Casanova, aged 11, discovers wit

Giacomo Casanova

Giacomo Casanova

I’m reading The Story of My Life by Giacomo Casanova and arrive at the following event, which took place when the boy was eleven years old.

(And yes, this is part of the bibliography for my book. If you’re trying to figure out why, I leave, for the time being, the subtlest of hints here.)

Casanova was in his home town of Venice, with a group of people having supper. An Englishman, who was communicating with the Italians in Latin, which the educated were able to do in the Enlightenment era, wrote down a couplet for young Casanova to read:

Discite grammatici cur mascula nomina cunnus/Et cur femineum mentula nomen habet.

In English: “Tell us, grammarians, why cunnus (vulva) is masculine and mentula (penis) is feminine.”

Casanova announced that, rather than just translating the phrase, he would prefer to answer the question. So he wrote, in pentameter:

Disce quod a domino nomina servus habet.

In English: “It’s because the slave always bears the name of his master.”

“It was,” he says, “my first literary exploit, and I can say that it was from this moment that my love of the glory conferred upon literature began to germinate, for the applause brought me to the pinnacle of happiness.”

Later that evening, the priest charged with looking after him told him it was a pity that he could not publish the couplet or Casanova’s response.

“Why?”, Casanova asked.

“Because it’s smut. Still, it’s sublime. Let’s go to bed now and speak no more of it. Your response is extraordinary because you know neither the subject nor how to write verse.”

Casanova would catch up very soon.

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Sprezzatura in writing

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats

A line [of poetry] will take us hours maybe;

Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,

Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

William Butler Yeats, Adam’s Curse

I just came across this quote from Yeats in Robert Greene‘s The 48 Laws of Power. More specifically, in Law Number 30, which says (page 245):

Make your accomplishments seem effortless. Your actions must seem natural and executed with ease. All the toil and practice that go into them, and also all the clever tricks, must be concealed. When you act, act effortlessly, as if you could do much more. Avoid the temptation of revealing how hard you work–it only raises questions. Teach no one your tricks or they will be used against you.

Greene takes us through a Japanese tea ceremony, through Houdini’s vanishing acts and other artistic/aesthetic feats that would be ruined if the effort were visible.

The best word to describe the ideal is sprezzatura. Italians are better at it than most. It is “the capacity to make the difficult seem easy” and “a certain nonchalance which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless.”

It’s why Michelangelo, master of sprezzatura, kept his work-in-progress under wraps and would not allow even the pope to sneak a peek. Would have killed the magic.

Ease = Beauty = Power.

Writers strive for it. I do.

Here, by the way, is a sixteen-minute TED talk on “glamor,” where we discover that they key is…. sprezzatura!

Goldsworthy on The Punic Wars

And back again to the bibliography for my book.

We’re still in the “history” section, as opposed to the “biography” section, but we’ve mostly dealth with the ancient sources (Polybius, Livy and Plutarch). So now I’ll move into the modern writers.

Adrian Goldsworthy

Adrian Goldsworthy

If I had to choose just one book to give you a fun but thorough overview of Hannibal, it would be Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Punic Wars.

It’s actually a good idea to read the story of all three Punic Wars in one, because you can’t understand Hannibal’s war (the Second Punic War) without the other two. It would be as though a history student two-thousand years from now were trying to understand World War II without knowing anything about World War I or the Cold War.

Goldsworthy does a good job of minimizing the clutter (footnotes, parenthetical interruptions aimed at other academics and such) that usually makes academic books unreadable. He gives you great context. For instance, it’s probably not immediately obvious why sieges almost never worked in the ancient world (which is important, since Hannibal, at the crucial moment, decided not to lay siege to Rome). So Goldsworthy describes what it was like to attack and defend a city–all the tunneling and ramming and laddering and sulphur-smeared-javelin-hurling and so forth.

Being British, Goldsworthy also lets his sense of irony peek through on occasion, which brings relief. (Asked what his philosophy of life is, he tells his interlocutor here that “I’m English, so obviously do not have a philosophy.” That’s the sort of thing I mean.)

His more recent book is a biography of Julius Caesar, which I’ve also read and loved. But I’m forcing myself to leave Caesar out of my book because, as my wife has informed me, there are enough ancient dudes in it as it is.

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The father of biography



Let’s get back to the bibliography for my book.

Right now–while we’re still dealing with the ancient sources–I’m going through the texts in chronological order. And after Polybius and Livy, that brings me to Plutarch.

You recall that Herodotus was the father of history. Well, Plutarch must be the father of biography. Like Herodotus, Thucydides and Polybius, he was Greek. But Plutarch lived much later, in the first and second century AD–three centuries after Hannibal and Scipio. So I don’t use Plutarch because I think he has any scoops over Polybius, or more accurate information. Why, then, do I use (and love) Plutarch?

