Roman Conquests: Egypt and Judaea – John D. Grainger

This Pen and Sword book has been in the queue to be written up for quite some time.  The Roman Conquests series collects the history of a sectio n of the Empire and summarizes it all in one place.  The strict chronological approach leads to gaps where Rome expanded into other sections and you lose focus.

In this book you stick in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea from 60 BC to after 70 AD, from Pompey’s first conquest of Jerusalem until the failure of the Great Jewish Revolt and the destruction of the city by the son of Emperor Vespasian.  There is a cast of characters from Pompey to Caesar to Cleopatra to Marc Antony to Augustus.  There is an interesting aside of an expedition deep into Arabia.  And then there is the Revolt.

The only missing element is the second revolt under Hadrian that led to the Diaspora.

These are excellent books and while brief, do give a good view of the historical evidence of some of the less well known aspects of Roman expansion.

1177 B.C. – The Year Civilization Collapsed – Eric H. Cline

Turning Points in Ancient History, Princeton Press

Shortly after 1200 B.C., most of the ancient empires in the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East collapsed at virtually the same moment.  The sole survivor, Egypt, itself retrenched and no longer was able to hold onto land in Asia.  The Hittites, the Mycenaeans, the Minoans in Crete all were no more, and many of their cities were burned down and never built again.  What happened?

This book is a short introduction to the late Bronze Age civilizations of the area and their surprisingly rich networks of communication and trade by land and sea.  We have found and translated many letters between the rulers of these empires as they played politics, traded and sometimes fought.  Recent evidence shows that the states were more interconnected culturally and economically than previously thought.

The book then looks at the causes of the disasters but doesn’t come to a firm conclusion about what happened.  It does debunk the theory that the “Sea Peoples” – several roaming nations that settled in the area later – were the main factor.  There are signs of major earthquakes, and of severe droughts.  And there are also signs of war as well.

The final best guess is a synthesis – that the interdependencies were so strong that the disruptions shook all the other states severely, making them susceptible to their own disruptions.  And once broken, the status quo could never be recovered and a new set of nations had to grow from the ashes – Greece, Israel, Persia, and Rome.

It is a short but good summary of current information about this time in history, with some interesting bits of palace backstabbings and dirty politics thrown in for spice.  I’ll be interested in the other books in the series.



Twilight of the Hellenistic World – Roberts and Bennett

Since Alexander rewrote the map of the eastern Mediterranean and the near East in the 330s BC, the history of that region was a story of contending states – Egypt under the Ptolemies, Syria, Macedonia – under Greek leadership.  Little in the 220s predicted that it would all be swept away and be replaced by a universal empire under Rome.  Histories of the period often get ahead of themselves and write the history as if this future was apparent from the start, or they just avoid the period and move on to a history of Rome from a Roman point of view.

At this time. Rome was looking to italy and the West, as the second Punic War versus Hannibal was in full swing.  The cities and states of Alexander’s successors had divided up his empire, but no one thought that matters were settled and anyone who thought they could have the power made attempts to carve out an empire of their own.  In Greece, Sparta was finally crushed as a power, and the other city-states formed leagues to attempt to keep up with the power of the states around them.  This was soon found to be a case of too-little, too-late and these leagues would fall under the domination of more powerful neighbors – such as Rome.

There were some major battles – Raphia, where Syria failed to defeat Egypt.  Instead Syria under Antiochus the Great moved East and subdued many of the provinces in Persia as Alexander had done.  Macedonia tried to put Greece under its heel with mixed success, and also tried to create an Empire to the north in the Balkans.

None of these states had any idea that within the next thirty years Rome would change the dynamics entirely – and neither did Rome itself.  It all goes to show that there usually isn’t a master plan for history.

Dividing the Spoils – Robin Waterfield

This is a pretty interesting book on the period just after the death of Alexander the Great, when his successors fought it out to see who, if anyone, could claim the his entire empire.

This is a period of history that I’m not all that familiar with, and this short but comprehensive treatment was rewarding if a bit confusing with the large number of players involved.  There are a dozen or so generals, two or three puppet-king heirs, a few conniving women powers behind the throne, and even a guest shot by Alexander the Great’s corpse, which gets stolen by one of the claimants on the way to Macedon to be buried.  It was an interesting time

I was a bit distracted with illness as I read this so a second reading might help with the cast of thousands.

An interesting take that the author has is how Alexander’s personal influence seemed to keep those that knew him tied to the dream of unification of the entire empire through war with the other successors.  When the next generation came to power, the contest was pretty much at once settled by dividing the land up between them.  But nobody who knew Alex was satisfied with half a loaf, even though many lost it all by reaching for the entire thing and ended up with nothing.

The Desert Generals – Correlli Barnett

The Desert Generals is an excellent book on the Desert War in North Africa in World War II.  It follows the British perspective, which is refreshing, since the temptation to make these campaigns all about Rommel is often overwhelming.

