Messalina: A Story of Empire, Slander, and Adultery
I read this courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher. It’s out in May 2023.
It’s incredibly hard to write modern biographies of ancient women. Not least because most ancient historians didn’t care that much about women as individuals; they only mattered when they intersected with men (… not too different from many wikipedia entries today, actually), and also for Roman historians they were often used as literary devices – history writing being quite different in the first few centuries AD in Rome from what it is generally accepted to be in the West today. SO that leaves a serious paucity of information for the person who wants to write a serious biography of, say, Messalina. I have a fantastic biography of Agrippina the Younger on my shelf, which does a good job of trying to consider Agrippina as a person, rather than just a mother and/or power-mad; one of Theodora that is slightly less successful but made a valiant attempt. And now, at least, Messalina: a woman whose name has become a byword (and at one point medicalised) for the over-sexed and never-satisfied woman, whose sexual depravity was the source of her power, and whose only use of that power was evil.
I loved this biography a lot. Messalina was human! Who knew?
The author gives what I think is an excellent overview of the social and cultural and immediate historical situation in Rome in the early Julio-Claudian period, in particular looking at the ways in which expressions of and usage of power had been altered with the change (albeit begrudgingly accepted) from republic to empire. And the point is to situate Messalina within that. (Had I completely forgotten just how illustrious her lineage was? Oh yes. Perhaps I never really knew – descended from Mark Antony! And from Octavian/Augustus’ sister! Very impressive.)
There’s a good attempt at reconstructing just what sort of thing Messalina was doing after Claudius became emperor, as well as logical (rather than misogynistic) rationale for it: like she’s shoring up her own power base, and that of Claudius, and that of her son. The arguments here are persuasive, although of course we’ll never know. I particularly liked that Cargill-Martin never tries to completely purify Messalina: did she have affairs? Possibly; maybe even probably! Were other women doing so? yes. Could there actually be political as well as passionate reasons for doing so? Absolutely. Was it possible for Messalina to both want to have sex AND be a political actor? WHY YES, IT WAS.
Basically I think this is the sort of (properly) revisionist history that a nuanced understanding of women in history enables. Messalina can be treated as a human, as a worthy subject for serious history: she made mistakes, she made what we would think of today as some poor choices, she was constrained by her historical context, and she really didn’t deserve the way that last 2000 years have treated her. Especially Juvenal’s poetry; he can go jump.
Highly recommended particularly to anyone interested in early Roman empire history, or women’s history.
Grave, by Allison C. Meier
I read this book via NetGalley. It’s out on Feb 9, 2023.
As long as these are being published by Bloomsbury Academic, I will keep reading these. (… there’s a joke here relating to the subject matter of this book, but I won’t go there.)
For a book about graves, this book isn’t morbid at all. Which is exactly the tone that I would expect from this series. It takes graves, and the reason for graves, seriously; but it doesn’t dwell morosely on the idea of death. Nor does it romanticise it. Instead, this is a thoughtful and engaging examination of burial practises – particularly in post-colonisation North America – and how and why they’ve changed. That time and place is important to note; while various global practises are mentioned, like the very earliest burials known and Tibetan sky burials and others, this is focused on one specific place and time. And that’s fair: this is a short book! It’s not meant to be an all-encompassing tome. I guess this could be seen as a snapshot of a place that has changed a lot in terms of its ethnic makeup over the last few centuries, that has (for better or worse) often been seen as leading the way in innovation, as well as sometimes dragging its heels on change (hello metric system). So it’s a useful way of getting a glimpse at one history of grave practises.
