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Friday First Edition
Reading recs: "Messalina," "A Spy Alone," "The Guns of August"
With the PREVAIL podcast on hiatus until December 1, I thought I’d share some of the terrific books I’ve read over the past few weeks:
Messalina: A Story of Empire, Slander and Adultery (Head of Zeus, 2023)
Happily, it’s not just men who think about the Roman Empire. In this tour de force, Cargill-Martin brilliantly reconstructs the life of Messalina—the (allegedly) nymphomaniacal wife of Claudius, uncle to Caligula and the fourth emperor of Rome—drawing from every available ancient source, putting to rest the rumors of Messalina’s insatiable and depraved sexual appetites, and showing us what really happened.
The empress was just the second woman to fill that role, after the great Livia—Tiberius did not have a functional helpmate and Caligula’s sisters and wives did not endure long enough to make much of an impact—and the first who was a young woman. In many ways, Messalina was establishing just what it meant to be wife to the emperor: how much power she actually possessed, how she could wield it, and how she could live her life of both unrivaled opulence and certain doom. Beautiful, smart, savvy, and ambitious, she was able to use her ample charms and feminine wiles to bend Claudius—and, thus, Rome—to her will.
When she died in her late 20s—slain by a Praetorian Guardsman after proving unable to turn the blade on herself—Messalina suffered damnatio memoriae: Statues of her were destroyed, coins with her portrait gauged, her name stuck from public records. All that remained of her were scathing histories by jealous, petty men—incels of centuries past, basically. Juvenal, in particular, loathed her, and probably cooked up the scandalous rumor of the empress moonlighting as a common brothel prostitute. It was pure slander, intended to smear her, and it worked: for centuries, her name has been a metonym for nymphomaniac.
Messalina is a masterful book that manages to roll out historical fact and original expert analysis while reading like a novel. (As far as I know, it is the first serious book of history that uses the word “fuck.”) It came to my attention when I was writing the “Rome, Rome on the Brain” parody, recommended on Instagram by a guy who dresses up on the regular as a Roman soldier. Without even trying, Cargill-Martin also answers the question: why do today’s men think about Ancient Rome so frequently? Because Rome is the most patriarchal of patriarchal societies:
Rome believed itself to have been a city founded almost entirely without women. The story goes that the ultimate ancestor of the Roman people, Aeneas, was born not to a mortal woman but to Venus, and the city’s mythological founders, Romulus and Remus, were suckled not by their own mother but by a she-wolf. The original male population of the city was said to have been entirely male—made up of brigands and escaped slaves—a situation rectified only by the mass abduction of women from the neighboring Sabine people. . . .
The mental gymnastics required to erase the political, social, and even the biological role of women so completely from their foundation myths tells us something of Roman attitudes to the public role of the feminine. The story of the Sabine women perhaps encapsulates it best: women were crucial to the continuation of the city’s population, but Rome as a body politic had already been established in complete and functioning form before their arrival.
No wonder Rome is idealized by the Red Pill/Jordan Peterson types, not to mention the “red Caesar” proponents, who are terrified by the innate power all women possess: it is the idealized penis-centered society they long for.
In actuality, of course, women wielded tremendous power in Rome, even if that power was mostly expressed behind the scenes. There is no Caesar Augustus without Livia. There is no Severan Dynasty without Julia Domna. There is no Justinian without Theodosia. There is no Alexios I Komnenos without Maria of Alania, as I wrote in my novel Empress: The Secret History of Anna K. And there is no Claudius without Messalina.
Suck it, Juvenal.
A Spy Alone (Canelo Action, 2023)
As a literary-minded guy with a podcast, I am on the mailing list of any number of book publicists. Indeed, some of the best guests on PREVAIL were recommended to me this way. So it was that this delightful debut spy novel found its way to my desk.
Our hero, Simon Sharman, a retired spook, stumbles into a plot involving a Russian oligarch (he’s British, after all, and it’s called Londongrad for a reason), a web of offshore accounts, and an apparent foreign spy ring at Oxford, of all places. Is this what he thinks it is?
I’m a fan of the genre, not least because its exemplars—Greene, le Carré, Fleming—are such good writers. These are big shoes to fill, and Beaumont proves more than capable of filling them. The best spy novels give us an inside glimpse into the world of espionage, showing us the challenges inherent to professional deception, and hipping us to the ugly complexities of global political power. Good spies are masters of the mindfuck, which makes them all the more susceptible to being mindfucked themselves—perfect grist for a novel. Beaumont in his smart and highly entertaining maiden effort keeps with this literary tradition, but updates it to the here and now.
The Guns of August (Random House, 1962)
Barbara W. Tuchman
I picked up this paperback at the Elting Library Book Fair a few weeks ago. Tuchman won the Pulitzer Prize for this work, which is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve ever read. The titular August is in the year 1914, when the major European powers, stupidly determined to go to war, set in motion the events that would lead to what we now know as World War I. The Guns of August is about those powers, the men who called the shots, the battle plans they refused to change, and the horrible consequences of their obduracy.
Although I finished reading The Guns of August a few days ago, I’m still marveling at the achievement. To produce this book, Tuchman read from every primary source she could get her hands on (there are quite a few); reconstructed the timelines down to the hour; cross-referenced what was happening in France with what was happening in Germany with what was happening in Russia and so on; studied the troop movements and the maps and the terrain and the casualties and the weapons and the ranks and titles of the various individuals to such a degree that she sounds like she was a military background; presented every character, from the king to the commanders-in-chief to the various generals in the field, richly and memorably; understood and articulated who was right and who was wrong, where the mistakes were made, and the ramifications of those mistakes; developed an overarching view of the war; and—as if all of that weren’t enough—wrote all of this with inimitable flair. Every other page contains a quote-worthy line. The intellect, the wisdom, and the creativity it takes to do something like this is just staggering. As a writer, I am in awe.
