more than they should have been and others, inexplicably not given the rewards they deserved. There were other flaws of course, Genghis was by no means perfect, and there were a few he indulged a little too much or for a little too long, particularly his family. Although he was furious with them if they did not do as instructed or rebelled against him, in some cases they were given leeway to repeat their transgressions two or three times.

Despite his abilities as a tactician, leader and strategist, his detail on organisation of his army, down to the night guards that protected him as he slept, the operation of the army, that could be split in two but regroup in less than a day, McLynn posits that potentially the ‘Mongol’ empire or conquest was likely to fail, in that they had to always expand and conquer due to their nomadic lifestyle and Genghis’s reward system. Eventually they would have run out of territory to conquer or would have had to become sedentary, giving up the nomadic lifestyle which had given them their tactical advantage. After his death, the empire was divided between his sons, which went on to cause civil war as, growing up in a world where the strongest take what they want, they jostled for the top position.

So, after reading a good 500 pages, is my soft spot still there? Yes. Genghis was someone who had vision, and an unwavering belief in what he wanted, and felt, he was meant to, achieve. Ultimately he achieved it all, at great cost to those in his way, but to great reward for those that aided him. McLynn’s book does well to reveal the man behind the legend.

Genghis’s brother Qasar was famous for his skill with the bow, but his son Yisungge was even more talented: at an archery contest in 1225 he shot an arrow 550 yards. The combination of archery and horsemanship that made the Mongols so formidable came from their being put on horseback almost before they could walk. This resulted in the piece de resistance whereby juvenile archers were trained to release their arrows at the precise moment when all four of their horses’s hooves were off the ground – so that the jolt of hooves hitting the ground would not throw off their aim.

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – J.K. Rowling

‘Agreed,’ said Fred. ‘So, people, let’s try and calm down a bit. Things are bad enough without inventing stuff as well. For instance, this new idea that You-Know-Who can kill with a single glance from his eyes. That’s a Basilisk, listeners. One simple test: check whether the thing that’s glaring at you has got legs. If it has, it’s safe to look into it’s eyes, although if it really is You-Know-Who, that’s still likely to be the last thing you ever do.’

So. It’s here. Book 7. The finale. Can Harry defeat He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (you can’t say it now as the Death Eaters will instantly know where you are!), save the world and bag the girl?

After Dumbledore’s death at the end of book 6, I was really hoping it wasn’t really the end, that he would come back in this book, to guide Harry as he had done before. But no, instead his legacy is tarnished as Rita Skeeter brings out a book that airs a few skeleton’s in the old wizards closet, was he really responsible for his sisters death?

As Harry finally reaches 17, the charm that has protected the Dursley’s house lifts, and so the Order of the Phoenix assemble to try and move Harry to the safety of the burrow. As you can imagine, someone (and I think we all know who) spills the date and time and the party is ambushed.

Once those that make it are safely at the burrow, there’s preparation for Bill and Fleur’s wedding, a time for hope in these dark times. Except that half way through Kingsley Shacklebolt sends a message through that the ministry has fallen, and the spells protecting the Weasley’s home are lost. The Dark Lords followers pounce. Harry, disguised as a distant Weasley cousin, Ron and Hermione escape and have to prematurely start their quest. Yes, Harry has a mission, and his 2 closest friends are up for the ride. Their summer has been spent preparing and packing, there will be no return to Hogwarts this year for our hero’s.

Which is just as well because Snape is headmaster! Snape! That snake…That treacherous, sneaky little…well, it matters not, he’s in charge and Death Eaters are on the staff! As the ministry roll out an anti muggle agenda and try to clear out all non-pure wizards the wizarding population feels the cold fingers of You-Know-Who wrap around them. The book almost becomes the Empire Strikes Back of the series, as it looks more and more bleak for the good guys.

It’s not all rosy for Harry, Ron and Hermione either. No plan, no idea where the horcruxes are, hunted down they struggle to go on, until Ron, desperately worried for his family’s safety abandons Harry and Hermione.

