Sunday, August 20, 2006

books! Titus and more!


Not only has my general-reading palate been cleansed by a couple of pretty good teen novels (although further reflecting has made me think less of Saint Iggy, mainly because it has an almost bewilderingly unsatisfying ending) and one great science fiction novel, but now my very specific HISTORY palate has also been cleansed! Soldiers & Ghosts by J. E. Lendon was great!

Honestly, in today's Sudoku world I don't know how books like this get published. Lendon's writing is incredibly good, granted - extremely learned but light and very often witty - but what difference does THAT make, when his subject is warfare in classical antiquity and his notes and bibliography (including an extended bibliographical essay that alone is almost worth the price of admission) run to 100 pages. Who on Earth out there - aside from me and perhaps the author's proud momma - would ever think of picking up a book like this in anticipation of enjoying it?

Still, miraculous conception or no, the book itself is a marvel of clarity and narrative grace. It examines classical warfare techniques and mindframes from Homer to Julian the Apostate, and it faces the same challenge all such wide-ranging surveys do, or should: is it both accessible to the layman and interesting to the expert?

I can't count the number of survey-books (on all subjects) that fail one or the other side of that equation. And believe me, I've had occasion to TRY counting them, since one of my favorite things to do is introduce the reading of history to young people who've never experienced it. A survey that's both intelligent and readable is worth its weight in gold.

Lendon has written just that kind of book, leaning just a little (as he bloody well should) on the side of the experts. This is a deeply thoughtful book, one that repays thoughtful attention in spades.

Of course you know I'll have a quibble. In this case, it's such a small one I bet Lendon himself would chuckle over it. Here's a bit from Chapter XI:

What had changed between Caesar's day and Titus's was the behavior of the supreme commander: unlike Caesar, and unlike most Roman generals of old, Titus fought in a heroic mode, not avoiding - indeed seeking out - opportunities to fight with his own hands. Josephus's accounts of the bravery of Titus must be treated carefully: he was much in debt to Titus, who had begged for his life when Josephus was captured at Jotapata, who had urged his rehabilitation, who had employed him in the Roman service, protected him from subsequent Roman anger, given him lands after the war, and taken him to Italy. Still, writing for a contemporary audience constrained Josephus to embellish rather than invent, and even if we chip away at the eulogistic decoration it is quite clear that Titus, whether as Vespasian's subordinate or as supreme commander, was willing, even eager, to fight with his own hands.

Oh my.

First, what's that ivory tower bit about how writers writing for contemporary audiences can't invent stuff, are forced to 'embellish' only? PARTISAN writers invent stuff all the time - it's their JOB to invent stuff, and they still do it today, even in the age of Google and fact-checking. Hasn't Lendon ever heard of, for instance, campaign biographies, or presidential memoirs? Whether he was writing for a contemporary audience or not, Josephus was writing for an audience that primarily wasn't THERE, at Jerusalem or anywhere else where Titus was in command.

It would have been easy for him to invent physical courage, and boy, just LOOK at the laundry-list of reasons Lendon accurately gives (he leaves out only the generous stipend Josephus received while he was living in Rome)! That laundry list adds up to one thing: a bought and paid-for TOAD, not a eulogistic decorator.

Let me tell you about Titus, boys and girls. He was in his youth very beautiful - handsome, graceful, with thick biceps and bulging pecs and just enough baby-fat around the edges to soften the overall impression of a musclebound jock. And his face was the white-smiled, long-lashed mirror image of his mother - unlike his father and brother, both of whom looked like livestock. And he was a winning person too, when he wanted to be - funny, egalitarian, just the kind of guy all guys wanted to befriend. He knew by instinct how to be a true friend, and he was genuinely generous when it came to money (no mental book-keeping, no long-simmering resentment).

But Titus was a bit of a ponce (he cut people on the basis of rumor). A bit of a dandy (artificially curled hair, and the very latest cut to his clothes). A bit of a fop (forever quoting and paraphrasing authors he never took the time to actually read). He could be fatuous, and he was monumentally vain. When he was feeling moody or entitled, he could be a prissy twit. And he no more 'eagerly sought out' hand-to-hand combat with roaring Germans or Jewish mercenaries than he farted rosebuds out his ass.

Not to say he was a coward - he accepted dangers when they were imminent, and he shirked no peril that came with leading his men. But those men were there to PROTECT him, and in all cases he let them do their job. The closest he came to hand-to-hand combat was at the seige of Jerusalem, where he used his admittedly great prowess with the bow to pick off defenders like balls off a wall.

Still! For my one and only quibble to be so niggling - why, that's high praise in and of itself! And unlike my last few books, I know EXACTLY who I can recommend this to - my friend Jack will gobble it up like a quart of Rocky Road.

Up next? Well, a mammoth historical romance novel, Dark Angels by Karleen Koen (whose Through a Glass Darkly I DID sort of like) has been pressed upon me by a concerned party, and the book is set in the time of Charles II, so that'll probably be next.

But not tonight! Tonight I've got writing to do and of course "Deadwood" to watch. By the time I finally settle in for the shank-end of my evening, I doubt I'll have time or presence of mind to read more than a story or two from Gardner Dozois' latest 'year's best science fiction' collection.

Nevertheless, it's great to be out of the doldrums!

p.s. I've added a contemporary image of Titus that's virtually spot-on, so you all won't be fooled by the 2000-year-0ld marble bust of him done the year before he died ...

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