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New Review: The Emperor Gaius (Caligula) by J. P. V. D. Balsdon

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The Emperor Gaius (Caligula). (Caligula)The Emperor Gaius (Caligula). by John Percy Vyvian Dacre Balsdon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

John P. V. D. Balsdon wrote his comprehensive biography of Emperor Gaius in 1934. As a fellow at Exeter College of Oxford University, Professor Balsdon’s book is intended for a scholarly audience. While the thoroughness of the research is impressive, the book is definitely geared toward fellow scholars. Without a mastery of Latin and Ancient Greek, several passages are unintelligible. Mr. Balsdon presents several ideas in the original Latin or Greek and provides no explanation of what they mean. He expects his readers to be familiar with ancient concepts already. Further, due to the age of the work and its British origin, some of the language used is unfamiliar to modern American readers. Likewise, some of the grammar and punctuation is not in line with common usage now.

Compounding the language barriers is the awkward organization of Professor Baldson’s treatise. The biography begins with Emperor Gaius’s predecessor, Tiberius. Balsdon intersperses his discussion of Emperor Tiberius with the story of Gaius’s childhood. In that discussion, Gaius’s father, Germanicus, is also covered. From this opening chapter, the biography moves into the first three years of Gaius’s reign as emperor. After covering the first three years, Professor Balsdon narrows the book’s focus to the young emperor’s activities in Germany and Gaul. His campaign against the barbarians is discussed in some detail. The next chapter details the many conspiracies against Gaius (some real, some imagined), his eventual assassination, and the ascension of his uncle to the head of the empire. Inexplicably, the next chapter of Balsdon’s biography is devoted to Gaius’s treatment of the Jewish population in Judea and of the Diaspora. Rounding out the book are two general assessment chapters. The first focuses on the emperor’s government and administrative skills: the last on his character.

Despite these substantial shortcomings to the average reader, Professor Balsdon’s book has a few notable bright spots. First is a fold-out family tree, showing the complex branches of the Julio-Claudian line. Second is a detailed time line of the major events of Emperor Caligula’s life. The biography also contains a fourteen-and-a-half page index: quite thorough, even for a scholarly work. The three appendices expand or clarify information presented in the text proper. Appendix C, in particular, carries a comprehensive discussion of the primary and secondary sources of information on Gaius’s life.

In all, Professor Balsdon presents a clear, objective, scholarly assessment of Caligula’s birth, life, and death. Some questions about Gaius will remain shrouded by time, but for those who think they know the story of Caligula, Balsdon’s biography answers many previously unknown questions and dispels many of the more outlandish rumors perpetrated by his detractors. For the serious scholar, Professor Balsdon provides an intense examination. For the casual reader, however, the biography may be difficult to comprehend.

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New Poem: “The Soft, Cool Blanket of Night”

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For the record, I love ancient Greek┬áliterature/ mythology. I read Oedipus Rex for what has to be at least the twentieth time the other day. I started reading it again mostly because I wanted to double-check the spelling of “Tiresias,” but once I started, I had to finish the story. Of course, I knew what was coming, but watching the tragedy unfold, seeing the inevitability of it, is what makes the story great.

For your reading pleasure, I present a poem that features some Greek mythological references. I hope you enjoy it. As always, your feedback is welcome and encouraged.

The Soft, Cool Blanket of Night

wrap me in the soft, cool blanket of night.
 
waning,
the moon peers down at me
like the heavy-lidded eye of some cyclops.
 
and if I be lost like poor Odysseus,
cloak me in the soft, warm wool of night.
 
and if my eyes fail me like old Tiresias,
stitch the cloth with the needles of the king,
and wrap me in the soft, cool wisdom of night.
 
and if the trees reach out for me
like the souls of the dead,
blanket me in the soft, cool mists of the Styx.
 
wrap me in the soft, cool blanket of night.