Monday, March 05, 2018

The Civil Wars by Appian of Alexandria

(Book Review)

Finished: August 13, 2017

Why I Read This Book
I was obsessed with ancient history throughout my entire adolescence.
I entered college as a classics major.  (That's classics in the traditional sense, meaning the study of ancient Greek and Rome).
During this time, I also spent 4 years studying Latin with the hopes that it would one day allow me to read the classics in their original language.

...And after all that, I'm embarrassed to admit how few of the classical texts I've actually read.
I've read a lot of popular histories and historical fiction, but I've read very few of the ancient texts themselves.
I've never read Herodotus.  I've never read Thucydides.  I've never read Plutarch, or Sallust, or Cicero,  or Suetonius, or Josephus, et cetera.

I've been meaning to remedy this for years now, but I never quite knew where to start.  Plutarch's Lives sounds like it would be very interesting, but I'm worried that I wouldn't have enough context to understand the Greek half of the book.  (My Greek history has never been as good as my Roman history.)
I should perhaps read Thucydides before attempting Plutarch.
But there's no way I could read Thucydides before reading Herodotus.
And I've been told that to attempt Herodotus, you need a version with really good maps in it.  And good luck finding that out here in Vietnam.

But then, I discovered The Civil Wars by Appian of Alexandria.
I don't remember hearing about this book in school (Appian isn't as famous as Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch or Cicero).  But I noticed Tom Holland referenced Appian a lot in Rubicon.  And then a few years later, I noticed Dan Carlin quoted from Appian a lot in Death Throes of the Republic .
So I Googled Appian.  And I found out that Appian's The Civil Wars covers the tumult of the last 150 years of the Roman Republic, beginning with the Gracchi Brothers and ending with the 2nd Triumvirate.
In other words, exactly the period of Classical History that I was most interested in. And moreover, I already knew all about this period (See HEREHERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE , HERE, HERE, HERE , HERE and HERE).  So I could just plunge right into this history without any extra background.

I couldn't find this book in bookstores, of course, but these days anything in the public domain is freely available online.  So I found a free online copy of The Civil Wars, brought it to my local print shop, had them print me out a copy, and I was in business.  (I used the version online HERE.  Thanks to Bill Thayer).

Brief Background
Appian was a Greek citizen of the Roman Empire.  
Like many ancient writers, not all of Appian's writings have survived.  Originally Appian wrote a much more comprehensive history of the Roman Empire, but most of this has been lost.
However, fortunately, the section of Appian's histories that dealt with the civil wars of the late Roman Republic survive.
A lot has been written about the end of the Roman Republic.  (Part of what makes this period of history so fascinating is that we have numerous ancient sources on it).  But it turns out that of all the ancient historians who wrote about this era, Appian is the only one who constructs a comprehensive narrative of the whole period--from the first start of factional violence with The Gracchi Brothers all the way to August. (Many other ancient sources write about this period in part--Plutarch, Sallust, Cicero, Cassius Dio, Caesar, et cetera--but Appian is the only surviving source that attempts to tell the whole story.)  To quote Wikipedia:

The most important remnants of Appian's work are the five books on the Civil Wars—books 13-17 of the Roman History. These five books stand out because they are the only comprehensive, meticulous source available on an extremely significant historical period, during which Roman politics were in turmoil because of factional strife.
Appian was writing his histories somewhere around 160 A.D.--long after the end of the Republic and well into the Imperial phase.  So Appian is looking back from the time of the Imperial system to try to analyze what caused the end of the Republic.
Appian was also a Greek, not a Roman, so he has somewhat of an outsider's perspective on things.  (He will sometimes say things to his audience like, "This was the custom that those Romans have, even though it seems strange to us.")

It's not really for me--some philistine with a blog--to "review" Appian.  The guy has survived for 2,000 years--who am I to try to second guess the judgement of posterity at this late date?
The only thing I will try to do is describe my subjective experience of reading him.  And you can take my opinion with the appropriate amount of salt.

