The Book: History or Religion?

Today at sunset begins Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement for the Jews, followers of Judaism, and for a few Christians who recognize the call to convene on certain feast days found in the Old Testament scriptures – texts multiple millennia old.

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

In this increasingly digitized world where daily billions of bits of information are finding their way to the computerized version of a warehouse we tend to lose sight of our old friend the Book. Kindles, iPads, and eReaders of various brands are marching onto the print battlefield and squaring off against the age old codex. The convenience of downloading your library instead of driving to it seems ready to overwhelm the more basic, tactile experience of opening a book.

The old fashioned way…

Yet codexes, and their scrolled predecessors, are the life blood not only of history but also of religions.

Many religions have specific holy books and texts. Buddism, Islam, etc., but the one most famous to the English tongue is the Bible and its King James translation. A work that not only influenced Protestant Britain and later America, but the very fiber of the English language.

Holy or secular?

When does a book become holy, and at what point is it too holy or too religious to be considered an accurate source of history? Evolutionary anthropological theory would have us dispense with such sources as nothing more than a stage of development in which human origins are gussied up in mythical explanations.

Yet religionists demand that a text like the Bible be accepted as the very word of God. So, where do we start? Do we deny the existence or use of these resources, some thousands of years old, as off limits to the study of history? Do we take only these printed words as truth?

It’s basic really. If you want to know the plot of a mystery, do you stare at the cover and try to summarize what you think the author might have written? Or do you crack the cover and do the simple, intelligent thing and read it?

Read it, of course…

“And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the LORD. And you shall do no work on that same day, for it is the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God. For any person who is not afflicted in soul on that same day shall be cut off from his people. And any person who does any work on that same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall do no manner of work; it shall be a statue forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. It shall be to you a sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict your souls; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall celebrate your sabbath.” – Leviticus 23:26-32, New King James Version, The Holy Bible

If you celebrate the Day of Atonement may your observance of this historic day be filled with meaning and purpose.

Amanda Stiver

Roamin’ with the Romans

I recently acquired a thin volume called The Romans and their Empire, book two of the “Cambridge Introduction to the History of Mankind” edited by Trevor Cairns.

I have lamented my lack of detailed knowledge of the Classical world and I started to remedy that by reading a volume on the Athenian Navy. Rome was also in my sights, not unlike the Visigoths of old, and now, thanks to this little jewel of a book, I’ve begun to put Roman history in its place.

Little book, big info

What I like about this volume is its short length and the breezy way history is presented. I’m guessing the target audience is a 13-15 year old or an adult history novice. It doesn’t mire itself in boring analysis, but it does demand at least a working knowledge of past events. Expectation is a good thing, it makes us strive to achieve more, in this case filling our minds with the outline of human history.

The book is illustrated with photographs of ruins, reconstructed models of Roman life, maps, and some great little cartoonish illustrations of various events in Rome’s history. It goes by quickly, but is a rather nice outline of the Roman past from Republic to Dictators.

Wherever you Rome…

What I’ve learned so far is that Rome was founded back in the 700’s B.C. and developed its form of representative government around 510 B.C. Gradually it conquered and collected the various tribes around the Italian peninsula into a relatively cohesive smallish empire.

Apparently the Romans treated their subjugated peoples better than the Greeks had done. If you lost to Greece they could, on a bad day, kill your entire population, or maybe just the adult males, and on a good day simply sell you into slavery. The Romans were nicer, they didn’t kill you as they knew the value of positive relations and the wealth that functioning subjugated peoples could bring them.

The Romans even tolerated a certain amount of religious freedom, as long as you weren’t a troublesome Christian, Jew or a Celtic Druid. But alas, their republic couldn’t last forever, as it seems, can any modern republic of which we see evidence each day in the United States. As the empire expanded the power of the people shrank.

Et tu Rome?

In 46 B.C. Julius Caesar became Emperor of Rome, principal citizen, and dictator. The republic survived in form if not in deed. The senate could not thwart the will of the Emperor (more pity that) and for a while the arrangement worked as long as there was a series of good Emperors, but then they wound up with a whole slew of rotters and things got bad.

That’s the jist of the story. Good book, good resource, unfortunately out of print, but, or other booksellers probably have a used copy or two. If you want to develop a working outline of ancient Roman history without bogging down in excess information, this is your gateway. You can add the details later!

