ROMANS AND BARBARIANS

FOUR VIEWS FROM THE EMPIRE'S EDGE: 1ST CENTURY A.D.

In an erudite look beyond the Roman Empire’s walls (which he traced in The Reach of Rome, 1997), freelancer Williams examines the frontier of first-century Rome from the Roman perspective and, more speculatively, from the viewpoint of nearby barbarian tribes. After the creation of the imperial Roman state, the frontier became a critical bulwark of pax Romana against barbarian tribes, who lived in a preliterate and Iron Age culture. Without a barbarian literature, Williams is limited to Roman viewpoints, of which he chooses four. The first is that of the poet Ovid, exiled by the emperor to the Black Sea for an indiscretion that can only be guessed at, who left grim narratives of savage head-hunting Sarmatian nomads. Williams’s second subject is Quintillius Varus, a lawyer, who led the Roman legions into one of the empire’s greatest disasters at the hands of German barbarians, the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 a.d. Varus’ legendary defeat at the hands of Armin (traditionally, Hermann or Arminius), a German tribesman and former Roman legionary, showed Roman hubris and overconfidence in Roman arms at their worst, and halted Roman incursions into Germany. The historian Tacitus is a primary source for information on the Varian disaster, as well as on Williams’s third subject, the conquest of the Celtic Britons at the hands of Claudius and Agricola. Finally, Williams uses Trajan’s triumphal sculpture at the heart of Rome as a launching point to discuss his conquest of Dacia on the Black Sea. Though the frontier created by Roman conquests seemed strong enough in the first century, Williams shows that it created a permanent problem for Rome—the continual presence of alien tribes. Two societies, one historic, the other prehistoric, coexisted uneasily, and as Roman military power weakened, the two transformed each other to make possible the creation of Europe. A vivid picture of the clash between ancient civilization and prehistoric cultures. (8 maps, b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Feb. 23, 1999

ISBN: 0-312-19958-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1999

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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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Harari delivers yet another tour de force.

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21 LESSONS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY

A highly instructive exploration of “current affairs and…the immediate future of human societies.”

Having produced an international bestseller about human origins (Sapiens, 2015, etc.) and avoided the sophomore jinx writing about our destiny (Homo Deus, 2017), Harari (History/Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem) proves that he has not lost his touch, casting a brilliantly insightful eye on today’s myriad crises, from Trump to terrorism, Brexit to big data. As the author emphasizes, “humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers, or equations, and the simpler the story, the better. Every person, group, and nation has its own tales and myths.” Three grand stories once predicted the future. World War II eliminated the fascist story but stimulated communism for a few decades until its collapse. The liberal story—think democracy, free markets, and globalism—reigned supreme for a decade until the 20th-century nasties—dictators, populists, and nationalists—came back in style. They promote jingoism over international cooperation, vilify the opposition, demonize immigrants and rival nations, and then win elections. “A bit like the Soviet elites in the 1980s,” writes Harari, “liberals don’t understand how history deviates from its preordained course, and they lack an alternative prism through which to interpret reality.” The author certainly understands, and in 21 painfully astute essays, he delivers his take on where our increasingly “post-truth” world is headed. Human ingenuity, which enables us to control the outside world, may soon re-engineer our insides, extend life, and guide our thoughts. Science-fiction movies get the future wrong, if only because they have happy endings. Most readers will find Harari’s narrative deliciously reasonable, including his explanation of the stories (not actually true but rational) of those who elect dictators, populists, and nationalists. His remedies for wildly disruptive technology (biotech, infotech) and its consequences (climate change, mass unemployment) ring true, provided nations act with more good sense than they have shown throughout history.

Harari delivers yet another tour de force.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-51217-2

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: June 27, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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