The Review

A co-worker saw me reading this, and was impressed. "Wow! That must be a difficult read," he said.

But actually, "difficult" isn't the word for it. Eric Hobsbawm was difficult.  Appian, by contrast, was pretty straight forward. Ancient writers were the original narrative historians.  They saw history as a story, and they wrote history like a novel.  There's no getting bogged down in overly academic analytical sections.
The worst you could say about Appian is that he gets a bit dry from time to time.  And he does.  But there are also fascinating sections that more than make up for the dry ones.

At his best, Appian tells a fascinating story about what happens when political life becomes so factionalized that any compromise becomes impossible.
At his worst, his narrative can sometimes degenerate into a long list of events. "...and then this happened.  And then this happened. and then this happened..."

My own biases may also color my perception.
I'm very interested in the social and political story of the end of the Roman Republic.  (e.g. The Gracchi Brothers, The Cataline Conspiracy, the political gang violence, the increasing polarization between the political factions, et cetera).

I'm less interested in the military history aspect of the story.
Admittedly as a young boy, the Iliad and the fascination with ancient warfare was one of the things that attracted me to ancient history in the first place.  But as I've gotten older, I've lost my fascination with battles.  Plus, at its worst, military history can sometimes devolve into just a long list of which armies marched to which cities.
And Appian is often guilty of this.  Some sections of his history (for example, his account of The Social War (W)) read to me like a long boring list of which armies took which cities.
Other sections (like the war between Brutus and Cassius versus Antony and Octavian) get bogged down in a lot of descriptions of military fortifications, troop movements, and supply chains.
Unfortunately for me, the military history aspect makes up a lot of Appian's story.  But in retrospect, I probably should have seen this coming.  After all, the book is called The Civil Wars.  What did I think it was going to be about?

One also gets the impression from Appian that military might, not ideas, ultimately causes the change in history.  The reason Rome transitioned from a republic to an empire is not because Antony and Octavian had the better ideas for government, but just because they had the superior military tactical skills.

It's a bit of a depressing way to view history.  (Thucydides's famous quote, "The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must", might just as well apply to Appian.)  But I'm not sure Appian is necessarily wrong.  Perhaps we on the left have over-emphasized the power of idealism?

But in spite of this book's over-emphasis on military history, there were a lot of interesting insights into politics and power.  And, for me, this made up for some of the more boring parts.

For example, Appian's long speeches give tremendous insight into his characters.
Like other ancient historians, Appian has the habit of putting long speeches into the mouths of his characters.
Serious modern historians absolutely hate this.  (In his edition of Josephus (W), Paul Maier brags about having cut out all the long speeches because they were obviously just made-up and had no historical value).
But even if these speeches are obviously fictional, they do have literary value.  Appian is resisting the urge to set up any good-guys or bad-guys in his history.  Every single conflict in this history has two-sides.  Every single character's actions make perfect sense when viewed from their own perspective.
So each major character gets at least one long speech to show how, from their perspective, everything they've done is perfectly justified, and it's the other guy who's in the wrong.
But then the other guy also gets to make the same speech.

It's an art really how Appian is able to constantly take both sides of every conflict, and show it from both perspectives.

Also, as with any good history, we can see a lot of timeless political problems mirrored perfectly in Appian's text.

I'll go through and talk in some more detail about some of the things that caught my attentions.

List of Things that Caught My Attention As I Read This Book

Before the Civil Wars
Appian starts out with an interesting observation--for 500 years of Roman history, there had never really been any civil violence inside Rome until the time of the Gracchi Brothers.
There had been some conflict between the patricians and the plebeians, Appian admits, but that doesn't really count because it had all been resolved non-violently.
And there had been Coriolanus, Appian also admits, but he doesn't really count because he was a traitor to an outside army, and he never instigated a civil war between Romans.
(Sidenote--For a really interesting video on Shakespeare's Coriolanus see HERE).
It is possible that this record of internecine violence inside Rome doesn't exist because Roman historians chose not to record it.  But it is also interesting to consider that things had been going relatively well for 500 years, and then events caused the system started to fall apart all at once.

