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Friday, July 28, 2017

“Praetorian: The Rise and Fall of Rome's Imperial Bodyguard”, by Guy de la Bédoyère


344 pages, Yale University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0300218954

There once was a time when the term “praetorian” was not a pejorative. Founded by Augustus around 27 B.C., the elite Praetorian Guard was tasked with the protection of the emperor and his family…however, as the centuries unfolded, Praetorian soldiers served not only as protectors and enforcers, but also as powerful political players in their own right; while fiercely loyal to some emperors, they could also ruthlessly topple those Emperors who displeased them, men such as Caligula, Nero, Pertinax, and many more, besides. It is in this context, then, that we get negative-sounding news, like British parliamentary protectors of the referendum decision to leave the European Union being described as a “self-styled Praetorian Guard” (not a flattering comparison, by any means). It is, perhaps, a useful phrase, suggesting varyingly a commitment to a principle, a person and to the interests of the Guards themselves, each one of these variations stemming from its Roman origins, as Guy de la Bédoyère, shows in Praetorian: The Rise and Fall of Rome's Imperial Bodyguard. The author introduces Praetorians of all echelons – from prefects and messengers to artillery experts and executioners – and provides a compelling full narrative history of the Guard. He explores the delicate position of emperors for whom prestige and guile were the only defenses against bodyguards hungry for power, a hunger that was satisfied only when Constantine permanently disbanded them upon his ascension. Mind you, they were by no means a wholly malign institution, however (or, indeed, stationed only in Rome, one of Bédoyère’s revelatory asides). For example, having effectively put Nero on the throne (steered by Agrippina) they were able to moderate his tendency to unwholesome excess through their rather admirable prefect, the former military tribune Sextus Afranius Burrus (and with the help of Nero’s tutor, Seneca). Folding fascinating details into a broad assessment of the Praetorian era, the author sheds new light on the wielding of power in the greatest of the ancient world’s empires.

Monday, July 24, 2017

“The Day Christ Was Born/The Day Christ Died”, by Jim Bishop


544 pages, Galahad Books, ISBN-13: 978-0883658307

The Day Christ Was Born/The Day Christ Died by Jim Bishop is a special 1997 repackaging of two previously published books by the author: The Day Christ Was Born (first published in 1959) and The Day Christ Died (first published two years earlier, in 1957). While purporting to be histories, the author clearly takes a great many liberties; so many, in fact, that I would have classified both books as historical novels – though novels that prove to be pleasures to read and that provide a great deal to meditate on. The parts I found most interesting was the background information in regards to how the different factions interacted with one another, especially as to how the Jewish temple was organized and just how much power and money was behind the perceived threat that Jesus posed to the Great Sanhedrin. The material is a little dated in regards to current discoveries, and the wording is written for the World War II generation, but all-in-all both works are rather good reads, as can be taken from the last sentences: “The two Marys sat with their backs to the stone. They loved him and, in their love, they missed the enormous triumph; the new promise; the good news. They did not even notice that the sun was shining”.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

“Beethoven’s Skull: Dark, Strange, and Fascinating Tales from the World of Classical Music and Beyond”, by Tim Rayborn