– Amanda Stiver

The Clive Cussler Effect: More Gateways to History

A while back I wrote a post about gateways to history. These are sneaky ways to get interested in history if you weren’t blessed with splendid history teachers.

It’s time to revisit. Specifically, fiction books.

How can fiction and history be mentioned in the same breath? Isn’t fiction more or less a mess of lies, accounts of things that never happened? And isn’t history, ideally, an account of things that did happen?

Yes, and yes, but fiction we are supposed to know is not true, and history, we are supposed to assume has been researched for veracity. So, how can the one be useful for exploring the other?

Fiction is fun and, for some, history is boring. Sad, but true, but if you use the fiction as a jumping off point, you get the benefit of the fun which will hopefully be carried along into the study of the history, thereby making it fun too!

The briny deep

Now for the Clive Cussler part. I just started reading Medusa, a mystery by Cussler and co-author Paul Kemprecos. The book is one of several in a series that feature the protagonist Kurt Austin, a tough, marine researcher and systems specialist.

As is often the case with Cussler books, the story begins with a flashback in history. In this case the whaling industry of the mid-19th century. Then in the present-day setting of the bulk of the book, reference is made to William Beebe and the bathysphere (submersible sphere) in which he launched himself in the 1930’s.

These are prime examples of history nuggets. They are the bits of accurate history that give a realistic touch to works of fiction. They are also history gateways.

I like to take these gateways when I’m working through a book like Medusa, do a little bit of my own research to further my store of historical knowledge. Sometimes I also want to make sure the author I’m reading is accurate, not all are as conscientious as Cussler and company.

So, the next time you pick up a piece of fiction, a favorite mystery or adventure, look for the history nuggets. If they strike your fancy, dig a little deeper, and as you travel to a different time and place in the past carry the fun with you and you’ll discover that history can be a blast!

– Amanda Stiver

Praising John Adams

The U.S. had its fair share of kingmakers and quasi-aristocrats in its early years, but the venerable John Adams seems not to have been among them. That didn’t stop his opponents from labeling the force behind the Declaration of Independence a royalist!

From a farm in Braintree, Massachusetts and working as a lawyer in Boston and environs, Adams stood up for what was right and faced down those with whom he disagreed, most vociferously at times and sometimes to the annoyance of others – many others.

However, an aristocrat he was not and seemed not to have been riddled by the double standards that plagued Jefferson and others. He is fast becoming one of my favorite patriots of the revolutionary period.

I draw these conclusions from the masterful biography, John Adams, written by David McCullough. I know that it doesn’t do to rely only on one book to try to understand an historical figure, but I was struck by the fairness of McCullough’s approach to Adams, his friends, and his enemies.

The author treats his subjects as men with all their flaws, but doesn’t deny that they were extraordinary men in extraordinary times. Especially touching is the skillful way he weaves in the relationship between John and Abigail Adams and that of their extended family. Their vast letter writing capacity despite years and years of separation proves that a happy marriage isn’t based solely on the physical, but requires a strong intellectual attraction as well.

I strongly recommend this book as a basic primer on Adams. McCullough’s very approachable style of writing turns a somewhat lengthy book into a compelling page-turner. If you are trying to sink your teeth into history, this is a good place to start. I will admit that it slows as the narrative follows Adams life to its close, but perhaps that is because the 1770’s in America were so packed with action that the 1820’s seem placid in comparison.

For the interested historian John Adams is a fabulous resource of excerpts from letters and written works by Adams and others. A good author knows how and when to use a source directly rather than a paraphrase and this book is proof of that. Hearing the subject in his own words helps us draw a better picture of the man, more so because Adams was a straightforward individual (agree with him or not) and free of rank political duplicity.

Great book, great man, great marriage – great history.

– Amanda Stiver

Living like it’s 1873

Not long ago I finished A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird. The book covers her remarkable travels as an Englishwoman in the nineteenth century American West.

Bird was subject to ill health and traveled, as many did at that time, to different climates to restore her strength. Among other places she also visited Hawaii as well as Canada, Japan and China. In this case Bird was on a trip to reach Estes Park, Colorado.

Her journey begins at Lake Tahoe and she travels east from there into Colorado. Given the strictures of the time she was unusual as an independent woman who traveled alone and un-chaperoned through vast prairies and mountainous regions. With the exception of a few close calls she remained quite safe. After her return she compiled letters written to family into a journal of her travels and published it for sale.