The two of them receive help from unexpected quarters, and as they close in on a Horcrux, Ron returns in the nick of time. As usual Harry’s uncontrollable rage lands them in trouble, and they are captured and taken to the Malfoy’s mansion. Lucikly the Dark Lord is away, hunting for a wand that will beat Harry’s, which apparently is the fabled elder wand, of the Deathly Hallows. As Hermione is being tortured by Bellatrix, they are rescued by someone who has the same piercing blue eyes as Dumbledore and Dobby!

Finally there is one Horcrux left, and it’s at Hogwarts. Harry even knows where it is! But going back there will certainly mean being captured..or will it? Dumbledore’s Army reforms, Professor McGonnogal and the other teachers drive out Snape and the Death Eaters and the stage is set.

Voldemort brings his army to the gates of Hogwarts, protected by it’s eternal guardians, but Harry has to face his destiny, as there is another, unknown Horcrux. Before it’s done though, Voldemort realises how he can control the wands, and that’s bad news for Snape.
With his hated teacher gone, Harry finally learns the truth, and with the final horcrux is destroyed, it’s time for the final battle, good versus evil. Once for all the world will know who the greatest wizard is, as Molly Weasley takes on Bellatrix. Only kidding, she does, but while that’s going on, Harry and Voldemort finally square up and there can only be one winner..

And then it was over, the wounded patched up and the dead honoured. After I finished, I didn’t look at another book for over a week, I didn’t want to leave Hogwarts, to say goodbye to Harry and Ron and Hermione, to Ginny and Neville and Molly and Arthur Weasley, Hagrid, Professor McGonnogall, Luna Lovegood and even Kreacher.

So, Thank you, J.K. Rowling. Thank you for Harry Potter. I enjoyed reading the books when they first came out, and I have enjoyed them even more now, 20 years after the first book came out. The books transported me to Hogwarts, made me wish I was a wizard, so I could give the password to the fat lady (I’d have to be in Gryffindor), run up staircases that moved, got to cast spells, drunk butter beer and saw dragons and Hippogriffs and all manner of wondrous creatures from my imagination. That you weaved it into a story that compelled children and adults alike is a testament to brilliant, wonderful storytelling.

Hands, softer than he had been expecting, touched Harry’s face, pulled back an eyelid, crept beneath his shirt, down to his chest and felt his heart. He could hear the woman’s fast breathing, her long hair tickled his face. He knew that she could feel the steady pounding of life against his ribs.
‘Is Draco alive? Is he in the castle?’
The whisper was barely audible; her lips were an inch from his ear, her head bent so low that her long hair shielded his face from the onlookers.

Yes.’ he breathed back.
He felt the hand on his chest contract; her nails pierced him. Then it was withdrawn. She had sat up.
‘He is dead!’ Narcissa Malfoy called to the watchers.

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Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – J.K. Rowling

Hagrid had some harebrained scheme in hand, which might make him miss Sirius. If they didn’t get there soon, he was going to turn around, go straight back to the castle, and leave Hagrid to enjoy his moonlit stroll with Madame Maxine.
But then – when they had walked so far around the perimeter of the Forest that the castle and the lake were out of sight – Harry heard something. Men  were shouting up ahead … then came a deafening, ear-splitting roar …

Hagrid led Madame Maxime around a clump of trees, and came to a halt. Harry hurried up alongside them – for a split second, he thought he was seeing bonfires, and men darting around them – and then his mouth fell open.

It’s World Cup time! Harry joins Hermione and the Weasley’s at the final of the Quidditch world cup, at the same time being introduced to Floo Powder and Portkeys as means of transport. After a particularly raucas game between Bulgaria and Ireland all havoc breaks loose when a group of Death Eaters (That’s supporters of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to you and me) start terrorising the local muggles before the dark mark appears in the sky, seemingly conjured by Barty Crouch’s house elf, with none other than Harry’s wand!

Back at Hogwarts for their 4th year, Harry, Ron and Hermione learn that this year will feature the Tri-wizard tournament, in which a champion of Hogwarts will compete with the champions of two other wizarding schools. Despite there being strict rules about competitors not being under age, the Goblet of Fire spits out Harry’s name as the second Hogwarts champion, after Cedric Diggory.

