Month: May 2018

174. Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), Books XXI-XXX (The War with Hannibal), by Livy (c.19 BC)

174. Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), Books XXI-XXX (The War with Hannibal), by Livy (c.19 BC)

Ten of the surviving books from Livy’s multivolume history of Rome, these deal with the Second Punic War, pitting Carthage against Rome and initiated by Hannibal’s famous crossing of the Alps into Italy.

“War was coming, and it would have to be fought in Italy, in defence of the walls of Rome, and against the world in arms.”   (page 39)

My copy was again the Penguin Black classic translated by Aubrey De Selincourt and edited by Betty Radice (ISBN 014044145X)

My thoughts: I had already read about the First and Second Punic wars in Polybius’ history, but Livy goes into much more detail, and is less flattering to Hannibal, describing him as not only “reckless in courting danger … superb tactical ability … unequalled as a fighting man, always the first to attack, the last to leave the field” but also displaying “inhuman cruelty, a more than Punic [Carthaginian] perfidy, a total disregard for truth, honour and religion, of the sanctity of an oath and of all that other men hold sacred” (page 26)

Livy as rendered here by De Selincourt and Radice is very readable and also dramatic, and while I did not retain all the detail, it was exciting to read and not as diary-like as the previous Livy books – perhaps because there are more events to describe in a shorter space of time (17 years in 676 pages) and they are by their nature more dramatic.

The greatest mystery is why Hannibal and his men, having survived the Alpine crossing, harsh winters, disease and famine, and causing the almost complete destruction of three separate Roman armies, did not immediately march on Rome but spent years in minor battles around Italy.

“Assuredly, no one man has been blessed with all God’s gifts. You know, Hannibal, how to win a fight; you do not know how to use your victory”     (Maharbal, Carthaginian commander of cavalry, to Hannibal, page 151)

Indeed towards the end Hannibal is quoted as berating himself over this very same failure to press his advantage home upon the very target he set out to capture. Certainly in the early years of his campaign he seems to lose more men to weather and terrain than in battles.

“It was the horses, more than anything else, which created havoc … they were soon out of control … In the confusion many non-combatants, and not a few soldiers were flung over the sheer cliffs which bounded each side of the pass, and fell to their deaths thousands of feet below”   (page 58, Crossing the Alps attacked by mountain tribes)

“Heavy rain and a violent wind right in their faces made progress impossible; they could not hold their weapons, and if they tried to struggle on, the wind spun them around and flung them off their feet … all they could do was turn their backs to it, crouching on the ground … blinded and deafened and benumbed with terror … So intense was the cold that followed that of all that miserable heap of prostrate men and beasts not one … was able for a long time to raise himself from where he lay.”   (page 85)

The Romans were very superstitious, and Livy reports on evil portents each year – raining stones and milk, children born with animal faces, animals born with extra limbs or talking, rivers and lakes filling with blood, etc.) and the need to make appropriate sacrifices to appease the gods, including ‘the strewing of the couches’ (a banquet laid out for images of the gods reclining on couches).

After the Carthaginians led by Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal defeat two more Roman armies in Spain (led by brothers Publius Scipio and Gnaeus Scipio); Publius’ son Publius Cornelius Scipio (later nicknamed Scipio Africanus) convinces the Romans to allow him to command the new army to be sent to Spain. After capturing New Carthage where the Carthaginians were holding all their Spanish hostages, equipment, supplies, weapons and money, Scipio goes on to defeat the three Carthaginian armies, then pushes on to land on the African coast and eventually force Hannibal to retreat from Italy in order to protect Carthage. The last chance of a peace is shattered and Scipio defeats Hannibal’s forces at the battle of Zama.

There is so much more detail – I haven’t mentioned the Numidian kings Masinissa and Syphax, and their competition for both the throne and the Carthaginian noblewoman Sophonisba;  or the vicious and brutal treatment of the citizens of Locri by the Roman garrison and their commander Pleminius.

Favourite lines/passages:

Has to be the Campanian civilian’s reckless taunt of the Roman commander who has captured his city :

“Order my execution too, so that you may boast of killing a much braver man than yourself”  (page 375)

Personal rating:   Very readable. 7/10

Kimmy’s rating: Still not keen on those elephants.

Other reading: Two books coincidentally having the same title initials

The Inimitable Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse. Several short stories linked together. Jeeves’ stories all sound similar but are still excellent entertainment.  4/5

The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford. Two dogs and a cat travel hundreds of miles to be reunited with their owners. A great job of telling an animal story without OTT anthropomorphism, and providing beautiful descriptions of the Canadian wilderness.  5/5

Next :  The Epistles of Horace, including the Ars Poetica


2018 Annual Rotary book fair

2018 Annual Rotary book fair

Our town’s annual book fair is on again this week.  It fills the local racecourse building with tens of thousands of books, with thousands more waiting in the wings to be added. Opening morning is a bit of a frenzy with booklovers with armfuls of books jostling about everywhere.

