Rome’s Wars in Parthia: Blood in the Sand – Rose Mary Sheldon

I was interested in this book because the campaigns of Rome in the East are often glossed over in the more general histories of the time.   I’ve also often wondered if these campaigns diverted too much attention away from the Rhine and Danube then they were worth.  I was looking for information to answer these questions.  I’m still looking.  The only thing I learned is that Rose Mary Sheldon doesn’t like George W. Bush.

I’m all for historical parallels, but Sheldon has a particular Procrustean manner of making the man fit the bed. She continually asserts about the peacefulness of the Parthians, who only wanted the Americans – oops – Romans to leave them alone.  Yet in her own text, she reveals that the Parthians started a good fraction of these wars, usually by trying to take the key client state of Armenia.  I prefer a more realistic view of ancient relations where states often seize on a real or perceived opportunity to expand without labelling one side demons or angels.  Maybe that’s just me, and I need to get the program that shows which ancient tribes and nations are nice and which are nasty.

A particularly egregious example is her touting the revolt of Avidius Cassius in Syria as a kind of national uprising against Rome’s “Army of Occupation”.  This is a farcical portrayal of the situation, and actually contradicts her own summary of the revolt in the main text.  Cassius was a Roman officer who declared himself Emperor when he heard the rumor that Emperor Marcus Aurelius had died.  In no way can this analagous to an aspiration of the Syrians to be free of Rome.

It is also disturbing that about the only Roman act that meets with unqualified approval is Emperor Caracalla inviting Parthian notables and officers to a wedding, then executing them all an ravaging the countryside.  Way to stay classy, Rose!

There are a number of these distortions and  contradictions.  Sheldon is a professor of Military Intelligence, and you can tell because the word “Intelligence” is sprinkled through the text randomly to prove it.  The summary of Roman intelligence failures is almost amusing.  After trashing Rome for not having a general staff (something that wasn’t invented until about 1700 more years), there’s the amusing labeling of Rome’s use of non-professional generals as “Intelligence Failure”.  Sure, this trait caused problems through Rome’s history, but you can’t make it an intelligence issue just by throwing the word in front.

Even viewing this book as an indictment of US policy, it is a bad book.  The history is distorted and the parallels forced.  As a history of Rome or Parthia, it is worthless.  In places you can see a normal historical narrative peeking through the modern slant, but there’s too much chaff and too little wheat to make the effort.

Anyone know of a good book on the Parthian Wars?


Vanished Kingdoms – Tolosa

I’ve started reading Vanished Kingdom’s by Norman Davies. It is pretty interesting, and I think it merits a similar treatment to the Notable Trials – a chapter by chapter discussion.

The book itself is about kingdoms and nations in Europe that existed in the past but are now gone – some without much trace, others with more of a current impact.

The first chapter is on the Visigothic kingdom in France.   After Alaric‘s sack of Rome and his death, the new king Ataulf accepted an alliance to fight in Gaul against other invaders with a view to getting land for a settlement.  Around 415, they got it, and settled in the area of Aquitaine.  After some expansion they made Tolosa, modern Toulouse, their capital.

The Goths in Gaul made their biggest impact in history by helping to drive off Atilla’s invasion in 451 at the Battle of Catalunian Fields.  Their king was killed in the battle, but Gaul was saved.  As the Western Empire faded, their power grew until a good third of  Gaul was under their control.  At one point, their puppet Emperor Avitus was ruling the West as well. Around this time the Goths were allowed to expand into Spain, finally taking most of it to rule.

English: Map of the Visigothic kingdom. I crea...

English: Map of the Visigothic kingdom. I created this work entirely by myself. Sources: Cambridge medieval history, Euratlas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the final fall of the Western Empire, there were only two powers in Gaul – the Goths and the Franks.  In 507, Alaric II the king fought Clovis the Frank and was defeated and killed.  The disaster let the Franks occupy virtually all of the kingdom’s lands in Gaul, leaving the Visigoths to rule in Spain until the Moslem invasions a few centuries later.  They never were able to recover their position, and the Franks were masters of Gaul, or rather Francia – France.

