I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
I really enjoyed Herodotus' The Histories, about the background and main events of the epic wars between the ancient Persians and Greeks (translated by George Rawlinson). I was hooked by "the Father of History's" enthusiastic accounts of interesting historical and cultural information and impressed by his appealing balance of objectivity and subjectivity. And I savored his many digressions amplifying the historical context, as well as his detailed accounts of the different ancient exotic cultures (like the Egyptians shaving their eyebrows when their housecats died or the Scythians making capes from the scalps of their fallen enemies), which were in a sense all similar in their violence, heroism, treachery, brutality, ethnocentrism, and superstitious following of prodigies and omens and oracles. We haven't changed so much in 2000 plus years???
Despite some listeners complaining about the reader, Bernard Mayes, I quickly came to enjoy his handling of The Histories, easily imagining myself listening to an elderly, experienced, and decent Herodotus. I appreciated Mayes' subtle changes in tone to express a variety of moods, from Xerxes' waxing wroth at some unpleasant advice and the Athenians getting peeved by the Spartans worrying that they would ally with the Persians, to the suspenseful accounts of battles like those at Marathon, Thermopylae, and Salamis that helped decide the course of world history. I found Mayes always to be right on task, always speaking with effective clarity and rhythm, always perfectly expressing Herodotus' humor, disbelief, admiration, and criticism of his historical subjects.
The only flaw in the audiobook is the too frequent, sudden flash of a kind of static, which distracts from the overall experience to the point that I'm giving what should be a five star audiobook four stars. I highly recommend it.
Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-89) is one of those classics you always hear about but never read because the prospect of broaching a six-volume history of the Roman Empire written in the 18th century is so daunting. But finally listening to the first volume of the audiobook (which includes the first two volumes of Gibbon's opus) filled me with a historical and literary rapture.
Gibbon brings to life the Roman Empire from about 180 AD to about 395, the extent of its boundaries, the governing of its provinces, the organization of its military, and the success that led to its decline and fall by, among other things, making the citizens too soft, the military too mercenary, and the senate too weak. This history was made by spoiled citizens, fickle soldiers, corrupt prefects, obsequious senators, pernicious eunuchs, rapacious barbarians, and, of course, numerous emperors: amoral and tyrannical, pusillanimous and paranoid, or, rarely, moderate and able. Gibbon wittily and enthusiastically relates fateful battles, appalling scenes of treachery, rapine, and slaughter (often internecine or inter-familial), interesting details of exotic cultures (like the Sarmatian barbarians who wore "mail" vests of overlapping horse hoof slices and wielded poisoned fish bone weapons), and telling insights like, "History is little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind."
I was morbidly fascinated by Gibbon's account of the feuding sects of the "primitive" Christian church, Catholics, Arians, Homoousians, and so on arguing, persecuting, and excommunicating each other over the true substance of Jesus while indulging in pomp, pelf, pride, and power, yet ever spreading their religion due to their zeal, world everlasting after death, and "real" relics, miracles, and visions. Gibbon advocates Age of Enlightenment reason against superstition and might have enjoyed the Jefferson Bible.
My favorite figure was the philosopher-poet-general Apostate Emperor Julian, who packed so much into his short life (32 years) and reign (1 year and 8 months). As new Caesar, Julian was tossed into Gaul with 360 soldiers and told to rescue it from tens of thousands of German barbarians, disarmingly declaiming, "Plato, Plato! What a task for a philosopher!" As new Emperor, he booted bishops, barbers, and eunuchs out of the palace, replaced them with poets, philosophers, and sages, and tried to return the newly Christian Roman Empire to a Hellenistic Paganism. He even got back at the insulting people of Antioch by writing a satire on his beard. Ah, how might the current world have developed had Julian not played Alexander the Great and invaded Persia!
Although Gibbon objectively navigates between earlier historical panegyrics and calumnies of his imperial subjects, he also falls prey to his own biases. The worst is his favoritism for western culture at the expense of eastern (opining that a single Greek statue is worth more than whole Persian palaces), and for "civilization" at the expense of "barbarism" (figuring that oral cultures produce no worthy art or culture). Nevertheless, Gibbon always champions humane behavior and criticizes wanton slaughter and destruction, regardless of whether the actors were barbarian or Roman.