Naturally there’s a new defence against the dark arts teacher, Mad-Eye Moody, who quite literally has a mad eye, but was one of the most successful Auror’s in his day. Meanwhile another champion emerges, as Hermione creates S.P.E.W, who help out the under appreciated House Elves, whether they want to be emancipated or not.

As the tournament begins, Harry finds himself up against a dragon, then mer-people, but even worse he falls out with Ron, and the diabolical reporter Rita Skeeter paints terrible portraits of him in the Daily Prophet, while Ludo Bagman seems very intent on helping Harry, and Barty Crouch stops turning up to work and sends instructions into Percy Weasley by owl.

Luckily there is a break for the Christmas festivities and the Yule Ball, in which Harry and Ron struggle for dates, even as Ron and Hermione dance the awkward dance of teenagers around each other, while Hagrid tries it on with the visiting Madam Maxime, who may or may not also be part giant.

As the final task reaches it’s conclusion, Harry and Cedric tie for first place, but that is not quite the end of it, for Voldemort has returned, and for his first trick he wants to kill Harry and this tournament is his ideal opportunity.

Naturally Cornelius Fudge, the minister for magic, refuses to believe the return of Voldemort, even as Dumbledore  vouches for Harry. It’s been rumour for four books, but now he’s real and he’s back, and Harry Potter faces his biggest challenge yet.

A monster book, as Rowling barrels towards the introduction of Voldemort for the remainder of the series, but still surprisingly a read that flies by, with unforeseen twists and turns and the first major death in the series. The Goblet of Fire is engrossing fun, and Rowling also deals subtly with the teenage hormones raging through the students at Hogwarts as they face obstacles and threats that will take all of them coming together to overcome.

‘You know.’ said Ron, whose hair was on end because of all the times he had run his fingers through it in frustration. ‘I think it’s back to the old Divination standby.’
‘What – make it up?’
‘Yeah.’ said Ron, sweeping the jumble of scrawled notes off the table, dipping his pen into some ink and starting to write.
‘Next Monday,’ he said, as he scribbled, ‘I am likely to develop a cough, owing to the unlucky conjunction of Mars and  Jupiter.’ He looked up at Harry. ‘You know her – just put in loads of misery, she’ll lap it up.’

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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – J.K. Rowling

‘I don’t think it looks like a Grim,’ she said flatly.
Professor Trelawney surveyed Hermione with mounting dislike.
‘You’ll forgive me for saying so, my dear, but I perceive  very little aura around you. Very little receptivity to the resonances of the future.’
Seamus Finnigan was tilting his head from side to side.
‘It looks like a Grim if you do this,’ he said, with his eyes almost shut, ‘but it looks more like a donkey from here,’ he said, leaning to the left.
‘When you’ve all finished deciding whether I’m going to die or not!’ said Harry, taking even himself by surprise. Now nobody seemed to want to look at him.

Harry’s back at Hogwarts for year 3. After a long summer with the Dursley’s Harry is ready to return. But just before he heads back Harry sees a large black dog, which as everyone in the wizarding world knows, is a portent of doom! Safely ensconed on the Hogwarts Express Harry first comes across the Dementors, Prisoners of the wizarding prison of Azkaban. Someone has escaped, for the first time ever, and that person is Sirius Black, infamous serial killer and support of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. And he badly wants to find Harry.

Being a new year there is of course a new Defence against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Lupin who teaches Harry how to produce a Patronus, which comes in mighty handy when Dementors are around. There is also two new lessons, divination, the first session of which Professor Trelawney forsee’s Harry’s doom! Hermione is less than impressed but then she has her own secret, as she seems to be spending more hours in lessons than there is in a day. Secondly Hagrid starts teaching care of magical creatures and inadvertently gets a Hippogriff sentenced to death. Oh Hagrid!

As Sirius gets ever closer to Harry, so do the Dementors. Fred and George Weasley help Harry out though by giving him the Marauders Map which helps him get out to Hogsmeade without a signed permission slip, even though it’s dangerous.
Finally though, Sirius and Harry meet, will Sirius be able to complete what he escaped Azkaban to do, or will Harry’s teenage hormones drive him to exact revenge?