The author is someone who has led cemetery tours and has done a lot of thinking about what graves and burial practises mean. I learnt surprising things: like, in the USA, it’s quite standard for a body to be embalmed before burial in a coffin. I’m pretty sure that’s not standard in Australia (I just looked up one undertaker group; embalming is an optional extra). A sobering aspect was the history of unmarked graves, and segregation within cemeteries (a relatively new word, apparently!) – I know at least some old general cemeteries in Victoria are, or were, Catholic/Protestant separated (and different areas for Chinese dead, especially in goldrush areas and I guess there must be a few towns with small, historical, Jewish sections?). I most enjoyed the fact that there are new practises being developed. I had already learnt of ‘water cremation’ (yes, it’s a nonsensical term), which is far more eco friendly than the standard creation; but ‘natural burial’ – like a pine coffin that degrades quickly – and other more environmental options are just going to be increasingly necessary. We already have issues with perpetual leases on graves…
Anyway, this is yet another excellent entry into this series. I loved it and continue to look forward to more.
Two more Object Lessons from Bloomsbury Academic
I know, I’m a bit obsessed with this series. But they keep popping up on NetGalley, and I keep being intrigued, and I keep being approved for them… and so I keep reading them…
Intriguingly, Mushroom is perhaps the most surprisingly metaphorical of these so far. It’s certainly not quite what I expected. There are short sections about specific mushrooms, related to (northern hemisphere) seasons. But the main sections are Mystery, Metaphor, Mycology, Medicine and Magic. All of these things I know relate to mushrooms and the history of their use by humans; there was a bit more emphasis on the metaphor aspect overall than I had anticipated. Which was certainly interesting, just not what I imagined!
Mushrooms are eaten for sustenance, of course, but they have also been used for medical and spiritual and magical purposes. Rich explores all of these, and – as most of these books do – also situates the discussion very personally.
Not quite what I expected, but not something I regret reading.
This was another excellent addition to this series. With chapters headed Clock, Fire, Siren, Security, Siren, “Failure, False, Fatigue”, and Future, Bennett takes us on a rollicking ride through alarms. There’s history and technology, sure. But there’s also art and culture, and the ways in which alarms are not neutral objects or sounds but can mean different things – particularly, she stresses, in America, where police sirens can mean different things depending on your skin colour (and I suspect the same thing may be true in Australia, at least to some extent). The idea of alarms as a prosthetic is profound – supplementing or replacing our own vigilance; but of course, now smart watches etc are encouraging us to be MORE vigilant (‘closing the ring’). Also, feeding into the capitalist world (my intention to never have one was significantly reinforced by reading this.)
Also, starting a book about alarms with Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, comparing the watchman, Clytemnestra’s alarm system, and Cassandra as alarm? INSPIRED.
Loved it. One of my favourites to date.
OK: by Michelle McSweeney
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out on January 12.
Another roaring success from the Object Lessons series. I had NO idea that OK had such a history. I DID know that you could use a tiny little object to illuminate significant moments in history, which is exactly what McSweeney does here: the connection between communication and technology, and the fate of OK in that – from the Penny Press in the 1830s in the US, to the telegraph and telephone and US cultural imperialism via TV and finally BBSs and social media… it’s all here.
I was also introduced to the term ‘phatic language’ and I love it. Phatic language is “language that is socially rich, but informationally empty”. All those markers that signal we’re listening and we care (in theory), including OK. I love that there’s a term for it, and I love that it has a real and important place in communication. I also love that the DARPA dudes thought email would be more like telegrams (terse, all info and no pleasantries) rather than a conversation, and HAHA sorry guys. Also apparently answering the telephone with “Hello?” was initially considered incredibly bad manners? This is a magnificent example of changing language and social expectations.
Meanwhile there’s also the fact that all those email suggestions that gmail throws at you were learned from “the Enron Corpus” – tens of thousands of emails from 2001 – is creepy and makes me even more determined not to use them.
For lovers of language and communication technology and micro history.
She Who Became the Sun
Whaaaaaat a book.
And yes, I am incredibly late to this party, since Parker-Chan was nominated for the Best Novel Hugo this year (losing to A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine, a massive favourite of mine so I’m glad I didn’t have to choose…).
This novel is just brilliant. One thing I will say is that it was a bit different from what I expected – which is entirely about me, not about the book. Because of the Hugo nomination, and my genre-leaning friends, I was expecting this to be a book with greater, or more obvious, fantastical elements. Nothing about the book itself made me think that! Parker-Chan’s bio says she was inspired by “epic East Asian historical TV dramas”, and my knowledge of such is below limited (although I am an Australian kid of the 80s and 90s, so does the original Monkey count?).
