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Man Pain for Days: Starz’s Spartacus

This show has been on my watch list for years. Ironically, it was originally recommended to me by my brother (I’m usually the one mentioning historical shows he might like). I had heard other rumblings and knew something of its reputation since, but only recently, when I saw that it had made it onto Netflix, did I finally get around to checking it out. Spartacus both delivered on everything I had heard and surprised me with its gratifying attention to historical detail.... Read More
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Ripples of Republicanism: Timothy Roberts’s Distant Revolutions

It is unwise, as the saying goes, to judge a book by its cover. More specifically, I have increasingly found that the titles and jacket descriptions of history books can be highly misleading as to the nature of the information, and arguments, within. Such was the case with Timothy Roberts’s Distant Revolutions. Heather and I recently acquired this book in an effort to learn more about its titular upheavals after mentioning it in our 2018 historical anniversaries post (found here). I expected a refreshing dose of perspective to American ideas of our own exceptionalism; instead, I found a fascinating history of connections that crossed the Atlantic and bridged the upheavals of 1848 with that of 1861.... Read More
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Thirsty Women: Sophia Coppola’s The Beguiled

About a year ago, we watched, intrigued, as a new trailer for a romantic drama unfolded before us. An independent film with a star-studded cast, it promised suspense, betrayal, and revenge in a tale of stilted lovers and, even better, it was set in during the American Civil War! That film was Sophia Coppola’s The Beguiled, and we couldn’t wait to check it out and bask in the melodrama, for good or for laughably bad. We were finally able to get our hands on it recently, and it while it certainly wasn’t the most enriching film in terms of history, it’s story certainly didn’t disappoint.... Read More
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Remember the North? Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World

If I had a dollar for every time someone claimed to be writing a book about an “unknown,” “overlooked,” or “forgotten” period of history, I would be a very rich man. So often, these periods really aren’t that underserved, and we’ve even at times considered putting together a post listing the most regularly talked about “forgotten” periods of history. When I came across Michael Pye’s Edge of the World, however, I thought I had hit the jackpot. I have a soft spot for histories of the early Middle Ages (sometimes known as the Dark Ages), and few periods of history can claim more accurately to be unknown, as we must work from scarce written sources and physical evidence to reconstruct an elusive historical narrative of Europe’s rebirth after the fall of Rome. Even better, Pye promised to focus on a region lesser known in this period; rather than look for clues to our modern world in the court of Charlemagne or the remnants of Rome, Pye casts his gaze out into the cold world of the North Sea. Baited with prospects of a world system history of the North Sea in the early Middle Ages, then, I was practically salivating to begin reading. While entertaining, however, Edge of the World would fall far short of my lofty hopes.... Read More
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A Daunting Scope: Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians

Snapshots of Europe taken at the beginning and end of the first millennium AD could not appear more different. As the millennium opened, Rome was just reaching the apex of its imperial might. The traditionally dominant Mediterranean world extended its tendrils of control across the Celtic world of modern-day France and lowland Britain, while beyond the Rhine and Danube frontiers Germanic peoples pursued a subsistence existence much less developed than their Roman and Romanized neighbors. One thousand years later, Mediterranean dominance was a distant memory. Germanic cultures and kingdoms had replaced Roman imperial rule. Europe’s center of balance had moved decidedly northward, and the eastern plains and forests boasted new states formed by Slavic peoples. Gone was the unequal pattern of development, and the map of modern Europe had largely, if blurrily, taken shape. This Late Antique/Early Medieval period, as Western Rome crumbled and fell, and ‘barbarian’ kingdoms took its place, has long fascinated me, and so I was excited to get my hands on a somewhat general, approachable history of the period by Kings College, London historian Peter Heather. While I found Heather’s work greatly informative, my hopes of reading a sensible, comprehensive narrative of this period were unfortunately left unfulfilled.... Read More
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Beyond the Wall: Kevin MacDonald’s The Eagle (2011)

It’s a poorly-kept secret that I love swords-and-sandals movies, regardless of their quality. This is especially true of anything involving legionnaires fighting ‘barbarians.’ While I’ve thankfully moved past (most of) the Roman exceptionalism of my high school years, I still love sitting in a theater and feeling thrilled yet unsettled at confronting the figures lurking in the misty, unknowable forests beyond the edge of the ‘civilized’ world. When I was reminded of the 2011 film The Eagle, then, I couldn’t help but check it out. Though I expected to enjoy what would surely be an over-the-top story, I was surprised by how much I loved this movie historically.... Read More
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Sweet, Sweet Nostalgia: Reaction and “Reform” throughout History

“Make America Great Again.” These four words have become one of the most infamous phrases in the English language since the successful presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump, and with good reason. How do we define great? Who thought things were great? If we aren’t great now, when were we great, and when did we stop being so? Far from originating with Trump, this idea, that somehow the United States has lost its way from the glory of its just-out-of-reach past, has taken hold in the psyche of certain disaffected sections of its population. Though this reactionary sentiment may sound dissonant to the modern ear, it actually fits quite smoothly into a much longer historical tradition of cloaking nostalgic navel-gazing in terms of reform and progress.... Read More
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From Many, One Narrative: John Keay’s India: A History

I recently realized that, despite my familiarity with its later imperial history, I had little acquaintance with the history of India before the early modern era (and even that was pushing it). When I learned that, before his history of China (reviewed here), John Keay had composed a history of the South Asian subcontinent, I decided to rectify this situation. In so doing, I became perhaps the most aware of how difficult an undertaking such a history must necessarily be.... Read More