The first time I read these, this was my favourite of the first 5 books, I think partly because the Marauders map sounds like the coolest invention ever, and I had a soft spot for Professor Lupin. As with the first two books, Prisoner of Azkaban barrels along at a great pace and continues to expand the world of Harry Potter, while at the same time driving the plot forwards, and after the Dementors are banished from Hogwarts it’s time to reach for the Goblet of fire.

A sudden sound from the corner of Hagrid’s cabin made Harry, Ron and Hermione Whip around. Buckbeak the Hippogriff was lying in the corner, chomping on something that was oozing blood all over the floor.
‘I couldn’ leave him tied up out there in the snow! choked Hagrid. ‘All on his own! At Christmas!’
Harry, Ron and Hermione looked at each other. They had never seen eye to eye with Hagrid about what he called ‘interesting creatures’ and other people called ‘terrifying monsters’. On the other hand, there didn’t seem to be any particular harm in Buckbeak. In fact, by Hagrid’s usual standards, he was positively cute.

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – J.K. Rowling

‘Your sons flew that car to Harry’s house and back last night!’ shouted Mrs Weasley. ‘What have you got to say about that, eh?’
‘Did you really?’ said Mr Weasley eagerly. ‘Did it go all right? I – I mean,’ he faltered, as sparks flew from Mrs Weasley’s eye, ‘that-that was very wrong, boys – very wrong indeed …’
‘Let’s leave them to it,’ Ron muttered to Harry, as Mrs Weasley swelled like a bullfrog. ‘Come on, I’ll show you my bedroom.’

So It’s Harry’s second year at Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry, which he arrives at via a flying car after some mysterious interference prevents him from taking the Hogwarts Express. But the fun doesn’t begin there, oh no. Back in number 4 Privet Drive, Harry is visited by Dobby, a house elf who wears a pillow case and talks in riddles while hitting himself over the head with a saucepan.

At Hogwarts though as the school year progresses it is revealed that the Chamber of Secrets has been opened once again by the heir of Slytherin, and a fearsome and terrible monster is on the loose petrifying children as well as Mrs Norris, Caretaker Filch’s beloved but universally hated cat.

As Harry, Ron and Hermione, all now firm friends, try to work out what the creature is and how to get into the chamber of secrets, Dumbledore appears to be losing his grip on the school and Lucius Malfoy sees the perfect chance to remove him from Hogwarts.

Luckily, the students have a new Defence against the Dark Art’s teacher. Gilderoy Lockhart! Who’s fearless adventures are set texts for all his students and after reading you can be sure that he is one man you want with you in a tight spot.

Personally I think I would prefer Hagrid, but his love of ridiculously dangerous creatures almost causes grievious harm to Harry, Ron and Fang, and does he have anything to do with the Chamber?

So I remember not really liking this book quite as much as the others, but then as I started reading it I remembered a lot more of it than I did the Philosophers Stone, and once again I was enraptured by Rowling’s world, and longed to be at Hogwarts, my heart sinking at the end when the school year finished and I had to return to the Muggle world.

Ron shook his head, wide-eyed. Hermione, however, clapped a hand to her forehead.
‘Harry – I think I’ve just understood something! I’ve got to go to the library!’
And she sprinted away, up the stairs.
‘What does she understand? said Harry distractedly, still looking around, trying to tell where the voice had come from.
‘Loads more than I do,’ said Ron, shaking his head.
‘But why’s she got to go to the library?’
‘Because that’s what Hermione does,’ said Ron, shrugging.
‘When in doubt, go to the library.’

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Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone – J.K. Rowling

‘STOP! I FORBID YOU!’ yelled Uncle Vernon in panic.
Aunt Petunia gave a gasp of horror.
‘Ah, go boil yer heads, both of yeh,’ said Hagrid. ‘Harry – yer a wizard.’
There was silence inside the hut. Only the sea and the whistling wind could be heard.
‘I’m a what?’ gasped Harry.
‘A wizard, o’course.’ said Hagrid, sitting back down on the sofa, which groaned and sank even lower, ‘an’ a thumpin’ good’un, I’d say, once yeh’ve been trained up a bit. With a mum an’ dad like yours, what else would yeh be? An’ I reckon it’s about’ time yeh read yer letter.’

