Non-Fiction, Reviews

Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore by Emma Southon (2018)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I was particularly excited to read this biography of Agrippina the Younger for a couple of reasons: I had only vaguely heard of her and was keen to know more about a real Roman woman, and I also pledged to support this book on its publisher’s website. As you may know, Unbound is a crowd-funding publisher where readers can pledge towards a particular book, and in exchange you get a copy of it and your name printed inside. I was really intrigued by the premise of this book and pledged as soon as I read about it – and was very pleased to finally receive my copy of the paperback a couple of weeks ago. I started reading straight away.

Now, I knew that Agrippina was not going to be an ‘academic’ book, despite the author Emma Southon being a Dr, because I knew she has left academia. And I knew that Unbound are an unconventional publisher, and they might not be as rigid as some of the bigger presses when it comes to the books they publish. But somehow I was entirely unprepared for the style of this book.

I totally get that Southon wanted to write a more ‘popular’ style of book on the Romans, and I think that is a good thing, especially as she actively seeks to demolish old-fashioned ideas about them, and makes a point of highlighting how women were treated in the Roman period and in the historical record. Throughout the book Southon demonstrates how hard it is to put together a biography of someone about whom we have very few sources of information left. This is very admirable and very interesting, and initially I liked that Southon was clearly rejecting the stiff academic style of historical biography, and that she makes a point of trying to make her characters seem more human and relatable, especially when trying to understand what happened and why.

However – perhaps it’s just me, but I found the writing almost too casual and chatty, and I found this hard to get along with. As Southon points out, a lot of the characters in her story had the same or very similar names, and everyone in the Julio-Claudian dynasty was related in complicated ways, and it can be hard to keep track. But I found the chatty and casual style made it even harder to keep track of this, because the conversational tone meant that it was a bit stream-of-consciousness and meandering.

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Agrippina the Younger (image: britannica.com)

Despite my issues with the style – and the over-the-top swearing and gratuitous graphic phrasing – the story of Agrippina’s life is undoubtedly fascinating and engaging. Her position in the dynasty meant that her life was full of high drama, including exile to an island, a few possible murder plots, affairs, death, divorce, political intrigue, revenge… and that’s just in the first couple of chapters. I loved reading about such a courageous and defiant woman who lived in an age when women had basically no rights and, as Southon points out, did not matter unless they were attached to a man. It was fascinating to see how Agrippina’s position and status changed along with the men in her life, and how interconnected and fragile the structure of Roman high society was. Everyone’s lives were intertwined and very involved, and everyone was constantly vying for power and status. Women had so little of both these things, so they often seemed the most desperate. Southon succeeds in depicting the women in this story as fully-formed people as well as possible, given the limited source material. She also succeeds at acknowledging both the flaws and importance of these sources – such as Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio.

Agrippina is a very engaging read, and I am very glad that Unbound made it possible for this book to be published. The world always needs more books about the women of the ancient world, especially such influential and intriguing women like Agrippina. This biography helpfully includes a list of further reading, which I will definitely be mining for inspiration. It has also reminded me that I need to do much more Classical reading! I work on the subject in my job, so I often forget just how much I love reading about the Classical world outside of work. Agrippina is a great starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about women in the Roman world in a less formal way, and I’m sure a lot of people will love this book.

*

Published in 2018 by Unbound. I received my copy as part of the crowdfunding scheme.

Purchase from Foyles, Wordery, and Blackwell’s.

 

 

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson

Well. This is a review I have been avoiding for a while. I finished reading The Mighty Dead about two weeks ago. I’d made some notes, but it is hard to put them together and get to the point of what I really think about this book.

2015 William Collins paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)

2015 William Collins paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)

The fact is I feel quite strongly about it. It is, simply, a book I had been waiting for. One I dreamed would exist in some form. I don’t think I realised just how much I wanted this book to appear until it did. And yet I didn’t pounce on it when the hardback was first released – partly because of the expense and heft of the book, but also because I was nervous about reading it. What if it wasn’t all I hoped it would be? What if I didn’t like the writing or the author’s opinions? There are always reasons not to do things.

In the end it was, inevitably, a blog post that convinced me The Mighty Dead would be ‘safe’ to read, and that I should just go for it. The fantastic Carolyn of Rosemary and Reading Glasses wrote a brilliant post that I could not ignore. She was my fellow reader and sent away all my worries. I had to read this book! So thank you Carolyn.

Adam Nicolson has great passion for Homer, and he is a wonderful guide to the works themselves, as well as the concepts and ideas within them, and the cultural and historical context and influence of both The Iliad and The Odyssey. His writing is academic yet accessible, conversational but not too chatty, and he includes scenes from his own life that add context and reality to elements of Homer, relating them to real life in the most beautiful and effective ways. He is a wonderful writer.

The chapter divisions are very effective. Nicolson takes us on a journey of how one come to love and understand Homer, but also through the different sides of Homer – the poems themselves, their time and place, a bit of text analysis, as well as the context and influence of the poems. There is a spattering of European history throughout the book as Nicolson relates Homer to a world we know, or at least know of. All this is utterly fascinating, and I feel that I really learned something new and can now appreciate Homer in a new way, as something that is an integral part of Euro-Asian (well the western part of Asia) history. That is something very special.

You probably do need to have at least some knowledge of Homer in order to read The Mighty Dead; but I do think that it could also serve as a very thorough introduction for someone who has perhaps heard about The Iliad and The Odyssey, and wants to know more before reading them. It is certainly a good idea to know something about the poems before you read them, even if only basic context. I think the more you understand the poems, the more you appreciate them.

They are simply wonderful. I first read The Odyssey at school, where I studied it at both GCSE and A Level. Going through it twice – both times with the same dedicated and inspiring teacher – meant that I am immensely fond of it. I haven’t read it all the way through in a while, but I remembered almost all of the scenes Nicolson references in The Mighty Dead, and my prior knowledge meant that I could revel in the analysis and exploration of its characters and themes. For me, almost all of life is covered by and contained within The Odyssey. It taught me a lot about storytelling, leadership, love and family, the passage of time, dealing with the past – and looking to the future. It is undeniably Ancient Greek and of its time, but it is also universal. In my opinion everyone should read it.

I have never studied The Iliad, but have read it on my own, which made me appreciate about much it helps to be guided through Homer. Reading it ‘alone’ can  sometimes be overwhelming – so a book like The Mighty Dead really is a godsend. The Iliad is different from The Odyssey in many ways, but it still encompasses most of life. Simone Weil called it a ‘poem of force‘, which makes sense – it is intense, visceral, full of power, desire, physicality, love, life, and death. This is why the two poems, and Homer, have survived history and are still with us – they speak to us of things we never knew, but also of things we’ve known all along in some way, in our hearts, even if we didn’t really know that we knew them.

It is difficult to explain this – the point is that I urge you to read Homer if you haven’t already and to re-read if you have, as I plan to; and to read The Mighty Dead by Adam Nicolson. It is just brilliant.

*

Published in 2014 by Henry Holt in the US and William Collins in the UK.

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