My second Arguing History podcast is up! In it, I host historians Peter Marshall and Alec Ryrie in a discussion of the question, "Did the Protestant Reformation have to happen?" Enjoy!
My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Peter Eisner about his account of a small group of Americans who resisted the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II. Enjoy!
A few years ago I decided I wanted to read a naval history of the Civil War. To my surprise, I learned that, for all that has been written about the conflict, there are relatively few books about its naval aspects and the ones I found proved disappointing. Had I waited a little longer I would have discovered that this book was a perfect fit for my needs, as James McPherson brings his expertise as the nation's foremost Civil War historian to the study of its naval aspects. Drawing upon both primary sources and secondary studies he surveys the various components of the naval war, from the Union blockade that was a critical dimension of the conflict to the revolutionary development of steam-powered ironclads, all of which he describes in his clear and assured prose. If there is a complaint to be made about this book it is that the apparent parameters of the Littlefield series for which he wrote it limited the amount of depth in which he can explore his subject, yet within its confines he has provided the best single-volume history of the Civil War at sea there is or is likely to be for some time to come.
My fifty-ninth podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Jennifer Roberts about her new history of the Peloponnesian War (which I just reviewed here). Enjoy!
The Peloponnesian War is one of those subjects which, whenever a new book is published about it, begs the question, "do we really need <i>another</i> book on it?" This is understandable considering that 1) having been written about for nearly 2,500 years it has been one of the most worked-over events in human history, 2) the first of these books, Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War, ranks as one of the foundational texts of Western historiography and in many respects will never be bettered, and 3) recently (i.e. within the past half-century) Donald Kagan wrote both a four-volume history of the war AND a single-volume condensed version which are difficult to top as a modern account for the conflict. With all of these books, is there space for another?
The answer, as Jennifer Roberts proves, is a clear yes. She demonstrates this by fitting the conflict within the context of Greek city-state relations in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. By widening her focus, she shows the war not as the culmination of inter-city-state rivalry as it has sometimes been presented, but as one of a series of conflicts which neither began nor ended with the war itself. This is not a novel revelation (anybody who has more than a passing familiarity with Hellenic Greek history understands this), but by adopting this approach Roberts makes several more obscure points clearer, foremost among them being that Sparta was not so much the ultimate victor as merely temporarily ascendant among the city-states, with their defeat of Athens setting the stage for their own downfall a generation later.
Roberts's approach offers one of the best assessments of the impact of the war upon ancient Greece. While lacking the immediacy of the ancient sources or the thoroughness of Kagan, she draws upon both sources as well as others to provide a clear-eyed understanding of its true significance. It makes for an excellent resource for anyone seeking to understand a conflict which became one of the great referential points of Western history, because while it may have been only one of many wars the Greeks fought with each other, it has endured in the popular imagination in ways which make it relevant even today.
My fifty-eighth podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Patrick Hunt about his new biography of the Carthaginian general Hannibal (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!
Hannibal Barca is regarded as one of the great military commanders of the Western world, a status which is a little surprising considering that he never actually defeated his great opponent Rome in a war. Part of this honor is undoubtedly due to his success in battle, as in a succession of victories his outnumbered forces defeated the Roman legions sent out to destroy them. Yet Patrick Hunt's new biography of the Carthaginian general points to another reason why he holds such an exalted status, as his success ironically helped the Romans to become the dominant empire we remember it as today.
This, of course, was not Hannibal's goal when he set out to destroy Rome in 218. The son of a Carthaginian statesman who led his country's forces in the First Punic War, Hannibal made revenge the main focus of his life. His achievements in this regard were nothing short of remarkable, as he led his men on a grueling march through the Alps into often hostile territory, where through brilliant generalship and a shrewd exploitation of Celtic grievances he repeatedly bested the troops sent by Rome to defeat them. Yet rather than surrender, Rome adapted by adjusting their leadership structure and adopting a strategy of attrition, trapping Hannibal in a war he couldn't bring to a resolution, The culmination came in the battle of Zama in 202, when Hannibal found the situation neatly reversed, as his untrained army was defeated by the better-managed legions of Scipio Africanus, who used some of Hannibal's own tactics against him in order to win.
Hunt's book offers a knowledgeable overview of Hannibal's life and times. This is no small achievement considering the paucity of sources and their bias -- the only historical sources on Hannibal are Roman ones, with all of the problems that this entails. Often this has the effect of turning his book into more of a history of the Second Punic War than a biography, but the advantage of this is that it highlights what is Hannibal's greatest contribution to history. For while he may not have succeeded in defeating Rome, he became its greatest teacher of the military arts and helped to make them into the empire that would endure for seven centuries and more. This alone makes Hannibal well worth reading about.
This is proving to be a rich and dense book. I can already tell that I will be revisiting it in the future.
My fifty-seventh podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Robert M. Browning, Jr. about his history of the operations of the U.S. Navy's West Gulf Blockade Squadron during the Civil War (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!
So I finished this yesterday, and I will write up a review shortly. Overall it's not a bad book, but it definitely points to the limitations of writing a biography of Hannibal, which is that most of what we know about him comes from the sources of his greatest enemies. On nearly every page Hunt has a sentence that starts with some version of "Polybius says", or "Livy says", as those two ancients are the twin poles supporting Hunt's biographical tent. It's really an issue common to the study of ancient history, but as I thought about it, it raised an interesting question in my mind.