Because he was the first to take an interest in character. That’s what he wanted to capture: the characters of the great Greeks and Romans. For that he used the big events and deeds in their lives and, just as much, the tiniest but telling details. Occasionally, he may have stretched the facts a bit, but, hey, let’s relax about that and just enjoy.

In that respect, of course, Plutarch does exactly what I aspire to do in my book. I too want to capture how characters respond to success and failure, ups and downs.

Plutarch’s main work was his Parallel Lives (which we usually read in the John Dryden translation), in which he paired one great Greek with one great Roman. Alexander the Great, for instance, is paired with Julius Caesar, and so on.

Hannibal was neither Greek nor Roman, so we don’t have a Life with his name as title. But Hannibal, who is my main character, features prominently in several of Plutarch’s Lives: Fabius (who also plays a big role in my book), Marcellus (a Roman consul killed by Hannibal), Cato the Elder, Flamininus (conqueror/liberator of the Greeks and the man who finally hounded Hannibal into suicide).

Plutarch’s life of Pyrrhus, which I’ve quoted from, is one of my favorites, by the way.

The tragedy is that many of his lives are lost. And the loss that hurts most is, of course, the Life of Scipio, my other main character.

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Backlash moment

I’ve been flying a lot this week, on a route that GoGo now covers (see map). Each time at the gate, a male-female pair of hip, young marketers (the woman in each case being smarter, hipper, attractive and Indian) offered me and the other lop-sided laptop-bag-toting types in the boarding queue a promotion to get connected via WiFi on the flight.

My reaction progressed in two steps:

Step 1) This is great! I will get on the flight, log on, snap a photo or two of the airplane aisle and then blog it right from my seat so that you all can see what a connected urban nomad I am. En passant, I would be corroborating my own thesis in my special report in The Economist on that topic (ie, “nomadism”).

Step 2) What utter nonsense! Have you lost it, Andreas? This is the last redoubt you have for reading. For the next few hours it is you and your biography of Meriwether Lewis, which is 500 pages and must be read and absorbed for you to make progress in one particular chapter of your own book. For once, no kids tugging on you, no phone ringing, no email alerts. Instead, deep, linear immersion. And you are thinking of giving that up just because… you can?

So you had no posts from me while I was in the air. And I’m guessing that you’re no worse off for it.

Incidentally, I noticed that the other lop-sided laptop-bag-toting types also passed on this opportunity for uninterrupted mid-air connectivity, after the same moment of initial temptation. Have we reached the point of backlash? A civilizing counter-trend?

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I left off my series on the bibliography for my book with a long post on Polybius. Polybius, as I said, was one of the greatest historians ever, but most of his books were lost. This means that for the history of Hannibal’s war against Rome we have to rely heavily on another ancient source. And that is Titus Livius, or Livy in English.

There are big problems with Livy. He lived a century and a half after Hannibal’s war. Polybius had interviewed eye witnesses and traveled Hannibal’s route, but Livy did not even attempt any such research. Instead, he merrily plagiarized Polybius (and mentions him only once, by my count). At least we can take comfort from knowing that he had all of Polybius available to him, as well as other sources lost to us, such as Roman documents.

The next problem is that Livy had an agenda other than telling the best and purest history. Like his contemporary Virgil, Livy was writing under the reign of the emperor Augustus, who “restored” Rome’s republic after the long civil wars by replacing it with a monarchy in all but name.

Virgil responded by writing an epic poem, the Aeneid, placing Augustus in the context of a noble unfolding of destiny. A literary masterwork, but somewhat close to brown-nosing the great emperor. Livy sort of did the same, only in prose. So he starts his “history” with Aeneas’ flight from Troy, his journey to Italy, Romulus and Remus and so forth.

Aeneas flees burning Troy

Aeneas flees burning Troy

In general, Livy always makes the Romans look good and their enemies look bad. So the Gauls are unreliable and lazy brutes. The Greeks are savvy but slimy know-it-alls. The Carthaginians are either cruel or cunning or miserly or deceitful. Much of Livy is propaganda. Awfully entertaining propaganda, as it happens.

So if Polybius clearly emulated his fellow Greek Thucydides in trying to stay close to facts and analysis, Livy takes Herodotus as his example and embellishes and invents freely for the sake of a cracking good read. At that, he succeeds.

When the Europeans woke up at the end of the Middle Ages and rediscovered the classics, Livy became one of their favorites.

Personally, I couldn’t care less about Livy’s shortcomings. I’m in it for the stories, the characters, the scenes that I need to tell the story that I want to tell, which involves so many other people. More to come soon.

