Sunday, January 30, 2011


A review of Fred Anderson's Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in North America (2000)

(Rating 5 of 5)

As I explained in my last few posts, a short while ago, I decided to do a straight reading up on the history of my country. Not by a series of biographies or of any particular event; but a simple march through the ages exploring all the eras of the United States of America. The biggest challenge is to find books that try their best to explore from multiple perspectives in order to avoid just one narrow view, without at the same time surrendering a general narrative that is both readable and enjoyable. After finishing Jill Lepore’s book on King Phillip’s War, I decided to move on to Fred Anderson’s book covering what we in America call the French and Indian War. The book looks at the major actors in the British and French Empires, and the Iroquois Confederacy and how this conflict changed them from top to bottom.

Like many wars, especially European Wars in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the conflict covered in this work is known by two names. Anglo-American colonials tended to name their wars after their kings and queens. The colonists had named the War of Austrian Succession,'King George's War', and created a problem because King George II was still on the throne. They needed a new name for the conflict that Europe would call the Seven-Years' War. The name the Anglo-American colonists came up with was: 'the French and Indian War'.

(Royal Rivals: The King of Great Britain vs. the King of France)

Fred Anderson’s reason for producing this book is that the place we historians assign the French and Indian War in the historical narrative, he argues, is as the simple prologue of the American Revolutionary War. With this book, Anderson brings the America's most forgotten and—arguably—most important war, to the forefront to be study on its own terms and not as the inevitable beginning of a different conflict. Prior to this war, the two great colonial powers in North America were the British and French Empires. These empires were populated by colonists who were strongly identified with their imperial connections and a powerful Native American Nation in the Iroquois Confederacy that was able to provide a buffer and power broker between the two powers. After this conflict the French would be vanquished and the British would be left with an empire that was most ungovernable and the Iroquois would be set on the beginning of their fall from power.

(North America before the war)

When I was in college, I, who had always been a history buff, felt I had strong understanding of World War II. Then in my Western Civilization II class with Parker Albee, we spent some time going over World War I. I remember thinking—as if a light had gone off in my head—'I understand why World War II happened better now.' Prior, all I had known of World War I had been some of its aftermath that helped lead to World War II, but nothing in real strong detail. I now view World War I and World War II almost as the different chapters in the same historic event. Having read this book I feel the same way about my understanding of the French and Indian War and the American Revolutionary War, as I did with my earlier reevaluations on World War I and World War II. I realize that this may sound the opposite of Anderson’s intentions; however, I want to stress that reading this book you understand the French and Indian War as its own event but it still increases your understanding of the American Revolution.

One of the biggest things that stood out in my mind while reading this book was how some of the politics that led to the American Revolution against Britain during the late 1760s and 1770s were foreshadowed by the early events of the French and Indian War. The Earl of Loudoun, who was the commander in chief of the British armies in America, made several attempts to command the colonial governors and legislatures as if they were his colonels. His actions and the massive attempts to resist them by the colonial Anglo-Americans strongly resembled what was to come a decade later. Fortunately for the British cause in this war, William Pitt, who was a strong believer in the colonial subjects British rights, relived Loudoun of his command and set the colonial relations to rights.

(The Earl of Loudoun, a commander who left a lot to be desired.)

(William Pitt, the Great Commoner)

“By mid-December 1757, Pitt knew that if the American assemblies were to be transformed from centers of resistance into sources of men and money, he would have to reverse entirely the course of colonial policy. Instead of treating the colonies like subordinate jurisdictions and requiring them to finance the war effort by forced contributions to a common fund, Pitt resolved to treat them like allies, offering subsidies to encourage their assemblies to aid in the conquest of New France. Rather than continuing to demand that civil authority, in the persons of colonial governors and legislatures, submit to military power in the person of His Majesty's commander in chief, Pitt resolved to withhold from Loudoun's successor direct authority over the provinces. In the future, as always in the past, the governors would receive their instructions directly from the secretary of state for the Southern Department. By this new grant (or more properly, restoration) of autonomy to the provinces, by offering inducements to cooperation rather than by seeking to compel union among them, Pitt hoped to create a patriotic enthusiasm that had not been much in evidence since 1756.”p.214

In this book Anderson masterfully moves his readers from one military theater on the frontiers North America to another on continental Europe, he also cross-cuts from one political scene to another. While reading this book, the reader will go from the court of King George II to the assemblies of the American colonies, to military headquarters of Fredrick the Great, to the Massachusetts colonial militia. Yet it never becomes confusing making the reader feel out of place, Anderson's narrative flows smoothly from one event and theater to another without missing a beat.

