Science + History = Awesomeness

I found The Fate of Rome SUPER fascinating. And I’m usually not into the whole Rome-is-dying-lets-find-out-why genre of Roman History. (I prefer stories about people doing their jobs well rather than people screwing up.) But The Fate of Rome applies all kinds of updated scientific techniques to history, telling a story of disease and climate change affecting the Roman Empire, and how competent (or not) rulers played into that.

There are two parts that really stick in my brain.

First, there’s a thing in Roman History called The Crisis of the Second Century. Basically after Commodus (the emperor portrayed in Gladiator), the Roman Empire kind of falls apart. The usually theories that are put forth are around inflation and rulers who don’t get the trust of the military (both of which were problems, don’t get me wrong). There’s a whole line of study that tries to answer the question, “Why didn’t the Empire fall apart during the second century? Because it maybe should have.”

BUT, there is new analysis of the epidemic that hit the Roman Empire during the second century, with a truly appalling death rate of somewhere around 60%. The Antonine plague, as it’s known, has been discussed plenty. It’s typically identified as a type of smallpox. There was a plague about 100 years later that has never been identified, and it is usually assumed to be another wave of smallpox. However, using modern epidemiology & pathology techniques and Galen’s discussion of the symptoms, it seems way more likely to be a type of ebola. Both diseases have truly appalling death rates: 30-40% for smallpox, possibly as high as 70% for ebola. Either way, the combination of plagues had a HUGE destabilizing effect on society.

The second part that really sticks in my brain requires a slightly longer explanation. By the 500s, the Roman Empire had been split into two and the Western half had fallen. The Eastern Half, now known as the Byzantine Empire, was still around. The emperors would occasionally try to reincorporate the Western Half, but would usually not make it very far.

Until Justinian, who was a super-capable human being. He had a general he could trust and who succeed in starting to bring Italy back into the fold during the 530s. And then 536 hit. No one knows why, but 536AD is the coldest year in the last 2000 years. Core ice from glaciers and tree-ring evidence show that there was a HUGE volcanic explosion in 536 and another in 539. This coupled with lower solar activity during the time (measured by the amount of certain radioactive elements in the air caused by solar radiation that then precipitate onto the glaciers), was hugely devastating. No sun means no crops means no food. Combine that with a conquering army sweeping across your land? Disaster.

Suffice it to say, Justinian didn’t succeed in rejuvenating the Western Roman Empire.

I learned SO MUCH about both how to combine history and science reading The Fate of Rome and so much more about why the Western Roman Empire fell. If you are at all into history, I highly recommend it.

Doing what you have to to survive

Les Parisiennes tells the stories of women who lived in Paris during World War II. It is a complicated book, structurally, with far too many individual stories told to keep track of all of the people. There is a six page list of all of the women mentioned in the book, before the index, if you want to be a better person than me and actively try to keep them all in your head.

I didn’t worry about keeping everyone straight because that’s not really the point of the narrative. Les Parisiennes is arranged chronologically and that has the advantage of reminding you that Paris is a big city, full of different people who asked themselves “what do I need to do to survive?” and answered differently. There are the women who collaborated, those who resisted loudly, those who resisted quietly, and those who did what they had to in the gray area in between.

I learned about Drancy, the holding area for prisoners before they were sent to concentration camps. During the early 1944 chapters of the book, it does leave Paris for Ravensbrück, the women’s concentration camp. Because it’s a third-person account it’s less emotional than, say, Survival in Auschwitz, but it was still nightmare-inducing. I couldn’t read these chapters before bedtime.

The most light-hearted part of the book is, of course, about fashion. No one writes a book about Paris and without including the fashion industry. You learn about the codes embroidered onto hats and belts and about the rather insane turbans women would wear just to piss off the Nazis. There is one memorable photograph of a woman, keeping watch on the top of a building during the liberation of Paris in 1944, wearing a lovely flowered skirt and sling-back heels with a helmet, holding a machine gun.

The juxtaposition of the soft and the hard in that photograph is what makes it interesting and it’s the jumble of all these women’s stories told together that makes Les Parisiennes work.


When the patriarchy was even stronger

Agrippina by Anthony A Barrett

Agrippina, specifically Agrippina the Younger, was a kind of incredible woman who co-ruled the Roman Empire first with her husband Claudius and then with her son Nero. This book has a distinctly feminist take on her.

