Archive for May, 2006|Monthly archive page

A guided tour of the last days of the Roman Empire

Review – Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic

History is an interest I have only lately acquired. I believe my interest in history began shortly after I wasn’t required to remember five salient points about the First Five Year Plan. But it has taken a good decade, and then some, for me to actively seek out and read an actual book of history [1].

OK. So much for the build-up – the book: Rubicon by Tom Holland. It covers the last 100 or so years of the end of the Roman Empire, with a focus on the latter half. Starting with Marius and Sulla, we’re given a quick guided tour of the expansion of the empire and the implications of this expansion. The good things about the tour include interesting snippets of information about the personalities involved – Julius Caesar used to be a “loose-belted” dandy in his youth; rich Romans were curiously obsessed with fish; Mark Antony might have been bisexual, and more in the same vein.

That the tour is “guided” ensures that one rarely lingers at some spot interesting only to a few – one is ushered along the timeline, from dictator to dictator, pausing only briefly at scenes of great battles (Carthage, Gaul, Alexandria) and civil wars (revolts caused or put down by Sulla, Spartacus, Cicero, Caesar (both Julius and Augustus)). At the end of this book, I felt a bit like coming off a road trip with my parents. I’ve seen all the places I’m “supposed” to have visited on a trip to XYZ town; all meals (strictly vegetarian) were eaten on time, no sleepless nights or mad rushes to the train station or airport… I feel I’ve “completed” something I set out to achieve, but there’s an unstated promise to myself to visit these places again someday, on my own, or with my friend J who abhors lists of all sorts.

Good things about Rubicon:

– It is a surprisingly fast read for a book that’s mostly about two thousand year old politicians and despots.
– It accomplishes all it sets out to achieve – which, I assume, is to give the layperson a chance to quickly understand the most important aspects of an entire civilization. I may act snooty about my parents’ preferred method of sight-seeing now, but traveling with a check list isn’t entirely without merit.
– It does not read like a text book. There are foot-notes, but you’re never in danger of losing yourself in asterisk marks and pluses and other assorted special characters. The language is not cumbersome or dry, which brings us to the not so great things about this book.

Tom Holland has a weird habit (weird for a historian, that is) of dropping any numbers of allusions all over the book. Here’re a few samples:

Sulla, first in consternation and then in mounting fury, retired to his tent.

It was Lucullus… who had first made the rumors of incest public. No smoke without fire-and there must have been something unusual about Clodius’s relations with his three sisters to have set tongues wagging.

Caesar would one day talk of rolling a die when he faced the gravest crisis of his life, and his taste for the metaphor must surely have derived from his childhood.

I appreciate Holland’s wanting to make ancient history sound less ponderous. But frankly, I’d prefer that he leave emoting to novelists and the outright guessing to super-market magazines. Holland is at his best when he states facts, and in this case, I strongly believe the facts are interesting enough to never really need the props that he so eagerly supplies.

The book covers considerable breadth, and understandably, that is achieved at a cost. If you’re the sort who loves to read about battle-ground tactics or the intricacies of political tap-dancing, prepare to be disappointed. Holland deals with such matters only cursorily. Be it Julius Caesar’s defeat of Vircingetorix or Pompey’s manipulations of the Senate in the months leading to Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon, there are any numbers of fascinating stories that receive no more than a passing mention here. Had I not been fortunate enough to have read a book and a half from Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series, I’d not know enough to miss these stories.

Bottom line: Rubicon is a good book for history neophytes like myself, whose knowledge of Rome is limited to information (at times gravely distorted) from Shakespeare, the odd Hollywood tent-pole, and Goscinny and Uderzo [2]. However, this is just the beginners’ course. Any extra credits on how little democracy has changed since the birth of the Republic; why despite all its ills, democracy still appears to be a lesser evil than the alternatives, and lessons, if any, for modern super-powers – you’ll have to do on your own.