The narrative is full of action and moves quickly, so it is a worthy read if you are interested in doing a little time travel and getting some firsthand experience in the “old west.”

Word pictures

Two things stand out from the book. First, is Bird’s ability to use language to describe her surroundings. The book is un-illustrated, but I was surprised at how little I missed photographs or maps. Her descriptions are precise and show a facility of language usage that is completely lacking these days.

Here are a few samples:

“The stars were intensely bright, and a well-defined auroral arch, throwing off fantastic coruscations, lighted the whole northern sky. Yet I was only in the Foot Hills, and Long’s glorious Peak was not to be seen (p. 229, Comstock Editions, INC., 1987).”

Who uses the word “coruscations” these days? (It means “sparklings and glitterings,” by the way.)

“Long’s Peak, 14,700 feet high, blocks up one end of Estes Park, and dwarfs all the surrounding mountains. … By sunlight or moonlight its splintered grey crest is the one object which, in spite of wapiti and bighorn, skunk and grizzly, unfailingly arrests the eyes. From it come all storms of snow and wind, and the forked lightnings play round its head like a glory. It is one of the noblest of mountains, but in one’s imagination it grows to be much more than a mountain. It becomes invested with a personality (pp.78-79).”

I know that a picture can speak a thousand words, but words like these can speak a thousand pictures!

At your leisure…

Secondly, the descriptions of life at this time in American (and British) history fill a need-to-know of mine. When I sit down in the evening to watch a television show or movie I sometimes ponder at the passivity of my modern habits. It doesn’t take much intellectual stimulation to watch a video (which is sometimes the point after a busy day), but on the other hand, how much of the human brain do we leave inactive for the sake of “entertainment.”

The following quote from the book gives a hint at the kind of end-of-day events common in the early 1870’s:

“After that we all sit in the living room, and I settle down to write to you, or mend my clothes, which are dropping to pieces. Some sit round the table playing at eucre, the strange hunters and prospectors lie on the floor smoking, and rifles are cleaned, bullets cast, fishing flies made, fishing tackle repaired, boots are waterproofed, part-songs are sung, and about half-past eight I cross the crisp grass to my cabin, always expecting to find something in it [based on a previous encounter with a skunk] (pp. 108-109).”

Life was not a piece of cake and leisure time was at a minimum. If you wanted to hear music, you sang it. If you wanted amusement, you played cards. Otherwise you were busy repairing your equipment.

Travel by book – I highly recommend this volume as your personal tour guide into the past!

My Kingdom for a Ship

A Short History of Athenian Naval Wars

From about 506 B.C. onward until 322 B.C. the Greek city-state of Athens was in a nearly continuous state of making war or preparing for it. And lest I single them out, so were the rest of the Greeks as well as the Persians and generally most of the occupants of the Mediterranean shores.

To help you locate it, here is an image of the cover.

According to John R. Hale’s Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy the Peloponnesus, that peninsula that juts into the Mediterranean and which is connected to the Greek mainland by a narrow slip of land called the Isthmus of Corinth, was embattled with internecine wars, primarily between the Athenians and the Spartans (of 300 fame).

Oddly, these two archenemies could also be allies if the need arose. When the Persians to the East decided to wage a campaign to increase their imperial holdings in Mediterranean Greece, the two allied against Kind Xerxes. This led to the famous Spartan loss at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. followed in concert by the victorious Athenian naval battle of Salamis in the same year. At Salamis the Greeks wailed on the Persians and rendered their fleet useless.

Athens rules the waves

Hale explains that Athens was a significant naval power from this point onward until the rise of Alexander the Great, and the ensuing Macedonian empire (322 B.C.). They policed the Mediterranean and brokered deals with various city-states, receiving tributes of silver or gold for protecting harbors and ships on the sea. Athens invested in its navy by building a fleet of the state-of-the-art ship of the day – the trireme.

This vessel, originally a product of Phoenicia, was 120 feet long, powered by rowers on three tiers (hence trireme) in the hold. The Greeks added a top deck that could double as a troop carrier for marines. It was guided by a steersman and commanded by a trierarch. It was the kind of ship that worked well on calm seas but was useless in inclement weather when swelling seas could pour water into the oar ports and swamp the ship.