304 pages, Skyhorse Publishing, ISBN-13: 978-1510712713

Perhaps you’ve heard about the song that kills all who hear it? Or maybe you knew about the musician who lovingly cradled Beethoven’s head when the decomposing composer was exhumed half a century after his death? No? Well then how about the 15th Century German poet who gave the world the first tales of Vlad Țepeș y’know, Dracula? The dream that inspired a composer to write the violin sonata composed by the devil? Did you know that while Chopin’s body is buried in Paris his heart is enshrined within a pillar of the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw, or that Haydn’s head was stolen shortly after burial by phrenologists and the skull was reunited with the body only in 1954? These are the kinds of tales you’ll read all about in Tim Rayborn’s book Beethoven’s Skull: Dark, Strange, and Fascinating Tales from the World of Classical Music and Beyond. A fan of classical music is sure to find some nuggets of knowledge in Beethoven’s Skull, but the book is also apt to be frustrating. The bulk of the book is a chronological list of figures that Rayborn has dirt on, but as the author himself admits, “you may have noticed a few big names missing”, an oversight that the author dismisses with the observation that they have already been amply covered in other books, or that they just “led pretty good lives”. What this means is that we’re left with a book of rather insignificant (though, it must be said, rather entertaining) trivia: Alessandro Poglietti, blown up by Ottoman artillery in 1683; Charles-Valentin Alkan, killed by a wayward bookcase in 1888; Wallingford Riegger, died when he tripped over the leashes of two fighting dogs 1961. There are chapters on Magic in Music – “Debussy apparently hobnobbed in occult circles” – Plague and Penitence – Rayborn finds some Renaissance music that may be about hashish – Blood and Guts – Vlad the Impaler, as mentioned above, didn’t have to do with music, but we get seven pages on him anyway, and other subtopics, as well. Rayborn isn’t afraid to gossip, which sounds juicy in theory but in actuality means he rehashes some very old canards: Vivaldi’s unproven affairs with his teenage students; Salieri’s supposed involvement with Mozart’s death, and so forth. There’s also an image section in the middle, but it's largely the same old headshots we've been looking at for centuries. So, just what is the story with Beethoven’s skull? You won’t find it in the entry on Beethoven, oddly enough: instead, you’ll just have to page forward to the Final Musical Oddities, where, fortunately (since there’s no index) it appears at the very end. A rather frivolous book overall, but not a bad way to spend a few minutes each night.

Friday, July 14, 2017

“The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau. Husband hunting in the Gilded Age: How American heiresses conquered the aristocracy”, by Julie Ferry


320 pages, Aurum Press, ISBN-13: 978-1781315965

On November 6th, 1895, Consuelo Vanderbilt married Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough. Though the preceding months had included spurned loves, unexpected deaths, scandal and illicit affairs, the wedding was the crowning moment for the unofficial marriage brokers: Lady Minnie Paget and Consuelo Yzanga, the Dowager Duchess of Manchester, the original buccaneers who had instructed, cajoled and manipulated wealthy young heiresses into making the perfect match. Fame, money, power, prestige, perhaps even love (!) – these were some of the reasons for the marriages that took place between wealthy American heiresses and the English aristocracy during the Gilded Age. For a (very) few, the marriages were happy…but for (most) others, the matches brought loneliness, infidelity, bankruptcy and ultimately divorce. Focusing on a single year, The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau. Husband hunting in the Gilded Age: How American heiresses conquered the aristocracy by Julie Ferry tells the story of a group of wealthy American heiresses seeking to marry into the English aristocracy. From the beautiful and eligible debutante Consuelo Vanderbilt, in love with a dashing older man but thwarted by her controlling mother; to Washington society heiress Mary Leiter, who married the pompous Lord Curzon and became the Vicereine of India; to Maud Burke, vivacious San Francisco belle with a questionable background; this book uncovers their stories. Also revealed is the hidden role played Lady Paget and the Dowager Duchess of Manchester, two unofficial marriage brokers who taught the heiresses how to use every social trick in the book to land their dream husband – for a price, of course (hey, it ain’t cheap being an aristocrat). The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau dashes through the year to uncover the seasons, the parties, the money, the glamour, the gossip, the scandal and the titles, always with one eye on the two women who made it all possible.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

