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Last Shogun: The Life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu
Last Shogun: The Life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu
by Shiba Ryotaro
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable and accessible biography of the last shogun, 15 Aug. 2011
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History is generally written by the winners, that alone justifies reading the Last Shogun, not many histories of the samurai talk about the losers.
Ryotaro Shiba, was a prolific writer in Japan, but has received a distinct lack of recognition in the West. This is perhaps because what he writes (as seen in the Last Shogun), really falls between the cracks of western genres, being neither an outright historical biography nor outright historical fiction in the style of a Cornwall or an Iggulden. Instead the Last Shogun reads in translation a lot like Dening's life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi , in comparison to Western writing traditions like a modern Plutarch or Xenophon. That said I found Shiba's work easier to read than Dening, with the end product being a broadly enjoyable and broadly factual account of the life of Yoshinobu Tokugawa.
The work is chronological taking us through Yoshinobu's childhood in the Mito family, through to his adoption into the Hitotsubashi family and rise to become Shogunal Guardian and eventual Shogun, the fall of the Bakufu and his life after the Meiji restoration. It is clear throughout that Shiba, holds Yoshinobu in high regard and in some respects the work is a defence of him, something that Yoshinobu would have been grateful for given his own sense of history. Shiba also recognises Japan's debt to Yoshinobu for the transfer of power from the shogunate to the emperor. This does sometimes mean that Shiba avoids criticism and works to distance Yoshinobu from the shinsengumi and other less palatable incidents of the times.
The novel is well worth reading, especially for those with an interest in the Meiji era, it really opens up the other side of the story, which often focuses on the imperial faction. The work is well written, accessible and helps to provide a really good starting point for anyone wishing to understand the period.


1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow
1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow
by Adam Zamoyski
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An engaging account of one of the greatest disasters in military history, 31 July 2011
I have to admit that the Napoleonic Wars are outside of my usual area of reading. However some points of history have such a colossal impact on world events, you can feel a genuine sense of shame in not really knowing the history. In Britain we focus on the Peninsular War and Waterloo, whilst holding a vague awareness that Napoleon's failure in Russia was a significant contributor to his downfall. Zamoyski's book on Napoleon's war in Russia and epic retreat are therefore quite welcome reading, especially as an introduction to the subject.

Zamoyski's virtues as a writer come through first of all in his compelling narrative, which easily moves the reader through events (as well unfamiliar places and names) and his sensitive and insightful discussion of the human tragedy of the war. Zamoyski certainly handles his source material well and strives to draw out the international quality of the war, rather than previous accounts which can be very French or Russian centric, this work draws on substantial amounts of Polish, Dutch, Italian and German experiences to name but a few. The book also has an excellent set of easy to follow maps, which are well broken down and very useful for following the efforts of the different corps and armies.

As mentioned previously I would see this work as an introductory piece. It provides a solid introduction, but does have its limitations; it is in broad terms pro-Napoleon. Zamoyski, doesn't really get under the skin of whether Napoleon was right to act as he did, and sometimes the impression is that he was really a promethean architect of a proto-European Union, rather than a tyrant determined to make his friends and family rulers of Europe. Historiographically speaking this finds expression in the way that a general contrast is made between Russian brutality and Western behaviours (or when western behaviour is inappropriate, source material is provided to indicate remorse). Zamoyski is also highly critical of the Russian Leadership and places Napoleon's failure on a lack of form and the weather, this is somewhat disappointing, Zamoyski does fail to place the Russian war effort in the context of total war, in which losing battles is inconsequential to gaining ground and winning the war's strategic objectives (a good comparison would be Grant versus Lee in the American Civil War). Zamoyski also fails to point out that in source material the French and allied sources vastly outnumber the Russian sources and that there is general a dearth of sources from the perspective of Cossacks and Russian Peasants which may have tempered enemy accounts of them.

Overall this is a solid read and well worth the time of reading, I'd certainly recommend reading it alongside Dominic Lieven's "Russia Against Napoleon" that handles the Russian perspective from 1807 to 1814 extremely well.


