What You Can Get Away With » history

Another bit of my attempt to widen my historical knowledge, this book does exactly what it says on the tin an provides a good overview of 200 years of Roman history. There’s obviously a limit to how much detail Scullard can provide in this overview, but he does a very good job of linking the different trends in Roman society and politics together to explain how the Republic began to crumble under the pressures its expansion had put in under, how the early Empire emerged from that process and then how it stabilised itself.

Scullard does presuppose some knowledge of how the Republic worked, so perhaps not one to read if you know nothing of the Roman systems, and sometimes the pace of events and the tide of similar sounding names can get a bit overwhelming. He also has a tendency to moralise on occasions, and I sometimes suspect that he wished he could be back in the midst of the events, advising the Senate about where they were getting it wrong and how the Republic could survive if only they’d listen to him.

Also, while Nero as the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors does seem to mark an appropriate point to stop, it does bring the narrative to a rather abrupt halt in the midst of a crisis. There’s a quick summing up of the Year of Four Emperors and the rise of Vespasian, but it perhaps needs a bit more detail to wrap up the historical narrative and show the future course of the Empire. Though as with any history of Rome, any end date is somewhat arbitrary.

All in all, a rather good history and a useful guide to the period.

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My book-reading pace has slowed down a lot over the last few weeks for various reasons, and are likely to remain sluggish for the next few weeks with the growing pressure of elections. Still, I have been able to finish off the next part of my attempts to widen my knowledge of world history by completing Roberts’ short History of China.

For someone like me who knows very little of Chinese history, especially before the twentieth century, it’s a useful introduction. Obviously, given the size of the book (about 300 pages) and the scale of Chinese history, it’s only a skimming of the surface and can only deal with the broadest historical trends. However, Roberts is good at using his words sparingly and effectively to get the important points across. The blizzard of unfamiliar names and places can sometimes be a bit disconcerting and Roberts doesn’t really succeed in depicting the huge scale on which the history is written, but as an introduction and a base for further reading on more specialised areas in the future, it’s very good.


The events around the Glorious Revolution and the replacement of James II with William III as King of England is an area of history I find fascinating. Perhaps because of my interest in alternate history, it always appears to be as one of those key eras in history where things could have gone off in wildly different directions and completely changed the world we live in now. So, a book that takes a snapshot of the world in 1688 was always going to be of interest to me.

1688: A Global History isn’t an in depth study of the year, but instead is composed of a number of vignettes, looking for contemporary sources to describe what life was like in a number of places during that year. Obviously, it features the important events in Amsterdam and London as William gathers his Navy, James’ son is born and England prepares for something to happen, but it looks at events all over the world, from the shores of Northern Australia to the Sonora Desert and from the trading posts of West Africa to Edo and Nagasaki.

It’s an interesting book, and Wills has found some interesting stories of life in those times, but it never quite rises above being a series of anecdotes of life in that year with only sporadic attempts at linking them together. The histories here are great illustrations of parts of life in 1688, but it’s only skimming the surface, and many times I wanted more depth, only to find the book zipping on elsewhere.

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There are possibly historical analogies one can draw that compare to the rise of the Tea Party movement in the US, but there are some you might want to think twice about.

For instance, while there are parallels possible between the US and the Roman Republic (though they tend to fall down under too much scrutiny) it’s worth noting that the Republic spent the best part of a century falling apart before whatever passed for democracy became just a figleaf for an Imperial military-dominated dictatorship, and one of the points often regarded as marking the beginning of the end of the Republic was Caesar leading his troops over a natural barrier.

So announcing the Tea Party’s arrival in Washington as ‘crossing the Rubicon’ might not be the best turn of phrase.

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Interesting article in the Guardian by David McKie about the naming of train stations -often after the nearest pub – and how those stations then went on to provide a name to the areas around them. Of course, were that to be attempted now, confusion would reigh supreme as people tried to work out which of the many Station Stations they were trying to navigate between while Colchester’s North Station would find itself renamed Norfolk, just to confuse even more commuters.

Though the story about the attempt to rename Bond Street tube station as Selfridge’s does create interesting visions of alternate tube maps, which could serve as an interesting hook for an alternate history story – Farringdon station would have to become Guardian station, of course.

It’s one of those interesting little pieces of social history that shows how much the coming of the railways changed Britain, in a way that will no doubt prove very useful for the long-future generations of historians and archaeologists.

And, to add in a little bit of railway-influenced geography, Redditch (where I grew up) has a road called Tunnel Drive, which confuses many drivers by not being a tunnel or seeming to go anywhere near one. However, it is where the old railway tunnel used to emerge when what’s now the Cross-City Line carried on all the way down to Evesham rather than terminating at Redditch.

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