Monday, November 24, 2008

Persian Fire

Persian Fire

Tom Holland (Doubleday, 2005)

A bane to the existence of any Latin or Classics teacher is the movie 300. A fictional account cooked up based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller, I found 6 solid errors in the first 30 minutes, which makes it useless in the classroom. Although visually effective, it shortchanges the viewer with regard to the real story. Persian Fire makes up for that.

The Battle of Thermopylae is inspiring, to be sure. The notion of a desperate last stand against overwhelming odds, dying like men, rarely fails to stir the heart. It does, however, bring to mind the words of George Patton: "No one ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other dumb son of a bitch die for his country." The crime lies in taking that battle out of its proper context: the wars between Greece and Persia.

Tom Holland has been justly praised for his previous work, Rubicon. In that history, he outlined the causes behind the collapse of the Republic, reaching as far back as the 2nd Punic War. In this book, he traces the Persian Wars to the Khorasian Highway, a stretch of road that has connected the alluvial plains of the Assyrians with the Zagros Mountains, home of the warlike mountain people, home of the unparalleled horses and horsemen. It was in these mountains that the Medes made their appearance, eventually sweeping forth to conquer from the Mediterranean eastward to Afghanistan.

In recounting the rise of the Medes, Holland introduces us to Cyrus, the first Great King, then Darius, and finally Xerxes, and he investigates the motive force for the Persian expansion. Holland identifies it with the religion of Zoroastrianism, a religion founded in the radical dualism of light and darkness. To be associated with the Light is to be grounded in the Truth, while the darkness is the abode of The Lie. Here Holland makes a connection seldom investigated: the religious motivations behind Persian conquest. The effort of Darius to expand the power of Persia to the ends of the earth was an expression of evangelical zeal, an effort to combat the Lie as it was found in false religions and establish the Truth.

Framed in the context of the present day, our conflict with Islamic radicalism doesn't seem so isolated. Zealotry like this has been seen before. Seen and opposed.

Opposing the Persian King of Kings were two cities: Athens and Sparta. To give us a clearer idea of the participants, Holland gives us a glimpse of the history of these two cities, and how their distinctive cultures developed. We see how the harsh code of the Spartans developed, and how it was fed by the system of slavery imposed on the Helots, the serfs living in the farmlands surrounding Sparta. Because Sparta was surrounded, and outnumbered, by the Helots, a cruel system of oppression was imposed, designed to keep the Helots from entertaining the thought that they might be men.

In Athens, we see the development of the radical experiment of democracy, although not as pure as has been touted. There was no universal suffrage: only Greek, property – owning men could vote. No women, slaves, none of the poor. But it was a radical experiment, and it did foster greatness. Suffrage came at a price: mandatory service as a Hoplite, an armored soldier in the Athenian infantry. It was such Hoplites as would strike the first blow at the battle of Marathon.

The significance of Marathon, in the words of Holland was that "humiliation at the hands of the superpower was not inevitable. The Athenians, as they would never tire of reminding everyone, had shown that the hordes of the Great King could be defeated. The colossus had feet of clay." The account of the battle is gripping, and the detail is so finely crafted that you feel yourself holding a spear, wearing the hoplon, the armor of the soldier, as you stride across the plain to the waiting enemy.

Likewise the battle of Thermopylae and its sister, Salamis. Thermopylae was little more than a holding action. Hence the small number of Spartans sent to fight. Leonidas had no illusion that he would succeed in driving the Persians back. He sought only to buy time for the rest of Greece, especially Athens, to prepare. He was accompanied by several thousand Thespians, who also died heroically.

This battle is less well-detailed, presumably because it is so well documented in other sources. The battle itself is given little more than three pages before the author turns to the naval battles and the other star of these wars: Themistocles.