Rome's Gothic Wars: From The Third Century To Alaric (Key Conflicts of Classical Antiquity)
Rome's Gothic Wars: From The Third Century To Alaric (Key Conflicts of Classical Antiquity)
by Michael Kulikowski
Edition: Paperback
Price: £18.99

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A thoughtful account of much maligned barbarians, 22 July 2011
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It's amazing how an idea can really come to take a hold of an academic subject, in ancient history, this is especially true of why the Western Roman Empire fell. Chief among the reasons recycled throughout history are the barbarian invasions of the fourth century, with the Goths enjoying alongside the Huns the role of barbarian offenders in chief. This work largely told from a Gothic perspective, provides a clear narrative (pleasantly so, many Roman focused histories of the period can be difficult to engage with) which is an easy read.
Kulikowski's work is a refreshing sea change in this area, writing as part of a series of works called "key conflicts of classical antiquity", the work looks to provide an entry point and serious discussion of Rome's Gothic Wars. This isn't a military history as such, but in fact a sound, well thought out and conceptualised history, combining an analytical narrative history of Roman/Gothic relations alongside a serious attempt to engage with ancient and modern historiography on the Goths and utilising the archaeological evidence.
The book really seeks to get under the skin of the topic and the work on Gothic Origins and the impact of a move to create a non-roman northern European history from the fifteenth century onwards are excellent. Throughout the work Kulikowski's knowledge and ability with a diverse range of source material including archaeology, prosopography, epigraphy and written accounts is superb, he is a historian clearly in control of his material.
Equally refreshing in a work, that is meant to be an entry point to the subject, is the way that Kulikowski challenges the status quo in many areas of academic research. He is broadly negative towards Theodosius ("The Great" - he actually provides an intriguing slant on Theodosius ascension - particularly targeting Stephen Williams recent work), he disagrees with the migration and diffusionist schools of thought on the barbarians, instead seeing the Gothic identity as a product of the Roman Frontier and has excellent comments on the primary source material in particular on Jordanes. A quality of Kulikowski's work is that where he does conflict with an established doctrine, he makes the reader aware of what he is arguing against and which historians, giving the reader the option of researching the material themselves.
Overall this is an accessible, thoroughly scholarly and engrossing account.


Theodosius: The Empire at Bay (Roman Imperial Biographies)
Theodosius: The Empire at Bay (Roman Imperial Biographies)
by Gerard Friell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £25.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A solid defence of Theodosius, 12 July 2011
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Theodosius isn't a particularly fashionable emperor. Sometimes seen as the unwitting architect of the fall of the Western Empire, he is often shunned as a topic of serious academic discussion, often only gaining a guest starring role in histories of the Early Church or the emergence of the Eastern Empire. This is by and large a missed opportunity, Theodosius reign provides a lot of scope for insight into key themes in later Roman History such as Rome's relationship with the Goths, religious unrest and the East/West divide. Williams and Friell, provide a useful account of Theodosius reign, drawing on literary, archaeological, epigraphical and numismatic evidence.
The work is primarily a biography. It starts prior to Theodosius with a brief build up to Adrianople, whilst the work then carries on with a good chapter on Stilicho and a discussion as to whether the East/West split was inevitable. The authors know their source material well and this is evident in how they structure the chapters and also in how the use Gibbon, who centuries later still, looms large in this subject area.
The work is largely a defence of Theodosius, setting his reign between two key historical turning points, the battle of Adrianople, which destabilised the East and his early death, which left his two young sons nominally in charge of the Empire. Such a revision is welcome in helping to rebalance the historical scales, though at times it can feel, that the work defers too much toward absolving Theodosius; he certainly made mistakes (hereditary rule for his sons, was an example, especially given his non-hereditary elevation by Gratian) and it is possible to tackle both his indecision and inconsistency (such as volte-face regarding pagan worship in the Empire). However this must be set against the works wider emphasis which is to challenge some misconceptions about the Later Roman Empire that have persisted since Gibbon, in particularly the chapters on the barbarisation of the army and on religion are good reads in this respect.
I'd recommend this to anyone interested in the Later Empire and also with an interest in Rome's relationship with Barbarians.


