Category Archives: History

Jacob Burckhardt – The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

Jacob Burckhardt – The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

Burckhardt, one of the 19th century’s greatest historians, coined the term “Renaissance.” He has an eye for larger themes, from the period’s rediscovery of Greek and Roman classics to the growing importance of international trade and cultural and intellectual exchange. He also gives plenty of attention to the Renaissance’s emphasis on the individual and free will, and its rejection of the notion of people being links in a greater Chain of Being, in which they are to play an assigned role in the social category into which they were born.


Bernard Bailyn – The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution

Bernard Bailyn – The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution

This 1967 book has long been a Cato Institute favorite, and had been on my to-read list for years. It was particularly influential on Gene Healy’s Cult of the Presidency, which makes a compelling case for reining in an executive branch that has grown proportionally too powerful compared to the legislative and judicial branches.

Bailyn is a very detailed writer; his more recent The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction is so filled with minutiae in its chapter-by-chapter crawl of the different regions of North America’s east coast takes almost as long as the actual journey. Ideological Origins of the American Revolution is much livelier in comparison. It opens with a close look at the origins of pamphlets as a medium, in Bailyn’s usual microscopic detail, discussing everything from page size to word counts to stylistic conventions—yet it’s genuinely interesting, and difficult to put down.

Other themes get similar treatment, but Bailyn always keeps in mind the bigger picture; there is method to his madness. Along the way I was surprised to learn of John Adams’ skepticism of Montesquieu, who inspired many revolutionary ideas. Adams, ever practical, thought Montesquieu’s thought too theoretical and idealized. Bailyn also offers insights into the debates over when rebellion was a legitimate course of action (Locke was not the only inspiration); the rejection of rigid European-style social hierarchy and titled nobility; slavery; freedom of religion; and more.

Hesiod – Works and Days, Theogony, The Shield of Heracles

Hesiod – Works and Days, Theogony, The Shield of Heracles

Homer and Hesiod are generally ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the annals of pre-Periclean Greek poetry. The competition is not a close one, and it does not favor Hesiod. His works still had significant historical influence, and have plenty of merit. The Works and Days takes the guise of a letter in verse to Hesiod’s brother Perses. They jointly inherited a farm, and Perses was something of a wastrel. Hesiod tries to convince his brother of the virtues of temperance, hard work, and thrift, while invoking a love of the land, open air, and the agricultural lifestyle. Hesiod’s poem probably felt almost as homiletic and old-fashioned in its own day as it does in ours.

The Theogony is probably as close as Greece ever came to a definitive family tree for its gods. Greek religion was more malleable than most modern religions, and pantheons varied from place to place, integrating with local gods in hodge-podge fashion as Greek colonists moved around the Mediterranean. This process of mixing religions together, called syncretism (think of it as a portmanteau of “synthesizing creeds”) is an early example of spontaneous order in history. I drew on the Theogony in an unpublished working paper I wrote back in grad school that one day, time allowing, I would like to revise and publish somewhere. Revisiting the poem more than a decade later was a genuine treat.

The other important concept in Hesiod’s Theogony is its deterministic view of history. In this case, the trajectory is ever downward, moving from divine to human. A Golden Age degrades to silver, then bronze, all the way down to a Heroic Age (think Perseus, Icarus, et al.) and today’s Age of Iron, where human beings live. Whereas gold shines forever, iron rusts and breaks over time.

This view of history as a series of stages that progress inevitable and in a certain order was the dominant view all over the world before modern times—though it varied in its particulars from civilization to civilization. Such a teleological view—moving inexorably to a certain end—is also familiar to Marxist thought. The common theme of post-Hesiod history was a rejection of progress. There was stability, the rhythm of seasons or dynasties, and often a gradual decline. But there was no sense of progress. This idea would not enter public consciousness in a meaningful way until the Renaissance, and would play a starring role in the modern prosperity we enjoy today. We should be thankful that Hesiod’s historiography is a relic, rather than current thinking.