Themistocles, as portrayed by Holland, is a consummate politician. He was slick; he planned far ahead, and was able to manipulate others to get what he wanted. But he was also a brilliant general, who knew how to play his enemy's weakness for all it was worth. Through a series of masterful deceptions, Themistocles maneuvered the Persian fleet into the narrow passage of Salamis, and there destroyed it. Although this did not end the Persian involvement in Greece, it weakened the Persian impetus significantly, and opened the door for rebellion by other subject peoples. After Xerxes moved back to Babylon to shore up his empire, his cousin commanded in his stead. His cousin was not the equal of the King of Kings, and was soundly defeated at the battle of Plataea.

The final chapter is "Nemesis", the goddess who punished hubris, that overweening pride of men that drives them to seek things that are not theirs by right. Nemesis comes swiftly and with finality. The hubris that drove Persia into Greece was ultimately punished by Nemesis, in the person of Alexander the Great. That same hubris destroyed Athens, when it stretched forth its own fingers for empire in the Aegean, before finally being toppled by Sparta, in the Peloponnesian War. Sparta itself was toppled, at the hands of Theban farm boys led by Epimonandes, eventually becoming little better than a tourist attraction.

But for a brief moment, the fate of western culture rested in the hands of a few Greek cities and their armies, hastily cobbled together, facing an assembled force unseen until World War 2. In Persian Fire, the author, Tom Holland, lays out the root causes for this turning point, giving it the significance and weight that it truly deserves.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Complete Hammer's Slammers, Volume I

The Complete Hammer's Slammers: Volume I
David Drake, Night Shade Books (2006)

This book does not relate to any sort of classical interest, aside from the fact that the author, David Drake, earned a BA in History and Latin from the University of Iowa before getting a law degree (in case you wanted to ask, that is what you can do with a degree in Latin). After his undergraduate degree, Drake was drafted and served in Vietnam as a translator and interrogator.

The result of his experiences form the core of what is called "Military Science Fiction", that is, fiction that is rooted in science, but takes in the viewpoint of soldiers. Along with Jerry Pournelle, author of Falkenberg's Legions, David Drake can justifiably be called the father of the sub-genre.

The Complete Hammer's Slammers is a compilation of the short stories, historical sketches and novels that make up the Slammers' universe. Drake focuses only partially on the figure of Col. Alois Hammer, the founder of the legendary mercenary unit that sells its services to the highest bidder on the settled worlds throughout the galaxy. Instead, Drake creates stories that focus on the private fears, ambitions, desires and experiences of the low level soldier or civilian caught in the cross-fire. The characters he creates are compelling, and often, at the end of the story you find yourself wondering what happens next to that character. Or you begin reading a new story, and find the name of an old character jumping out, greeting you like an old friend.

Interspersed among the stories are short "historical" sketches, in which Drake outlines the features of his future society. In it we are given an introduction to the essential elements to the world of the Slammers: Supertanks, the Mercenary system, the predominant religions, the different inhabited worlds. Each of these sketches serve well to provide background that helps the reader better understand the characters and conflicts that unfold in the pages of these stories. But the excellence in these stories is that we don't need the background to truly enjoy them.

What makes Drake's work outstanding as military science fiction is his ability to convey in stark terms the harsh reality of battle. His descriptions can border on the lurid, but bring the reader into the horrors of men attempting to kill other men:

"Me, Colonel Raeder?" Joachim's voice lilts. He is raising the trya and it arcs away from his body in a gentle movement that catches Raeder's eyes for the instant that the Newlander's right hand dips and - a cyan flash from Joachim's pistol links the two men. Raeder's mouth is open but silent. His eyeballs are bulging outward against the pressure of exploding nerve tissue. There is a hole between them and it winks twice more in the flash of Joachim's shots. Two spent cases hang in the air to the Newlander's right; a third is jammed, smeared across his pistol's ejection port. None of the Guardsmen have begun to fall, though a gout of blood pours from the neck of the right-hand man.(From "But Loyal to His Own")

Gory stuff, but not what forms the best part of these stories. Drake doesn't write to titillate, but to entertain and to provoke the reader to think about the military and its proper use. There is no comforting nostrum at the end of a Slammers story -- no flat assertion about the horrors of war or the virtues of soldiers. Instead, we are given a complex view of a complex issue. The soldiers in Drake's stories are real people, and we are left with a real love for them, and perhaps a better understanding as to why the path of a soldier (or Marine) is one they might want to take.