Tuchman also upends much of what I thought I knew about the Great War. The assassination of the Archduke is incidental; while Princip’s gun was the starter pistol for the hostilities, if it hadn’t been that that kicked off the war, it would have been something else, and indeed almost was. Serbia is incidental. Austro-Hungary is incidental. The much-ballyhooed “entangling alliances” certainly precipitated matters, but those alliances, even the obvious ones like England-France, proved in practice to be less durable than what I was led to believe.
What happened, really, is that the Kaiser, Wilhelm II—ambitious, flighty, and painfully insecure beneath the ridiculous Brooklyn-hipster moustache—was so convinced France was going to invade Germany that he had Germany invade France pre-emptively. While miffed at having to surrender Alsace-Lorraine in 1871, France had no intention of invading Germany. There was no French equivalent to the Kaiser, pacing the halls of Versailles exhorting the generals. France was run by a democratic government in constant flux, more concerned with domestic affairs than the ridiculous king of the Germans. The only thing that might have stopped the war—and this is me saying this, not Tuchman—is if some Bavarian Princip turned up in Berlin in the spring of 1914 and took out Kaiser Wilhelm. As it was, “Willy” survived, and Germany mobilized for war.
The war plan developed by Germany—the Schlieffen Plan—was slavishly adhered to with German precision and attention to detail. The smallish left wing of the army would engage France at the border; the larger right wing would detour through neutral Belgium, swoop down into northern France, and envelop the enemy. The French plan—Plan 17—called for the big offensive to be at the border, where the Germans were weakest. What this meant is that as the Germans were advancing counterclockwise from 12 o’clock, the French were advancing, also counterclockwise, from 4 o’clock.
The Schlieffen Plan would almost certainly have worked—it almost did regardless—but for one pesky detail: Germany assumed that Belgium, a neutral country with a miniscule army and no reputation for toughness, would simply stand aside and allow its troops to enter unmolested. This proved a fatal miscalculation. Led by young King Albert, a relatively new monarch, the Belgians refused to do this. They fought the Germans with everything they had; even their civilians would take pot-shots at the advancing troops. The Germans had to spend time fighting back, brutalizing the population, laying waste to Belgian towns and villages, mass-executing civilians, feeding the great medieval library at Louvain to the flames—all while insisting that everything they did was very legal and very cool, because it was France who violated Belgian neutrality. This turned world opinion against Germany—reading the book now, Albert struck me as Zelenskyy-ish—and put them so far behind schedule that they could not recover.
The First World War is a collection of “what-ifs.” As Churchill put in, in a quote Tuchman uses as an epigram to the book, “The terrible Ifs accumulate.” In the last chapter, she writes:
Other “ifs” accumulate. If the Germans had not committed too much strength to the attempt at double entrapment by the left wing, if the right wing had not outrun its supplies, if [German general] Kluck had stayed level with Bülow, if, even on the last day, he had marched back across the Marne instead of forward to the Grand Morin, the decision of the Marne might have been different and the six-week schedule for victory over France achieved—might have been, that is, except for the first and decisive “if”: if the six-week schedule itself had not been based on a march through Belgium. Quite apart from the effect upon the war as a whole of bringing Britain in, and the ultimate effect on world opinion, the addition of Belgium as an enemy reduced the number of German divisions that came up to the Marne and added five British divisions to the Allied side.
The first Battle of the Marne, which represents the climax of The Guns of August, was fought in September of 1914. It took over four years of fighting after that to end the war. Everything that followed—the gas attacks at Ypres, the smuggling of Lenin into Russia, Gallipoli and Verdun and Belleau Wood—flowed from the decisions made in the first five weeks of the war. Once committed to the opening moves, the chess board could not be altered.
We see echoes of this now, in Ukraine. It was assumed that Ukraine, like Belgium, would shy away from fighting; it did not. It was assumed that Zelenskyy, who before entering politics was a comedian and actor, would turn tail and flee; like King Albert before him, he did not. It was assumed that Zelenskyy would have no idea how to oversee a war; he did and does, also like Albert. The schedule drawn up by the Russians—Kyiv in three days!—wound up being ridiculous. And world opinion is as squarely behind Ukraine as it was behind Belgium in 1914.
The Ifs accumulate, and so do the bodies. There were some 20 million deaths in the First World War, more than half of them civilians. When it was over, the royal houses of the Hapsburgs, the Hohenzollerns, and the Romanovs were no more. The Ottoman Empire collapsed, setting the stage for all of the conflicts in the Middle East that rage on to this day. In the United States, President Wilson, a Democrat, oversaw the war effort masterfully, only to have his endeavors squashed by Congress—an early example of American proto-MAGA screwing things up. All of this horror came out of the initial actions of a Balkan assassin and a shithead Kaiser.
As Tuchman concludes: “Afterwards there was no turning back. The nations were caught in a trap, a trap made during the first thirty days out of battles that failed to be decisive, a trap from which there was, and has been, no exit.”
She wrote that 61 years ago, and it remains true.
Photo credit: Via Antoine Vasse Nicholas. Anonymes 1914-18- Bataille de la Marne - Septembre 1914, Plateau d'Etrepilly aux abords du cimetière-charge à la baionnette.
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