The audiobook is really abridged, because it excludes "Gibbon's table talk," his spicy notes. This is understandable, because they would have broken the flow of the narrative and made the audiobook run too long, but still a pity.
Some listeners complain that reader Bernard Mayes sounds too British or boring, but I find him perfectly suited to reading long works of history (like Herodotus' Histories). He reads with a professorial British accent and impeccable rhythm, enunciation, and emphasis, a wise and weathered uncle recounting a fascinating history.
Mostly I had no problem following Gibbon's well-regulated trains of thought, and found his writing elegant, clear, and pleasurable. The only difficulty I had while listening to the audiobook occurred during his long sentences that include "the former" and "the latter," because I'd often have forgotten which was which by the time they appeared, leaving me longing for a printed version of the text. But anyone familiar with 18th and 19th century novels should otherwise have no trouble with Gibbon's prose. I relished it to the point of grins and chuckles. I'll close this review with some examples:
"The monstrous vices of the son have cast a shade on the purity of the father's virtues."
"But the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous."
"He promised only to betray, he flattered only to ruin; and however he might occasionally bind himself by oaths and treaties, his conscience, obsequious to his interest, always released him from the inconvenient obligation."
"It was easier to vanquish the Goths than to eradicate the public vices, yet even in the first of these enterprises Decius lost his army and his life."
"The ecclesiastical governors of the Christians were taught to unite the wisdom of the serpent with the innocence of the dove; but as the former was refined, so the latter was insensibly corrupted, by the habits of government."
"If this Punic war was carried on without any effusion of blood, it was owing much less to the moderation than to the weakness of the contending prelates. Invectives and excommunications were their only weapons; and these, during the progress of the whole controversy, they hurled against each other with equal fury and devotion."
"The weak and guilty Lupicinus, who had dared to provoke, who had neglected to destroy, and who still presumed to despise his formidable enemy, marched against the Goths at the head of such a military force as could be collected in this emergency."
"Their flesh was greedily devoured by the birds of prey, who in that age enjoyed very frequent and delicious feasts, and several years afterwards, the white and naked bones which covered the wide extent of the fields presented to the eyes of Ammianus a dreadful monument of the battle of Salices."
The 2nd volume of the audiobook of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire contains the 3rd (1781) and 4th (1788-89) volumes of the classic six volume history, moving from 340 AD through the “total extinction” of the Western Empire and 600 years of the continual decay of the Eastern Empire. Along the way Gibbon performs refined autopsies on 250 years of internecine Christian warfare fought over the precise nature of the Incarnation of Christ (“religious controversy [being] the offspring of arrogance and folly”); the “apostolic fervor” of the Christian extirpation of paganism and destruction of its beautiful temples; the pernicious popularity of relics and saints (“myriads of imaginary heroes, who had never existed, except in the fancy of crafty or credulous legendaries”); the rise of savagely solitary hermits (“unhappy exiles from social life . . . impelled by the dark and implacable genius of superstition”); 1000+ years of Roman laws, from property and inheritance through marriage and divorce to crime and punishment; the superstitious perception of disasters like earthquakes, comets, and plagues; and the impacts on language, religion, law, class, and empire of “barbarians” like Attila and the Huns, Theodoric and the Goths, Genseric and the Vandals, Clovis and the Franks, and Alboin and the Lombards (Long Beards!). And he writes fascinating cultural reports about things like the Green and Blue chariot racing faction conflict that pervaded every sphere of society (from the familial and vocational to the political and religious) and nearly toppled the Eastern Empire (making the soccer hooligans of today seem like quaint Quakers and casting light on our own obsession with sports stars and teams). He even recounts legends of interest, like the story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, a Rip Van Winkle-like tale that spread throughout the world, a human response to shocking change like that of the pagan Roman Empire turning Christian.