In Drake's introduction:

Men and women do not stop being women and men because they are out where the metal flies, and that is the wonderful, the truly miraculous, thing about them. Now and then the experience even knocks a bit of the pretence and pettiness out of them, and that is the glorious thing about a real shooting war, otherwise such a mess of pain and waste.

There isn't much more to add. So I won't.

Monday, September 01, 2008

The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme

The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme
John Keegan (Penguin Books, 1976)

This book was a classic long before I read it. It may seem a departure from the others on this list, but it served as inspiration of sorts for Victor Davis Hanson's The Western Way of War. In this book, Keegan seeks to move past simple discussion of tactics and strategy, the usual staples of military history, to comprehend the experience of soldiers "on the ground": what was it that made up the life and stresses of the foot soldier, the calvalry man, the man-at-arms?

Keegan purposely confines his examination to one specific geogrphic area (Northern Europe), and one specific cultural type (Europeans), I suspect largely for the purposes of scale: anything broader would be too much.

As we progress from medieval style combat, with men-at-arms, mounted knights, and archers to the more industrial style of combat of the Napoleonic era, to the mechanized warfare of WWI, the scale increases, as does the degree of violence (one useful feature Keegan includes are battle maps, with insets of the previously covered battle to scale -- it is truly mind-boggling to realize how vast the Somme battlefield was in relation to Agincourt). We are left with an impression that the epithet "medieval", when applied to combat, applies to the mechanized age more truly than it does to the era of knightly combat.

In examining all three battles, Keegan looks for similar themes, or dissimilar themes that point out the change. He seeks out the "Will to Combat" -- that "something" that keeps men in line, facing a hostile enemy. In Agincourt, it was Religion: Henry V heard three masses in succession. At Waterloo, it was Rum. At the Somme, it was Religion again, but it was also the sense of solidarity with the otehr fellow (especially in the case of the "Pal's Brigades"). Also, showing a shift in the relationship between commanders and soldiers, Keegan traces from Agincourt, where kings led by examples of personal prowess in battle, to Waterloo, where an officer was expected to expose himself to danger, but not fight himself (most of Wellington's adjutants were wounded or killed by the end of the battle), to the Somme, where the overall command was held by the "Chateau Generals".

One theme that works its way through is the utter misery suffered by soldiers in battle. If there is one theme about all three battles, it is the wet: Agincourt came after days of rain, it rained the night before the battle of Waterloo, and water was a constant threat at the Somme. What is dissimilar is the danger faced by soldiers. In Agincourt, violence was as extreme as the strength of one's arm, at Waterloo, although the volley fire of the British was intense, the casualties were not extreme, except in case of paniced retreat. At the Somme, however, the degree of violence committed is horrific. The Somme stands as a supreme example of the inhumanity of mechanized warfare. The firepower of a regiment of Wellington's soldiers is condensed into the person of the machine-gunner.

Keegan's final chapters examine the "Future of Battle", and looks at WWII in general, examining some of the lessons learned by the generals who served in the trenches, but also the lessons that they did not learn. In this chapter Keegan makes the point that the "climactic battle" between mechanized forces will not happen again, if only because the nations capable of such exercises also possess nuclear weapons, and no one is willing to use them.

Keegan ends his book on a cautiously optimistic note:

The young have already made their decision. They are increasingly unwilling to serve as conscripts in armies they see as ornamental. The militant young have taken that decision a stage further: they will fight for the causes which they profess not through the mechanisms of the state and its armed power but, where necessary, against them, by clandestine and guerrilla methods. It remains for armies to admit that the battlees ofthe future will be fought in never-never land. While the great armoured hosts face each other across the boundary between east and west, no soldier on either side will concede that he does not believe in the function for which he plans and trains. As long as states put weapons in their hands, they will show each other the iron face of war. But the suspicion grows that battle has already abolished itself.