I highly recommend this work to anyone it is really exceptional book. Fred Anderson takes a highly difficult and at times confusing subject and lays it out rather neatly making it easy for his readers to understand this war that had so much impact on the modern world.

{Video from the PBS documentary The War that Made America.}

Saturday, January 29, 2011


A review of Jill Lepore's The Name of War: King Philip's War And The Origins of American Identity (1999)

(Rating 3 of 5)

In my last post I described how a short while ago, I decided to do a straight reading up on the history of my country. Not by a series of biographies or of any particular event; but a simple march through the ages exploring all the eras of the United States of America. The first challenge is to find books that try their best to explore from multiple perspectives avoiding just one narrow view, without at the same time surrendering a general narrative that is both readable and enjoyable. The second challenge is determining where to start. I suppose I could start at the American Revolution or all the way back to Mesopotamia. I finally decided to start with A History of England by Clayton and David Roberts. After getting done with the mother county I moved on to this book by Jill Leopre, generally because of Leopre’s reputation of exploring history with memory. Her book deals with early English colonists and how they related to and fought with Native American tribes. Lepore’s dealing with both points of view (colonist and Native) during the colonial era surrounding the events leading up to, during, and aftermath of King Phillip’s War.

Jill Lepore's book is about one of earliest wars in American history and how the conflict would shape the identity of both sides involved. Lepore writes of colonists that left England for the purpose of religious separatism yet are always concerned about losing their Englishness due to the Natives' presence, and also the Native tribes willingness to explore this relationship while it benefited them balanced with their concern about losing their tribal and cultural identity due to the presence of the English. This fear of loss of identity would be one of the primary reasons for the conflict that ironically would change the culture of both dramatically, making the English 'Americans' and the various tribes 'Indians'.

(Philip A.K.A. Metacom)

Lepore's work is very academic in tone and a very difficult narrative to at times follow. Each chapter has about a page and a half of narrative and the rest is analysis. I found the most interesting parts of the book to be the introduction, preface, and final chapter. Those sections contained fascinating insights to how war is interpreted down the generations.

“Clearly, literacy is not an uncomplicated tool, like a pen or a printing press. Instead literacy is bound, as it was for New England's Indians, by the conditions under which it is acquired; in this case at great cost. To become literate, seventeenth-century Indians had first to make a graduated succession of cultural concessions—adopting English ways and English dress, living in towns, learning to speak English, converting to Christianity. But these very concessions made them vulnerable. Neither English nor Indian, assimilated Indians were scorned by both groups and even were subject to attack. Because the acquisition of literacy, and especially English-language literacy, was one of last steps on the road to assimilation, Indians who could read and write placed themselves in a particularly perilous, if at the same time a powerful position, caught between two worlds but fully accepted by neither.” p.27

I would recommend this book to advanced readers who would like an introduction into one of America's least understood conflicts, but I think the causal readers would best be served by looking somewhere else because this book does border on the technical side. Nevertheless, this work does a great job at exploring the conflict from many angles and explaining the context for which the war was fought.

{Video from the PBS series We Shall Remain, Jill Lepore herself is interviewed.}

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


A review of Clayton Roberts’ and David Roberts’ A History of England: Prehistory to 1714 (1991, my copy the third edition) (1980, first edition)

(Rating 5 of 5)

A short while ago, I decided to do a straight reading up on the history of my country. Not by a series of biographies or of any particular event; but a simple march through the ages exploring all the eras of the United States of America. The first challenge is to find books that try their best to explore from multiple perspectives in order to avoid just one narrow view, without at the same time surrendering a general narrative that is both readable and enjoyable. The second challenge is determining where to start. I suppose I could start at the American Revolution or all the way back to Mesopotamia. However, I decided to start with a general history of England seeing that the United States was originally thirteen British colonies. Although the American populace ancestry comes from all over, a most of our laws and customs—not to mention our language—comes from the old country. So with that I began with A History of England.