Diocletian and the Roman Recovery (Roman Imperial Biographies)
Diocletian and the Roman Recovery (Roman Imperial Biographies)
by Stephen Williams
Edition: Paperback
Price: £27.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent account of the age of Diocletian, 4 July 2011
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Diocletian is largely a stranger to English Language academia, many of the principal studies of his reign, the tetrarchy and his economic policies have largely been in French and German works. This makes Stephen Williams work, highly welcome. William's displays a solid control of the source material, overcoming the bias of the primary sources (Lactantius and Eusebius are both hostile) as well as good knowledge of archaeological evidence, inscriptions and numismatics.
The book is more than a narrow biography and is as much about Diocletian the man as it is about his time period. Although it is a brief work, the content is placed in five superbly structured parts. These blend an insightful narrative history with some genuinely excellent thematic chapters, in particular Williams' discussion of military policy (loosely derived from Luttwak but well supported by good use of archaeological study), economic policy and also religious policy are well thought out with sound arguments. These chapters in particular would be very useful to anyone writing an essay on the Later Roman Empire (the appendicles are also very useful for academics).
Many arguments presented in the book provide real food for thought, Williams drives his reader towards some interesting conclusions, as well as reappraising the nature of the tetrarchy as a more collegiate system than arbitrarily territorial. Likewise he places Diocletian's rule in a more Roman mould, rather than seeing his rule as a product of Oriental Despotism he sees how it fits into the Roman respect for the law. Identifying, perhaps that the principal difference between Augustus' rule at the start of the Empire differed from Diocletian's rule more in the fact that whilst Augustus subtly held monarchical power Diocletian made this power explicit. Equally Williams makes a persuasive argument for acknowledging Constantine's debt to Diocletian, in the same way that much modern scholarship seeks to acknowledge Alexander the Great's debt to Philip II.
The tone of the work is considered, Williams is unlike some historians seeking to provide a rose tinted view of their subjects. He recognised Diocletian as a forceful character who stabilised the empire, but who was unable to make his reforms outlast himself and who made at least two significant mistakes (His edict on maximum prices and his persecution of the Christians). Williams comparison of Diocletian with Oliver Cromwell is very apt. For its size (230 pages) it is a very accomplished work.


Xenophon's Retreat: Greece, Persia and the end of the Golden Age
Xenophon's Retreat: Greece, Persia and the end of the Golden Age
by Robin Waterfield
Edition: Paperback

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable read on the 10,000, 28 Jun. 2011
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Xenophon has often suffered in academia from being sometimes difficult to categorise, whilst many academics are often uncomfortable in handling the issues that Xenophon's presence in his own works means for historiography. Luckily for Xenophon, Robin Waterfield is an engaging historian, who has produced an excellent refresher and discussion of Xenophon and the 10,000.
Waterfield's book is broadly chronological providing some back ground to the 10,000 before following their campaign and their march to the sea, through to their involvement with Agesilaus and some notes on Xenophon's later life. The work is more that a summary of Xenophon's account and works hard to evaluate evidence and handle the difficult issue of chronology while providing additional salient details to the account. Alongside these efforts are some worthwhile digressions into general themes of Greek History. The account is easy to read and Waterfield's insights are well received, especially in his concluding chapter when he looks at how the 10,000 have been reinterpreted over history and the impact of the 10,000 on Pan-Hellenic ideology.
There are a couple of minor gripes with the book. The first is that Waterfield often tries to make a distinction between the Fifth and Fourth Century, this is a difficult dichotomy to sustain, given that the Greeks didn't view the time period as the fourth and fifth century themselves and that really he should be talking about a pre-Peloponnesian War and post-Peloponnesian War environment when he is referring to Athens. On a wider scale a lot of recent works are less happy with attempts to make too severe a distinction between the Fifth and Fourth Century in Greece identifying a lot of areas of continuity between the two periods. The second gripe is the digressions that Waterfield makes regarding political structures, he is very critical of Xenophon's pro-oligarchic/pro-monarchic sentiments. It is a shame, because Waterfield develops an excellent argument early on the book about how warfare led to status for individual cities, I would have liked to see him to develop this argument to see that by the Peloponnesian War this also came to apply to the constitutions if cities - I would have liked him to have then used this to review Xenophon's position, that as democracy had lost the war, its status had fallen below Oligarchy to people like Xenophon, hence his apathy towards it. I certainly would have liked Waterfield to be more sympathetic to Xenophon's politics. My other thoughts on this are more generally linked to people's attitude to Athenian democracy, whilst it did set many precedents and is worthy of praise, it is not the same as modern democracy and especially in the Peloponnesian War responsible for its fair share atrocity.
However the above observations aside, this is an excellent and entertaining read and is a really worthwhile addition to anyone's bookshelf.