Because battles have become more horrific, Keegan argues, battles themselves are going by the wayside. In one way it is easy to agree with this. The "decisive battle" sought out will most likely not return. What we are left with is the "low-intensity conflict", which Keegan aludes to above.

What makes this book timeless is its examination of the "fighting man" and his commander. We are able to understand what it is about the human heart and human courage that makes it possible to endure the unendurable in support of a cause that we can rally to. But we can also see what there is that can shake that resolve. Ultimately, this book is about the individual soldier, the dangers he faces, the suffering he endures, and the nobility he exhibits.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

A Noise of War: Caesar, Pompey, Octavian and the Struggle for Rome

A Noise of War: Caesar, Pompey, Octavian, and the Struggle for Rome, AJ Langguth (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1994)

Mr. Langguth introduces his book with a quote from Plutarch concerning Gaius Marius:
Marius was once rebuked for granting Roman citizenship illegally to 1,000 men of Camerinum who had fought for him in a recent battle. Marius answered that the law spoke too softly to be heard in such a noise of war.
What follows is an examination of 51 years in the history of Rome, from 81 BC to 30 BC, covering the rise of Pompey, Cicero and Caesar, and how they eventually came into conflict and war, and how the Republic perished as a result.

The author begins with a confrontation between Lucius Cornelius Sulla and a 19-year-old Gaius Julius Caesar. Sulla is demanding Caesar divorce his wife, Cornelia, and take a different wife. Caesar refuses, and gives us an insight to his character: he doesn't back down. This confrontation with Sulla could have been fatal: Sulla already showed his easy use of proscriptions against his political enemies. Caesar escaped, and set his foot on a path that would take him eventually to sole control of Rome.

Along with Caesar, we are introduced to Cicero and Pompey, and we see how the careers of these three men, as well as others, intertwined to shape the destiny of Rome. A lot of what Rome was lay sacrificed on the battlefields of Gaul and Macedonia, as great men struggled to fulfill their ambition.

Mr. Langguth divides his book into year-by-year chapters, and we are able to see how events shaped themselves to lead to the seemingly inevitable result of civil war and the fall of the Republic. We are given interesting character portraits of the great men of Rome that are more or less unflinching. While Caesar comes off the most sympathetically, we do see that he is moved by personal ambition and belief in destiny, Pompey as a man who desires to be loved more than to rule, and Cicero is seen as a man who desires to preserve the Republic, but sometimes lacks the moral courage necessary. If any one figure is seen unsympathetically, it would be Cato the Younger, whom the author portrays as unbending and blindly attached to tradition, rather than a figure standing up for the mos maiorum.

If there is anything to be learned from the history of the fall of the Republic, it is that when two groups are so opposed to each other as to become entrenched in their hatred for each other, they lose the ability to compromise, and achieve a settlement. Political compromise was one of the proudest legacies of the early Republic, it was a precious part of the mos maiorum, and it is ironic that, while all parties fought to "preserve" the Republic and its traditions, it sacrificed such a central element to the traditions of their elders.

This book is a good survey of the fall of the Republic, although it does become a bit rushed with the advent of Octavian. We see the characters of this history, and have a clearer picture why things may have happened as they did. The noise of war, mentioned by Gaius Marius, finally engulfed Rome as Republic, and gave birth to Rome as Empire.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Caesar' s Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar's Elite Tenth Legion and the Armies of Rome

Caesar' s Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar's Elite Tenth Legion and the Armies of Rome
by Stephen Dando-Collins
New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2002

Few individual military units achieve immortality. The 442nd Regiment from WWII, the Rough Riders from the Spanish American War, the Coldstream Guards, the Old Guard, and of course, the Legio X Fretensis, the storied Tenth Legion, Caesar's Own. Mr. Dando-Collins offers in this book a review of the battle history of the Tenth, from Gaul to Spain and beyond. It also serves as an introduction to the history of Rome's expansion from Republic to Empire.