ANYWAY. It’s 1345, China is ruled by the Mongols – who think the ethnic Chinese are all barbarians, and vice versa. There’s famine in the south; two children in a family are told their destiny: he is bound for greatness, she is bound for nothing. But then he dies, which means his destiny is going wanting… so she decides to become him…
Epicness ensues as Zhu gets caught up in events far beyond what she imagined as a child. First as a monk, then as a warrior and a leader; always worried that heaven might catch on to the fact that the destiny she is grasping was not, actually, intended for her at all. She teeters on the precipice of failure and discovery – not sure which is worse – and sometimes through luck, more often through her intelligence and grit and sheer bloody-mindedness, she ploughs on through…
I believe this is a duology, and honestly the next one cannot come fast enough (which is rich, given how late I am to the party). The pacing was excellent, the stakes were high, Zhu is mighty and charismatic. The supporting cast are varied and intriguing – Parker-Chan writes a significant portion of the story from the other side, as it were: what’s going on in the Mongol camp, particularly from the perspective of a Chinese captive-risen-to-general, which gives the entire novel even more drama and intensity, emotion and high stakes.
What a book.
Spoiled: The Myth of Milk as Superfood
I read this via the publisher and NetGalley. It’s out in April 2023.
This is an angry book.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, or that the anger is unjustified. Just that Mendelson doesn’t make much effort to hide the fact that a lot about Big Dairy in America makes her angry, and that the appalling lack of science around the claims for milk make her angry, and that the fact drinking milk is pushed as some mighty panacea when actually the ability to digest cow’s milk as an adult human is largely restricted to humans descended from north-west Europeans… that makes her angry, too.
Some of the most crucial sentences for understanding the point of the book comes early on: “… the founders of modern Western medicine had no way of understanding the genetic fluke that allowed them… to digest lactose from babyhood to old age… That lack turned the one form of milk that is most fragile, perishable, difficult to produce on a commercial scale, and economically pitfall-strewn into a supposed daily necessity for children and, to a lesser extent, adults.”
The section I most enjoyed for itself was the first part, where Mendelson looks at the long history of dairying, and in particular points out that drinking “fresh” milk (which is a whole other discussion of terminology, given what happens to milk in most Western countries today) wasn’t something early herders did. Instead, they were using fermented milk – naturally fermented, from being left out in the heat. She goes through the science of what’s actually happening in this fermentation, discussing why the bacteria in the milk doing all of this doesn’t poison human consumers of such milk. There’s also a really interesting discussion about the archaeology and other evidence for dairying of various forms in numerous locations.
Science is a fairly big part of the book, which I also enjoyed. There’s a lot about what’s in milk of various types, and why, as well as how that’s connected to the digestive system of the various animals that humans choose to milk. Plus the discussion about how limited the ability to actually properly digest full-lactose drinking-milk is, among the adult human population. If you can digest milk as an adult, it’s you that’s the genetic mutation, not everyone else. Doesn’t that make all the soy milk etc-haters look like numpties.
The angry-making bit really starts when the discussion turns to the 18th century in Europe, and the way that ‘drinking fresh milk’ suddenly became imperative for children, in particular, and the idea that if children were denied all the milk they could possibly consume then somehow society was failing them. All of which is nonsense since… see above. And then, of course, it gets into how the industry makes claims, and medical types get on board, and honestly it just makes me really sad and horrified to see how outlandish claims based on ‘science’ (sometimes) that has now been superseded, or sometimes just based on a desire to make money, is still having a massive impact on how we think and act today.
Also? this insistence on drinking-milk all came as a) more people were living in towns and b) before good refrigeration and c) before adequate food-safety measures like pasteurisation (which gets a whole section here, because of the raw food movement) were in place. All of which meant a bunch of kids, in particular, actually got sick and many of them died because of the milk they were told they needed to consume in order to be healthy.