The Politics of the Gracchi Brothers
Conservative historians sometimes accuse leftists of over-politicizing the story of the Gracchi Brothers.  But actually the story of the Gracchi Brothers comes down to us already pre-packaged politicized.  Ancient writers portrayed the Gracchi Brothers as noble idealists standing up against a corrupt aristocratic regime.

Appian is notable because of all the ancient historians, he's the only one who attempts to show both sides of the land reform bill.  (See the comments I made above about how Appian always shows both sides of every conflict.)
On the one hand, we see things from the perspective of the Gracchi.  There's an obvious problem with the land distribution, and something needs to be done about it.
To the Gracchi brothers, it's perfectly simple.  There's a crisis, and it needs to be solved.

Except that it's not so simple.  To redistribute the land goes directly against the financial interests of the land-owners.

And the land-owners have a whole laundry list of reasons why they can't be expected to just give up their land.
They collected together in groups, and made lamentation, and accused the poor of appropriating the results of their tillage, their vineyards, and their dwellings. Some said that they had paid the price of the land to their neighbors. Were they to lose the money with their land? Others said that the graves of their ancestors were in the ground, which had been allotted to them in the division of their fathers' estates. Others said that their wives' dowries had been expended on the estates, or that the land had been given to their own daughters as dowry. Money-lenders could show loans made on this security. All kinds of wailing and expressions of indignation were heard at once.
So on one side, we have a national crisis that needs to be resolved.  On the other side, all the financial powers in Rome have a vested interest in keeping the status quo.

And then once both sides have dug in their heels, it was impossible to reach a compromise, because now it wasn't even about the issue anymore, it was all about the rivalry:
 In addition to personal interest the spirit of rivalry spurred both sides in the preparations they were making against each other for the appointed day.
And instead of a sensible compromise being reached, the whole thing just descended into violence and bloodshed.  And the crisis of the land reform was never resolved.

Now, does this sound like Washington D.C. today or what?
You can pick your issue.  We've got a long list of issues where there is an obvious immediate crisis going on.  (Gun Violence, Global Warming, Health Care, National Debt, etc)  And in each case it seems perfectly obvious what the solution is.  Except it isn't.  There are powerful people who have a vested interest in not doing the obvious thing to solve these problems, and so nothing ever gets solved.

And the real pity was, the land reform issue needed to be solved.  The failure to resolve this issue would lead to the collapse of the Roman Republic in two ways.
Firstly, it will help to create a large class of landless urban poor in Rome, who will contribute to the mob violence in the last years of the Republic.   Secondly it will eventually force the Roman army to recruit soldiers from the landless classes, which will mean that the soldiers are loyal to their general instead of the nation, which will eventually end the republic.  (Of these two consequences, Appian only explicitly mentions the first one.  For the second one, Appian never explicitly makes the connection, but I'm borrowing from the analysis of other people like Dan Carlin).

The whole section on the Gracchi Brothers struck me as not only very interesting, but very insightful into political problems (ancient as well as modern).  It was a fantastic beginning to Appian's history.

The Details
Unfortunately, not all of the history was this interesting (as I already complained about above).
As we move into the last 100 years of the Republic, were several characters and events whom Appian doesn't really do justice to.  (For example, history has given us much more detailed portraits of figures like Marius, Cicero, Cato, Clodius, etc, then is evident from Appian).
It's ironic, I thought to myself.  You think that by going back to the original primary sources, like Appian, you're getting a much more detailed history.  But actually, in many ways, you're getting a less detailed history, because now you're limiting yourself to just one source.
 A good secondary source (like Tom Holland or Dan Carlin) can give you a more detailed picture, because they draw from all the primary sources.
In that respect, the casual reader might actually be better off getting a modern history of Rome than attempting to read through the classics.  (I hate to say it, but...)
On the other hand, there are sections where Appian goes into amazing detail on conflicts I'd never heard about before.  Some examples:
* In Shakespeare's version, Mark Antony and Octavian form an alliance immediately after Caesar's death.  But actually, Mark Antony and Octavian were always suspicious of each other, and there was a long period of shifting alliances before the 2nd Triumvirate is finally formed.  If you're enough of a history geek to be interested in all of this, you'll find this fascinating.
* Also, did you know that before the big battle at Actium, there were all sorts of mini civil wars going on between Octavian's men and Antony's lieutenants.  There was this whole war between Octavian and Antony's brother (W) (which Marc Antony himself actually stayed out of) which went on for 2 years.
Appian goes into all the details of all the battles that were fought during this war.
I'll be honest, I got pretty bored reading about all the battles, but at the same time, it was interesting to think that the actual history behind this period is so much more complicated than what is normally taught in schools.

