On the Reading List


I have been a little remiss in saying what my current books in progress are lately.  I am now reading:

  • Guadalcanal, by Richard Frank.  I am just after Savo Island right now.
  • If Rome Hadn’t Fallen, by Timothy Venning. Just started.
  • Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East, by David Stahel. Another book showing how the wheels were coming off early on, when appearances seemed to show great progress.
  • Salem Witch Trials – a chapter in Notable Historical Trials II
  • The Desert Generals, by Corelli Barnett.  Just starting out.
  • Desert War Trilogy II, by Alan Moorehead.  I pushed this down the queue somewhat earlier, as the author is off in India watching politics.

The Fall of the Roman Empire – Peter Heather

I started reading this favorite again as I was reading ‘How Rome Fell’ and trying to compare its coverage of the subject of the Fall of Rome to this book. It came up short in most respects because, for one thing, ‘How Rome Fell’ really was a condensed summary of about two-thirds of the entire history of the empire, with a ‘bonus’ extension into the reconquest under Justinian.

Heather’s book is different – it starts in the 370’s, when the Gothic incursion to escape the Huns got out of hand, leading to the disaster at Adrianople, up until the dissolving of the West a century later. His thesis is simple enough – that the pressure of the migration of the Goths, Vandals, Alans, and Suevi induced by the Huns was too much to be resisted at once, causing parts of the Empire to be occupied, making it weaker, and less able to fight the growth of these occupied areas.  A major secondary disaster was the later move of the Vandals into the rich province of Africa, and the ultimate failure to reverse the situation.

With much of its productive areas occupied or under attack, the West needed some luck, some leadership, and some help to recover.  It didn’t get a lot of any of the three. There was never a combination of good military and political leadership at the same time, except perhaps in the era of Majorian.  Help from the East was inconsistent until very near the end, and the luck of the Empire was pretty much out from start to finish.

Could it have been prevented? I think that it could have been.  If, for example, Stilicho had been able to turn Alaric and the Visigoths into an ally instead of foe then the combined force might well have been able to manage the invasions of Gaul in 406.  In reality, the forces Gaul went unchecked, the Roman general Stilicho was killed by the emperor, and much of the Roman army joined Alaric and sacked Rome in 410. Hard to think of a worse outcome, but even so Rome recovered to a surprising extent in the following decades.

And the idea of using ‘barbarians’ to reinvigorate the Empire is not so far-fetched.  The ‘barbarians’ of Spain were providing troops in the early Empire and Emperors like Trajan and Hadrian a century and a half later.  The Illyrian emperors in the mid 200s saved the Empire that was expanding into their region in the era of Augustus and Tiberius.  Even generals like Stilicho and Ricimer in the twilight years were just a generation away from being ‘barbarian’ but were the backbone of the army.  It isn’t hard to imagine an Empire holding the Mediterranean basin and southern Gaul more or less permanently.

The book is an excellent view and defends its thesis well, using archaeologic information as well as ancient histories.  It shows that the real situation was a lot more complicated than ‘us versus them’ – barbarians wanted to join the empire rather than destroy it, the empires tended to create the barbarian ‘nations’ that they faced, and Rome used the invaders against each other to try to survive.

Review of Knight’s Cross – David Fraser

This book is the life of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the famous “Desert Fox” from the campaigns in France and North Africa in World War II.  A book on Rommel runs the risk of degenerating into a ‘debunker’ book or a ‘fanboi’ book.  I’m glad to say that this one is neither – it is rather a good history of an excellent general who was not without flaws.  The biography balances the pros and cons both in the military life and in his support of the current Nazi regime.

The book also describes Rommel’s First World War service and his interwar development, as well as his attempt to defend against the Allied invasion of France, which are often neglected when an author wants to go to the famous parts of a life.

All in all an excellent book.

TV Review – Rome, Rise and Fall of an Empire: Constantine

This series of documentaries is cycling though on TIVO and I caught this episode on the life of the Roman Emperor Constantine. The series picks several events in the life of the empire – some even before it starts, like Marius and Caesar.  The best part is that it actually has more coverage near the end – it has at least three episodes after 400 AD – one on Stilicho, Ricimer and Majorian, and one on Odoacer who puts and end to the Western Empire.

It is a good series, and it provides a lot of information while using reinactor skits for key battles and events to add some punch. You do start to recognize the foot soldiers as they reuse them, but the main characters are well cast.

The history is pretty accurate, although saying that Constantine’s rise to co-emperor was valid while Maxentius was a nasty usurper is a little forced.  The casting of Maxentius is great – he looks like that annoying guy in high school you always wanted to smack. He even looks a lot like the bust I saw on Wikipedia.

Aside from his initial nomination, the show doesn’t pull that many punches about Constantine’s ambition to be sole emperor and wiping out the others, and also his execution of his own son Crispus.

Worth watching for sure.

Notable Historical Trials II – Alice Lisle

I recently finished this chapter in the Folio Society’s collection of historical trials.  This trial is part of the “Bloody Assizes”, where after an abortive rebellion by the Earl of Monmouth, James II dissipated his support amongst the Protestant nobility by conducting a number of treason trials in the country near where Monmouth’s army was defeated.

Alice Lisle was accused of harboring a pair of refugees from the final battle to help them escape pursuit.  While the protestations of unknowingness are a bit strained, still it was not uncommon to give some slack for women who did such things, since they were considered ‘the gentler sex’ and not part of politics as such.  The trial reads strangely for our ears since the judge is the prosecutor, and the punishment of burning alive seems a little much.  In the end it was commuted to death by sword by the king, but, again, James made no friends by savagely going after the remnants of a rebellion that was almost comical in its ineptness.

This would be remembered three years later, and the next attempt to unseat the King would work bloodlessly. The judge in this trial was imprisoned and died in custody.

Review of 428 AD – Giusto Traina

This is an interesting little volume because it does not follow a single campaign or figure, but instead moves through the Late Roman Empire in the year 428 AD and gives a snapshot of events in the year and how they impacted each other.  There is a little foreshadowing, but mainly the text sticks to the ‘slice of life’.

From the end of the Roman Armenian kingdom in the east to the African provinces waiting for the impending Vandal invasion, the picture is of an empire approaching crisis, but not at the end of its tether yet. The West might still have been saved despite its troubles if it could have kept the Vandals out of Africa and started reducing the other Barbarian states. Ten years later, with Africa fallen the situation was more critical by far as the strength of the West began to ebb.

A MIghty Fortress – David Weber

This is book 4 in the Safehold series. The framing story is that the remnants of humanity are hiding out on a far planet from a nasty alien race and have to abandon technology. Unfortunately the handlers had a difference of opinion on how to do this, and fought. The winners imposed a religious theocracy over the planet. Now a thousand years later, one ‘man’ has to work underground to break the hold of the theocracy to let man develop again.

In effect, though, this book is virtually an alternate history of the reformation era on earth.  The new technology that is introduced are cannon based galleons and naval cannon instead of the almost traditional ‘advanced gunpowder weapons’ in books like Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen.

It reads like a history as well, as the huge number of characters keeps any one person from shining as a character. Even ‘Merlin’ the world changer, is reduced to watching and waiting on developments and trying to build the resources of his alliance opposing the Theocracy.

Now, as you can tell, I like reading history, so this suits me fine. If you want a more character driven story, then this series won’t be for you.