The Tenth first served Gaius Julius Caesar in Gaul, and achieved its greatest glory there, becoming the most dependable legion in Caesar's army. Indeed, based on his experiences in Gaul, Caesar as a habit would position the 10th on his right, the position of honor. From Gaul, Caesar led his legions south into Italy, against the Senate and Pompey. The civil war would take him to Dyrrachium and Pharsalus, and his defeat of Pompey. The Tenth would follow him to Egypt and Africa, and eventually Spain, and the ultimate victory over Pompey's forces.

The relationship between the Tenth and Caesar could sometimes be stormy. When the civil war was over, the veterans of the Tenth converged on the Campus Martius, demanding the of gold Caesar promised them at the outset of the war. To win them over, Caesar addressed them as "citizens", and the incipient mutiny was quashed. These soldiers, used to hearing Caesar curse them, call them sons of whores, and worse, could not abide being called "citizens". They begged to be returned to Caesar's good graces.

After the death of Caesar, the Tenth saw a variety of duties, eventually ending up in garrison duty in Palestine.

Mr. Dando-Collins has done an effective job in outlining the deeds that have made the Tenth immortal, especially its role in the Gallic and Civil Wars with Julius Caesar. Occasionally he expands the scope of his book to take in other units that saw more action during particular battles where the Tenth actually did little.

His battle accounts are gripping and detailed, introducing individuals who distinguished themselves in the fight, telling their stories and placing them in the larger context of the battle as well as the story of the Tenth itself. Reading this book brings a greater sense of what it was to be a legionary, a chosen man (from legere, "to choose), and what went into a unit that played such a key role in one of the more crucial turning points in history.

Cicero: Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician

Cicero: Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician
by Anthony Everitt New York: Random House, 2001

If Cicero is a weak fool in need of public adoration in Rubicon, he is treated with a great deal more love and respect in Cicero: Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician (the title is a dead giveaway). Mr. Everitt gives us a wonderful picture of the type of life a young man from the provinces would have in the days of the Republic, and he explains what would have been a fairly typical upbringing for young men of the time, including their education, as well as their political aspirations, and the career they had to follow to achieve the summit of political life: the consulship.

That was the sight set on by Marcus Tullius Cicero. His father was a magistrate in a province nearby to Rome, and his sons, Marcus and Quintus, were taught the classic curriculum of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, as well as the history of the Republic. This filled them with a taste for politics. For the ancient Roman, participation in politics was expected, to some degree, from all citizens. Voting was considered a sacred right of the Roman citizen, regardless of class. Even the lowliest pleb had a say in the functioning of the res publica (literally, "public matters"). For young men of the patrician class, it was expected that they would take their seats in the Senate and follow the cursus honororum, the "course of honors", which led a young man from quaestor to praetor to consul.

Cicero was well aware of the expectations on him when he entered Rome. The challenge to him was greater than that of a scion of an old patrician family, for example, C. Julius Caesar. Cicero had to establish himself in the public eye. To do this, a usual route was to achieve great military feats, as the Romans had a great love for soldiers, and valor on the battlefield. Cicero instead turned to his strength, public speaking. He took up several contraversal cases early in his career, and through spectacular successes, made a name for himself in the Forum. Through this, instead of military service, he was able to eventually ascend to the consulship. He was, as the Romans called it, a novus homo, a new man, one whose family was graced with no consuls past, one whose family had no illustrious history.

Cicero sought to use his power and influence to preserve the Republic against its internal enemies. He saw that the Republic was in danger of being torn apart by two great factions, the populares (those in the Senate that wanted to give more power to the people, and thus increase their own power, through the institution of clientela), and the optimates (those in the Senate that wanted to preserve the power and the prestige of the Senate and the Patrician class). Cicero sought to "coordinate" the different classes of the Republic, to have them working in harmony for the good of the State, as an orchestra works together to produce music. Cicero was no democrat, he believed in the right of the Patrician class to run things, but he also knew that the Plebeans were a necessary component to a harmonious state. And he sought to bring balance and peace between these groups.