Dividing the Spoils: The War for Alexander the Great's Empire (Ancient Warfare and Civilization)
Dividing the Spoils: The War for Alexander the Great's Empire (Ancient Warfare and Civilization)
by Robin Waterfield
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £29.99

28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent and well structured history of the successors, 2 Jun. 2011
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It is a long established fact that history is written by the winners (ignoring Thucydides), the problem for the Hellenistic history specialist is that the period of the successors (323BC-280BC), produced an absolutely stellar cast of losers - Perdicas, Craterus, Eumenes of Kardia, Cassander, Polypherchon to name but a few. The primary sources seem to mirror the period providing a difficult challenge of creating a unified narrative in which the challengers to Alexander's throne get equal treatment to the big three that succeed (The Antigonids, Seleucids and Ptolemies). Modern works too, have shied away from the successors preferring to focus their efforts on the kingdoms that emerge once the dust has settled on the numerous wars of the successors. It is against this background that Robin Waterfield steps in, it is a difficult task to write a history that embraces 40 years of near constant warfare, back stabbing and treachery, but to his credit Waterfield has produced one of the most readable and accessible accounts of modern times.
The book is simply but effectively structured, Waterfield follows a broad chronological structure, with clear chapter breaks and effective use of sub headers to make reading easier. A pitfall of narrative history is that it can be boring and hard to engage with, however the quality of Waterfield's prose is such that the work is highly lucid and events follow a logical sequence avoiding the dangers of weaker narrative history. Alongside this chronological structure are good sections of text that deal with more thematic subjects ranging from Hellenistic kingship and ruler cult to philosophy. The book does much to engage with the successors on areas other than war, which is a welcome change as much recent scholarship has been more militarily focused, which culturally is unfair on the successors especially Ptolemy. His balanced view that does recognise the successors' failings and qualities, does much to bring the history to life and add dignity to what they did, rather than petty warlords, they certainly become more like Kings, Generals and Statesmen.
The general thrust of the book is also interesting, Waterfield's main argument is that all the successors aimed to rule Alexander's Empire in its entirety (Waterfield recasts Ptolemy as less satisfied by ruling only Egypt but perhaps lacking the means to expand) and that it was the epigonoi (the successors children) that accepted the status quo on having the big three Hellenistic Kingdoms. It is an argument compellingly made; Waterfield displays an excellent knowledge of Macedonian Kingship to support his argument. I would have liked more discussion of the regional dynasts, which was glossed over in the book, though all in all an excellent book and for those who want a good narrative of the period it will prove indispensible!
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 13, 2011 6:42 AM GMT


Kublai Khan
Kublai Khan
by John Man
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.48

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Accessible and Fun History, 25 May 2011
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This review is from: Kublai Khan (Paperback)
Kublai Khan is perhaps one of the most influential men in history, but to many in the West, he is perhaps little more than a name. This is perhaps largely because of the complexity of understanding his story, given that it spans so many places and languages and perhaps because unlike Genghis, Kublai had limited direct interaction with the West. This is what makes John Man's book such a pleasure, he really opens up the history of Kublai Khan to lay readers and historians alike, and provides a very compelling read too.
The works appeal is found in the way that Man is able to avoid the pitfalls of writing a narrative history (namely that done badly it can be very dull) with a discussion of the geography and landscapes that the history covers (something many historians fail to engage with). The work takes us all the way through Kublai's life, with good digressions to provide background detail, with more thematic chapters thrown in toward the end. The book is fairly uncontroversial, though students of Japanese history may dislike the characterisation of Japan in the chapter covering the first Mongol Invasion, though this is balanced out by the view taken in the chapter covering the second invasion.
An interesting feature of Man's work is that he cross references his history with his own travels in China and his discussions with people he has met or are involved in certain sites, this may irritate some history purists; however what Man succeeds in doing is perhaps highlighting the efforts of current archaeologists to uncover more history. Certainly you would hope that someone reading the work may help archaeologists with funding for the marine archaeology in Imari Bay.
All in all, this was a really enjoyable read and certainly a good starting point for anyone with a general interest in Kublai Khan.


