Vanished Kingdoms – Alt Clud

English: Dumbarton Rock The River Leven in the...

Dumbarton Rock: The River Leven in the foreground joins the River Clyde at this point. Dumbarton FC’s new Strathclyde Homes Stadium can be seen by the rock as can the remaining red brick towers of the recently demolished Ballantines distillery. Viewed from a Glasgow-bound Boeing 747. See also 674060 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m falling a bit behind in recounting these chapters in Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdoms book.  The second chapter is about another kingdom born out of the end of the Roman Empire in Europe, this one on the border of Scotland, in the area of Glasgow.  Dumbarton Rock was the site of a castle that formed a kingdom during the Dark Ages – The Kingdom of the Rock.

This Kingdom was run by the old British/Celtic and had to contend with the Scots, Picts, and Angles.  One tradition says that this kingdom was where St. Patrick was born before being carried off to Ireland.  Another tradition is that King Arthur himself was from this kingdom.

The Kingdom remained a ‘player’ in the wars during the next several centuries.  In the 870s, the Vikings sacked Alt Clud. Some of the Britons retired to Wales or safer parts of England.  The remainder moved inland to form the district of Strathclyde in the kingdom of Alba.  From there, the distinctiveness of the area faded as it merged into the greater “Scotland”

Dumbarton Rock, Alt Cluath, captured by Amlaíb...

Dumbarton Rock, Alt Cluath, captured by Amlaíb and Ímar after a four-month siege in 870. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The Great Fire of Rome – Stephen Dando-Collins

From the statue in Rome. The Emperor Nero.

From the statue in Rome. The Emperor Nero. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


I’ve read a few books by Dando-Collins, and liked them all.  He has produced several books on the history of a single legion, and “The Ides” which is moment by moment recounting of the assassination of Caesar.


This book is similar to that, recounting the ‘turning point’ that led to the end of the Julio-Claudian line of Emperors.  First the Great Fire of Rome undercut the popularity of the Emperor Nero, and then the subsequent attempts to shift the blame and crush the conspiracies that were springing up removed what was left, until finally the revolt of Galba left Nero alone and without support.  Nero’s suicide meant a four-cornered civil war for control of the empire.

Collins doesn’t come down squarely on the issue of whether Nero started the fire through agents or not.  Certainly there were rumors from the time that he had, which were probably false ones.  A good emperor (like Titus a decade or so later) can have his reputation enhanced by his response to a disaster.  The fact that the rumors started soon and were so readily believed showed that discontent with the singing Emperor was already present before the fire.

In my opinion, it was the response to the fire that really sealed the deal.  After the fire Nero re-laid out the city to have larger roads and better building codes.  This change was jarring enough, but the fact that much of the city center was reserved for a huge palace complex for Nero alone probably locked in the grumbling onto Nero.  “Who Profts” is an old question, and here it looked like Nero had.

Nero soon attempted to fix the blame on someone else.  According to Dando-Collins, the despised religious sect that took the blame was not the Christians, who had too low a profile, but the devotees of Isis.  They had a cult interest in fire, and were much more alien than even the Jews, or splinter groups of Jews were.   But even this backfired, as the punishments he put on them were judged to be too extreme.

Discontent among the Senate led to plots, and failed plots led to repression and executions in a downward spiral until one plot didn’t get crushed.

Dando-Collins has a little bit at the end imagining that if the fire had not happened then there might have been a revivification of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.  I’m skeptical.  Nero was a flake, and had no heir.  There was already discontent over that, and eventually it would have boiled over.  It was probably just as well that a new line was set up, the Flavians, after the year of the Four Emperors.


Roman Conquests: Italy – Ross Cowan

This book is the first in a series put out by Pen and Sword publishing about the expansion of the Roman state.  This book is the expansion from a tiny city-state in 753 BC or thereabouts to the final conquest of Italy below the Po Valley in the 250 BC time frame.