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First off in this series of posts about the bibliography for my book–in the category of ancient sources–is, of course, Polybius. His life is one of the most fascinating ever lived, and his importance to us–especially to us Americans, as I will explain in the follow-up post–is enormous.

Let me lead up to Polybius in three short steps:



1) The first “historian” in history was a Greek writer named Herodotus. He lived during the fifth century BCE, the golden age of classical Greece, and wrote what he called “enquiries”, or histories in Greek. So that’s where we got the word! The main matter he was “enquiring” into was the glorious victory of the Greeks over the Persians, which forever changed world history.

In style, Herodotus was a genius story-teller, and I love him for that. But he was, shall we say, liberal with the facts and the truth. He tells us that Ethiopians have black semen, and so forth. He did not lie, but he embellished. But what the heck! He was the first.



2) Next up, one generation after Herodotus, was another Greek (it’s pretty much all Greeks from here on for a few centuries), named Thucydides. He was critical of Herodotus’ methods and wanted to bring a more factual, rigorous and scholarly style to history-writing. And I love him for that just as much as I love Herodotus! Together, Herodotus and Thucydides gave us history, my passion, just as Plato and Aristotle, another pair of Greeks one generation apart, gave us philosophy.

Thucydides had another war as his subject, as important to world history as the Greco-Persian wars. He wrote about the Peloponnesian war between Athens and her allies and Sparta and her allies. As the the Greek victories over the Persians had made the Greeks (even though there was no country called Greece) preeminent in the known world, the fratricidal war among the Greeks prepared their political decline. It was a tragedy.

In the process of describing this tragedy, Thucydides brought an analysis to bear that is also considered the foundation of all International Relations, and in particular of Realism in world politics (think Kissinger). That was my subject in graduate school, in case you care.

3) Next up were several other Greeks, including Xenophon, who would be giants in their own right were they not wedged between Thucydides and our guy, Polybius. So, because this is along post already, we will skip over them.

4) And now: Polybius.

He was a Greek. No surprise. In style he took clearly after Thucydides rather than Herodotus, which is to say that he believed in facts, research, cross-examination of eye witnesses, and above all in travel. Polybius  personally traced the route of Hannibal in order to write about his war.

Polybius was born about two centuries after Thucydides died, so the Mediterranean had changed completely. The Greek city states had declined in power after the tragedy that Thucydides described and then been swallowed up by Macedonia and Alexander the Great. Then Alexander died and his generals carved up the eastern Mediterranean into huge monarchies. In the western Mediterranean, Carthage was still the superpower.

But–and this is the phenomenon that Polybius tried to explain in his Histories–all that changed during his life time. Rome survived its war against Hannibal and Carthage by a hair. Then it turned east toward the Greek world until it dominated the whole Mediterranean. Polybius wanted to explain how and why Rome was able to do all that.

The circumstances in which he did his research would make a thriller all by themselves. He was a Greek aristocrat and when the Romans got around to his part of Greece they decided to send 1,000 hostages back to Rome just to keep the Greeks well-behaved. Polybius was one of them. He went to Rome as a prisoner for sixteen years!

But the Romans had a very nuanced and complex relationship towards Greeks. They dominated them politically and militarily but they admired and envied them culturally. A big historical thesis is that Rome was both captor (militarily) and captive (culturally).

Polybius’ fate shows that. He wasn’t thrown into a dungeon in Rome but became the guest and teacher in the household of the great Scipiones. Yes, that’s the family of great Scipio, Hannibal’s nemesis. So he had access to all the family archives. He and the younger Scipiones became very close, and some scholars say that this may have biased him towards their role in the Hannibalic war. Personally, I don’t care.

Polybius also stood next to a Scipio (the adopted grandson of Scipio the Great) when the Romans finally burnt and razed Carthage to the ground.

As a practical matter, Polybius then had to tell the story of all three wars between Rome and Carthage leading up to this moment. And for that, he talked to people who had known Hannibal, to veterans on both sides, crossed the Alps and so forth. This is why he is my, and everybody’s, first and best source.

Now, there is only one huge problem with Polybius. It is this: Most of his writing was lost. You may have other things to worry about in life, but I actually cringe when I think of what that means.

In practical terms, it means that we need a few other sources. Next, After the follow-up: Livy.

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My bibliography

Before I start, a snapshot of the overall structure of my bibliography: It’s the same as the structure of the book. That is to say, there is one overarching story–that of Hannibal and Scipio–and then each chapter introduces other lives from other times that fit what was happening in Hannibal’s life in this chapter.

This means that I have in effect two bibliographies: One, a classic library on ancient history–specifically, the Punic Wars. The other, an eclectic and perhaps unfathomable collection of biographies, psychology and philosophy to illustrate certain themes.

Stay tuned.