Nevertheless, in a free society, I’ve always had the means—somewhat haphazardly, due to the vicissitudes of earning a living—to be able to try to fill in the gaps independently, albeit (mostly) without guidance. Euclid remains untackled; but, book by book, I try to make headway in literature and history.
History comes in for a bad rap. To the extent that historical study is more than just falsification of the past to prop up present policy, it is helpful in trying to understand the key questions: who are we, where do we come from? For me, it is precisely because so much of what I had been told (I felt) was wrong or distorted, that independent inquiry has proven necessary. Yet, as an older person, I—who as a child could barely be forced into reading a book—do it also for the reason that it is pleasurable. Now—after a long wait—that I have gotten into the Roman Republic (and thereabouts), I find it an inexhaustible supply of interesting things to think about and figure out.
Rome long intimidated me. I once bought (in digest version) Mommsen’s history, believing that might be an entry point, but it was not the right work or the right time. As a lad, out of the blue, I acquired a copy of Lucretius, which I found hard but fun—yet any single work in itself is not enough to provide enough context to compensate for a lack of education, so it led to nothing and enriched very little.
The first book of history I ever got—what a fortuitous choice—was M.I. Finley’s Evidence and Models. There from the get-go he tried to spell out what we can know, and how we might know it. Much was (and remains) above my head: having reread it innumerable times, if I never quite understood (he taking other previous historians as his foil so often) it at least taught me a serious approach to history. For years, that and his other books, remained my staples, before I ventured out; and then when I did, it was carefully. Those that know Finley know that he barely touches on Rome.
In the line of Evidence and Models, Bernard Lewis’s History—Remembered, Recovered, Invented, supplied further insight (if never so nuanced as Finley) of the use and abuse of history. Years later, I recognize that it is not uncommon for historians to reflect on their craft. One may not need exposure to more than a handful of such texts, but they are eminently useful.
To Rome specifically, it is harder to trace my introduction. A little reading in Seneca, perhaps. Then at some point I made the leap into speeches by Cicero. Michael Grant has many collections edited at Penguin—of several volumes, I read none straight through, but read a speech here and there as it appealed to me. Here again you must understand that—moving though Cicero’s orations may be—it remained hard to contextualize the experience; though typically Grant provided a thoughtful introduction. Then (goodness knows why) I made the even more strenuous leap into the complete Philipics. (Select ones are typically anthologized to good purpose.) Intermixed with that also I read Caesar in Gaul and Sallust. Still, the historical sweep was hard in coming.
A very handy book was Cicero and the Roman Republic—more a history of Rome than a biography of Cicero—and very useful for that. A reviewer at Amazon insisted that you wanted to get the fourth or fifth edition and I did so: a great generalized introduction. (Definitely more approachable than the Mommsen.)
So lately I fell into the Letters to Atticus, with which concurrently I read Cicero (Classical Life and Letters) by D.R. Shackleton Bailey. I’ve posted on all of this: it was helpful to read certain of the letters more than once with relevant discussion of the history behind them; though, due to the letters’ breadth, there was still limited information to be conveyed. The same author’s fuller annotated editions of the Letters would have pleased me—but cost remains a matter.
Without intention, I find serendipity shaping my steps; as yesterday in the bookshop I stumbled on Party Politics in the Age of Caesar by Lily Ross Taylor. What a reviewer calls “most fascinating” I also find most helpful: without having studied the structures of Roman politics, all the political machinations become daunting. “[T]he step ladder political game that Roman aristocrats competed in” (so far) is given a good threshing out, as well as discussion of the various factions constituting their society.
What a great bit of luck—I consider it—to come upon this “1949 classic” just at this time. Plus, at under 200 pages, I can hope to chew through this and spit it out without delay—if the gods are willing. (I am not yet done with Chapter 2.)
As I say, the study of history can seem a perplexing and daunting matter. It took me decades to feel comfortable enough to approach Rome; now, I feel assured, I have gained enough of a background to be able to reach out in any direction—though Rome is not my exclusive target of interest. Every little bit that you read gives another piece of the puzzle, in forming a mental construct (or even “model”). A good education might have made each successive step easier—instead of the blind gropings of an uninitiate. Yet progress comes: it would be nice to have a second lifetime to read everything again, this time understanding it better. Alas, time is short.
My undying debt to M.I. Finley has been acknowledged in The Requiem, in an excerpt which I have titled “In the Grove of Scholars.” Scholarship does not—or did not—come easily to me. However, in my latter days, I try to bide my time within that grove’s creaky gate as much as I might. It seems only right, as one who, with Oliver Sacks, hopes to say, “Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”