Is Hannibal overrated as a military commander?
This gets to the heart of why people write books about Hannibal, which is that he is regarded as one of the greatest military commanders in Western history. And there is no gainsaying his achievements: he marched an army across the Alps, won a succession of battles in lopsided fashion, and terrorized Rome for over a decade through a military occupation of southern Italy.
And yet in the end, he lost. Not only did he lose, he failed in spectacular fashion. Instead of defeating his mortal foe, Rome learned from their defeats and became stronger. When Hannibal was finally defeated it was in North Africa, not in Italy, as Rome not only recovered, but invaded his country in retaliation. In the settlement that followed, Carthage was crippled, permanently stripped of their possessions in Spain and prohibited from raising an army or having a fleet of more than ten vessels. Though Carthage itself would not be wiped from existence until the Third Punic War half a century later, Rome was well on its way to becoming the dominant power in the Mediterranean world for the next seven centuries, which was the exact opposite of what Hannibal set out to do.
So again, why is this guy regarded as a great military commander?
It's an interesting question because it gets to the heart of the issue of historical reputation. In Hannibal's case, I suspect that a large part of it has to do with the fact that he defeated Roman legions in three successive battles (Trebia, Lake Trasimene, and Cannae), and given that in the case of the latter two battles he was heavily outnumbered those were certainly no small achievements. But as Hunt makes clear in his book, Hannibal sucked when it came to the follow-through -- he could win battles, but couldn't force an end to the war. And while ending on top has never been a necessary criteria of military greatness (if it were, we wouldn't rank Napoleon Bonaparte as highly as we do), in Hannibal's case we certainly give him more credit for greatness than he deserves, probably because it flattered Roman egos to claim that only a military genius could have achieved what he did against their forces. Perhaps the lesson in his case is that just because the victors write the history it doesn't mean that the losers can't come out of it better then they deserve.
So it turned out that the bulk of this book is not so much a biography of Hannibal as it is an overview of the Second Punic War. Perhaps that is just the "biography" of Hannibal that the sources can support (and, to be honest, I've needed to read a history of the war for some time now), but it does feel like calling Hunt's book a biography is overselling it.
I'm about a fifth of the way into it, and so far I'm unimpressed. Hunt is pretty much just recycling ancient sources to recount what Hannibal did.
A friend of mine who recently read Kagan's history of the Peloponnesian War referred to Alcibiades as the Donald Trump of his time. After reading Roberts's treatment of him, I can see his point.
So far I'm enjoying the author's overview of the war. I just reached the chapter with the outbreak of plague in Athens, and her summary of the various diseases identified as its cause (which incorporates theories from about a decade ago) is helpfully up-to-date.
Though there is no shortage of military histories of the Civil War, the vast majority of them focus primarily or exclusively on the campaigns on the land. This has the effect of unjustly minimizing the naval side of the war, which was decisive to its outcome. Faced with the North's industrial predominance the South hoped to offset it by importing goods from the factories of Britain and France, which made the naval blockade of the Confederacy an essential part of the Union's strategy. In this book, Robert Browning provides an operational history of the Union Navy's blockade of the Gulf Coast region. It's the concluding volume of a trilogy that originated with his doctoral dissertation over two decades ago, and in many respects he saved the best for last.
Blockading the Gulf Coast posed a number of challenges for the Navy, foremost among them being the disproportionate ratio between the vast amount of coastline and the limited number of ships available. Complicating matters even further was the location of Mexico to the south, the commerce of which could not easily be interdicted without creating diplomatic problems. To this was added the logistical difficulties of maintaining vessels on station far from sources of repair and replenishment, as the Southern states occupied or destroyed nearly all of the U.S. Navy's yards in the region at the start of the conflict.
In the face of these difficulties, the Union Navy rose to the occasion. Browning recounts the various efforts the navy took over the course of the conflict to maintain and support their efforts, from regular supply runs to recapturing and rebuilding lost bases. While their efforts to interdict blockade runners were often frustrated by the superior speed and higher draft of the rebel vessels, over time the efforts of the various squadrons began to tell. Aiding their effort was the gradual isolation and capture of the major Confederate ports in the region, starting with New Orleans in 1862 and culminating with the conquest of Mobile at the end of the war. These did not stop completely the efforts of the blockade runners, but they helped minimize the ability of the Confederacy to draw upon outside resources in their increasingly desperate cause.
To describe these efforts, Browning spent years reviewing the various records and accounts of the blockading squadrons, as well as the more fragmentary collections of the Southern forces. From them he has assembled a long overdue study of this often neglected aspect of the war, one that is even more valuable for his account of the squadron's operations on the lower Mississippi River. Though his prose would have benefited form a little polishing, this book combines with its companion volumes to provide a history of the Union blockade which will be the standard by which all future books on the subject will be judged. No student of the Civil War seeking a balanced understanding of the conflict can afford to bypass these important works.
Following up on my previous post, in case you're wondering, yeah, I'm getting the other books. Browning's prose could have benefited from a little polishing, but his coverage is first-rate. To my surprise he incorporated both the capture of New Orleans and the subsequent campaigns up the Mississippi into his account, which definitely expands his book into more of a general history of the U.S. Navy's role in the Civil War, which is something I have been wanting to find for a while now. So this will definitely be a keeper.