The Shield of Heracles is Hesiod’s best literary accomplishment. His descriptions of the illustrations etched onto Heracles’ shield are described in beautiful detail, and allow Hesiod to tell the most famous stories of Heracles’ life and labors. Unlike Hesiod’s other works, instruction takes a back seat to beauty.

Christopher Hibbert – The House Of Medici: Its Rise and Fall

Christopher Hibbert – The House Of Medici: Its Rise and Fall

Hibbert gives attention not just to the Medicis themselves, but also to what life was like in the Florence of their time. He begins with a discussion of clothes, food, child-rearing, and working conditions, and politics of the time. This sets up a multi-generation story in three main parts. The family began amassing wealth and influence as far back as the late 13th century, but the family’s first grand patriarch was Cosimo I, who essentially ruled Florence. He was the first of three generations at the family’s peak, also including Piero and Lorenzo. They had political power, and famously patronized the Renaissance’s greatest artists. Their bank influenced international trade patterns and played a role Europe’s economic revival, not just its cultural rebirth.

The family also produced four popes, jostling with the Borgia family for dominance of the church’s upper hierarchy.

After the Medicean peak, the family still had considerable influence, wealth, power, and good taste. Cosimo II was a patron and supporter of Galileo. In fact, when Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter, he named them after four leading Medicis, and collectively called them the Medicean Stars, and dedicated his Siderius Nuncius (“Starry Messenger”) to Cosimo II. Machiavelli, one of the first distinctively modern political theorists, was also a beneficiary of Medici patronage.

The family continued a gentle decline as times passed them by, continuing until the family’s last direct descendant, Ana Maria Luisa, died in 1743. One of the belongings she left behind was the Uffizi art museum, which she bequeathed to the Tuscan state.

Robert Graves – I, Claudius

Robert Graves – I, Claudius

Though a novel, this is a popular recommendation among classical historians. Graves based his account in historical sources, in this case leaning heavily on Suetonius, who was something of the National Enquirer of his day. Graves’ efforts to be historically accurate made this novel a milestone event in historical fiction, and its embrace by the profession speaks well both to its accuracy and Graves’ literary skill.

As one might glean from the title, I, Claudius is told in the first person by Claudius, who was at the center of palace intrigue for most of his life. He was a young man when his uncle Augustus became the first Roman princeps, and the book follows all the palace intrigue through Claudius’ eyes from all of Augustus’ long reign through Tiberius’ severity, Caligula’s horrors, on up to Claudius’ own unlikely accession to the purple after Caligula’s assassination. Claudius had a stutter and a limp, as well as a shy, bookish personality. His managing a long life while remaining so close to center of power was due in significant part to people consistently underestimating him as a threat, despite his obvious intelligence.

Walter Isaacson – The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

Walter Isaacson – The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

Think Joseph Schumpeter’s ethos of creative destruction mixed with economic historian Joel Mokyr’s emphasis on technology and how culture enables it, as told by a tech journalist, and you have this book. It’s essentially a history of great personalities of the digital age, with the broader aim of identifying cultural factors that aid innovation. While Isaacson’s arguments are nothing groundbreaking, he is a compelling biographer, and he ties together some wildly disparate personalities into a cohesive narrative of computer history.

One of the first great personalities behind the computer was the mathematician Ada Lovelace, who of all things was the daughter of the Romantic-era poet Lord Byron. Lovelace’s work with Charles Babbage would go on to influence Alan Turing, and when their efforts combined with the invention of the transistor, the cascading effect led to the emergence of numerous other innovations and innovators, who are all more interconnected than most of them realized.

Thomas Edison, Music Critic

Thomas Edison not only invented the phonograph, he was one of the first to mass-market recorded music, along with his competitor Victor’s Victrola player. Edison also curated the music his company, Thomas Alva Edison, Inc. (TAE), released. His notebooks contain some surprisingly funny negative reviews, such as this gem from during World War I, shared on p. 39 of Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sounds Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music:

“If anything would make the Germans quit their trenches it is this…”