Tolstoy’s characterization of Napoleon as lawless brigand (Putin)

One of Leo Tolstoy's characteristic beliefs about history in War and Peace is the idiocy of the notion of "great men" who make history. In this light his characterization of Napoleon as a lawless, aimless, and murderous brigand is revealing. And his description is oddly striking when we consider the current world's tinpot Napoleon seeking dominion over …

Strange defeat

One of the consequential puzzles of the Second World War was the sudden, catastrophic collapse of the French army following German invasion in 1940. This is the subject of Marc Bloch's Strange Defeat, written in 1940, and it is an event of major historical importance and mystery. The mystery is this: France was a powerful military …

Tony Judt on twentieth-century Marxism

Tony Judt was especially astute when it came to linking history and intellectuals. One strand of thought in his collection of essays, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, is a critical engagement with several twentieth-century thinkers associated with Marxism (and sometimes anti-Marxism), including Althusser, Kołakowski, E.P. Thompson (briefly), Raymond Aron (briefly), and Eric Hobsbawm. With …

Did the Iliad have an author?

Did the Iliad have an author? Since this is probably the best known text from the ancient Greek world,  one might find the question a puzzling one: of course the Iliad had an author; it was Homer. But it turns out that this answer is no longer accepted by experts in classical literature -- and hasn't been for at …

Wickham on “feudalism”

Chris Wickham is perhaps Britain’s leading historian of European history between the end of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. His two books, The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 (2009) and Medieval Europe (2016), are rich and intriguing accounts of the heterogeneous and diverse histories that the period encompasses. One topic in particular that is of …

Epicurean advertising?

image: Epicurus inscription at Oenoanda (credit Jack A. Waldron (link)) In The Consolations of Philosophy Alain de Botton offers an interesting observation concerning one of the sequels to Epicureanism -- a massive public wall carving commissioned by Diogenes of Oenoanda (a small city in what is now Turkey). Diogenes of Oenoanda (not to be confused with the more famous …

Making sense of atrocities

Reading Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 has made me aware of something outside his storyline: the normal, routine, and unremarked willingness of medieval peasant-soldiers, leaders, bands, and armies to slaughter one another, to kill the disarmed, to enslave prisoners, and to do all these things with apparently no compunction. Vikings, Franks, Bulgars, …

Frankish kings and Mynyddog’s gold …

Chris Wickham's The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 is a fascinating book to read, if you are interested in how various strands of culture, politics, and economy developed in Europe between the fifth century and the beginning of the eleventh century -- that is, between the end of the Roman Empire and the high …

The late Roman Empire and what came next …

There is a great deal of drama in the fairly limited ideas we have today about the passing of the Roman Empire, the consolidation of "barbarian" kingdoms, and the rise of the Islamic presence in Europe. In particular, there is the drama of the sacking of Rome and the end of Roman civilization; an extended …

Hobbes, Thucydides, and conflict

Anyone interested in the development of modern political philosophy is unavoidably interested in Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan and one of the earliest proponents of what came to be known as the "social contract tradition" of thinking about the moral legitimacy of state power. (Here is a post on Hobbes's intellectual development; link. And here is a post …

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