“Royal Panoply: Brief Lives of the English Monarchs”, by Carolly Erickson


368 pages, History Book Club, ISBN-13: 978-1582880419

In Royal Panoply: Brief Lives of the English Monarchs, Carolly Erickson, author of several royal biographies, offers an entertaining history of all English rulers so far – from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II – that proves why this rather old-fashioned genre is still popular. Erickson devotes about ten pages to each monarch (as much to Queen Anne as to Queen Victoria), regardless as to the relative importance of the monarch in question. Each chapter stands independently, with material often repeated about transitions in reign; thus, this book becomes rather convenient for use as a reference book, but is not really suitable for pleasurable reading. Obviously, some subtlety of interpretation is lost in this format: there’s no assessment of recent research suggesting Edward II survived his assassination, or analysis of the increasingly cultural role of the monarch in the early modern era. Yet patterns can be detected: kings and queens get fat, deteriorate mentally, and make nuisances of themselves; heirs misbehave, buck their parents, and…make nuisances of themselves; illegitimate children abound, likewise making nuisances of themselves (this is why monarchs get overthrown; really, who wants to put up with all of this crap? At least in a republic you’re usually only stuck with a schmuck for a term of office or two). Although Erickson doesn’t offer an overarching analysis, anyone who reads the entire book will see the steady change in the nature of kingship and be surprised when the author presents the current reign as a break with a past in which monarchs were held in awe rather than continued evolution. But taken as they are, these accounts remain fascinating and, in the end, great stories.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

“Frederick the Great: The Magnificent Enigma”, by Robert B. Asprey


715 pages, Ticknor & Fields, ISBN-13: 978-0899193526

I rank Frederick the Great (or King Frederick II of Prussia, if you prefer) as one of my first historical loves, right up there with Alexander the Great and Napoleon. I had first heard of him while watching Hitler: The Last Ten Days starring Alec Guinness for the umpteenth time on HBO and saw Hitler (Guinness) rhapsodically speak of this guy who had saved Germany back in the day. With that, I just HAD to find out about this Fred the Great cat and what he was on about. My Dad was a member of the History Book Club at the time and was able to buy several books for cheap, relatively speaking. After perusing the monthly catalog for himself, he always passed it on to me…and therein I saw this 700+ page tome on just the fella I was looking for: Frederick the Great: The Magnificent Enigma by Robert B. Asprey. At the time I judged this book as much by its cover as by its content and was (thankfully) rewarded; it features a reproduction of Das Flötenkonzert by Adolph von Menzel and it is gorgeous…as was the content, luckily (as I thought at the time; more on that below). I was swept up with the early life of this fascinating, peculiar and central figure in German and European history…until I reached the halfway point of the book, whereupon I found to my confusion and chagrin that about a hundred pages of The Magnificent Enigma had been replaced with a history of Christianity in the Roman Empire. We sent it back and I had to wait a whole year for a replacement copy. Gosh, was I cheesed. But I started over from the beginning and finished in record time.

First, a little background on Prussia. The story of how a comparatively minor collection of northern German provinces, loosely ruled by the Elector of Brandenburg, became, in just a few score years, the Kingdom of Prussia and a major European power is oft-told and unfailingly fascinating. During the life of Frederick the Great, the city of Potsdam (a suburb of Berlin) was the Prussian equivalent of Versailles (and was thought by many people in the know to be the superior of the French chateau, if not in size surely then in splendor, taste and sheer costliness). Yet there was a curious characteristic about the palace and its nearby royal town: the population of 6000 nobles and commoners was dwarfed by a garrison of twice that many soldiers in permanent residence. Even in Berlin, the capital, officers in uniform could be seen along the wide avenues in greater abundance than civilians. “The town” noted a visitor in 1775 “looked more like the cantonment of a great army than the capital of a kingdom in time of profound peace”, while a Scottish duke wrote that “[t]he court itself resembled the levee of a general in the field” (thus, the nature and price of national development, Prussian-style). The life of Frederick the Great, the central artist of this sterling display of early modern statecraft, is no less interesting, though less for what Asprey imagines to be his “enigmatic” characteristics than because he practiced well an entirely unenigmatic military Realpolitik, ruthlessly and over a long lifespan. So the population of uniformed males in Potsdam or Berlin was due less to the personal whim of a cynical and misogynist king than to the deliberate policy of a military dynasty.