[1] History disguised as travelogues, or sugar-coated as fiction; movies and documentaries that involve one or more of the following persons or entities are all classified under entertainment, not history: Tony or Ridley Scott, Jeremy Irons, Geoffrey Rush, either half of Brangelina, Eric Bana or anyone-who-looks-as-good-as-Bana in a mini skirt (forgive me, I meant to say toga / battle dress (whatever)), a major Hollywood studio, or a Major Hollywood Studio once removed (which plugs the HBO loop-hole).

[2] Whose most important insight into the Roman psyche is captured in those famous words: “Ils sont fous, ces Romains!” also known as “These Romans are crazy!”

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R.I.P. Hell no. At least not just yet… I hope…

1. To drive across a continent simply because I feel like a long drive some afternoon
2. To get so drunk that I don’t remember how drunk I was
3. To imagine that this person may be “the one”
4. To meet at least 10 such persons about whom I might imagine #3
5. To be young and silly and make memories that I can bore /embarrass my future family with

Tonight, I think I should just accept reality and lay all these ghosts of dreams past to rest. Why tonight of all nights? Because it’s 1 in the morning, and I just got home from a baby shower. An event for which I:
– cooked all afternoon [1],
– unscrambled words like basinet, bingo’d others like Moses Baskets, listed ones related to giving a baby a bath, and ten more around a bed-time theme
– missed standing week end crib calls with 2 girlfriends
– was asked to dress up “girly” and so wore pearls and a skirt, only to be told that I should wear pants more, and get earrings to match the pearls [2]
– combined the names of 2 sets of parents-to-be to come up with baby names
– played seemingly endless rounds of antakshri, only with baby names instead – with alternating rounds of boy names and girl names

Life seemed to be fine. When did my world get overrun by the married-with-kids mob? I realize that someday, I may decide to have a baby or two myself. Hell, someday, I may even decide to marry someone. But until I do, I don’t think I should hang out with married couples anymore. And especially not married couples with children, present or future.

If any of my married friends is reading this, please do not be offended. It’s not personal. I enjoy your company. But I feel like I’m bypassing single-dom. As rotten as life feels like at the moment, apparently, these are the best years of my life. There’s a 99% likelihood that I will get to your phase, but not just yet. For now, I just want you to accept that there is that 1% chance that I might not do all that I ought to do, or all that I’ll end up doing anyways.

Somewhere between talk of whose parents are arriving when, fixing up car seats, and onesies and layettes [3], I woke up and didn’t recognize my life any more. Is this the dirty secret behind what happens to single people? One day, you realize that you’re living the life of a married person any way (attending baby-showers, cooking for “intimate soirees” for 25 friends, discussing housing prices, and having no sex), so why not go all the way? The next thing you know, you are married and find that life isn’t so bad after all, because it hasn’t really changed all that much.

I need to get a tattoo, a DUI, something, anything to remind myself that I am NOT married. For when it comes to marriage and children, it ain’t over till you actually buy one of them baby walkie-talkie thingummies.

[1] OK, so I made one dish. But tomato rice for 13 people isn’t exactly like turning up with a bag of chips.
[2] That has nothing to do with babies, but I am in the mood for ranting, so let’s not quibble.
[3] On the minuscule chance that you’re single, you’re probably hearing these terms for the first time. I’m not going to explain what these things are. Hold on to your innocence for a few hours more. Cherish it.

Snarky new blog

Karthik & Manoj have a snarky new blog. This one’s dedicated to Indian movies. Some guys are gluttons for punishment, but as long as they amuse the rest of us with updates about their movie adventures, I don’t feel too badly for them.

PS: All this cross-promotion makes me feel as if I am Unilever. But that’s what synergy’s all about.

Why I love those who love sports

I never realized till today how grateful I am to sports fans. OK, not all of them, but at least to the sports enthusiasts among my friends. Let me illustrate with 2 examples.