Last year I came away with 20 books, and checking back on my post, I see I have only read two of those in the succeeding twelve months. But at A$2 per paperback, I couldn’t help buying just a few more ….

Firstly I found an almost complete  set of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, and most in the period painting covers which I love.Got home with 15 of these.

I was still missing three titles, so of course I had to go back two days later to see if they were still there. I couldn’t find them, but I found a few other titles …

Classics next, and I picked up a fairly random assortment of less familiar titles

  • Plutarch’s Rise and Fall of Athens
  • Letters of Abelard and Heloise
  • Chronicles of the Crusades
  • Middle English Poems : The Owl and The NIghtingale/Cleanness/St. Erkenwald
  • Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography
  • The White Devil/The Duchess of Malfi/The Devil’s Law Case by John Webster
  • Selected Short Fiction by Charles Dickens (not the Christmas stories though 😦 )

Some whodunnits

an assortment of fantasy

a gap i had on my shelves

and all six Foundation novels by Issac Asimov


So at A$2 / £1.10 / US$1.50 each, which ones would you have taken home? Or what would you have been hoping to find???

173. Odes by Horace (c. 23-12 BC)

173. Odes by Horace (c. 23-12 BC)

Plot:   Four books of lyric poetry dealing with a range of topics, including ample praise for Augustus Caesar, as well as Horace’s patron Maecenas, his friends Virgil and Varius, and the Gods. A recurring theme, particularly in Book 1, is to live for today : Carpe diem!

My version was The Odes and Epodes of Horace : a modern English verse translation by Joseph Clancy (University of Chicago Press, 1960)

My thoughts: I rarely warm to poetry so I confess I pushed through Horace’s Odes quickly. I found them less interesting than his Epodes, but did enjoy his repeated advice to enjoy life.

“All of life is only a little, no long-term plans are allowed.”  I.4

“I am a poet of parties …”  I.6

“Today, banish worry with wine ; back to the deep sea tomorrow”  I.7

“Take the chill off, piling plenty of logs by the fireside, and pour out the wine … with a free hand. Leave the rest to the Gods, …. Do not ask of tomorrow what it may hold; mark in the black each day you are granted by Chance: you are young … now is the time for … soft whispers as night covers lovers meeting, and now is the time for giveaway giggles from the far corner and the girl in hiding”   I.9

“Who can say if the Gods will add to our present sum tomorrow’s bonus of hours? Keep all you can from your sticky-fingered heir by giving now to your precious self.”   IV.7

And most famously Carpe diem.  Not so much about taking the leap on a new adventure as I has mistakenly defined it myself, but to make every day special.

“Reap today: save no hopes for tomorrow.”   I.11

Favourite lines/passages:

Besides his good advice above, I also liked his verbal attack on the unknown gardener who originally planted the tree that nearly killed him.

“He planted you a day the omens were dark, whoever he was, and his defiling hands raised you as a tree to destroy his descendants and disgrace the neighbourhood. He was, I should think, a man who would crush his own father’s throat and at midnight spatter the sanctuary of home with the blood of a guest; and he had dealings with Colchic poisons and every conceivable kind of vice, that man who stood you on my farm, sad excuse for a tree, to fall on the head of your undeserving owner…”   II, 13


Some of his reflections on love:

“I burn with her charming teasing, and with the tempting yes-and-no of her glances.”  I.19

And his praise of poetry as a means of everlasting glory, including his own.

“My memorial is done: it will outlast bronze. It is taller than the Pyramids’ royal mounds, and no rain and corrosion , no raging Northwind can tear it down, nor the innumerable years in succession and the transitory ages. I will not wholly die; the greater part of me shall escape the goddess of death: I will grow on, kept alive by posterity’s praise”     III.30

Personal rating:   only a 4/10 overall

Other reading:

The Regulators by Stephen King under his pen name Richard Bachman. Sort of a deliberate alternate-universe retelling of another King book, Desperation, but tied to consumerism and television. A young boy is possessed by a demon which uses its powers to bring the boy’s favourite cartoon heroes to terrifying life and inflict carnage on a suburban American street. Mesmerising but not his best.


The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude. British Library reprint of the 1935 murder whodunnit/howdunnit proved irresistible as I was actually walking the coastal path where the murder was set. Relatively low number of suspects and a very low key single clue still built nicely thanks to good writing. Enjoyed.


Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep?  by Philip K. Dick.

The scifi book filmed as Blade Runner. Much more cerebral than the movie, with the nature/difference between real and fake a major thread through the story. With androids almost indistinguishable from humans (sometimes even to themselves) the ability to show and feel empathy towards animals and people leads to a social urge to possess a live animal as an expensive status symbol. Rick Deckard the bounty hunter assigned to terminate rogue androids, is driven to spend all his pay on upgrading from an electric sheep, while his wife is entranced with the prevalent religion Mercerism which allows people to share a virtual religious pilgrimage as a way of bonding with others. Very good and prophetic scifi.

Next :  The War with Hannibal (Books XXI-XXX of Ab Urbe Condita) by Livy


172. The Aeneid by Virgil (19 BC)

172. The Aeneid by Virgil (19 BC)

“What adverse destiny dogs you through these many kinds of danger? What rough power brings you from sea to land in savage places?”   Book I,  lines 841-444

Plot:   Aeneas, surviving prince from the fall of Troy, sets sail with his followers, guided by Apollo  to journey to Italy and fulfill his destiny as the founder of what will become the Roman Empire. After years wandering the seas, they establish themselves on Latin soil, but must face more warfare before they can prevail.

My copy was an excellent translation by Robert Fitzgerald in the King Penguin imprint, published 1985 (ISBN 014007449X)

My thoughts: Virgil takes up the baton from Homer, both in terms of style and subject. The first half of the epic Aeneid recounts their seven years of wanderings, starting with the fall of Troy : the fooled Trojans taking the Wooden Horse into their walled city despite the warnings of Cassandra and the suspicious sounds coming from the belly of the beast (even to the point of partially dismantling their gates to get the huge construct inside), the resulting slaughter and escape, and their subsequent Odyssean-like adventures across the Mediterranean.

Aeneas and his followers are given shelter by Dido, Queen of Carthage. Driven on by his destiny, Aeneas rejects her offer of a home and ruling with her, breaking her heart and driving her to suicide in her anguish, setting up the enmity between Rome and Carthage which will erupt in the Punic Wars centuries later. In fact, Virgil uses his reader’s knowledge of the subsequent history of Rome to load his poem with prophesies of what will come to pass : the heroes and generals not yet born who will ensure Rome’s greatness, and indulge in a little propaganda and take advantage of his theme to flatter the current Caesar, Augustus.

The second half describes the war fought against the local tribes once the Trojans do set foot on Italian soil, recalling the desperate siege and battles of the Iliad. At all times, their adversaries are spurred on by Hera, who takes every opportunity to incite war and misery on the Trojans, breaking treaties, and littering their travels with dangers. The last book ends quite abruptly with the final sword thrust of  the anticipated showdown between Aeneas and Turnus, the enraged leader of the Latins. Apparently Virgil was to revise and perhaps write more, but died in 19 BC while travelling back from Greece.

I had read The Aeneid many years ago, but remembered very little. This translation was both easy to read and follow, quite graphic in some of the battle scenes, and heart wrenching in the fate of Dido and the other doomed characters.

Favourite lines/passages:

Rowing past the whirlpool Charybdis

“They bent hard to the rowing as commanded, and Palinurus in the leading ship swung his creaking prow over to port. The whole flotilla followed him in turn with oars and wind. On every rolling sea we rose to heaven, and in the abysmal trough sank down into the realm of shades. Three times the rock cliffs between caverns boomed, three times we saw the wave shock and the flung spume drenching the very stars. The wind at last and sun went down together, leaving us spent, and in the dark as to our course, we glided quietly onward to the Cyclops’ shore”  Book III, lines 745-757

Description of Atlas

“… he saw the craggy flanks and crown of patient Atlas. Giant Atlas, balancing the sky upon his peak – his pine-forested head in vapor cowled beaten by wind and rain. Snow lay upon his shoulders, rills cascaded down his ancient chin and beard a-bristle, caked with ice. ”  Book IV, lines 336-343.

and pretty much the entire presence of Camilla, female warrior in Book XI.

“Amid the carnage, like an Amazon, Camilla rode exultant, one breast bared for fighting ease, her quiver at her back. At times she flung slim javelins thick and fast, at times, tireless, caught up her two-edged axe … when she gave ground, forced to retreat, with bow unslung in flight she turned and aimed her arrows”  Book XI, lines 881-889.

Personal rating:   This translation in particular was excellent.  8/10

Kimmy’s rating: As I read this book while hiking the South Cornish path, Kimmy missed out on this one. But she enthusiastically greeted me on my return and even now is clamouring for more attention as I try and type.

Next :   Odes by Horace