Why Homer Matters: A History
This one hit all my sweet spots. A book about Homer that is part travelogue / memoir, part meditation on deep engagement with a text, and part ancient history primer. A must read for the ancient history enthusiast.
Nicolson’s easy erudition and his deep emotional connection to the works of the great bard lead to a book that is really very special. Much of the historical and linguistic knowledge here is well known, but Nicolson’s application of it, to his travels, and to his life, resonated with me and helped deepen my own understanding of why Homer remains so important. Nicolson travels to the main sights of the texts, and engages with them as he sorts through his own complex and fraught life. Through these experiences, he brings us a little closer, I think, to answering why these stories of marauding and duplicitous Greeks, plagued by desires and loves which lead some to ruin, and some home again, still resonate.
If you haven’t read Homer, I suggest you do (probably the Fagel’s translation), and I suggest you pair it with this book.
*But if you haven’t this is as good a place as any to start.
Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician
Odds are, you have heard of Cicero. Considered one of Rome’s greatest orators, his writings are the major influence on how way we remember the last days of the Roman republic. The story of Cicero’s life is the story of end of last years of Republican Rome. The major players of the era: Caesar, Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Brutus and Octavian (soon to be Augustus) all make appearances. In his role as lawyer, statesman and backroom player, Cicero was friends and enemies with all of them. From Everitt’s book, it seems Cicero was, at times, courageous in his rhetoric. At others, he was cowardly. He tried to see all the angles and jockeyed for a position ruthlessly. While often held up as a man of virtue, the truth is he was probably closer to our own modern day politicians – conniving, and willing to bend his morals if it meant getting ahead. In the end, he wound up on the wrong side of Marc Antony and was killed.
Cicero’s story from privileged provincial boy to one of the most powerful men in Rome is fascinating. I am no expert on Roman history (yet!), but this biography is excellent for the reader with a casual interest in this time period in Rome. Not only does it give us insight into what a complicated person Cicero was (arrogant and generous; brilliant in the courtroom and terrified of physical injury) it is also an excellent primer on the death of the Roman republic. The story of Rome’s decent into dictatorship, the attempt at recovering republicanism, and then the reassertion of dictatorship is the foundation of western history. Everitt’s book is a good place to get a sense of who did what when and what Cicero had to say about it.