Sports fans:
Last Sunday, I found myself trapped in a house with 3 basketball fans. Never a good thing, that, especially this time of the year [1]. As luck would have it, a game was on, and I amused myself by waiting for the beer ads and browsing the internet on my laptop in the time between ad breaks. Once in a while I’d engage the one person who cared to listen to me, till the other two figured that the team (I believe it was the Lakers) they were rooting for scored better whenever we were talking. We were given strict instructions to continue talking, which of course ensured that I suddenly had nothing to talk about.

At some point, even I had to admire their childish enthusiasm for this game. And feeling like the aunt who offers to take you to the circus, and filled to the brim with goodness and tolerance, I made the ‘grand gesture’ – offered to go watch a game with them, featuring the local team, whatever it was [2].

Readers, OK – me.
In my experience, the best tele-evangelist can’t hold a candle to a reader [3]. We, and by that I mean readers, are constantly guilt-tripping ourselves and others into reading something or the other. If I had one Andorran Peseta [4] every time I’ve heard the words “you must read this”, “you’ll love it”, “no Indian authors, shame on you!”, and my personal favorite – “you’ll hate it, but you must read it”, I’d be richer than Crassus. Yesterday, I read the new Jhumpa Lahiri story. My first action was to email the story to select friends. They don’t know this, but they’re part of a pet project of mine. You see, I’m trying to save their souls. I’m doing this through the administration of frequent infusions of great writing. Great according to me, of course. And because I care about them, I’ve designed an easy to follow (also according to me) 7-stage process.

Stage 1: Reading emails with paragraphs.
Stage 2: Any article of 300 words or less
Stage 3: Fiction, happy / Humor. Samples include shorter pieces by David Sedaris, James Thurber and the like. (for those whose palate is not yet strong enough for Brokeback Mountain and the like)
Stage 4: Fiction, sad, but not too sad. Think Jhumpa Lahiri.
Stage 5: Fiction, with abstract elements. Like Haruki Murakami.
Stage 6: A whole novel.
Stage 7: This is the toughest level, and a person will have arrived at this stage when he or she sends me something from NYRB, or better yet, from the Paris Review.

Graduation: The day they go to a library all by themselves and borrow ten or more books. I plan to photograph the moment, and keep the snap in my wallet, and bore every stranger with proud stories of my children, er, friends.

I ramble on, as always. To return to the Lahiri story – one of my friends emailed back. He said he’d enjoyed the story very much, and asked me who Jhumpa Lahiri was. Clearly, the New Yorker is as important to him as the Dallas Mavericks are to me.

I replied back somewhat contemptuously, but soon realized how his reaction was practically identical to my own from earlier in the week. I also recalled that although he’s a huge sports fan, not once has he sent me sports scores or whatever it is that those people send each other.

Friends and family have, at various points, tried to explain to me, the intricacies of football or cricket or some other game. I’ve never really paid attention. In turn, I’ve tried over the years to get them to read / worship various writers, newspapers, novels and magazines. I must admit that I’ve had a teeny bit more success than the sporting lot. Or these sports fans are better actors than they are evangelists. In either case, thank you – for letting me be, and for being more generous with me than I have been with you.

[1] Their playoffs” are on. If you’d wondered why this time of the year is relevant or don’t understand what a playoff is, can I join your hate-sports support group?
[2] Note to self: never kid yourself that you’re indulging someone else. My friends’ responded to this was a hoot of laughter (I happen to live in Dallas, which supposedly has a rather popular team) and the sort of look one gives children of 5 or below when they’ve said something particularly clueless and therefore amusing. They almost said those 2 incredibly offensive words ‘cho chweeet’. Then again, they didn’t have to – their look said it all.
[3] I do not include people who have the temerity to call themselves readers because they read a Tom Clancy novel 3 years ago or because they just can’t wait to get their hands on the latest issue of Woman’s Era.
[4] Why such fondness for an obsolete currency[5]? It had the least value against the dollar, as determined from a highly unscientific survey on oanda.com (1 US Dollar = 186.167 Andorran Peseta)
[5] And why the devil does oanda continue to list obsolete currencies? I found out the damn thing was obsolete only when I tried to hunt some more details about the country I should build my imaginary hacienda in!