I’ll have my say…

The author of Lords of the Sea contends that because the ships relied on significant manpower the less wealthy individuals who risked their lives to row their superiors in the Athenian class system (the steersman and trierarchs) to and from battle wanted and had the leverage to demand a voice in the Athenian assembly. This resulted in eventual suffrage and leadership roles for all citizens of Athenian society, regardless of wealth.

The investment of funds and lives in the Athenian navy meant that those who served, every male citizen, had a say in the governing of the city. This was the motivating force for democracy in this place, at this time in history. It did not, however, mean that Athens was the ideal democracy.


The Athenians grew, through alliances with other city-states and the tribute paid to them, into an imperial power. If your city-state angered or defected from the league you were subject to the wrath of Athens, generally wholesale massacre of all citizens in your city. If Athens didn’t get enough tribute from its allies it would also resort to pillaging and piracy to gather the extra funds from enemies and allies alike.

Occasionally the democracy would even turn self-destructive. After one famous victory against the Spartan navy at the Battle of the Arginusae Islands in 406 B.C. six of its victorious generals were executed for failing to pick up the bodies of the dead from the sea because of bad weather despite their overall success in the battle. One of these generals was Pericles, the son of Pericles, the great man of Athens.

Athens had a democracy, but it also had great men of vision who guided the democracy: Themistocles, Pericles, Socrates, and others. However, without these men who could think into the future, Athens struggled.

Hale’s writing is easy to read, but the book is a little battle heavy as one reviewer put it. It gives a clear analysis of Athens and its naval ambitions, and really, much of the rest of Greece during their heyday just prior to the ascension of Alexander the Great and the Macedonians.

What’s in a name?

Here’s an experiment in the obvious: take a map of the world and read the names of countries in any one of the continents… Britain, Germany, France, Spain… China, Japan, Korea… Zimbabwe, Sudan, Nigeria… America, Canada, Mexico…

See how easy it is to roll right over them?

This is what I mean; we are attuned to ignore the obvious (Sherlock Holmes would be proud of this deduction). But every once in a while we turn our head, squint our eyes and suddenly a word we have read or typed hundreds of times looks like a foreign language to us.

Why is that?

I’m an English speaker, and I can cope with French, but I can’t easily read Middle English. Yet many of the words I use on a daily basis are mutants of the English linguistic past – let alone the influence of German, Spanish, Latin, Greek, Gaelic and Hebrew among the many other languages that contribute to modern English.

America, Amerigo, and Ap Meric

Yesterday I picked up a book that I had read a few years ago, The True Story of How America Got Its Name by Rodney Broome. It’s an interesting volume and as I skimmed it, I got to thinking about the many variations of the origin of “America,” as an appellation for the continent.

Nearly everyone has heard of Amerigo Vespucci, and how a friendly mapmaker gifted his first name to the continent. Well, maybe – but why use a first name, usually reserved for royals, when surnames were the norm for everyone else?

So Broome supposes that maybe it wasn’t Vespucci’s first name, but someone else’s last name on the map. Interestingly, Vespucci was on board a Spanish ship with an aggressive captain who readily attacked English vessels. At the same time an English vessel disappeared, carrying the famous explorer John Cabot in whose possession was a map illustrating the American continent and inscribed with the name of Richard Amerike (or Ap Meric, as it is in Welsh).

Call in NCIS, this has the makings of a mystery! Did the map change hands? Was Amerike’s surname on the map first? Could be.

America, by any other name…

If you search far enough there are a number of other origins for the name “America” that pop up.

Some claim that the Scandinavian Norsemen who came exploring the American continent in pre-Colombian times brought with them a phrase for this new western land, “Ommerike” that sounds roughly like America.

Other possibilities suggest the Mayans had a similar sounding phrase for their lands.

So what’s the truth?

Names that sound similar and move from one language to another can become mixed and “owned” by both cultures. Imagine the interesting spelling variations you can get from an answering machine if the caller’s voice isn’t clear!

In my opinion there is validity to the connection to Richard Ap Meric. As Broome contends, maps were precious at that time in history, particularly in areas previously unexplored by Europeans. If Mr. Vespucci got a hold of it, why wouldn’t he want to cash in on a similar sounding name? After all, exploring the new world was all about finding gold, glory and gathering fame back home!

The possibilities have merit… or is that Meric?