As each group struggled for power, there arose three new players: M. Licinius Crassus, Cn. Pompeius Magnus, and C. Julius Caesar, the members of the First Triumverate. Mr. Everett does a creditable job showing how these three men, using the Senate, and using Cicero, achieved their objectives, and he shows how desperately Cicero fought to preserve the Republic while the Senate, led by Cato the Younger, and Julius Caesar, struggled in a political battle that would find its way to armed Civil War.

In the end, the Republic fell, brought down by the knives of the assassins, who, thinking they had saved it, ran to Cicero for approval. The years of the Second Triumverate are seen also through Cicero's eyes, and we see how he desired to mold young Octavian into the type of leader he thought Rome needed. Even to the end, Cicero sought to create that harmonious Republic that may never have existed.

This is an excellent portrayal of a powerful figure in the final days of the Republic. Mr. Everett does not seek to simply lionize his subject, he shows his weaknesses as well as his strengths, and we are left with a better sense why Cicero's name has lasted to the present.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic

Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic
by Tom Holland
New York: Doubleday, 2003
The author makes the point in his introduction that it is dangerous to draw parallels that are too broad between the Roman Republic and our own. It is tempting, however. People being what they are, they fall into patterns, and one of those unfortunately is the desire for power, the desire for wealth, and plain old vainglory. These, according to Mr. Holland, were the precipitating factors in the fall of the Roman Republic. He draws the roots of the fall to the Third Punic War, and the fall of Carthage. This was the first time that Rome went to war proactively: not because they were attacked, but that they might be attacked in the future. This signalled a change from a Republic that took reluctantly to the world stage, to one that actively expanded its borders.

Ongoing war allows for greater glory for soldiers, who then seek higher office, and further glory. Unfortunately, Rome feared kings almost pathalogically, and the threat of a new king was enough to upset the traditions Roman civilization. Added to this was the influence of the Roman mob the mobile vulgus, the moveable crowd, swayed this way and that by a powerful figure freely dispensing charity, building up a long list of clients. So it was when the Gracchi brothers decided to carry out land reform, and provide small holdings to the poor in the city of Rome.

This would have made the Gracchi almost invincible political foes, and thus the Optimates, the senatorial party, struck them down, literally. Violence had taken the place of debate and compromise in the political process, and the tool taken up is difficult to put down. Fearing kings, fearing the mob, the Roman senate needed strong men to preserve order, but did not trust them. Thus enters Gnaius Pompeius Magnus, Caius Iulius Caesar, Marcius Porcius Cato, and Marcus Tullius Cicero. These would be the major figures to shape the Republic, and eventually bring it to its downfall.

The author does not focus on the history, but also explains the culture of Rome, and how it served to shape the events that led up to the fall of the Republic. We meet the major players, and learn how their failings led to the downfall of the first Republic seen in the Western world.

Caesar and Cato are treated most sympathetically. Caesar is seen as a man pushed to the decision to attack Rome by a combination of cultural forces and the unbending principle of the Senate. Caesar, it is argued, loved Rome, and actually sought to reform it, to fix the problems. Cato is the example of Roman severitas, severity and adherence to principle. If anyone can be blamed for Caesar's decision besides Caesar, it would be Cato. Had he held less firmly to Roman tradition, Caesar may not have felt threatened. Of course, if Cato had held less firmly, he would not have been Cato.

Pompeius Magnus and Cicero come off less sympathetically. Pompey is seen as a man who wanted to be loved, wanted to be wooed by the Senate, so that he could come to the rescue of Rome. Cicero comes off as that one person who can't move on from past glory, always returning to it and boring his audience with the story of how he saved the Republic without a civil war "The shield must yield to the toga" he would declare, somewhat pompously, telling all that the time of soldiers was past, now was the time of politicians.

These men from the past come alive, and the forces and currents that moved Rome to civil war and empire are seen clearly, and perhaps can give us some insight into the dangers that fac e us as a nation, as we engage in a proactive war. This book is quite good, and well worth a reading.