One of the reasons for the angry nature of the book is its focus on the modern American dairy industry. I’m not going to claim that the Australian industry is immensely better, because I don’t know all that much about it, but I do know that we do things a bit differently. And then there’s the way in which drinking-milk is still being pushed as necessary… to populations that are, overwhelmingly, unable to digest full-lactose milk as adults. I think that’s just appalling.
Don’t read this as a fun history or science of milk. Do read it if you’re interested in how drinking-milk got to be the thing it is today – which is genuinely fascinating, as well as infuriating. There’s discussion of Kellogg’s, and milk-drinking cults, and the furore around pasteurisation and homogenisation, and the raw milk fad as well…
The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society
I read this courtesy of NetGalley; it’s out in January 2023, from WW Norton.
Janega aims to explore medieval attitudes towards women in a variety of contexts – appearance, sexuality, education, work, maternity and so on – and to show how that is similar to, different from, and informing modern attitudes. I think she does an excellent job on the first, but I think there’s something lacking in the second.
The introduction to the concept of “the Middle Ages” is excellent, as is her argument for why studying this period is important, both for understanding the development of attitudes towards women and more broadly. Janega uses an excellent variety of sources to demonstrate how medieval society – particularly at the elite level, but also how that percolated through the other 99% – developed their ideas; through theologians (mostly male, but also Hildegard de Bingen of course), and medical texts, becoming educational manuals, as well as through ‘pop culture’ like ballads and Christine de Pizan’s poetry, and visual art as well. She also destroys some really important myths, like the notion that women as workers is a modern invention (you think a “farmer’s wife” is sitting around doing nothing?) and that beauty standards are in some way objective and timeless (all those images of nude Eve with a wee pot belly).
I do think that some of the ideas Janega draws together from medieval and modern are really important. The thing about beauty, for instance: that only the wealthy could attain what was regarded as truly beautiful, but that women shouldn’t be seen to work at BEING beautiful; if you did work on being beautiful that was vain and therefore sinful; if you were poor and somehow, miraculously, beautiful, you were clearly meant to be amongst the great instead… and so on. Also, beauty and virtue going together. It’s painfully clear how these things resonate today, with issues of cost as well as luxury time all coming together – think of women who are on public transport in their sneakers, with their high heels in their bag. Beyond the beauty issues, Janega talks about a lot of other issues for modern women and how these are similar to/different from our medieval counterparts. However, I didn’t feel like the links were drawn quite strongly enough between the medieval and the modern to show how one developed from, or reacts again, the other.
Overall I do think this is a very good book about historical European ideas of women: who they are and can be and should look like. Janega does make some imortant commentary on modern women, too – the fact that I wanted a tighter connection does’t detract from her powerful statements. This can definitely be read with little knowledge of the European Middle Ages.
Cleopatra’s Daughter, by Jane Draycott
I read this courtesy of NetGalley; it’s out in November 2022.
Ever since I read a biography of Beregaria – the only English queen who never even visited England – I have been very keen on biographies of women who have just been overlooked. (It wasn’t Berengaria’s fault; she was married to Richard I while he was on his way to crusade, then he got kidnapped and then he was off fighting in France, so… she never got across the Channel.)
Did I know Cleopatra VII had a daughter? Yes. That she was taken as a prisoner by Octavian back to Rome? Yes, although it wasn’t as immediately accessible knowledge. Did I know that this daughter then went on to marry Juba. king of Mauretania, and that she ruled there with him for many years? NO I DID NOT. And I kind of feel a bit aggrieved that I got to be 42 without knowing this.
Draycott has written a quite splendid biography, especially considering the limitation of the source material available. One of the things I particularly like about her style is that she’s not pretending knowledge that she doesn’t have. The reality is that there’s very little information about Cleopatra Selene’s childhood, either in Alexandria or in Rome; so Draycott presents what is known for children and families in those places in those times, indicating that this is a good estimation. I like this approach a lot.