Agrippina has often been portrayed as a power-hungry woman who would do anything (e.g. setting up Claudius’ prior wife for political downfall, murdering Claudius so Nero would inherit over Claudius’ natural son, sleeping with Nero once he was on the throne to stay in his good graces) to rule Rome. Mr Barrett’s take on it is as follows:

  1. Look, she was a powerful woman in a deeply misogynistic society. She’s not going to be portrayed in anything like a positive light.
  2. She only shows up in the contemporary stories about the men whose lives she was in. We don’t have anything that focuses on her.
  3. Sex scandals were frequently used by the contemporary sources to explain why powerful people (both men and women) were suddenly not in power anymore.

So when she’s implicated in a sex scandal, it’s important to look around and see who benefits and who else is being taken down with her. That’s going to show you what’s really going on.

Here are the facts: she was raised by an extraordinarily determined mother and her dead father was worshipped by the military. When she was around Caligula (the emperor before Claudius and her brother), he wasn’t such a crazy asshole who tried to kill everyone. Claudius’ reign was much smoother when she was his wife than when he was married to his prior wife. Nero didn’t go off the rails until after she was banished (and then he had her killed to keep her from coming back). Shit worked when she was on the scene.

So maybe consider that the contemporary reports were written by gossipy people with a strong patriarchal bias and should be taken with a HUGE grain of salt.

I liked this one.

They’re all crazy


Dynasty is a story of a particularly prominent and dysfunctional family: the Julio-Claudian set of Roman Emperors. It includes Augustus (who started the empire), Claudius (subject to a relatively famous BBC series), and Nero (who fiddled while Rome burned), amongst others. They’re notable because they were the first emperors: Augustus managed the transition from republic to empire; Tiberius couldn’t live up to him; Caligula was either crazy or really spoiled; Claudius was underestimated; and Nero was complicated.

It was also a complicated time in the Roman state: how does a republic transition to an empire? Why? How did the prominence of women in the family (Livia, Agrippina the Younger) effect anything?

Dynasty is popular history (not scholarly), and both readable and enjoyable.

Everyone has their own filter


SPQR is and is not a history of Ancient Rome. It does not cover the entire 1200+ years of the Roman Kingdom, Republic, and Empire. It’s almost more of a media study of Ancient Rome. The fact is that there are few sources, and they’re difficult to verify against each other. In fact, before about 300 BCE, it’s all legend; there are no records of any kind. But we do have the stories, and how people tell the stories say a whole lot about the time they’re writing in.

Augustus burned all of Cleopatra’s records; we don’t get anything of her that didn’t pass through his filter. So what do we know of her? What does that tell us about Augustus, the first emperor of Rome? That’s the kind of history this is – it’s different than others and useful as a result. I thought about Rome differently.



Queen Elizabeth is better than this

The Marriage Game

What’s it about?
Queen Elizabeth has just taken the throne. Much has been made about her ability to play many suitors off each other, and about her ultimate “marriage to England”, as it were. But what was she thinking? Why did everything work out the way it did? The Marriage Game is a fictionalized version of the story of Elizabeth and not getting married.

Why should you read it?
Don’t. I read it, but I got really, really angry about halfway through. The politics and the power is the interesting bit here – who was she courting and who was courting her and why and how did that play into what was happening in England and Europe? That was what I wanted, not some schmoopy love story between her and Lord Robert Dudley. A love story, I might add, that doesn’t follow traditional narrative structure and so fails on the romance story level as well.

Basically: I should have either read a history or something totally made up. Not this weird in-between hybrid. Elizabeth was an incredible woman who was an amazing ruler. The Marriage Game made her so much less. Blech.

Physics and Gender Studies

Galileo's Daughter

What’s it about?
Galileo Galilei was, in many ways, the founding father of modern science. He was one of the first people to insist that you needed to both know theory and experiment to confirm that theory. He, famously, refined and popularized the telescope and wrote a treatise on motion that inspired Newton.

He also had a daughter. Two daughters, actually. But her half of correspondence with the eldest lives and frames this biography of Galileo as a father with responsibilities to his family as well as tells the story of his struggles with the Catholic Church.

Why should you read it?
You should read Galileo’s Daughter because it humanizes the scientist and goes into detail about his conflicts with the Church. Which I only knew some of, honestly. It’s a solidly written biography of an interesting person during an interesting historical era.