It also gives a fair shake to all the generals that fought there, not just Montgomery.  In fact, it is pretty hard on Monty and his attempts to take credit for others’ work in the run up to the Second and Third Battles of El Alamein.  See – you probably didn’t know that there were three of them.

The first featured general is Richard O’Connor, who faced the Italian invasion of Egypt in 1940 and pulled off a model armored counteroffensive that wiped out virtually the entire Italian army.  But in a common feature of the Desert War, just as he was poised to take Libya, the threat of a German invasion of Greece led to his forces being pulled away.  He was captured by the Germans in the first phase of Rommel’s offensive, when the scattered occupation forces were driven back to Egypt.

After this offensive and the failure of a premature counterattack, Operation Battleaxe, the CinC of the Middle East, Wavell, was sacked and General Claude Auchinleck was put in his place.  Like Wavell, Auchinleck was distracted by the issues of several different fronts during his tenure – he was responsible for the occupation of Syria, and for the possible defense of Iran from Germans coming through Russia.

His appointments to run the Western Desert force did not turn out well.  The first, General Cunningham wilted under the strain of the “Crusader” battle and it was only Auchinleck’s timely intervention that kept the army from retiring back to Egypt.  Instead, by holding fast Rommel had to retreat out of Cyrenaica.  But again, the needs of the Empire due to the Japanese attacks in the Far East led to this force being dispersed and the opportunity lost.

His second appointment, Ritchie, botched the Battle of Gazala and Tobruk and had the army reeling back to Egypt. Again, Auchinleck took over command and reorganized the army sufficiently to stop Rommel at the first Battle of El Alamein in July.  He prepared the defensive plan for the second battle that took place in August, but he was sacked two weeks before that battle and Montgomery took over.  Naturally, Monty never mentioned that he took over someone else’s plan.

Barnett is very critical of Monty’s plan for third Alamein, which dissolved into confusion and casualties due to its own clumsiness, but gives him props for coming up with a new plan.  Of course, since Monty scheduled the battle to happen just before Torch landed an army in Rommel’s rear, he knew that sooner or later Rommel would need to retreat.  He also knew, from Ultra decryptions, exactly how much fuel, ammo, and tanks Rommel had from day-to-day, which makes his ponderous pursuit after the battle even more inexplicable.

The book was originally published before Ultra was revealed, so there is an addendum in each chapter saying how twenty years of new information changed the original text, which was surprisingly little.

The book goes into some of the reasons why the Western Desert Force never quite got the hang of mobile warfare due to inexperience, organizational problems and just not having the right style.  It is a good corrective to the standard treatments of the campaign.

Desert War Trilogy II – A Year of Battle

Finally finished this second book in Alan Moorehead’s Desert War Trilogy. The set was published by the Folio Society.  Moorehead was a reporter in the war, and so was involved in a lot of the events of the Desert War as an observer.  The book itself is less of a history of the campaign than of his travels, many of which shed a light on some of the odd corners of World War II.

For example, while the campaign in Egypt was in a lull, he observes the Russian/English partition of Persia.  He comes back to watch the Crusader offensive that relieves Tobruk, and then follows the Anglo-French invasion of Vichy Syria.  Moving off then to India, he views the negotiations beween Gandhi and the English to increase Indian participation in the war, before heading back for the climactic battles at Gazala, Tobruk and the retreat to Alamein.  The book ends with the line firming up, and Moorehead wanting to take a break from Africa by visiting America.

If you want a true history of the Desert War, this isn’t it. But if you want a ‘you are there’ view of this part of the Allied campaign in the Mideast, it is an excellent set of books.


Knight’s Cross – update

I’ve made quite a bit of progress in this life of General Erwin Rommel.  World War II has started, and after spending the Polish campaign in 1939 shepherding Hitler around the fringe of the battlefield, he was given a Panzer Division to lead in the campaign in France.

Rommel was an old infantryman, but he took to armored warfare without missing a beat. His 7th Panzer Division advanced rapidly, disrupting the attempts of the French and English to block the advance across the Meuse. He kept the pressure on as fit his command style, outrunning his own supply and losing touch with this superior command. Nobody seemed to know where he was, and his command gained the nickname “The Ghost Division”.  He held off a minor English counterattack at Arras and stood down until after Dunkirk.

In early June, his division was one of the spearheads of the advance into the rest of France. The French in their prepared defenses resisted stubbornly, but when the panzers broke through they lacked the mobility to form a new line and began to scatter and give up.  Rommel again advanced extremely rapidly, reaching Cherbourg in Normandy by the time the French called for an armistice.

In the winter of 1940, the disaster suffered by the Italians in Africa prompted the Germans to send a force to try to restore the balance and defend Tripoli. Rommel was chosen to lead the German contingent, called the “Africa Corps” (in German Deutsch Afrika Korps, or DAK).  Characteristically, his idea of the best way to defend was to look for a chance to attack!