Clayton and David Roberts, who I am unsure if there is any family relation between them, wrote this book on the history of England that covers prehistory to the accession of King George I. This work was used as the textbook to a history of England class that I took in the early 2000s with Phillip Cole. It is a great work that takes the many different studies and approaches to history (social, political, great man, Whig, progressive, and even Marxist) and combines them into one master narrative. In its sixteen chapters, each covering specific eras of history, and explores that era through all angles though the peasantry to the royal family, to economic s and the arts. It is truly a great introduction to the little island that would at one point dominate the world.

“The most important fact in British history may well be that Britain is as island, and the most important date that moment—about 6000 BC—when the North Sea flooded over the lands that joined Britain to the Continent.” p.1


The Roberts duo points out that Britain’s status not only as an island but one that is close to the continent helped make it so unique it was close enough to be heavily influenced by Mediterranean culture but it’s being an island made so it was never completely swallowed up by it. From there the book goes on to cover the early people and the Roman invasion and the Roman Empire’s impact on the local culture. At the end of the Roman period, the Britons are invaded by a new group of conquerors crueler than the previous Roman occupiers: the Anglo-Saxons.

The Anglo-Saxons rule for centuries, they would give England its name ‘angle-land’, its monarchy, which would start out as several small kingdoms that would all be absorbed into one big kingdom. In the Anglo-Saxon period, England was more of a Scandinavian nation. It was the conquest of the Normans under the leadership of William the Conqueror would end Scandinavian influence. Under King William I, England would be a nation of continental Europe and the King of England arch nemesis would be the King of France. The Conqueror would also bring England into the age of feudalism.

(King William I, the Conqueror)

The book then follows the evolution of England from that point forward, common law under Henry II, statue law under Edward I, and the signing of Magna Charta that would led to the eventual creation of Parliament. Also chaos, plague, and civil war would reign as royal Houses struggled for the throne. Tradition says the man who ended this was Henry Tudor, as King Henry VII. However modern scholarship turns to credit a different man, King Henry’s father-in-law, King Edward IV.

(King Henry II)

(King Edward I)

“He made the monarchy stronger than it had been since the reign of Edward I and began to restore order in the countryside. The fifteenth century presents the anomaly of a Crown, checked first by Parliament, then by an aristocratic council, then by civil war, suddenly reasserting itself and recovering its independence.” p.193

(King Edward IV, more important than generally given credit for.)

Although Henry VII may have just been following in Edward IV’s footsteps he was still a very important and wise ruler. Although the book states the King was more medieval than modern he kept a wise policy of peace before conflict which would help the kingdom recover its strength.

“In October 1492 Henry led an army out of Calais to besiege Boulogne. But within a month he made peace with France. By the Treaty of Etaples the two kings agreed to remain at peace with each other, not to support the other’s enemies, and to allow their subjects to trade on equal terms. In addition, Charles VIII agreed to pay Henry £5,000 a year for the next fifteen years. Like Edward IV before him, Henry had preferred a profitable peace to a ruinous war.”p.231

(King Henry VII)

Unfortunately, he was followed by a rash teenager, King Henry VIII who ignored that policy. Although most scholars like to talk of Henry VIII’s many wives—six stories as opposed to one—this work discuss the reign of a King who let friends govern for him as long as they did a good job, and if they failed he killed them. Everything he did that was revolutionary was really more of an accident of securing other ambitions. King Henry’s break with Rome caused chaos in the next two reigns but Henry’s daughter Queen Elizabeth I would be a wise ruler who took England to heights it had not seen since King Henry II.

(King Henry VIII)

(Queen Elizabeth I)

Elizabeth’s successors would not prove so lucky. Although James I did well enough, his son King Charles I would have a reign that would be marked by one tragic event after another.