Notable Historical Trials – John Brown

Salt print, three quarter length portrait of J...

Salt print, three quarter length portrait of John Brown. Reproduction of daguerreotype attributed to Martin M. Lawrence. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another chapter down in the Folio Society‘s book on Historical Trials.  This time we are back in the USA in 1859. for the John Brown raid on Harper’s Ferry.I’ve never been a fan of John Brown, or comfortable with this adulation.  I tend to take the North’s view of matters of the time, but Brown isn’t ‘on my side’.  The Pottawatomie massacre, where he killed 5 settlers in reprisal for the pro-Slavery Border Ruffian‘s attack and sack of Lawrence, Kansas puts him outside the pale.  I won’t say he wasn’t provoked, as the other side’s crimes were severe, but that doesn’t excuse him.

At Harper’s, Brown wanted to raise a slave insurrection and have the slaves defend an area in the South.  While this was ‘better’ than the violence at Pottawatomie, it still was violence if more of a paramilitary than criminal kind.  And of course, it was also wildly irrational.  Most slaves were not willing to erupt into violence, and even those that might have been couldn’t see that fighting the forces that the Southern states and the US could have brought to bear made a lot of sense.

English: 'The Last Moments of John Brown', oil...

After a short siege and assault, Brown was wounded and captured, and after a short trial where most of Brown’s requests for delays because of his lack of counsel and his wounds were refused, sentenced to death. I understand the need for Virginia to get this over with to avoid any trouble with the slaves, but given their unresponsiveness to the original assault a delay of a few days could not hurt.  Look what Boston did for the perpetrators of the Boston Massacre.

Brown’s bearing at the trial and execution impressed many, and not only those in the North or abolitionists. The real effects of the raid were not on the slaves, but the masters.  Even the isolated and marginalized support for Brown in the north infuriated the slaveholders and boosted the political power of the secessionists.  In about a year, they would make their own move, which was only a bit more rational than Brown’s and precipitate the Civil War.

John Brown got his way in the end.

Pacific Crucible – Ian W. Toll

As you can tell on this blog, one of the subjects I’m reading up on these days is WWII in the Pacific. There was Shattered Sword, a new view on Midway. and a book on Leyte Gulf.  Whichever one started the process, the good books on the campaigns  led me to get another and another.

The Pacific has three phases. There is the early period where Japan ran wild, a ‘swing period’ where the two sides contended on more equal terms, and then the island hopping advance once the US Navy had overwhelming force.  Most histories I’ve seen tend to follow the winners, talking about Japan up to Midway and the USN after that.  I have three books that cover Midway, but none that cover the Battle of Coral Sea or any battle before that.

This book drops right into that gap and it is a good book as well. It follows the Navy as it recovers from Pearl Harbor and tries to learn how to contend with the Kido Butai, the Japanese Carrier Force.  While no carriers were lost at Pearl Harbor, the USN was outnumbered in carriers substantially, they did not have the elite training in operating as a  unit, and the US aircraft were inferior to the point of obsolescence.  This is even aside from the inferior and defective torpedoes that often did not detonate,, due to differences in the sea conditions from where they were tested.

Trying to find ways to hit back and restrict the Japanese advance without losing too many carriers and men in the process was difficult.  If you sat and did nothing, the ships would be just as inexperienced at the next meeting.  If your forces were crushed, there wouldn’t be anyone left to learn from.  It is a difficult balancing act.

So the carriers were sent out to attack bases where the Kido Butai was absent to gain some experience without undue risk.  Then a pair of carriers were sent on the Doolittle Raid.  Again all of these were aimed at hitting where resistance was known to be light.

This period ended with the Japanese plan to invade Port Moresby.  A base there would threaten the link to Australia, and code breakers determined that the two US carriers that could get there would only be met by 2 large Japanese carriers, and the least experienced ones at that.  So the Lexington and Yorktown were sent to face the Shokaku and Zuikaku at the battle of Coral Sea.