The book is not a long one, and the information is packed thick, even though there isn’t a lot of source material to work with – mainly Livy.  The author does a good job of putting out more realistic theses and pointing out possible spin by the Roman mythmakers without scoffing.  He has the habit of translating the cognomens of Romans – ‘nicknames’ that Romans used to distinguish men, and the separate lines of a large extended family.  For instance, the cognomen ‘Caesar’ means ‘fine head of hair’, which kind of embarrassed the balding Gaius Julius Caesar.  It gives a different feel to the narrative when Cornelius Cossus Arvina is set down as “Greasy Worm Cornelius”.  It sounds more like a Mafia Don than a regal, staid movie Roman.  It probably is a closer picture of reality in 350 BC, though.

To sum up the whole period, Rome grew and prospered because they were far more determined than rival states.  Often wars started out badly, but rather than quit, Rome kept on until victory finally came.  They learned and adapted better than anyone else around to changing conditions.  It served them well in this period, and even more so when Hannibal came a bit later.

For me, this hit the mark a little better than the Rise of Rome by Everitt.  I like the concentration of the book on a single subject instead of trying to hit everything in a 700 year period.  I hope the next books in the series do as well as this one.

Battle Studies – Ardant du Picq

Ardant du Picq was a French officer in the 19th Century.  His work on the behavior of men in combat was published after his death in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 and has remained relevant to this day.

du Picq studied reports of armies in combat from ancient times to the present and demonstrated several interesting effects that seem contradictory.  For example in ancient battles, although the danger lies to the front, it is troops in the rear that break and run first.  Lacking the exertion of actually fighting for their lives, they have nothing to do but face the fear.

Ardant du Picq

Ardant du Picq (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In modern times, similar rules apply. Troops want to defend themselves by firing back as quickly as possible.  The theoretical orderly firing by lines or platoons or by volley basically breaks down at once into each man firing as fast as he can.

The vaunted ‘bayonet charge’ is also found to be impossible to locate.  Most degraded back into a firefight, and the remainder had the defender retire before the two sides came into contact at all.

The situation is even more extreme with a cavalry charge.  One side or the other breaks off before contact is made.

du Picq did emphasize the offensive as the best way to impose your moral force on the opponent, but those who claim him as an ultimate ancestor to the offensive à outrance theory of World War I are misguided.  For one thing, is dismissal of the bayonet charge and recommendation of using skirmishers is contrary to the ‘human wave’ nature of the theory.

And also, as Zuber seems to have demonstrated in The Real German War Plan, both the Schlieffen plan and the French offensive plan that countered it were straw men put up to give post war Generals something to hang the defeats on besides themselves.  For one thing, the military manuals describing the new “Offense to the Limit” were not distributed until months before the war.  Most troops would have never trained even once using these new theories.

It is a lot easier to say that some dead guy messed up the plan than to say that the troops I trained just weren’t ready for combat – or that you messed up in the action yourself.

du Picq was one of the first men to look at how men react in battle as men, rather than look at alignments, technology or even leadership.  His conclusion is that most of the time, those last three matter a lot less than everyone imagines.

Reading Update – October


It has been a while since I have done one of these updates giving what book I am in the middle of.  This is not the full list though.

  • The Collapse of the Third Republic – William Shirer‘s book on the fall of France, 1940.  I’ve just started, and he’s giving an overview of how well their government worked in the 1880s.  The answer is, not at all well.  This is my lunch walkabout book.
  • Roman Conquests: Italy – A book about the early wars of Rome.  Also just starting.
  • The Wars against Napoleon – A revisionist look at Old Nappy.  Has some interesting points, but probably takes its thesis a bit too far for the evidence.  Nappy was not really a pacifist.  About two-thirds done, but gets put aside a lot
  • Cats are Not Peas – A quick intro to Cat Genetics.  Also just starting.
  • War of the Jewels – A look into Tolkien’s notes for the Silmarillion.
  • Vanished Kingdoms – on Aragon.
  • Barbarossa Derailed II –  Glantz’ study of the 1941 Russian War.  My reading of it is also derailed!
  • Notable Trials IV – on Lincoln’s Assassins.  Not a lot left in the collection.
  • Battle Studies by Du Picq.  A famous tactics book from the 1800s on Kindle
  • A collection on Kindle of “Scientific Mysteries” whose name I forget. Kind of interesting.  I’ll get the name in full later.