“He proved to be a dutiful husband, a good father, and a disastrous king. He lacked the common touch that would have allowed him to communicate with his subjects, and he had none of his father’s shrewd intelligence.”p.337

(King Charles I, failed king who lost his head.)

Over thrown by the brilliant generalship of Oliver Cromwell, Charles lost his Kingdom and his head. What happened to King Charles I was a shock to the world and England would fall under the yoke of a military dictatorship for the next decade of its history. This regime would oppress both religious/political decent and any form of expression that they deemed sinful. The Puritan regime would ultimately collapse and the monarchy restored in the person of King Charles II, but it would not last. When King James II succeeded his brother to the throne his devotion to Catholicism and ending oppression against Catholics resulted in his getting overthrown and replaced by his daughter and her husband, Queen Mary II and King William III. Known as the reign of ‘William and Mary,’ England would go to war against the Sun King, Louis XIV of France.

(Oliver Cromwell, great general but no republican hero.)

(William and Mary, different kind of rulers.)

“Such an effort could not fail to affect English society. Because of the war, Parliament met every year and become an indispensable part of the government. Because of the war, the royal administration grew in numbers and efficiency. Because of the war, new financial institutions emerged, which split propertied society into landed and monied interests. At the same time, the values of commerce permeated all ranks of society and helped shaped English civilization. England entered the war a second-rate European power, divided from Scotland, unstable in its politics, and unsure of its colonies. It emerged a major European power united with Scotland, politically stable, and set on the path of imperial greatness. England became Great Britain. A nation that had endured a century of discord and revolution now entered a century of peace and stability.”p.413

The story ends with reign of Queen Anne who would led England through what was known as the Act of Union that would make England and Scotland join together in order to become Great Britain. When Anne died the Act of Settlement that had been passed on the accession of William and Mary, was altered to bring the House of Hanover to the throne. King George I, second cousin to Queen Anne and great-grandson of King James I would assume the throne of Great Britain.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to have a good introduction on the history of a little island right before historical events would led it to dominate the planet Earth in the coming centuries.

{Video from the BBC documentary A History of Britain.}

Sunday, January 23, 2011


A review of Chester G. Starr’s The Roman Empire 27 B.C.-A.D. 476: A Study in Survival (1982)

(Rating 4 of 5)

This book was required reading in my Roman history course I took in the early 2000s with Professor Gary Johnson. It is a study of Rome during the imperial period from the rise of Emperor Augustus to the fall of Emperor Romulus Augustus. This book was favored by my professor for looking at the Roman Empire and asking not ‘why did if fall’ but rather ‘why did it last for so long?’

What this book really is, is a political science study on the Roman Empire reviewing everything from the emperors to the subjects. The book examines imperial succession, administration, the aristocratic Senate, the provisional commanders, and the people who lived in the Empire. Since most emperors were legally all-powerful and the only way to get rid of them was assassination, often a new emperor would allow his predecessor to be condemned for a brief time period. Starr compares this to Henry Kissinger’s analysis on Marxist states. However, Starr points out that they were still very different.

“The Roman Empire, however, was not encumbered with the weight of Marxist-Leninist doctrine, nor was it the heir of Russian tsars; rather it emerged out of the Roman Republic and was very poorly equipped with political theory. If we turn and look at the emperors themselves, it quickly becomes apparent that they did not act like Republican consuls, elected in pairs for only one year and fettered by the Senate and by ancestral custom; in many ways their role resembles that of a provincial governor in the Republic, essentially absolute in his province and adulated by his subjects (at least in the Greek East). The summation of a Republican governor’s position applies equally well to the Roman Caesars: ‘A Roman governor was either a wonderful success or a gigantic failure; and the opportunities of harm possessed by a vicious and incompetent administrator were beyond calculation.” p. 47

This work is an excellent examination into how the Roman Empire actually functioned as a state (to use a modern term), detailing how the Empire functioned under the emperors, what it was like for the subjects who lived under it, and why it managed to exist as long as it did. I would highly recommend this book to anyone, under two hundred pages it will not take much time and it will greatly increase your understanding of the Roman Empire.