Harry Potter. Dumbledore. He-who-must-not-be-named. Quidditch. Muggles.
I’m back at Hogwarts. I have read the first 5 or 6 Harry Potters, I think, I know I definitely haven’t read the last one, but I have seen all the films. So despite the fact that I have 3 more books on my shelf that I need to read, now that I am the proud owner of the entire Harry Potter collection, with children’s covers, I’m going to read them all. If you’re not a Harry Potter fan, then it’s probably just the music posts for the next few months for you.

Starting again, at the beginning I quickly realised one thing, that these are primarily aimed at children, I don’t remember that as much from the first time I read it, but Rowling’s prose is very much aimed at the younger reader, or maybe it’s just the first few books. It didn’t really matter, it’s a beautifully easy read, and is still very funny in places. Then when the danger comes it still has the ability to hook you in.

So, basically Harry Potter is a wizard! who survived after his parents were killed by a big bad wizard whose name should not be mentioned. After spending the first 10 years of his life with his awful aunt and uncle, Hagrid, a half giant reveals to Harry what he is, and that he is enrolled into Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry, the foremost such place in the world. Thus Harry plunges headfirst into the wonderful world of wizardry. transfiguration, potions, defence against the dark arts (which, as you can guess, will come in quite useful), the wizard game of quidditch with it’s snitch and bludgers. As Harry completes his first year, complete with bullies (boo! Malfoy) and exams, he learns that something very important is hidden at Hogwarts, and someone is desperate to find it.

But what Harry Potter ultimately is, is a great story, and it casts a spell over your imagination that is a joy to experience. I want to be a wizard while reading this. Although I’m too old to go school, I would love to enrol at Hogwarts, wander down Diagon Alley and catch the Hogwarts express. After seeing the films you tend to picture the actors while you are reading, and indeed the school and even the games of quidditch, but even if you haven’t seen the films, you will still have an imagination filled with wands, Bertie Bots every flavour beans, potions and the odd invisibility cloak.

The story, which only starts here, is a classic good versus evil romp where even though I’ve read it before, and I know ultimately what happens, it does not detract at all from the pleasure of reading it. In fact there was a point when Harry first arrives at Hogwarts that set the cogs in my whirring until I had worked out the ending of this book, but there was plenty I’d forgotten. And one of the things I’m looking forward to this time around is by reading the books one after the other, I can keep tabs on the characters and story.

So after finding the philosophers stone, I’ve locked myself in the chamber of secrets with a packet of chocolate frogs.

Harry stood up.
‘Sir-Professor Dumbledore? Can I ask you something?’
‘Obviously, you’ve just done so.’ Dumbledore smiled. ‘You may ask me one more thing, however.’
‘What do you see when you look in the Mirror?’
‘I? I see myself holding a pair of thick, woollen socks.’
Harry stared.
‘One can never have enough socks,’ said Dumbledore.
‘Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books.’

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SPQR – A History of Rome – Mary Beard

For his First Catilinarian speech, and especially for it’s famous first line (‘How long, Catiline, will you go on abusing our patience?’), still lurks in twenty-first century political rhetoric, is plastered on modern political banners and is fitted conveniently into the 140 characters of a tweet. All you need do is insert the name of your particular modern target. Indeed, a stream of tweets and other headlines posted over the time I was writing this book swapped the name ‘Catilina’ for, among others, those of the presidents of the United States, France and Syria, the mayor of Milan and the State of Israel: ‘Quo usque tandem abutere, Francois Hollande, patientia nostra?’

So, back to Rome. I am one of the multitude that is fascinated by the Empire and it’s rise and fall. Only this time I would be hitting the heavyweights, Mary Beard: world renowned and respected historian. But how would it compare with Mike Duncan’s history of Rome podcast, still my benchmark for a quality podcast and for Roman History? Should I even try to compare them? Well it’s my blog so I’m going to say yes.