Scope of the Narrative
For me, the part I find the most interesting is the period that is still in the end of the republic.
As messed up as the period of the Gracchi Brothers was, it was still a period in which the fighting was over ideals.
That period, however, largely came to an end with the victory of Julius Caesar.
After that, the period of idealistic reformers is over.  And now the only story left is that of powerful generals with large private armies.
Unfortunately for me, the story I'm interested in makes up only a small part of this history.  Caesar becomes dictator halfway through Book 2, and Books 3, 4 and 5 are all about the power struggle after Caesar's death.
It's a depressing time in Roman history, when the interests of the average Roman citizen are completely forgotten about as private armies battle for power.
To be fair to Appian, though, he knows exactly the kind of story he's telling.  During the battles between Octavian, Antony, and Sextus Pompey, Appian comments a few times that all of Italy was suffering because of these civil wars, and that this was a sad state of affairs because the common good was made to suffer for the sake of these ambitious generals.
So Appian knows what he's doing.  Still... I'm not sure if this acknowledgement made these sections any easier to read.  I struggled to keep interest during these last few books.

Interestingly enough, the history ends not with the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, but with the defeat of Sextus Pompey.
Most modern historians would date the end of the Civil War period with Antony's defeat at Actium (W), but Appian stops his history just short of that final period.  I think the reason is that he covered the final defeat of Antony and Cleopatra in one of his other books--The Egyptian Wars--which has since been lost to history.

The Proscriptions
If the story of the Gracchi Brothers is a perfect mirror to the political debates of our own time, then the story of the proscriptions also has a 20th Century parallel.  It's impossible to read about the proscription lists, and not think about modern totalitarian regimes like Hitler, Mao or Stalin.

Ancient history has always been bloody, of course.  Massacres happened all the time.  So it's not the body count which makes the proscription story so horrifying.
What makes the proscriptions so troubling to Appian is the methodicalness with which they were carried out.
Both Marius and Sulla butchered their political enemies. But, Appian makes the point carefully in his text that they were not the same. Marius conducted his massacres in the heat of the moment in hot blood.  Sulla had a cold blooded system--a list of names carefully drawn up in advance, a list of rewards, and no possibility of mercy.
Appian is very concerned about the proscriptions.  It's important to him that his audience understand that nothing like this had ever happened before.
Appian frequently reminds his readers that even more were killed than the names he has time to mention, but he wants to mention several case examples of different men killed by the proscriptions, so that the reader fully understands the horror of those days.  Appian lists case after case after case of different men that were killed by Sulla's proscriptions.   Many of them tried to hide, or run away, or disguise themselves.  But most of them were found and killed by the soldiers.

Through Appian's many stories, the images of soldiers running around and killing people from a list is burned into the reader's imagination.  It's hard not to think of Stalin's secret police.

Proscriptions come up one more time in the story--the 2nd Triumvirate does their own list of proscriptions after they come to power.
Here again, Appian is at pains to impress upon the reader the significance of this.  Massacres have happened many times before, but this was only the second time that a cold blooded methodical death list had been imposed on the Roman people.
The first time it had been Sulla.  But Sulla doesn't really matter because he left no legacy.  Now, it's Augustus Caesar himself who's participating in the death lists.  And August Caesar (Appian reminds his readers) is the one who would go on to establish the whole system of government that Romans live under at present.  So this actually matters!
As with the first time, Appian spends a lot of time describing the time of the proscriptions in detail, giving a lot of case histories of people killed in their homes, or killed while trying to escape.  As with the first time, we get a real picture of a civilian population terrified by roaming soldiers and death lists.

