In my literary tour of the ancient world, I've visited Iceland, Europe, the Middle East, India, and the Mediterranean, and I have plans to visit China (that will be next week's review, sort of). The perhaps obvious gaping holes in this journey are Africa and the Americas, which simply do not have the same ancient literary traditions as the other locations I've mentioned. I could be reading ancient Greek literature for the rest of the year at least, but even finding a single title authentic to the Americas (as opposed to a history of the region) was a challenge. Eventually, I stumbled across something called the Popol Vuh.
This is as much a history book as it is a science book, so it strongly appealed to my polymath tendencies (I should really write a post about the polymath/Renaissance Man concept). In fact, if I were going to teach an introductory course on thermodynamics, or wanted to introduce someone to the topic, I would highly recommend this book, rather than using a more traditional textbook.
Recently, I've been twitching for a more rigorous intellectual challenge for the science and engineering side of me, which has led to me researching the millennium problems, designing scientific experiments, and adding books like Eight Amazing Engineering Stories to my reading list. In other words, I was rather looking forward to this as an interesting and in-depth look at a selection of technologies and the stories of how they came to be. Unfortunately, it turns out that what I consider in-depth is a little different from what people writing a companion book for a series of YouTube videos considers in-depth; so yes, I have to admit that I found this book a little disappointing, and am glad that it only took me a couple of days to read, but that does not mean you should stop reading this review, or even that you shouldn't read the book. Let me explain.
I finally finished reading the collected works of Xenophon! It's true I don't use very many exclamation points, but considering that the first time I picked this up was more than five years ago, and finally sitting down and reading it took me almost a whole month, I think I'm allowed to make an exception to my own rule. Since I've already subjected you to a month and a half worth of Xenophon book reviews, I'm not going to include another overall review; that content will be included in this post, along with my reviews for the various minor treatises included in the Complete Works.
We wrapped up the last of Xenophon's historical works last week; this week we get to move into his Socratic works, the first of which is Memorabilia. Xenophon wrote this piece as a posthumous defense of his mentor and friend, to exculpate him of the crimes of which he was accused, and to generally exhibit his good character. While Plato's Dialogues get the most attention, Socrates had many other students and inspired many others, including Xenophon, to record vignettes and other writings pertaining to him, and I actually find Xenophon's Socratic writings preferable to the more famous Plato's.
While other works of Xenophon's have taken me a week or even longer to get through, I finished this one in just a night, and it wasn't even the only thing that I read that evening. Agesilaus is a biography of the titular Spartan king, and unlike Xenophon's "biography" of Cyrus the Great, is thought to be fairly accurate historically, if very brief, and somewhat biased. Where a modern biographer often goes out of his or her way to find "dirt" on their subject, highlighting their shortcomings and failures no matter how respected and revered a figure they might be, or how significant of feats they might have accomplished, it has been more common in history to write biographies that are meant to praise a figure and elucidate the person's admirable traits, that others might follow suit. Xenophon certainly falls into the latter category, and his effusive praise for Agesilaus renders him as a veritable paragon of virtue, representative of every admirable characteristic and quite devoid of any flaws of blemishes.
Since I don't listen to very many of these, I don't have a lot of basis for comparison, but one (and by one, I mean the only) podcast that I listen to more or less consistently is Dan Carlin's Hardcore History. I've alluded to it in review posts before for some of the historical works that I've read, but I decided it would be worthwhile to provide a genuine recommendation. Even if you're not interested in sitting down and actually reading something like Herodotus's Histories, you can still gain much of the knowledge and historical context from listening to these podcasts.
Continuing on through the collected works of Xenophon, we next have Hellenica, which much like Herodotus's Histories is intended as a historical narrative. This time, it picks up the account in 411 BCE, and covers about fifty years, to 362 BCE, which is apparently the year of the Battle of Mantineia. Apparently, it picks up the narrative thread of the Peloponnesian War immediately where Thucydides' history abruptly ends (which is also on my reading list, and I only know this because the information was conveniently included in the front of my translation of Hellenica), and may have been written just for his friends as a sort of historical "vanity" publication. Like The Ten Thousand, this is covering a topic to which Xenophon was a contemporary, so it is considered an important primary source, and hopefully has a bit more historical veracity than his not-really biographical treatment of King Cyrus, who founded the Persian Empire.
Literally, the title of this piece translates to "the education of Cyrus," though in truth only about the first book or two cover Cyrus's "education," while the others describe the rest of his life. This is meant as a sort of "how to" book on how to rule well, in the form of a biographical treatment of Cyrus, but unlike in The Ten Thousand, Xenophon is not here describing contemporary events, and many historians doubt that this is in more than the most general of ways an accurate depiction of Cyrus's life. Note: by "how to," I mean a book on how to rule as a semi-benevolent authoritarian dictator who is loved and feared by his subjects.
I've actually read this part before, but decided to re-read it in light of my recent reading of Herodotus's Histories, which covered the period about a hundred years or so before the events in The Ten Thousand, and provided a lot of valuable context for understanding what was happening in Xenophon's story. Unlike Herodotus, Xenophon is not writing about history in The Ten Thousand; he is writing a semi-autobiographical account of what happened to him and his companions during a campaign as mercenaries in a decidedly short-lived Persian civil war. Like Caesar in his Commentaries, Xenophon refers to himself in the third person, and the result is perhaps the most story-like and modern-seeming of all the ancient works that I've been reading recently. In fact, Conn Iggulden wrote a historical fiction novella primarily based upon the events in The Ten Thousand, and it was a very interesting experience to read that having already read its primary source.