Mary Beard doesn’t so much peek as lift up and shine a bright light under the sleek veneer of Roman History, revealing tidbits such as the word candidate coming from the latin word candidatus, meaning whitened, regarding the special white toga’s worn by the Romans. This is revealed while Beard pulls apart Cesare Maccari’s painting of Cicero denouncing Catiline, the powerful moment in Rome’s early history that Beard picks up her history before she zips back to the beginning of the beginning and the real life / mythical tale of Romulus and Remus.

Beard spends a lot of time picking apart the myths and legends of Rome, the founding of the Republic, the rise of the plebians, from earlier scholars, themselves based on the prism of the Roman’s version of their own history. As the city expands, as the empire expands, as the Emporer’s come (and go) the idea of Rome, of what it was to be Roman, was constantly evolving, the Roman’s incredibly adept at rewriting their own history retrospectively, so that it suited the times that they were in. It i.s also particularly relevant today, looking at how the Roman’s dealt with the influx of people from all over their empire moving to the city with their own fashions and customs and the impact this had on ‘Roman-ness’

There is a treasure trove of information in this book, and Beard effortlessly combines fascinating facts with wry observations that prick through the pomposity of the subject and the Roman’s themselves. Using a chunk of Cicero’s letters and those of Pliny the younger, as well as archaeology and other research, and even previous histories, SPQR looks at the lives of ordinary citizens of the city, who became the centre of an incredible and diverse empire and so had to constantly evaluate themselves and their role within it. Highlighting that the city started properly with the effective kidnapping and raping of women from the next village, there are elements of the Romans that are as backward as they are enlightened, with some ideas and laws existing today in the same or slightly evolved form.

If Caesar really did advocate life imprisonment in 63 BCE, then it was probably the first time in Western history that this was mooted as an alternative to the death penalty, without success. Relying on the emergency powers decree, and so on the vociferous support of many senators, Cicero had the men summarily executed, with not even a show trial Triumphantly, he announced their deaths to the cheering crowd in a famous one-word euphemism: vixere, ‘they have lived’ – that is, ‘they’re dead’.

A look at the succession of Emperors it is not, although when they arrive, through the mighty yet conservative Augustus, to Caracalla, who gifting of citizenship which Beard finishes her history with, their actions with regards to management and succession is looked at through it’s impact on the empire and the city. Despite his greatness Beard points out that Augustus never really formalised the relationship between the Emperor and the Senate, and while he cleverly enveloped them into part of the empires civil service, to the extent that when he died they were incapable of trying to grab the power to run the empire back, the lack of demarcation caused issues for his successors further down the line. When Pliny was in charge of a province, it appears he corresponded directly to the Emperor  to ask questions regarding matters of office, which he more often than not received a reasonably prompt response.

It’s not all politics though, there are gambling on dice in the ports, barbarians and the exotic on the fringes it was interesting to note that a woman did not take her husbands name after marriage, or fall completely under his legal authority. When her father died an adult woman could own property in her own right, but and sell, inherit or make a will and free slaves. Beard points out that many of these rights women in Britain did not receive until the 1870’s.

SPQR is an incredible piece of work, over 500 pages of fascinating history, dollops and dollops of further reading and even a timeline (if that’s your thing). Beard has meticulously researched this, over a lifetime, has collated and organised and has also written in a wonderfully flowing, easy prose. Pointing out the obvious inaccuracies, or where it is impossible to know something for sure. But there is lots we can be certain of, and for lovers of Rome and the Romans, this is a fantastic read, and probably reaches details that Mike Duncan’s podcast doesn’t, but he goes right to the end of the western empire, so it’s swings and roundabouts. I tell you what, listen to that and read this. Everyone’s a winner.

After his long familiarity with the Romans, the king no doubt expected a rather civil meeting. Instead, Laenas handed him a decree of the senate instructing him to withdraw from Egypt immediately. When Antiochus asked for time to consult his advisors, Laenas picked up a stick and drew a circle in the dust around him. There was to be no stepping out of that circle before he had given his answer. Stunned, Antiochus meekly agreed to the senate’s demands. This was an empire of obedience.

 

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