Saunders, Nicholas J. Alexander’s Tomb.

NY: Basic Books, 2006.

Subtitled “The Two Thousand Year Obsession to Find the Lost Conqueror,” this is a semi-academic (lots of footnotes, lengthy bibliography) but also very readable account of what we know happened — and what else we think may have happened — to the mummy of Alexander after he died in Babylon at the age of thirty-two. By Macedonian tradition, a deceased king was buried by his successor, so whoever controlled that particular very famous corpse had an excellent claim to taking over his empire. (more…)

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Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.

NY: Liveright, 2015.

Until recently, Beard wasn’t that well-known outside the world of academic classicists, her occasional appearances on BBC notwithstanding. Then this engaging and engrossing volume of her thoughts on the Roman republic and the early empire came out after (literally) fifty years in the making, and everyone’s reading it. She may have done more for popular interest in ancient Rome than any writer since Gibbon.

First, she makes it clear that this is not a complete history of the 1,500 years of Rome’s existence in various forms. She’s interested mostly in the city’s establishment and the slow, nearly mythical formation of the Republic from its period of what were essentially warlords and gangsters. And she ends with Caracalla’s extension of citizenship to all free people within the empire in 212 CE, because after that it was an entirely different game with different rules, and not really “Roman” any more.

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Kearsley, Susanna. The Shadowy Horses.

NY: Bantam, 1997.

I read a great deal, in nearly every genre and flavor of fiction, and I strongly disagree with the elitists who insist that certain entire categories of books simply aren’t worth their time. That’s pure snobbery, and it’s generally based on prejudice, not experience. Because a book is either well-written or it isn’t, and while there are plenty of books that I haven’t bothered to finish, and certain authors whose repeated lame attempts I have learned (usually) to avoid, the occasional losers are spread across the whole of literature. There are almost always books in any niche that are worth your time. And this one, a romance novel with a strong psychic flavor, is one of them.

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Cave, Roderick & Sara Ayad. The History of the Book in 100 Books.

Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books, 2014.

As a kid, I learned to appreciate books as physical artifacts, as much as for their content. In high school, I learned to love the smell of rare and used bookstores. And in library school, in the late 1960s, I finally took a few courses in the history of books and printing, where I learned about papermaking, the history and practice of typesetting, and the arts of illustration and bookbinding.

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Johnson, Marilyn. Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rabble.

NY: HarperCollins, 2014.

I’ve been an archaeology junkie all my life, starting with my reading of Gods, Graves, and Scholars: The Story of Archaeology in 5th Grade many years ago. The summer after my freshman year in college, I was an unpaid volunteer for the National Park Service’s Missouri Valley Basin Project on the upper Great Plains — which mostly meant holding a surveyor’s rod steady, but I loved being associated with the guys who were searching for Indian hunting sites.

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Turtledove, Harry. Departures.

NY: Del Rey, 1993.

I began reading Harry’s short fiction in the pulps in the ‘80s, when he first appeared on the science fiction scene. He had a PhD in Byzantine history, so his alternate history yarns with a similar setting were pretty good. Accurate, anyway.

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Roberts, Jennifer Tolbert. Herodotus: A Very Short Introduction.

NY: Oxford University Press, 2011.

I’m becoming quite attached to this series of brief overviews (100-120 pages) of important topics in Western culture, from Roman Britain and Mormonism to racism and medical ethics. There are more than three hundred now, many of them the work of recognized experts, and of the dozen or so I’ve read, only one has failed to impress me. Not a bad average at all.

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Utley, Steven. The 400-Million-Year Itch: Silurian Tales, Vol. 1.

Greenwood, Western Australia: Ticonderoga Publications, 2012.

Steve, who died recently at a shockingly young age, was one of the best of the handful of first-rate science fiction authors whom Texas produced in the 1970s and ’80s, and whom hardly anyone except their avid fans has ever heard of. I take that back: Most of the leading literary lights of science fiction themselves had a very high regard for Mr. Utley’s work. They recognized quality when they saw it.

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Hickman, Jonathan. Pax Romana.

Berkeley, CA: Image Comics, 2013.

This is an alternate history story in graphic novel form, and it’s quite inventive. Suppose a couple of physicists fifty years from now discover a method of time travel — actual physical transport back to the past. But these physicists work for the Vatican Observatory, so they keep their work quiet and take it directly to the pope.

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Graves, Ralph. The Lost Eagles.

NY: Knopf, 1955.

Graves was primarily a print journalist — eventually editorial director and managing editor of both Life and Time magazines — but he also wrote a few novels along the way, most of them now forgotten. This was his second book and his only historical, set in the Rome of Augustus and Tiberius, and featuring Severus Varus, cousin of the unfortunate Quinctilius Varus, who lost three entire legions at Teutoberg Forest in 9 AD.

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