{Video taken from YouTube}

Saturday, January 22, 2011


A review of Adrian Goldsworthy's In the Name of Rome: The Men Who Won the Roman Empire (2003)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Adrian Goldsworthy, one of the world's foremost experts on the ancient Roman Empire, wrote this book about the great generals of that civilization. Although the author himself points out that this book is primarily about generals and statesmen and not a complete picture of what Rome was like, he still successfully fills in the gaps as he jumps from one generation of Romans to the next. In effect the reader goes on a journey though the ancient Roman civilization from the Punic Wars to the era of the 'Byzantine Empire'. Goldsworthy has smooth narrative that flows well from the time of Hannibal to the reign of Emperor Justinian.

The book features those who Goldsworthy considers to be the greatest generals in Roman history. Some of the men he studies are very famous already,—such as, Fabius Maximus, Scipio Africnaus, Pompey Magnus, and Julius Caesar—others are barely known,—Aemilius Paullus and the very tragic Sertorius —and some were emperors—Trajan and Julian. Goldsworthy challenges the traditional view that Roman generals—in light of being politicians—were, by default, amateurs who real command fell to subordinates. He argues instead that they were both politicians and military men equally.

“Yet a closer examination of the evidence suggests that most of these assumptions are at best greatly exaggerated and often simply wrong. Far from taking power away from the general, the Roman tactical system concentrated it in his hands. Junior officers such as centurions played a vitally important role, but they fitted into a hierarchy with the army commander at the top and allowed him to have more control over events than less.”p.16

(An army led by politician-soldiers)

Also explored in this book is the culture of the Roman state and how that culture impacted the senators of the Republic in their careers serving it. One of these cultural traditions was that the Romans, even if things were not going their way, would never turn on Rome in favor of a foreign power. Their bond to their homeland was incredibly strong and this is part of what makes the tragic Sertorius's story of exile so particularly sad.

(Tragic case: Quintus Sertorius)

“However important it was for an individual to win fame an add to his own and his family's reputation, this should always be subordinated to the good of the Republic. The same belief in the superiority of Rome that made senators by the second century BC hold themselves the equals of any king ensured that no disappointed Roman politician sought the aid of a foreign power. Senators wanted success, but that success only counted if it was achieved at Rome. No senator defected to Pyrrhus or Hannibal even when their final victory seemed imminent, nor did Scipio Africanus' bitterness at the ingratitude of the State cause him to take service with a foreign king.”p.155-6

When the rule of the aristocratic Senate gives way to the emperors the role of the general changed from one of personal achievement and glory to all honor won by one man: the Emperor himself. Imperial Legets won glory only in the Emperor's name giving emperors, such as Augustus, a good deal of bragging rights.

“Augustus brought internal peace to Rome, an achievement which was conspicuously celebrated throughout his principate. His regime relied heavily on the glory derived from continuous and spectacular warfare against foreign opponents. Under its first emperor Rome continued to expand as intensively as it had done in the last decades of the Republic and by AD 14 had brought under its control almost all the territory which would compose the Empire for over four centuries. The Res Gestae, a long inscription set up outside Augustus' mausoleum recounting his achievements, lists a vast array of peoples and kings defeated by the emperor. In style the test is identical to the monuments set up by triumphing generals for many generations, but in sheer numbers of vanquished enemies it dwarfs the victories even of Pomepy and Caesar.”p.270

Imperial selfishness on the part of the Emperor seemed like a smart move, especially after it was proven that generals who did earn personnel glory were able to depose an unpopular emperor. However with incidents of emperors being dethoned by popular generals, Goldsworthy points out that this transfer of power to the barracks led to break down in military discipline that sapped the army's strength and with the army went the empire.

I highly recommend this book to anyone. It is an incredible achievement on the part of Goldsworthy and an overly entertaining read. It will greatly increase ones knowledge into the Roman military, its politics, and its leaders though out history.

{Video is from the all ready HBO classic Rome}