The book itself is a good one so far. The usual hero-worship is kept within some bounds. Rommel’s tendency to slip the leash and outrun his supply is at least mentioned as a possible issue, although to this point it is compensated for by his ultimate success in keeping the enemy off-balance.  On the issue of his support for Nazism, the tack seems to be to put it to a bit of political innocence rooted in the army’s tradition of being outside of politics and a dash of good cop/bad cop blaming of excesses on underlings and assuming Hitler’s essential uninvolvement, with a dash of “Rommel didn’t know”.

To a point, that’s fair enough. Certainly soldiers have an ingrained loyalty to the commander-in-chief, and Germans probably more than most.  We will see how this balance shifts later in the war and how the author handles it.

The Desert War Trilogy I – Mediterranean Front

I completed the first volume of Alan Moorehead’s Desert War trilogy. He was a British war correspondent in World War II and these books, published during the war itself, have the same immediacy as the dispatches from the war zone that they are expanded from.

Moorehead rode with the Navy on several sorties against Italy, and followed O’Connor’s counteroffensive that took Cyrenaica from the Italians in late 1940. After that, he seems to have moved from zone to zone just barely missing some actions he was eager to see – he missed Rommel’s counteroffensive since he was at the retaking of Ethiopia. He missed the capture of the capital because he couldn’t quite make the air connections through Uganda.  He did catch some action in Greece, and was evacuated, but was unable to get onto Crete and had to report on that battle from Egypt.  He did end the book on one stroke of luck – he was vacationing in Palestine when the Commonwealth invaded Vichy occupied Syria and was able to get a close look of much of that obscure operation. He did miss the capture of Damascus, to put a cap on the running ‘gag’ of the book.

The book gives a slighty different view of the war than you get from a standard history. I’m looking forward to the other books in the set which cover the fight against Rommel and the fight in Tunisia.

Alan Moorehead “Desert War Trilogy” I – Mediterranean Front

Just getting into this Folio Society book written by a English reporter about the battles in North Africa in World War II.  It’s pretty readable and interesting, and it is less about the battles on the large scale than about the human side from his point of view as an almost tourist in the middle.

So far he has hitched a ride with the Royal Navy to dare the Italians to come out and fight, gone down to the south Sudan to ride in a bombing mission, and now is following in the wake of the successful British offensive against the Italians in late 1940.

He’s been recently picking through the debris left after the Italian retreat and been pretty dismissive of the huge stacks of cases of dried pasta, but did put in a good word for the ‘instant’ minestrone soup that he found.

Good stuff so far.

TV Review: Unearthing Ancient Secrets – The Death of Cleopatra

This is an episode of a series I have started TIVOing. In this episode they have a profiler, Pat Brown, look into what might be wrong with the story of Cleopatra and the asp. Who is Pat Brown? Well they give has her credential the profiling of the Washington DC Sniper. Given the hopelessly bungled investigation of that incident, this hardly seems like something to have confidence in.

The repudiation of the suicide story is pretty thin. The “evidence” is that Cleopatra was a ‘fighter’ or ‘survivor’. Given her situation, a prisoner of the man who was the sole ruler of the entire known world, supposedly destined for a humiliating triumph followed by execution, the supposition that she should fight on assuming something would ‘turn up’ is ludicrous. The argument that today’s suicides are sad and ineffectual hardly applies to the drives of a queen and demigod. Andi its notable that the suicide of Mark Anthony somehow escapes any sort of scrutiny.

Another other piece of counterargument is that Cleo was dead before her suicide note brought the guards. Since her handmaidens were not dead at the same time, its reasonable to think that Cleo made sure that she was dead before having her handmaidens send the note.

And the final nail, the “motive” is that Augustus had her killed, is pretty silly. For one thing, reportedly he wanted her to display in his triumph. If he did not, there’s no reason why he would feel constrained in ordering the execution of a foreign ruler that Rome had gone to war with. There would be no reason to conceal it because to Rome it wasn’t a crime!

The reason the story of Cleopatra’s suicide resonates through history is that by her death she defied the might of Rome one last time. They make the point that Octavian/Augustus was a master of spin and message control. This would not be the kind of message he would prefer to get out about the woman who he blamed for a huge war and whose son by Julius Caesar was a possible threat (if a remote one) to Octavian’s positon as the heir of Caesar.

There was a funny moment where they said that Augustus got his name from the month he conquered Egypt. Actually August got its name from him, not the reverse. This hardly requires much research to discover.

Most of the rest of these shows are much better done – even the one on the possible murder of King Tut presents the pros and cons of the theory to a much greater extent, even showing at the end some new evidence that casts some doubt on the murder theory – first by countering the X Ray evidence for a head injury, and second by showing a possible leg wound. Although they don’t emphasize this, a lingering wound and decline could lead to the succession crisis between the childless queen and dying king versus the viziers who need to set up a new government after his death, without the need for an actual act of murder.