As you might expect, it was something of a mess.  Yorktown opened the battle by pasting a base at Tulagi.  This brought the Japanese out to hunt.  Bad spotting reports for both sides led to the US planes to attack the light carrier Shoho and sink her.  This mistake was matched by the Japanese sending a massive strike to a single tanker and destroyer.   The Japanese attempted a second strike at sunset that missed spotting the carriers in the overcast and darkness.  In trying to return, some of these planes tried to land on the US carriers!   Many planes and pilots were lost in the raid to no effect.

English: Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho is to...

English: Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho is torpedoed, during attacks by U.S. Navy carrier aircraft in the late morning of 7 May 1942. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The next day each side launched a full strike, which passed each other on the way.  The US flights scattered, each carrier separate from the others and the torpedo bombers separate from dive bombers.  Partly this was inexperience, partly due to the differing performance of the planes which made it hard to keep together.  The US damaged Shokaku.  The Japanese hit the Lexington and damaged the Yorktown.  Each side retired, and the invasion was cancelled.  So the US force gained its objective.

The two Japanese carriers were out of action for the battle of Midway – Zuikaku due to aircrew losses.  The Japanese did not shift squadrons from carrier to carrier as the US did.   The Lexington sank due to additional damage from exploding gas fumes.  This taught damage control how to minimize this danger going forward.  Yorktown alone was able to be repaired in time to be present at Midway, beefed up by a fresh torpedo squadron.

Damage to the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft ...

Damage to the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier Shokaku sustained on May 8, 1942 during the Battle of the Coral Sea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This turned out to be the difference at Midway.  Yorktown’s planes sank the Soryu, and it took the brunt of both Japanese attacks.  Damage control was so good the second strike thought she was undamaged and struck her again with what turned out to be fatal damage.  Enterprise and Hornet would have been met by two carriers after the first US strike without Yorktown present, and the loss of both would have been likely.

This would have made subsequent operations harder to face with a 2-1 carrier advantage.against us.  As it was, the Guadalcanal operations reduced the fleet down to 1 carrier before the Essex class units arrived in 1943.  The Japanese would have been a lot harder to face in this period without the losses they took in this period and the learning we did in the process.

Notable Historical Trials IV – Dr. William Palmer

Another chapter down in the Folio Society‘s collection of historical trials.  This one took place in 1856.  Doctor William Palmer liked to live high and gamble, but his losses soon outpaced his earnings and savings.  His solution was to start killing people to win inheritances, or kill his creditors to wipe out the debt.

There were a few cases where he poisoned someone who had just won some money at the races, and would insert a forged promise to assume some of Palmer’s debt onto the corpse.

Why is this notable?  Probably just that in England in that day crime was thought to be class based.  The fact that a respected professional like Palmer could run wild was very surprising and disturbing.

Spoiled Rotten – Jay Cost

I’ve enjoyed Jay Cost’s original blog and his later articles on the web and found him to be an astute analyst.  So when I saw his book I decided to pick it up.  The book is about the development of the Democratic party in the last century or so.  The thesis is that the party has become a collection of contending client groups so much so that the ability of the party to effectively govern is gone.

In the early 1900s the Democrats were a coalition of ‘anti-Republicans’ opposing the dominance of the GOP. The traditional ‘common man’ was one such group, but there also were the city machines, urban reformers, and the ‘Solid South’ which traded its support to keep anyone from interfering with the south.  As such, much like the Whigs a century before, they had trouble uniting behind a candidate and winning national elections.  The solution was to increasingly lock in voters in client blocs with national patronage, replacing the local patronage that had let city machines dominate local politics.

One of the first was the progressive wing, then in the 30s came the unions.  Both of these blocs were a threat to the southern wing.  The liberals and Republicans were a threat to the segregationist cultural policy, and the unions wanted to expand south which was also anathema to the bloc.  As the Solid South was easing out, the Democrats replaced them with more firm client groups – the Black Caucus, and then other liberal ideological groups – women’s groups, the gay lobby and so on.