A Couple Other Things
There are one or two more interesting little points in this history.
* As brutal as Sulla's dictatorship was, one of the more interesting things was that he voluntarily gave up power.   Appian makes a rare use of the first person to express his amazement:
This act seems wonderful to me — that Sulla should have been the first, and till then the only one, to abdicate such vast power without compulsion... 
Appian seems to be having trouble even making sense of this decision.
I, on the other hand, feel like I can understand it easily enough.  Who wants the trouble of having to run a government when you could give it all up and go fishing on your country estate?
And yet... how many dictators actually give up power?
There are dictators in several countries around the world right now who have already amassed enough wealth to live happily till the end of their life.  And yet, they still cling to power.  Why not just quite while you're ahead?
In the very next paragraph, Appian answers this question:
 Once only when he was going home he was reviled by a boy. As nobody restrained this boy he made bold to follow Sulla to his house, railing at him; and Sulla, who had opposed the greatest men and states with towering rage, endured his reproaches with calmness, and as he went into the house said, divining the future either by his intelligence or by chance, "This young man will prevent any future holder of such power from laying it down."
* Appian seems sympathetic towards the republican cause (even though he was writing during the Imperial age).  But Appian does highlights a couple little interesting paradoxes in the thinking of Brutus and Cassius
Straight after they assassinate Caesar....:
...they hastened up to the Capitol with their gladiators. There they took counsel and decided to bribe the populace, hoping that if some would begin to praise the deed others would join in from love of liberty and longing for the republic. They thought that the genuinely Roman people were still as they had learned that they were when the elder Brutus expelled the kings. They did not perceive that they were counting on two incompatible things, namely, that people could be lovers of liberty and bribe-takers at the same time. 
Appian doesn't say much more than that, but it's the type of interesting little insight that let's you know you're dealing with an intelligent author.
Once Brutus and Cassius get to Greece, they start ruthlessly fleecing all the Greek cities to pay for their war.
Ironically, in the effort to get money to pay for their war to restore the Roman Republic, they destroy many Greek republics in the process.
This may be a stretch, but I'm somewhat reminded of Priscilla Robertson's book on the Revolutions of 1848.  Many of the republican revolutionaries of 1848 paid lip-service to the idea of a universal republican ideology that transcended national boarders, but then when national interests came into conflict, this universal republican brotherhood quickly disintegrated.  In the same way, Brutus and Cassius and the Greek cities both talk about their mutual love of liberty, but then Brutus and Cassius don't hesitate to destroy some of these Greek republics when they don't pay up.
I had actually known some of this before.  In my review of The October Horse by Colleen McCulllough, I wrote that in this fictional novel:
Brutus and Cassius are not the charming men they appear as in Shakespeare, but men who are perfectly content to loot, pillage and burn Greece and Asia Minor in order to fund their war against Marc Antony.
But whereas McCullough portrays Brutus and Cassius as villains, Appian's version is (as always) more balanced.  Brutus and Cassius are not terrible men.  They occasionally lament when they must destroy a city, and they can show acts of mercy at times.  It's just that (in their view) the necessity of the war forces them to get all the money from the Greek provinces.

Freedom of the Press in 160 A.D
Anyone out there know what the freedom of the press laws were in 160 A.D.?
I actually have no idea.
Occasionally I was surprised that Appian got away with eulogizing the republican institutions, or with criticizing the start of the dictatorship.  But then, I have no idea what the laws were like in 160 A.D.