There is in this second audiobook volume no single figure as fascinating as the Apostate Emperor Julian in the first, but there are more compelling supporting characters. The emperor Justinian, for example, the persecutor of Jews and torturer of homosexuals, the rewarder of enemies and punisher of friends, the reformer of the law code, promoter of science and technology and builder of churches, hospitals, and aqueducts, unprecedentedly gave half his reign to his wife Theodora, who in her younger days acted in ribald comic pantomimes and sold her sexual favors to a parade of lovers and who after becoming Empress had people disappear into her private prisons and reappear as maimed monuments to her displeasure and had an old palace converted into a home for 500 prostitutes. The general Belisarius, perhaps the greatest military leader in the history of the Empire--an active giant among a race of supine pygmies--used his brains, bravery, charisma, leadership, and reputation to recover in only six years with pitiful resources and puny armies half of the provinces of Africa and Italy etc. lost by the fall of the Western Empire. In return for his boon-service, Belisarius was repeatedly humiliated by suspicious Justinian but ever exercised a patience and loyalty “either below or above the character of a man,” and his only flaw was uxoriousness, giving Gibbon the opportunity of remarking, “the revenge of a guilty woman is implacable and bloody.” And the life of Andronicus, the last Emperor of the Comnenian dynasty, was an engaging cross between a romantic pulp adventure novel and a revenge tragedy.
No one can run down a villain as enjoyably as Gibbon! Now he introduces the archbishop Theophilus as “the perpetual enemy of peace and virtue; a bold, bad man, whose hands were alternately polluted with gold and with blood.” Now he dryly caps the life of the emperor Arcadius: "At length, in the thirty-first year of his age, after a reign, if we may abuse that word, of thirteen years, three months, and fifteen days, Arcadius expired, in the palace of Constantinople." Now he ironically sums up Empress Theodora: “The prostitute, who, in the presence of innumerable spectators, had polluted the theatre of Constantinople, was adored as a queen in the same city, by grave magistrates, orthodox bishops, victorious generals, and captive monarchs.” And now he takes to task Romanus: “The hours which the emperor owed to his people were consumed in strenuous idleness. In the morning he visited the circus; at noon he feasted the senators; the greater part of the afternoon he spent in the sphoeristerium, or tennis-court, the only theatre of his victories.”
Gibbon’s moderation even compels him to qualify his admiration for things he likes, like the St. Sophia cathedral in Constantinople, a sublime work of taste, wealth, and skill that seemed the residence if not the workmanship of the deity: “yet how dull the artifice and insignificant the labor if it be compared to the formation of the vilest insect that crawls on the surface of the temple.”
The audiobok sounds a little tinny and “skips” several times, but Bernard Mayes is a pleasing reader through this long history, sounding like a wittily articulate and dryly enthusiastic British professor. He never stoops to donning different voices, but merely reads Gibbon’s elegant text with every appropriate nuance.
Throughout, Gibbon’s history is marked by his Age of Enlightenment value of humane, rational, and moderate behavior and his condemnation of its opposite, by his rich and balanced sentences, by his wit and imagination, by his attempts to obtain from earlier panegyrics and invectives an objective historical truth about his subjects, by his application of the lessons of history to his own contemporary era and to human civilization in general, and by his impressive ability to hold the reader’s interest through thousands of pages of centuries of history. He says near the end, “In a composition of some days, in a perusal of some hours, six hundred years have rolled away, and the duration of a life or reign is contracted to a fleeting moment: the grave is ever beside the throne: the success of a criminal is almost instantly followed by the loss of his prize and our immortal reason survives and disdains the sixty phantoms of kings who have passed before our eyes, and faintly dwell on our remembrance.”
Audible has changed my life! Dry , itchy eyes were destroying one of my greatest pleasures - reading. Now I am experiencing books again!
Here's what gives such credibility to the Amelia Peabody historical mysteries set in Egypt. Barbara Mertz and Elizabeth Peters are one and the same. And what credentials she has for giving us this remarkable "popular" history!
Mertz is not afraid to use humor in a serious book about the history of Egypt. But, the account is also accurate and full of fascinating information. Who says a scholar can't also be a master of fiction? The narrator adds a lot as well. This is a great listen!