The problem is that these groups expect returns when the Democrats are in power, and increasingly the changing needs of the electorate are opposed by the desires of the pressure groups.  And still, the party has trouble with candidates representing the party – the last three Presidential winners (Carter, Clinton, and Obama) were outsiders who then had to try to steer the party in ways that it didn’t want to go,  Carter failed to do so, Clinton was able to get some things pass when the Democrats lost power in the Congress, and Obama essentially abandoned the electorate to satisfy the pressure groups alone.

The Ghosts of Cannae – Robert L. O’Connell

Hannibal Barca counting the rings of the Roman...

Hannibal Barca counting the rings of the Roman knights killed at the Battle of Cannae (216 BC). Marble, 1704. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This book is subtitiled Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic.  It is built around the battle of Cannae, Rome’s greatest defeat.  It follows Hannibal to the battle, and then follows the ‘ghosts’ of the battle for the rest of the war and even beyond.

At the start of the Second Punic War, Hannibal led an army into Italy and inflicted defeats at the River Trebia,  and again at Lake Trasimene.  For a year Fabius Maximus, the “Delayer” avoided defeat by avoiding battle.

This didn’t suit the Roman character well, and in 216 BC they decided to create the largest Roman army ever formed, some 80000 men, to eliminate Hannibal.

At the end of the day at Cannae, 60000 or more of these men were dead, Rome’s allies in the area were defecting to Hannibal, and few doubted that the war would end.

Nobody told the Romans, though.  Showing how different they were from other nations, even this disaster did not make them give up.  The survivors of the battle were exiled to Sicily, never to be disbanded or allowed to return home.  They went back to avoiding battle and managed to subdue the defecting cities under Hannibal’s nose, and took away his base in Spain.  The war began to turn in their favor.

By 204 BC, Scipio Africanus was ready to invade Africa himself, and used the Ghosts in Sicily as the core of his new army.  Hannibal was still in Italy, but after Scipio was camped before the city of Carthage he was recalled to face Scipio.

At Zama, in 202 BC Scipio and his ghosts defeated Hannibal at Zama, ending Carthage as a threat for good.  For this, they were finally allowed to go home after fifteen years of exile.

With the Old Breed – E. B. Sledge

“If the country is good enough to live in, it’s good enough to fight for.” With privilege goes responsibility. —  E. B. Sledge

This is an excellent book on the life on the firing line in the Pacific in WWII.  Sledge was a recruit who joined the 1st Marine Division after Guadalcanal, and served with the unit during the capture of Peleliu and Okinawa.  He fought with the old Marines from the pre-war period and later was the veteran trying to emulate the help they gave him in the later battles.

These were savage battles.  Peleliu cost about 50 percent casualties in the riflemen on the front line, while the enemy had to be killed to nearly the last man.  Sledge lists the 26 remaining men of the 65 veterans of Peleliu who landed at Okinawa that were still with the unit.  There was time for numerous replacements to be brought into line and knocked right back out.  The replacements didn’t have the same luck or survival skills that the veterans had.

The book doesn’t try to make the battles pretty, but rather the reverse.  Not every book on warfare has to stay down in the mud and blood with the line troops, but every reader needs to keep in mind that the cost of war is paid by the front line soldier.

The Frankish Empire – Thomas Hodgkin

Finished the final book in Hodgkin’s Folio Society series on The Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire.  This takes the situation in the West up to the death of Charlemagne.

The earlier alignment of the Papacy with the Byzantine Empire has been replaced by one with the Franks, who were strong enough to remove the Lombard threat for good.  The Pope received land in central Italy that would become the Papal States, which formalized the dual nature of the Papacy as both a religious leader and a secular one for the next thousand years or so, tempting Popes to muddle church matters with political ones.  Although the Franks rule supreme, already the signs are there of the future struggle between the Papacy and the German Holy Roman Emperors that would pop up in the future.

Meanwhile, the political exclusion of the Byzantines fueled the future religious separation into the Eastern Orthodox church that would be finalized in a few hundred years.

I always like reading this series even more so as I become more familiar with the period.  The breakup of Rome has become increasingly interesting to me in recent years.  I wonder if there is a similar overview of the next five hundred years available.