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Imperial Confusion: Stages of Roman Government and Expansion

As I made my way through the second season of Netflix’s Roman Empire (reviewed last week), a line from its narrator (the always delightful Sean Bean) brought me up short. Describing Rome in the middle of the first century BC, the show states that “Rome was not yet an empire, but a Republic.” I snorted with laughter; an old nemesis of mine had reared its ugly head yet again. In an effort to perhaps lessen the spread of this idea, I took to my keyboard in an attempt to explain exactly why I was so bitterly amused, and in so doing shed light on one of the more misunderstood aspects of Roman history: the stages of its government.... Read More
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In Defense of the Rock: Roy and Lesley Adkins’s Gibraltar

We Americans have a habit of paying closer attention to our own history than what goes on in the outside world. Perhaps we can be forgiven for doing so concerning our own war for independence, but even here there is a global story to be told that does not regularly appear in American narratives of the conflict. France and, later, Spain’s entry into the conflict on the side of the fledgling United States made the American Revolution a successor of the Seven Years War, known as the French and Indian War in America, with fighting taking place wherever the map bore British red. Roy and Lesley Adkins bring one of these disparate theaters to light after years of neglect. The American Revolution occasioned one of the longest, fiercest battles in British history as the Empire fought to maintain control over one of its tiniest outposts: the Rock of Gibraltar.... Read More
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What’s in a World War? A Point/Counterpoint

What if I told you that what we know as the First and Second World Wars should really be known as the Second and Third, or even the Third and Fourth? Our habit of only identifying the conflicts that took place from 1914-18 and 1939-45 as ‘world wars’ betrays a modern arrogance, that somehow the world only reached the capacity for global conflicts recently, within the last century. My own work with imperial history has indicated that this is far from the truth... Read More
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Not Quite, but Getting There: Ian Barnes’ Historical Atlas of Native Americans

I admit, this seems like a strange choice of book to review. What can the possibly be to say about an atlas? Ian Barnes’ Historical Atlas of Native Americans, however, is more than simply a collection of maps; it is a general overview of the history of Native Americans from the Stone Age to the present, illustrated with artifacts, drawing, paintings, photographs, and, of course, maps. These elements, coupled with the intriguing state of being authored by a white, British, academic, called for reflection on their execution.... Read More
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Through the Words of Others: Dane Kennedy’s The Imperial History Wars

“The History Wars.” It sounds like the title of some new science fiction show, one with undoubtedly cheesy special effects and horridly inaccurate costuming. In reality, the History Wars are much less exciting. Originally coined in Australia in the 1990s to describe debates over the existence of a colonial genocide of aboriginal peoples, this phrase has come to encompass all such contentious debates over history and memory that have spilled over into the public sphere in recent decades. Imagine my delight, then, at receiving Dane Kennedy’s The Imperial History Wars as a birthday present this past March. I eagerly dove in, anticipating controversies and arguments galore related to my specialty. In place of war, however, I was greeted unexpectedly by a cogent little discussion of the state of British Imperial history as a field of study.... Read More
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A Comprehensive Tapestry: Rob Johnson’s The Great War and the Middle East

As in any conflict spanning a vast geographic area, the First World War has theaters that have been discussed ad nauseum and theaters that warrant barely a mention in all but the most academic of publications. The Western Front and, more generally, the war in Europe have always constituted the former, while the sub-Saharan African and East Asian theaters are most often the latter. The Middle East falls in an odd area between these two extremes. Certain military operations, like Gallipoli or the Arab Revolt, are no less famous than the Somme or Verdun, yet even I did not know the details of the vast majority of the campaigns that swung back and forth across the sands and mountains of that most ancient of regions. The irony here is thick; the legacies of the First World War and its peace settlements are perhaps most visible in the Middle East, both in its political geography and in the accompanying unrest in the region. Rob Johnson’s The Great War and the Middle East is a valuable corrective to this patchy record, and while Johnson’s prose may not be the most approachable for members of the general public, the information contained within weaves a comprehensive tapestry of the Great War in the Middle East.... Read More
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The Why of it All: Searching for Meaning in Historical Wars

This past Wednesday, Heather, Ryan, and I had the pleasure of attending a talk delivered by Dr. Ian Isherwood at our alma mater, Gettysburg College. Dr. Isherwood has been a great friend and mentor to all of us here at Concerning History, and his talk dealt with a subject he has worked with extensively as part of his own historical specialization: the supposed futility of the First World War. The historiography and public perception of that war has traditionally been filled with lamentations of a pointless war, one fought for no real purpose and resulting in a meaningless peace settlement. While historians have admirably pushed back against these ideas in recent decades, public perception of the Great War remains very much filled with images and language of futility. On some level, this is certainly understandable. One cannot avoid pictures of the hellish conditions on the Western Front, and the outbreak of the Second World War only twenty years later would seem to indicate that the resolution of the First had been a failure. Listening to Dr. Isherwood lecture on the subject, however, I began to wonder why this was even a discussion in the first place. Why must we invest wars with a higher meaning? Where does this impulse come from? And why, for whatever reason, does the First World War fall short of our collective expectations?... 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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Civilization: Withstanding the Test of Time (With A Few Dark Ages)

I owe a lot to Sid Meier. In 1991 he released the first installment in what would become the wildly successful series of turn-based strategy games for the computer: Civilization. I received a copy of Civilization II while in elementary school, and have since played every installment in the series up to 2017’s Civilization VI. […]... Read More
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Theory made Literal: Star Wars and Concepts of Empire

For a student of historical empires, it is always fascinating to see how the word 'empire' is used in less academic circles, particularly the nebulous realm that is popular culture. So often in fantasy and science-fiction media, polities and leaders are given titles meant more to convey a sense of majesty or malevolence than to reflect any accurate picture of the structure of the state in question.... Read More