New column at Tor.com.
David Potter, Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint. Oxford University Press, 2015.
An excellently readable biography of sixth-century Byzantine empress Theodora, who began her life as the daughter of an actress and the bear-master of one of Byzantium’s factions, became an actress herself, bore a daughter out of wedlock to a wealthy man, left (or was abandoned) by him, somehow met Justinian, nephew of the then-emperor Justin, and married him – in order to do this, the law barring actresses from marrying respectable men had to be changed.
She and Justinian had no children, but she was one of the pillars of his reign, though they tended to be on opposite sides of the major theological-political question of their day (regarding the outcome of the council of Chalcedon and whether Jesus Christ had one (divine) nature or two (human and divine)). During the crisis of the Nike riots, she is reported as convincing Justinian to stay and fight rather than fleeing, saying “Power is a splendid shroud.”She predeceased him by more than a decade, but he never remarried.
Potter’s biography is lucidly clear and eminently readable. He does great work in tying the (complex) sources together into a plausible narrative of Theodora’s life and her personality. But I think more context for her later life (during the rest of Justinian’s reign before her death) would have been very useful: as it stands, the biography feels very much weighted towards her rise, rather than her reign.
Rachel Mairs, The Hellenistic Far East: Archaeology, Language, and Identity in Greek Central Asia. University of California Press, 2016 (first published 2014).
This slender volume is specifically concerned to discuss the Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek kingdoms in the region that today is eastern Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northern India. Mairs focuses on the archaeological remains, uncovered by excavation and by survey; the challenges posed by the evidence and the state of publication of the evidence; the difficulties posed by unprovenanced items (as a result of looting) and the interpretative challenges of investigating “ethnicity” and “identity” in a region whose inhabitants are very lightly represented in the surviving literature (Chinese and Greek) and that from the point of view of outsiders; and in a region where very little epigraphic evidence has come to light that may illuminate the self-understandings of the inhabitants of ancient Bactria in the three hundred years after the conquests of Alexander the Great.
Because of its prominence in the evidence, Mairs looks in detail at the city of Ai Khanoum, the Hellenistic urban foundation that has a Greek inscription which claims to be copied from Delphi, and posits a Bactrian architectural koine to explain some of its more unusual (as a Greek city) features. Mairs also looks at the relationship between settled and nomadic people in the region, and examines the explanations given for the fall of the Graeco-Bactrian kingdoms.
While brief, this book is really interesting, particularly from the point of view of identity in the “Hellenistic” world.
S. Frederick Starr, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane. Princeton University Press, 2015 (first published 2013).
Lost Enlightenment is an ambitious and very readable intellectual history of Central Asia between the late 600s and the late 1200s CE. The first three chapters of this solid tome (over 500 pages, excluding end matter) set out to provide context: context for Starr’s endeavour, and context for Central Asia, which had a long and vibrant history even before the Arab invasions.
Further chapters centre on specific courts or specific figures, with significant space given to al-Khwarazmi, al-Razi, ibn Sina, al-Biruni, al-Farabi, Ferdowsi, and al-Ghazali, all figures who in their own way shaped the intellectual and cultural life not only of Central Asia, but of the entire Arab-speaking world and eventually Western Europe.
Starr accompanies this history of ideas and thinkers with a reasonably comprehensive discussion of political events affecting the region across this timeframe. His narrative occasionally tangles itself in confusion, as it does not always take either a strictly chronological or a strictly thematic approach. Lost Enlightenment‘s achievements are also lessened by Starr’s continually insistence on using comparanda from Western Europe: he assumes the reader is familiar with examples from Western Europe but not from Central Asia or the Arab world, whereas some of us (even Western Europeans!) are much more familiar with, say, Maimonides than John Locke.
For all its faults, however, Lost Enlightenment is a fascinating work and an excellent introduction to a region and a set of thinkers frequently neglected in Anglophone history writing. I don’t think there’s complete English translations of the works of any of the writers named above, with the exception of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh – and where there are English translations, many of them date from a century or more ago. Perhaps Starr’s efforts to bring this intellectual heritage to wider appreciation will spur some press to bring to an Anglophone audience more of the primary sources on which his history depends.
New column over at Tor.com.
Michael T. Taussig, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America: Thirtieth Anniversary Edition. University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Originally published in 1980, I first heard of this book as a recommendation from Max Gladstone. It is an anthropological study – one might call it a Marxist anthropological synthesis – of certain cultural and social practices present in some areas of 1960s and 1970s South America. It focuses in particular on a practice of the “devil bargain” among male agricultural workers, and on practices involving a figure known as the “Tio,” or “uncle,” a devil-like figure, which are carried out by Bolivian tin-miners. Taussig strives to argue from historical cultural context, and makes a strong case for the continuity (and adaptation under new pressures) of historic cultural forms.
This is a complex book, with a strong theoretical focus drawing on Marx, which is not an area in which I’m competent to say much. But it is fascinating read, if at times a difficult one to follow.
Tim Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World. Faber & Faber, London, 2016.
This is an intellectual history of atheism in Greek and Roman antiquity. It begins with the Archaic period in Greece, where traces of anti-theism (the idea that gods can be fought, or denied) can be seen in the Hesiodic Catologue of Women, among other places. From these mythological beginnings, Whitmarsh constructs a lineage of thinkers who disbelieved in the godly powers of the gods, and who theorised explanations for the workings of the natural world that relied on the principles of cause and effect.
The best parts of this book, by me, are the discussions of early “god-battlers” in the mythology, and the discussion of the various philosophical schools and their adherents. Whitmarsh made me want to read Sextus Empiricus – or at least feel mildly inclined towards doing so – which, since Sextus Empiricus’s books rejoice in titles like Against the Mathematicians, is a hell of an achievement. The weakest part is post-Constantine, which is not really treated in any depth: there might not be any space left for public atheism, but the book could have used a chapter on how the texts in which the outlines of classical atheism remain were preserved.
On the whole, it’s an extremely readable book, lucidly argued, and occasionally funny. Whitmarsh does sometimes like to pull out unusual words like perdurance, but that only adds to the experience. Battling the Gods is entertaining history. Which is the best kind.