Having said that the material is limited, I was surprised at the sources that do exist – see above, not knowing anything about Cleopatra Selene’s adulthood. There are (probably) statues (identifying ancients in statue is notoriously hard); there are coins; and there are some written references, too. So it’s not all a guessing game ; and when Draycott does make some leaps (like Zenobia maybe being a descendent??), she’s pretty clear about the tenuous nature of the links.
It’s likely that both Cleopatra Selene’s twin, Alexander Helios (yes, yes, Mark Antony, you have a great sense of humour AND hubris), and their younger brother Ptolemy, both died as young boys – Draycott makes a compelling case that this was probably from natural causes, given that Rome was a malaria-ridden swamp and that there doesn’t seem to have been a reason to kill the boys and leave the girl alive. Cleopatra Selene marries Juba, also a sort-of captive in Rome, and then they’re sent off to rule Mauretania – possibly, Draycott argues, with Cleopatra Selene taking an active part as co-ruler, given the example she’d been set by her own mother. She seems to have lived there for around 20 years, although there’s no definite date of her death recorded anywhere.
Finally, I particularly liked Draycott’s handling of the question of Cleopatra Selene’s ‘ethnicity’. That modern understandings (or imaginings) of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are very different from what people of her time would have thought about themselves or others, that it can’t be resolved what colour her skin was given the lack of definite knowledge about Cleopatra VII’s ancestry, and so on. I think she deals sympathetically with the idea of Cleopatra being ‘Black’, within the context of both not knowing for sure and those ancient people having different notions of what it means; she does make the firm point that Juba himself was (what today would be called) a Black African, and therefore their children were ‘mixed race’ and ‘mixed ethnicity’ (Greek, Roman, Egyptian, African). I like that Draycott is aware of these issues and isn’t pretending that such discussions don’t exist, or that they are somehow irrelevant to the discourse she’s part of.
Well written, thoughtful, and giving a broad understanding of both Cleopatra Selene as a human (as much as can be from the limited sources) and her context in time and place. This is what I want from a biography.
The Curious History of the Heart
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in April 2023.
I am conflicted about this book. It has some really interesting points… but it also makes what I regard as some silly, and some egregious, historical mistakes. The author isn’t a trained historian but he is writing about history so it really needed to not have those problems.
So. Firstly, in the timeline at the start, it says that someone ‘discovered’ the stethoscope. Uh, no. Maybe this is something that will be corrected before publication, but my copy doesn’t say this is an uncorrected proof. Minor, I know, but annoying. Also minor but annoying is saying that the Greeks “began practising medicine around 700 BCE” (p47), because I’m pretty sure that people were medicating themselves and setting bones in the place we call Greece well before that date, even if they did see illness as divine punishment; Asclepius exists as a god before that time.
Less minor and more than annoying is Figueredo’s insistence on the term “the Dark Ages”, which he seems to use to cover the entirety of what is more usually called the Middle Ages. I reject the term ‘Dark Ages’ for any period – it’s completely outdated and ridiculous – and I don’t remember ever seeing it used to refer to Europe beyond about 1000 CE? Certainly not after the 1200s. But on p26 he says Europe “fell into the Dark Ages for a thousand years” and that there was “a prohibition on scientific discovery”. I’m not going to say that the Church was throwing its arms open to science in this time, but at the same time – it’s just wrong to say that ‘science’ (whatever we mean by that) was in abeyance for a millennium in Europe. He also talks about the fall of the Roman Empire being in 476 CE, which is one of those superbly Western-oriented statements that must make historians of Byzantium tear their hair out.
One of the good things about the history part of this book is that it is not entirely Euro-centric. There’s discussion about how Hindu writings viewed the heart (around whether the heart was the seat of the soul etc), and quite a lot about Islamic views too. This latter actually leads to one of the other annoying statements, which is that without Islamic translations of ancient texts “the Renaissance in Europe would have begun with no past knowledge to build upon” (p72). Which is hilarious because it’s horse/cart: without those texts there IS no Renaissance. ANYWAY. He does give credit to the Islamic scholars so that’s excellent. There’s also some discussion of Mesoamerican attitudes, too, although perhaps a little too much focus on human sacrifice (which I thought was a bit more doubted these days, but I am definitely not an expert in that area).