From Democrats to Kings: The Downfall of Athens to the Epic Rise of Alexander the Great
From Democrats to Kings: The Downfall of Athens to the Epic Rise of Alexander the Great
by Michael Scott
Edition: Paperback

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A lively and irreverent account of a fascinating period, 19 Mar. 2011
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Michael Scott has succeeded in producing a real pocket battleship of popular history. At only around 250 pages long he has produced a work that is infinitely readable and a work that opens up a thoroughly under discussed period of history to a wider audience. The work covers the period from the Thirty Tyrants at Athens through to the conquests of Alexander and the rise of Kingship. The achievement is impressive, the period he covers often struggles for a centralised narrative, but Scott weaves his history with superb aplomb to ensure that not only do those Greek power houses such as Sparta and Athens get their say but also the experience of Western Greeks, Cyrene and Central Greeks.
That said the work is provocative (enjoyably so), Scott's engaging writing style takes a couple of chapters to get used to and it can appear slightly irreverent, I would warn those with a fondness of Sparta to be prepared for this, as the heroes of Thermopylae are given a rough ride in Scott's narrative. Athens too doesn't escape abuse (however the books timing bypassing the Peloponnesian war - allows him to avoid discussions of the demagogues) though as his starting point for democracy it receives more respect than perhaps it deserves (little discussion of how it mistreated allies e.g. cleruchies). However what really draws my respect is the well handled portrayal of Thebes, a city often shunned for not being either Sparta (agoge) or Athens (padeia) - however he rightly identifies its great contribution to the world - democratic federalism and on how it stood up to Sparta rather than Athens in the fourth century. I have also been impressed with his balanced discussion of kingship.
This book is a fantastic read for anyone wishing for a good survey for the period (given its brevity especially useful for anyone cramming for a finals exam) and very accessible. The only limitation is the lack of footnotes, especially when some of the evidence is less mainstream, which will frustrate academics. However I would thoroughly recommended this book to anyone with an interest in the period.


Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization
Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization
by Richard Miles
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.68

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent account of Carthage, 8 Mar. 2011
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Richard Miles has produced a real gem in "Carthage Must Be Destroyed". The book is a fairly prodigious effort, defying conventional ancient periodization to provide a complete narrative history of Carthage from its Near East origins to final destruction by Rome. This approach is innovative, as Carthage's history is often broken at a critical juncture by the fact that much of her history is written by Greek and Roman History experts.
The book works tirelessly to overthrow the truism of historiography that history is only written by the winners to breathe life into Carthage's history; Miles treats his readers with respect balancing an excellent array of written source material (Diodorus, Timaeus, Polybius, Livy, Plautus etc) with a really engaging discussion of epigraphic, numismatic and archaeological evidence. It is through his use of coinage, inscriptions and ruins that Miles is able to craft an excellent riposte on behalf of Carthage and reveal a deeper culture than has previously been credited by pro-Roman historians.
The structure of Miles' narrative is also to be admired, with a broad chronological structure (Foundation, Development, Expansion, Wars with Greeks, Contact with Rome, Punic Wars, and Destruction) with excellent thematic chapters. Miles' shows an excellent awareness of factors beyond the usual military histories of the Carthaginian-Roman relationship and is certainly to be praised for bringing discussion of religious interaction (and religious psychological warfare) forward in a popular history book. It is also pleasing to see Miles look to de-bunk the myth of Rome's just wars, long a millstone round the neck of Hellenistic historians it is interesting to see it attacked from a Carthaginian perspective.
The only criticism that can be levelled is that he sometimes doesn't distinguish between elite and popular responses to religion and that whilst he can point a cynical reason behind a religious act, he sometimes fails to point out that for the majority of people did believe in their religions. However this is a small gripe and should in no way detract from what is an excellent book.
All in all a thoroughly readable and accessible work of history, which I'd thoroughly recommend to both academics and those with a general interest in history.


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