Asprey's 715 pages convey the basic facts of the king’s life, leaning, with typically Frederician predilection, towards all things martial. In nearly two decades of war, Frederick increased his realm’s population by 250%, doubled its territorial holdings, virtually founded its civil bureaucracy, and enlarged the army to take in, at one point or other in his life, just about every young man in Prussia. The result was a rigid, immobile garrison state where one serious defeat in the field could spell national dissolution and, hence, where even endless victory kept the level of royal anxiety at “merely tolerable”. Asprey’s book is at its best when it is straightforward narrative history; as biography, however, it is rather mediocre, for if one has no fresh evidence or differing take to offer on the man in question, then the major justifications for yet another life of a familiar figure come down to two: literary style, and new interpretation. Asprey offers neither. As a stylist, he has an unerring touch for the cliché: “proved a dud”, “up to scratch”, “ate humble pie”, “no slouch”, “lesser fry”, “all was scarcely roses”, “(he) was no ball of fire”, “but smoke there was and…fire as well” – etc. etc. etc. ad nauseam. When it comes to interpretation, the book is as weak as it is in style. The great mass of its pages constitutes a nearly day-to-day trek through Frederick’s innumerable campaigns and battles, and it is here, where the actual history is rather complex, that the author’s narrative and explanatory acumen are dullest. After minute descriptions of 14 full-blown battles one is left perplexed, unable to see how Asprey arrives at or justifies his conclusions. Frederick’s first important victory, Mollwitz in 1741, gets a score of pages, but Asprey’s analysis leaves us scarcely knowing how this was “a victory snatched from defeat”, just as we never grasp how the battle of Hohenfriedenberg in 1745 catapulted the king “to the top rank of military commanders”.

And yet, and yet…I have a case of the warm fuzzies when I think of this book, as it was the first that really educated me about a little-known (to me) figure who played such a pivotal role in the history of Germany and of Europe. Asprey deals frankly with his subject: his intelligence, his wit, his talents, his (possible) homosexuality; all of it. Part of the “enigma” of the title is how a man such as this could somehow embody seemingly contradictory elements at once: he was a flute-playing esthete and a vitally active military genius; he wore brocaded clothing (then all the rage with European royalty, I might add) who was so careless with his appearance that he regularly had snuff scattered about his person; he (seemingly) enjoyed the favors of his pages while neglecting his wife and queen, and seemed never to have formed any true lasting connections with anyone around him; all very “enigmatic”, to be sure. Frederick also managed what would be a 42-year correspondence with Voltaire, always pitched on the highest intellectual note…that is, when he wasn’t drilling his troops; as Voltaire said, Prussia was like “Sparta in the morning, but Athens in the afternoon”. It was good that Frederick was found to be a brilliant military commander, as most of his adult life was an almost uninterrupted series of battles (caused by his own impetuosity upon seizing the Austrian dominion of Silesia in 1740). He did manage to amass a notable art collection, comprising Watteau and others in his Potsdam palace, Sans Souci (“carefree”).

Asprey tries to maintain a degree of objectivity throughout the book but he doesn’t always succeed, and as fascinating as such (well-known) material is, there is hardly anything mysterious in it. Asprey strives arduously to learn, as Frederick’s father put it, “what is passing in that little head” of this writer/poet/composer/flutist/philosopher/king. Arduously, but naively at times. The author gives us a long quote from the young prince’s preface to his Anti-Machiavel, his youthful “refutation” of Machiavelli – “I venture to undertake the defense of humanity against this monster” – and finds noteworthy Frederick’s passage from youthful idealism to adult Realpolitik. But where is the mystery? There wasn’t a crown prince in Europe who wasn't raised on pabulum of such moralisms, nor was there one who wouldn’t have acted with Frederician cynicism if he’d had half the temerity and the skill. The complexity of Frederick – the conflict between opposing elements of his personality – gives Asprey’s biography its continuing interest, but savoring that dimension requires poring over pages of graphic though undramatic descriptions of marches, assaults and sieges, as well as accounts of duplicitous treaties and alliances, and complicated dynastic rivalries that require mental maps and fingertip family trees. When the king died the year after Lafayette saw him, crumpling into a chair and traversing, perhaps in memory, an enemy boundary, he was heard to whisper, “We have crossed the mountain; things will go better now”. The enigmatic end reflects the man?