The Rise of Rome – Anthony Everitt

The Rise of Rome is a history of Rome from its founding in 753 BC to near the end of the Republic in the first century BC.  It is a pretty ambitious goal, and for the most part Everitt pulls it off and so the book is a good overview of the subject.

Everitt tends to deal more in the personalities and events rather than the details of campaigns and politics, which is alright, but left me wanting more at times.  On the other hand, since there are about 200 pages before the arrival of Pyrrhus and 100 more before the Punic Wars, the book is a nice contrast to normal histories that pass over much of this in a short chapter or two.

There follows a large section on the two Punic Wars, again focused more on the star Hannibal and the developing star of Scipio Africanus, than on tactics and troop movements.  Then a nice coda of the move into Greece and the final war and destruction of Carthage is well handled, and it seemed like the author realized that he was out of time or space for the next century or so and began to hurry.

This I didn’t like so much.  And the mistakes started to be noticeable too.  For example the German invaders that Gaius Marius defeated are called Germans at first and then are repeatedly referred to as “Celts”.  Characters become cardboard — Marius and Sulla are “bad men”.  Well maybe so, but what kind and why?  For a book that was a study of persons, the difference here is glaring.  At least he ends the book early and avoids the standard hatchet job on Julius Caesar.

This hits on an irritating feature of virtually all histories of the latter Republic.  Historians project contemporary history back onto Rome, and the shoe doesn’t fit well.  For one thing, there was no “Senate” entity that you can place in opposition to your bad guy or hero.  Tiberius Gracchus was just as much a Senator as the group that ended up beating him to death.  The Senate is just a contending ground for individuals and shifting factions – you might as well say that the battlefield of Cannae defeated the Romans instead of Hannibal and his army.

There were no ‘parties’ in Rome.  Alliances were personal as well as ideological.  The powerful “Boni” that tried to suppress the Gracchi, Livius Drusus, and later Pompey, Caesar and Crassus had no more moral high ground than any street gang defending their turf.  Sure, the source material favors that side, as the losers wrote the surviving histories.   It sure seems odd that a clique of aristocrats trying to stop all adaptation and change has found such favor with the usual Marxist leanings of professors and historians.

Well, this is getting off the track.  The truncated end of Everitt’s book means that while he has the same issues, they don’t last as long as usual.

This book is very good one up to about 180 BC.  It probably should have been ended there, or extended a few hundred more pages.  As the earlier part of Rome’s growth is usually glossed over, the fact that the reverse happens here is refreshing.

The Maps of Antietam – Bradley M. Gottfried

This book is an atlas of the Antietam campaign in the American Civil War.  It is part of a series that so far has done First Bull Run, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga.

Since it is an atlas of the campaign rather than just the battle, it includes the movements that led up to the battle, which in this case is the crossing of the Potomac and the taking of Frederick, MD, the move to take Harper’s Ferry and the counter-moves by McClellan that produced the battles of South Mountain and Crampton’s Gap, and then the fall of Harper’s Ferry and the battle itself.

The format is a good one for map lovers, as the right side page is a full-sized map and the facing page on the left is text for that map.  You never have to flip 50 pages back to refer to a map when reading the text of this book!

The text isn’t breaking a whole lot of new ground, but it is clear that the author is up to date with the rest of the field and used the information in preparing it.  And I don’t think that this is a bad thing – the main ‘new information’ is the frequency and accuracy of the maps themselves.  They are more or less one per day or more up to the battle and every few hours at most in the battle sections.  Each is full color, and the ground is marked with contour lines, and what kind of greenery and crops are present there.  The paper is has a glossy finish that makes the maps stand out well.  The background of the cover is one of the maps, on the opening of the battle.

It also isn’t too large a book to be carried on a battlefield tramp or to be used as a reference to follow the text of other books on the battle.

I’ve liked all the books in the series, and I look forward to it continuing, and for modern technology to be used to add more and better maps to all books.