It also, if you choose to look at it that way, highlights the different ways men and women behaved in Reform-era Italy. Galileo was brilliant and was allowed to be kind of a cad when he was young – fathering three children without marrying their mother. He is defined by his science and the whole religion-science debate.

Maria Celeste had to become a nun because her mother died and Galileo couldn’t raise her on his own. She was intelligent and hyper-competent; she clearly loved and supported her father. Today, she might have been a famous scientist. In 1600s Tuscany, she was a supportive family member and near-abbess. It’s a pity, really, that she wasn’t allowed to flourish as a scientist. I bet she’d’ve been great at it.

Old Europe

What’s it about? 
The Guns of August is about European politics leading up to WWI, and the first month of the war. I did not know most of it before listening to the book – Germany’s inferiority complex; the fact that Belgium was supposed to be neutral; how fashion was deemed more important than effective military in France (the French didn’t want to give up their stylish army uniforms, despite the fact that they made them easy targets for the new rifles); and I certainly didn’t have any clue about the personalities behind any of the politics and policies and decisions. The Guns of August did a great job at bringing the story of how WWI happened to life.

Why should you read it? 
The Economist wrote an article a couple of years ago, arguing that you could see parallels between pre-WWI Europe and the current rise of China. I had no idea whether or not it was true, given how little I knew about pre-WWI Europe. The Guns of August is the classic aimed-at-the-general-public tome for learning about the subject – it won a Pulitzer in 1963, when it was published, and it has come recommended to me by two different people on two different sides of the country. The author does a great job of making the generals into real people; the personal and professional conflicts affect battles and strategies, and she turns what could be very boring history into a good listen. (I got the audiobook version of this book, too. The speaker/reader was very good overall, but the accents were delightful. I should note that I listened to a different version than the one I linked to. I’ve no idea how that reader does.)

A building with a long history

The Colosseum

What’s it about?
The Colosseum is an entire book about the building in Rome. The book covers the building from before it was built – back when the land was a pond in Nero’s palace – through the gladiatorial games of the Ancient Roman empire to its repurposing in the middle ages for various purposes and finally to the tourist attraction we have today.

Why should you read it?
The Colosseum has had a remarkably long life that covers a wide swath of history. It is fascinating, to me anyway, to read about the repurposing of private land (Nero’s palace) into public land (the Colosseum was open to everyone) as a political tactic, even in ancient times.

The success of the film Gladiator shows that we are still fascinated by them – Hopkins and Beard go over the lives of actual gladiators, discussing how often they fought, how likely were they to live, how they fit into the economy as a whole. It should be noted that there is no record of Christians being put to death in the Colosseum – those were stories put about after the end of the gladiatorial games.

Into the middle ages, we see that it was treated a bit like a quarry. Many stones were removed to build other, more immediately necessary buildings. It was also used as a place of business by various people. In the 1800s Lord Byron wrote verses about it and archaeologists began to study it. It’s apparently interesting to botanists as well; there are unique plants that grow in the Colosseum. Who knew?

Overall, if you’re planning a visit to Rome and want to see the Colosseum, I’d recommend reading this.

A Grand Love

The Last Great Dance on Earth

What’s it about?
The Last Great Dance on Earth is the third of three novels about Empress Josephine. This book remains a very intimate portrait of her and her family, their loves and lives. But it’s probably the grandest part of her story. She’s fully in the palace, living the life of an empress, haunted by what happened to Marie Antoinette. Her continuing inability to get pregnant with Napoleon’s heir (likely because of her imprisonment during the Revolution) leads to their eventual divorce, where she moves to a country house (still a small palace). Napoleon is shown to continue to love her – wikipedia even states that “he had married a womb” (of his second wife). Little mention is made of Napoleon’s love affairs. I suppose it is the French myth that a man can remain married to one woman while having sex with many; a woman must remain loyal to her husband. To be fair, the first book does address this point – Josephine learns that this is what is expected of a good French wife. This volume chronicles her downfall – the complications of life at court, his family’s continuing jealousy and scheming, and her eventual death at her home in suburban Paris.

Why should you read it?
Because the three books together make up one story. There is no drop-off in quality from book to book and they really do read as one whole, split into three to make them manageable. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that the publisher releases them all as a single volume some day. They are a lovely portrait of life in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France.