Sunday, May 3, 2009

Eye Candy

The History of Civilization

Chapter Nineteen: The Rise of Macedonia

By the fourth century BC, the most powerful city-states of Greece were weakened by decades of war with one another. Persia maintained control over Greek affairs, especially on the Aegean coast. There was no need for the Persians to destroy the Greeks: they were destroying one another. The only barrier to a complete Persian victory was the rising power of Macedonia, Greece's neighbor to the north.

Macedonia was still mostly a barbarous country of hard-working but illiterate mountain folk. While Greeks elected political leaders who served for pre-appointed terms, Macedonian kings were despots who ruled with no legal limitations on their power. Political instability resulted: many Macedonian kings died in battle, and still more were assassinated by rivals.
Nor was there any public bureaucracy. The strong preyed on the weak, crime and gang violence were common. Although it used Greek as its official language, Macedonia contributed not a single author, artist, scientist, or philosopher to the Greek scene.

The kingdom of Macedonia itself was stabilized by a strong and charismatic king who was able to subdue the warring factions and organize the country's labor. He would soon turn his eye on Greece itself.

Philip II came to the Macedonian throne in 359 BC. Having lived in Greece for several years, he had developed some sense of culture and many military ideas. Like his famous son, he sometimes had a violent temper but was also prone to generosity. Unlike Alexander, he had a boisterous laugh and was fond of low-brow jokes. He liked boys, but liked women more and married several of them. He attempted monogamy, with Alexander's mother, but gave it up when she told him she's had sex with a god and he wasn't Alexander's true father.

In diplomacy, he was quick to break promises, but always ready to make more. He gave Macedonia its first truly professional army within a few years. With this force he was determined to unify Greece under his leadership and, together, cross the Aegean and drive the Persians out of Asia Minor.

At every step he found himself working against the Greek love of liberty. They simply didn't feel ready to have a tribal warlord with absolute power as a political leader.
To finance his campaigns he had sold thousands of captives, many of them Athenians, into slavery, and so lost the hearts and minds of the people. A small army was hastily organized under Demosthenes (shown right) in a desperate last effort to preserve the Greek empire and way of life. They met Philip's force on the plain of Chaeronea in 338 BC. Every one of its members died on the battlefield.

Demosthenes' Athenian army had fought bravely for a cause they dearly believed in, but they had waited too long and were not equipped to deal with so disciplined an army as the Macedonian.

The outcome of the Battle of Chaeronea was unexpected. The unity that Greece had failed to create for itself had been achieved, but only by the force of an outside invasion.
Philip was generous in victory, and offered the defeated Greeks an alliance. The purpose of this alliance was to create a united Greek army for an attack on Persia. Suddenly, Greece was revitalized, and ready to go on the offensive in its long and humiliating cold war with Persia. Philip was appointed to lead the assault, and was just about to depart for the first campaign when he was mysteriously assassinated in 336 BC.

Philip's son, Alexander, was idolized by the army and beloved by the royal court because of his handsome looks, athleticism, and polite manners. He had already participated in several military campaigns, and had led a crucial charge against the Greeks at Chaeronea for which he was widely acclaimed as a hero and a military genius. He seized the Macedonian throne without difficulty and, at the age of twenty, prepared to conquer the world.

To be continued...

For my previous posts on the History of Civilization, click here.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Eye Candy

The Road to Jerusalem

The Road to Jerusalem: Book One of the Crusades Trilogy
by Jan Guillou
$17.15 in the Hansisgreat Gift Shop
This is an exciting and easy to read new piece of historical fiction. It takes place in Sweden during the 12th century, in the middle of the Crusades.
Arn Magnusson is our story's young hero. Born into an aristocratic Swedish family, Arn seems touched by God from birth. As a boy he falls from a tower in his father's castle and is pronounced dead, only to be miraculously revived thanks to his mother's prayers and a promise that, if Arn lives, she will dedicate his life to God's service.
Soon Arn is sent to a monastery for training as an oblate (a boy monk). It's interesting that, although Arn has very little to say throughout the book, his character is still developed surprisingly well. The monks charged with instructing Arn quickly notice that he has some unusual talents: he's ambidextrous, for example. He also soon becomes a gifted archer and soldier while still keeping his monastic vows.
All this is set against the backdrop of the crusader army losing in the war for the Holy Land, as the Islamic empire reasserts is power over the cities on the Mediterranean coast. Additionally, war among the Scandinavian kings who are fighting for dominance brings added instability and intrigue to the story.
Guillou does a truly masterful job of explaining the history of the Crusades to those of us who are interested, but don't know too much about them. It's not a history book at all: entirely fiction, but it still manages to keep the facts straight.
We never get to the Holy Land in this first volume of the trilogy. Arn's talent for swordplay earns him a place in the hugely respected Knights Templar, whose mission is to protect religious pilgrims traveling from Europe to Jerusalem, so a visit to the blood soaked land of history's most disastrous war is imminent for volume two. The Road to Jerusalem takes place entirely in Europe, mostly in medieval Sweden, which is interesting in its own way: full of violence and intrigue while still outside the hotbed of European politics.
If you enjoy fiction about war and medieval history, you'll love this book. It's engaging from the first few pages, with frequent surprising plot twists and endless adventure. Arn is highly sympathetic as the male lead, with a terrific cast of supporting characters. Fans of the Da Vinci Code and its ilk are especially encouraged to check this one out.
The Road to Jerusalem offers the entire panoply of medieval Christendom: brave knights, treacherous royalty, pious monks, seductive maidens, and one of the most gruesome wars of all time. This is a surefire winner, certain to become the thrill-ride hit of the summer.