My final annoyance with the historical aspect of the book is a linguistic one. There’s not very much discussion – or even acknowledgement – of the difficulties of translation around such words as ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ (as distinct from ‘that lump of stuff in your head’). Again, not the author’s area, but when you’re discussing cultural differences between whether emotions are seated in the heart or the brain, these things matter. So I found that disappointing. And this was only made worse by the start of the chapter about the word itself (chapter 28), where he states that the Indo-European word itself derives from the Greek and the Latin… which is another horse/cart problem, given how much earlier the Indo-European is. Again, maybe that will be fixed before publication, because it’s pretty egregious.
All of this makes it sound like I didn’t like the book, which isn’t completely true. I do think it’s an interesting overview of the place of the heart in ancient societies, and coming into the European medieval period. I think that the modern sections are fascinating, which realistically makes sense given that the author is a surgeon and therefore the modern science of the heart is, actually, his area. He writes well, and in a manner that is accessible for the non-doctor. I had no idea about the modern understanding of the heart-brain connection, or that there are neurone in the heart, so all of that was fascinating – the idea that the heart is a little brain is wild!
Maybe it’s mean, but I think the historical aspect needed to be treated a bit more seriously. If you want the book to be seen as a significant contribution to understanding the place of the heart in human culture, it needs to be as faultless as possible. This could be that, but it’s not quite there.
Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne, by Katherine Rundell
Courtesy of Allex&Unwin, it’s on sale now ($34.99, hard cover, and it’s beautiful).
This book is wondrous – glorious – it’s poetic and soaring in its language, honest and brutal and passionate in its analysis of John Donne; a wonderful biography, a snapshot history of late Elizabethan/ Jacobean politics and drama, and an inspired defence and encomium for Donne’s poetry.
I loved it. Clearly.
I come to John Donne loving him for “Death be not proud”; I am not the greatest lover of poetry, but I know that piece by heart. I come to this book with some knowledge of the era, although not exhaustive. Neither of these things are necessary for an appreciation of this book – firstly, because Rundell chiefly praises Donne as the preeminent English poet of love (news to me), and also because Rundell gives a lovely, succinct explanation of all the things that have an impact on Donne’s life.
As a biography, the structure of this book is inspired. It’s largely chronological, thankfully, although bits of poetry and prose are scattered throughout to help illuminate Donne’s life. Each chapter, though, is structured around an aspect, or transformation, of Donne as a human. Early on these are the obvious changes, from child to youth and so on. But there’s also “The Convert (Perhaps)” – because Donne was born to a Catholic family in England when that could get you killed (like Donne’s own brother); and then the variety of positions Donne has, both personally: the Anticlimatically Married Man and Ambivalent Father; and professionally: The Flatterer, Clergyman, and (Unsuccessful) Diplomat. Throughout, Rundell’s conceit of Donne as a multifaceted man is born out – in his own experiences, and in writing. And his writing sings throughout, for all that – as Rundell points out, as people forget with Shakespeare and other contemporaries – there’s only one piece of Donne’s work in English in Donne’s own hand known to the 21st century. The rest has been put together by scholars over 400 years, and there are quibbles over words, so we’re really not entirely sure if what we have is what he meant (go look up the variations on Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” speech for an idea of what scholars are dealing with).
As a biography, this is masterful. As literary criticism, it’s very readable and gives me a huge appreciation for Donne’s mastery of language; he was brilliant and in love with language and with humanity and, indeed, both life and death. Rundell is unflinching in examining his misogyny, too, placing it in historical context as well as its personal meaning.
And as a book, Rundell has herself written a gorgeous, poetic, masterful work. She has a marvellous turn of phrase (“the Habsurgs kings with enormous jaws and close friendships with the Pope”), she is simultaneously devoted to and clear-eyed about her subject, and she conveys her ‘act of evangelism’ about Donne and his work in a way that I wish more people were capable of.
It’s not often I get to read and review a book that makes me so unambiguously happy that it exists.