Sunday, April 06, 2008

A Little Learning

There has never been a better time to be an auto-didact. Or to be into dilettantish dabbling. A few weeks ago I decided I ought to learn a little about Roman history. It has been almost too easy. So far I've watched some DVDs, done some reading online and off, and listened to some online audio.

I highly recommend The Roman Empire in the First Century, a PBS documentary from 2002, readily available on DVD from Netflix. This is an excellent introduction to its subject. It gives you the emperors and some stuff going on in Rome and its empire (including those pesky people in Judea), in enough detail to be interesting but not so much you feel as if you're being buffetted over the head with information. After watching this you will remember all the emperors covered, the order of their reign, and a little something about them. What more can you ask from a documentary?

There are a lot of other documentaries on various aspects of Roman history. There's no way I can watch them all, but I enjoyed Colosseum: A Gladiator's Story as light viewing. This 2003 BBC program takes the novel tack of inventing a fictional, but typical gladiator to follow as it teaches a bit about gladiator life and the building of the colosseum. (Mostly fictional, anyway; they imagine the life that might have existed for an actual fighter whose fight at the Colosseum's inaugural games was described in detail by a witness.) This works pretty well, although I found I wanted more information, especially about weapons and fighting. I did learn a couple of things, though--did you know that gladiators usually survived arena combats, because the sponsor had to reimburse the gladiators' master if any were killed due to a thumbs-down?--and the eye candy was nice. As a bonus feature, the DVD included another story-style documentary on The Last Days of Pompeii; nothing too new on it, but it did have some interesting information along the lines of boiling blood and brains and such. I've a couple more documentaries in my Netflix queue but I don't think I'll find anything better than The Roman Empire in the First Century. Something more than cursory on Roman battle tactics would be great, though.

Along the fiction side of the DVD aisle, Netflix has the Complete Shakespeare Plays version of Julius Caesar available for instant download viewing, as well as rental. I watched this (admittedly while doing something else that took up too much of my attention) and found it a competent production. I may watch it again and dig out my old VHS of the Brando version and maybe another version of this play. I also plan to re-watch the 1974 television version of Antony & Cleopatra which I enjoyed a couple of years ago, and maybe rent another version for comparison. (Attention Star Trek fans: the 1974 one has Patrick Stewart as Enobarbus, or as my husband puts it in these situations, "Captain Picard is playing in the Holodeck again".) I think it goes without saying that Shakespeare, like other dramatists, never let historical fact get in the way of a good story, and that's assuming he had good information to start with; as with any Shakespeare history play, I recommend checking what Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare has to say if you find yourself wondering about something historical--Asimov's work has the advantages of being easily available and having the information you want all in one place.

As for other fiction DVDs, I've heard nothing but praise for it, so I'm planning to give HBO's Rome a go before long. Also in my queue is Shakespeare's Coriolanus, which I've never before seen, only read. For anyone who hasn't seen it already, I again recommend I, Claudius.

An increasing number of universities have lectures available online; there is a list available here. I am currently listening to a Berkeley course on the Roman Empire; I would be further along, but I paused to catch up my reading up to where the course is. I also just started listening to a BBC 4 history program called The Roman Way. (I don't know how much longer this program will be left up, so if you're interested you should try it now.)

As for reading, aside from a few webpages and a small account in a Penguin world history book, I've stuck to Will Durant's Caesar and Christ. And I can not recommend it highly enough. Why didn't I find this when I was a teenager? I know Durant is not without his critics, but the man can write--something that can not be said about every writer of history. The history just flows along, and reading it in bed at night, just before sleep and already sleepy, I've found myself so interested at the end of a section that I've said, "just one more section" and kept reading for another two or three sections. I picked this up thinking I'd only read the Caesar half, not the Christian half, but now I think I'll read it all; I had to force myself to stop near the end of the first century a couple of nights ago so that I can now catch up on my audio lectures. (I want to stagger the two, for memory reinforcement--never an issue when I was young, but alas age makes fools of us all.)

I am now sorry I did not decide to start my little history program with the Greeks so I could have enjoyed Durant's The Life of Greece first. Well, there's always later; and actually, I did back up in historical time and insert a couple of pre-Roman documentaries into my DVD viewing, because I found a couple that looked really good--The True Story of Alexander the Great and Last Stand of the 300; I recommend both, but especially the latter. But for now I'm sticking with the Romans, as they were only supposed to be a few weeks of dabbling before I finally started my long thought about episode of focused reading on the Middle Ages.

I am not sure what non-fiction reading other than Durant I'll do on the Romans. There is a great deal of Roman writing available online, either free for the googling or free if you happen to have university library access, but I'm a dabbler. I'll probably dip into a few library books and call it done. (For now; this could be a lifelong interest.)

As for fiction, I may pull out my Ovid. I have a thrift store paperback called Gods and Legions I haven't read yet. From the local library, I'll probably try Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series. Some years back I read a couple of Steven Saylor's Gordianus the Finder novels, which are set in Cicero's day. (This was on the recommendation of Orson Scott Card, whose book recommendations have never steered me wrong; I strongly recommend his recommendations.) I note that Saylor has a new novel called Roma available at the local library that seems to be a sort of history of Rome herself, and, as the Gordianus novels proved enjoyable enough, I plan to try Roma.

My point here, other than to provide a few recommendations of enjoyable things, is that we in the industrialised world have tons of resources available. And so readily, easily, and cheaply available that it requires almost no effort at all to acquire a smattering of knowledge about subjects that are far removed from us in time and space. We take it for granted, but it is a wonderful thing. We did not have these resources in such abundance twenty years ago. Twenty-five years ago I was a teenager who would have given anything to have access to the internet, audio of foreign radio history programs and lectures at universities I could never afford to attend, DVD documentaries, the History Channel. I would have killed just to have had access to a good, let alone great, public library. A thrift store book section would have thrilled me. I had to make do with Mississippi public television and whatever books I happened across at garage sales. A teenager in my area fifteen or twenty years before didn't have that much. But a rural teenager today has the whole of the internet at his disposal. What a shame it would be to waste it on nothing but MySpace pranks and porn.

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