Other Classics I've Read
I started out this review by lamenting how few of the classical texts I've actually read.  Lest I make myself sound worse than I actually am, here's a short list of what I've actually read:

1. The Bible--I did actually work my way through the whole thing cover to cover at one point.  One chapter a night every night for 3 years.  (It was a reading plan which came with the Student Bible which I followed from 7th to 10th grade).
2. The Iliad--I read this in 6th grade.  I cheated a bit, because I used a prose translation, which read more like a novel than the original poetic verse.
3. The Odyssey--also in 6th grade.  Also using a prose translation.
4. The Aeneid--9th grade.  Also using a prose translation
5. Antigone by Sophocles--Required reading for 12th Grade English

Partially Completed:
6. Livy.  I started The War With Hannibal but lost interest somewhere around the middle, and never finished.  I also started The Early History of Rome but never actually finished it.  But despite never actually finishing it, I did find some good material for my 12th Grade Forensics Speech, which was based on an episode I read in Livy.
7. Tacitus.  Like Livy, I never finished Tacitus.  But I did at least make some headway.  My 11th Grade Forensics Speech was based on an episode I found in Tacitus.
8. Posthomerica by Quintus of Smyrnia  (I mentioned in a previous post that I'd read this, but perhaps never made clear that I didn't make it all the way to the end.)
Miscellanious: I had to read some of Augustine Confessions at Calvin College, but I don't remember if I read the whole thing now or not. 
When I was in my classics phase in high school, I had a large library of classical books (Sophocles, Aeschylus, Ovid which I spent a lot of time browsing, but made very few serious attempts at reading.)

Starting and Finishing
So, I took a long time to finish this book.  Partly because I had a lot of other reading projects I was juggling, and partly because parts of this book were a bit slow going (as I already mentioned above).
I started this book sometime around September 2016, and I didn't finish it until August 2017.  And then it took me about 6 months after that to finally get around to writing this review.
Sometimes it takes me a while to collect my thoughts for a review.
In order to try to keep this book fresh in my mind, I did re-read much of it the past few months.  But it's somewhat of a losing battle trying to continually keep a book fresh in your mind over a long period of time, so I'm worried now that I might be forgetting something or missing a key point.  Take my review with a grain of salt because of this.
I started this book in the fall of 2016--long before I began my Starting and Finishing project--and so consequently I don't have a start date recorded. But while I was still reading this book, I referenced Appian in a few different posts--in my post on the Gracchi Brothers HERE, and in my review of Dictator by Robert Harris HERE.  (Actually I just referenced Appian in the video review version, not in the text.)

Youtube Videos
Something I've started doing recently whenever I'm reading a classic book is to make a listening project out of it.  I find supplementary videos on Youtube (lectures, reviews, etc) and listen to them while I'm reading, to try to get the most out of the book that I can.

Surprisingly, there is virtually nothing on Youtube about Appian of Alexandria. 
I say surprisingly, because if you spend a lot of time on Youtube, like I do, you know that there are usually hundreds of Youtube videos on just about any subject imaginable. 
Since Appian's writings have survived 2,000 years, I thought he must be notable enough to have at least one or two lectures about him on Youtube.

The only videos I could find were a series from the Channel Reading Classics.  It's a series of vlogs of a woman who records her thoughts and observations as she reads through classic books.
These videos aren't professionally done, but they are intelligent commentary, and they are succient and concise despite not being scripted.  (Since I've started doing my own video reviews now, I've discovered that being concise and brief isn't as easy as it looks).

I found these videos a useful study companion to my own reading of Appian.
It's always interesting seeing someone else's opinion.  There were numerous things in Appian that I completely passed over, which she really makes a big deal of.  There were a lot of things in Appian which really struck me, which she passes over completely. 
There are numerous points where I disagree with her opinion, but I won't get into all that now.  (To fully enumerate all the points where I agree and disagree with her would require another whole review.)  I'll just say that they were thought provoking, and leave it at that.

See her whole playlist HERE.

My Own Video Reviews
And since over the past year I've started experimenting with my own video reviews, here are my attempts.

I actually did 2 videos in this case.  The camera cut out after 30 minutes, and I decided I still had more to say, so I did a second video.

First Video Here:

Second Video Here:

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky On Surviving The 21st Century

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